Students trek with camels across Simpson Desert to help with scientific surveys

3 OCTOBER 2019

Students trek with camels across Simpson Desert to help with scientific surveys

Two animal and veterinary sciences students from Charles Sturt share their experiences trekking across the Simpson Desert to care for pack camels.

  • Two Charles Sturt students from Wagga Wagga trekked across Simpson Desert to care for pack camels used to carry supplies for researchers
  • The ‘unforgettable’ trip was part of the students’ university coursework
  • The students, who went on separate trips, said the unique placement allowed them to learn many new skills

Two Charles Sturt University (Charles Sturt) students recently travelled to central Australia to care for and handle the pack camels used to carry supplies for ecologists conducting surveys across the region.

Students from the Charles Sturt School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences in Wagga Wagga Ms Megan Kaye and Ms Emma Fallon chose to complete their coursework placements with Australian Desert Expeditions (ADE), a non-profit environmental organisation which conducts ecological and scientific surveys in remote areas of the Simpson Desert.

ADE partners with the Outback Camel Company, owned by Mr Andrew Harper, which provides pack camels used to carry food, water, supplies and survey equipment required for the research expeditions.

Ms Kaye (pictured), who is in her second year studying a Bachelor of Veterinary Biology / Bachelor of Veterinary Science, started her 16-day expedition in June this year.

 “I heard about the ADE expedition after the University’s Wildlife Club organised for Andrew Harper and ecologist Dr Max Tischler to come to the University to speak to students about it,” Ms Kaye said. 

“Most students undertake their placements working with production animals such as sheep, cattle and horses, so I jumped at the opportunity to do something different and undertake my placement trekking with camels across the desert.”

The all-female crew Ms Kaye trekked with was made up of six cameleers, two ecologists and five paying clients who assisted with the ecological and scientific data collection.

“Our team trekked through areas of the Munga-Thirri National Park on the South Australia-Queensland border, allowing exploration of areas left untouched since Indigenous people left the land in the early 1900s,” Ms Kaye said.

It was at the same university talk Ms Fallon (pictured), a fourth-year Bachelor of Animal Science student, also found out about ADE and jumped at the opportunity.

“My honours study is on the camel dairy industry, so I was excited to see the work being done in the desert and how the camels are integrated into the survey process,” Ms Fallon said.

“After speaking with Andrew Harper at the meeting, I signed up as a placement student for ADE’s Kangkuwulunhna and White Dunes survey to work as a cameleer starting in August this year.”

Speaking of their expeditions, both students fondly recall the camels as hardworking, stoic, and unique.

“It was fantastic being able to learn how to handle and work with the camels; I had the opportunity to learn from very experienced and knowledgeable animal handlers,” Ms Kaye said.

“Each camel had their own personality, with funny and sometimes frustrating quirks.

“My favourite camel I worked with name is Raj; he was beautiful both in the looks department and in his nature.”

Ms Fallon said the camels were sensational to work with and thrived in the harsh, arid environment.

“All of the camels have such a calm way of interacting,” she said.

“My main job as a cameleer was to saddle up the camels each morning, walk beside them through the day and un-saddle them in the afternoon.

“Saddling the camels in the morning was an interactive job for both the people on the trip and the camels. We would ask the camels to sit and stand while we saddled them up.”

Speaking on the responsibilities the placements students had during the trip, Ms Kaye said “As a cameleer, you are responsible for constantly keeping the camels in line, checking their packs and keeping them settled, especially when crossing the huge sand dunes. We never rode on the camels, but rather walked alongside them.”

Both students described the experience as unique and memorable and unlike anything they had ever done.

“Travelling through this desert region meant we were exploring territory only few people have ever seen. Watching the land transform over the 103-kilometre trip, from the high parallel dunes with spinifex and swolls of large clay pans, was a particular highlight,” Ms Fallon said.

“The experience was unforgettable: from camping under the stars in mikari (native wells), under gidgee (trees) or high on the crests of dunes, to meandering our way through the flood plains of Eyre Creek, to seeing ancient Indigenous artefacts and native birds slowly emerge while eating lunch under the coolabah or whitewood trees.

“During the trip, I also assisted with the research. The team would collect fox and cat faeces for survey research of invasive species and each afternoon we would dig and bury, on the tops of dunes, pitfall traps for ecology studies of the area.”

Ms Kaye’s memories of the trip echo Ms Fallon’s memories, saying the landscape was spectacular and undertaking such a unique placement allowed her to learn a lot of new skills.

“I learnt a multitude of skills, from navigating using the stars, cooking meals over a campfire with limited supplies for 13 people, digging pit fall traps for fauna surveys and shepherding camels in the swales of the Simpson Desert,” Ms Kaye said.

“I learnt about politics, weather patterns, camel dentition, the history of Indigenous Australians in the desert and much more. I also had the opportunity to do more vet-related skills, such as treat and clean wounds and give medications.

“I miss the stars, the desert, the camels and the people. I hope to head back out with the ADE as a cameleer in the near future.”

Media Note:

To arrange interviews, contact Rebecca Tomkins at Charles Sturt Media on 02 6338 6270 or via news@csu.edu.au

Image note: First and second image courtesy of Ms Louise McNutt.

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Wagga Wagga Animal and Veterinary science