Rex Ellis leads gutsy safaris through some of the least-explored parts of this country, claiming a number of records on the way. But when he attempted to navigate the Bulloo River, Rex had met his match.

Story By Emma Mulholland

For nearly 50 years Rex Ellis has been roaming the nation’s backblocks, leading ships of the desert – be they camels or tinnies – into places where few others venture. Some trips have been nationally acclaimed success stories, such as in 1971 when he led the first party of tourists across the Simpson Desert, a feat he topped three years later by traversing a flooded Lake Eyre from north to south in flat-bottomed punts, a record that has never been broken. But not all trips have been so successful. Such as the time Rex nearly met his end in the Gibson when a wild bull camel took a shine to his ride, or when he had to wrench an inebriated guest from his camel, tie him to an olive tree and leave him to dry out in McLaren Vale, SA. Somewhere between these two extremes lies Rex’s attempt, earlier this year, to traverse the Bulloo River.
“There’s so much bullsh** in the tourism industry – it’s all dressed up. I just like to show people how it is and if they don’t like it that’s fine, but that’s Australia,” Rex says. If there’s one thing he hates more than bullsh** it’s bureaucracy – “a weed that, if watered, will grow” – and so, at his peril, he ignores “unrealistic” national-park restrictions on camping and a swathe of health-and-safety rules, things that, in his opinion, make it impossible to offer a true adventure. “If you took notice of occupational health and safety and all the things bringing this country to a grinding halt, you’d never leave home,” he says. “Taking risks is what made Australia great, but it’s becoming a nation of take-no-risks and mediocrity is becoming the big catchcry when it comes to doing things that are out of the square.”
A trip with Rex, a former owner of the Birdsville Pub and author of seven books about his own bush escapades, is anything but mediocre. He’s probably best known for his four-wheel-drive and camel safaris, which he runs all over the country, usually taking in some stretch of the Flinders Ranges or the Sturts Stony, Strzelecki or Tanami deserts. Many routes were crafted with help from the late Len Beadell who, on his retirement, showed Rex through the western deserts. “Rather than just following the old explorers’ routes, we picked areas where there had never been any European habitation,” Rex says. But last year, just months before his 70th birthday, Rex sold the last of his camels, giving him more time to do what he loves best – exploring desert rivers.

This Story is from Issue #83

Outback Magazine: June/July 2012