The vision of a string of camels padding over the sand-dunes of Central Australia is integral to our pioneering history, but little is known about the turbaned camelmen and their descendants.

Story & photos by Pamela Rajkowski

From the 1860s to the 1890s, the pioneers of inland Australia imported camels, and their turbaned Afghan camelmen, to open up the arid interior and build their pastoral empires. Camels could survive where traditional freight animals, such as horses, donkeys and bullocks, could not, and their introduction meant that vast tracts of country could be inhabited. Known as ‘Afghans’, they were actually Pathans from Kandahar, Quetta and Peshawar; Baluchis from south-west Afghanistan and Baluchistan (Pakistan); indigents from the Sind and the Punjab valleys in north-west India; or Turks, Syrians or Sikhs. They spoke Pushtu, Baluchi or Urdu, and wore a beaded vest over a kamiss (shift), white bloomers and babouches (soft footwear) and led strings of up to 80 camels, which were joined together by a rope from a nose peg to a pack frame in front. They wore their turbans, not just for religious reasons, but also for protection from wind-blown dust and sand.
The early pioneers learned that the Afghans and camels, which had accompanied early explorers such as Burke and Wills and Ernest Giles, were resilient in desert conditions. They had also proved their value carting materials for the Overland Telegraph Line and for the laying of railways. They supplied the telegraph stations, delivered mail and carted water, firewood and supplies to remote mining settlements and wire for the rabbit-proof fence.
Outback pioneering entrepreneurs, such as Sir Sidney Kidman and Sir Thomas Elder, understood the need for Afghan camels if pastoral stations and mining settlements in the outback were to survive. Kidman, whose ‘cattle kingdom’ of 100 cattle stations was supplied by 40 Afghan camel teams, said, “stations in the real sand country would never carry on if it was not for these camels”.

This story excerpt is from Issue #45

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2006