Camel Trains Opening Up the Red Centre

By Pete Rumball 2010

Marree, 1928, was the head of the Northern Railway line from Adelaide and when the extension to Alice Springs began, Camels and Camel Drivers were imported from Afghanistan to do the carrying of supplies up to the line workers. The large numbers of Afghan workers gave the still popular name “The Ghan” to the train that eventually travelled the line when it was finished in 1930.

Truck haulage was not an option as the only road was a very rough, ungraded dirt track that more or less followed the proposed route which was mapped out by Francis Birtles, who was hired by the Australian Government to do the survey due to his impressive record of 70 crossings of the Australian Continent by car.

Birtles used a Bean sports type car initially, and eventually finished the survey by air.

The Camel Trains consisted of 10 to 15 camels carrying almost unbelievable loads, 6 timber railway sleepers on one side balanced by crates of fishplates, dog-spikes, nuts & bolts, the others with up to 6 lengths of rail, balanced by more hardware, and some with water barrels and rations. Altogether their combined load could have been as high as 10 Imperial tons.

The Route took in some striking features

– Mound Springs at Beresford, where water bubbled to the surface from the “Great Artesian Basin”, and was a watering point for the camels, also
– Coward Springs Hotel with the “Bubbler”, a pool of Cool, Clear, Water, always an attraction to early days rail travellers, and
– The Neales River with the 580 metre Algebuckina Railway Bridge, built in 1889, sometimes used by early motorists when the Neales was flooded.

The Bridge that Disappeared: One of the big rivers to cross was the Finke River, usually dry, but when it did run it was in a hurry, and the Brand New Bridge which had never had a passenger train over it sunk into the sand and the rushing water took everything away.

The Engineers had driven the Piles into the bottomless sand until the skin friction stopped them, but when the water wet the sand the Piles just kept sinking.

The Last Rails were laid in “The Alice” in 1930 and there the Railway stopped for the next 70 odd years, until the extension to Darwin began in 2001 and was completed in 2004.

Alice Springs, 1930 and after, the new railway brought a new life to the town, the Shell Company built a Bulk Fuel depot with underground tanks, tourists started arriving, groceries and other goods were plentiful and priced OK, but the Camel was still doing his job, albeit in a smaller capacity.

Peter Mahomet’s Camel Whip at Alice Springs where camels were used to pull water up from an underground well for resale to the public.

Reverend Kramer from the AIM used camels for several years to travel to his bush congregation.

Harold Bell Lasseter used camels in his final, fatal search for the huge reef of Gold that he claimed to have found, and when they bolted and left him without supplies, he lasted about 60 days, with help from the Aborigines, before he perished trying to walk out.

[]. e-Books with photos and stories from the 1920’s Australian Outback, includes Aircraft, Camels, People, Places, Wheels and Bush Poetry from 1890.

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