Between the 1860s and the 1920s around 2,000 cameleers, with over 20,000 camels, came to Australia from Afghanistan, Baluchistan and what is now Pakistan. In those days, before motor vehicles, camels were the ideal pack animal and were well equipped to cope with the harsh environment of the Australian Outback.
The first recorded use of these expert cameleers was in June 1860 when four Afghan cameleers and 26 camels accompanied explorers Burke and Wills on their cross continent expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria – a distance of some 3,250 kms. Horse and bullock teams, used by other explorers, could not have coped with the sandy deserts, extreme heat and lack of water that would have been encountered on this transcontinental crossing. The expedition was a success, in that it reached the Gulf. Alas, both Burke and Wills died on the return journey and only one man, Irishman John King, made it back to Melbourne alive. In all seven of the group died but it appears the cameleers survived.
In addition to providing transport for explorers, the cameleers and their camels – ‘pilots of the desert’ – played a vital part in the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line from Port Augusta to Darwin (completed in 1872) and inland railways and also supported the pastoral and mining industries. Many of the routes used by the cameleers became roads and tracks through the Australian Outback which are still in use today.
Generally the cameleers came to Australia on short-term contracts. While many returned to their home countries many stayed and became merchants and outback traders. As I have indicated in my review of the nearby Adelaide Mosque many of them settled in Adelaide, hence the need for the mosque – the oldest surviving one in Australia. If you visit the West Terrace Cemetery, which I recommend you do, you can see the final resting place of many cameleers in the Muslim section of the cemetery.
This artwork, entitled Voyagers, in Whitmore Park, by South Australian Shaun Kirby and his company Thylacine Art Projects organistation commemorates the cameleers and the role they played in the development of Australia and opening up the centre of the continent, in particular.
The artwork was launched in December 2007 and contains quite a bit of symbolism.
Its crescent shape reflects the sand dunes of South Australia’s deserts and the moon associated with Islam. The rippled tiles on the walls represent wind blown patterns in the sand while the metalwork screen features traditional Islamic patterns. The work faces towards the Adelaide Mosque in Little Gilbert Street.
The marble obelisk, in the centre of the crescent, lists the destinations that cameleers traveled to and from. Interestingly, the script used, at the request of cameleer descendants, is Urdu rather than Pashtun or Arabic.
While this commemorative artwork is worth a visit, it would be remiss of me not to mention here the much more famous commemoration of the Afghan cameleers, the luxury Ghan train, which is named after the cameleers and which today links Adelaide with Darwin. Surely, one of the world’s great railway journeys.
My second picture of an engraving by Nicholas Chevalier and depicts Burke and Wills on their return trip to Melbourne, which as I have indicated above they never reached. The picture is open source from Wikipedia.
Address: Whitmore Square
Directions: Adjacent to Sturt Street
This is my last Adelaide – CITY WEST review.
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