As organisers prepared for last year's Uluru Camel Cup, freak weather hit the red centre. The day had dawned grey, making for a ho-hum sunrise over Uluru, but things were about to take a dramatic turn. By breakfast, a few drops of rain had become a torrential downpour. Those near the sacred Mutitjulu waterhole watched in awe as trickles of water turned into gushing waterfalls coursing along the creases and folds of the revered monolith.
Eleven kilometres away, at Uluru Camel Tours, organisers of the annual cup start putting contingency plans in place. Sure, the rain cleared enough to allow the first few heats to run, but, as the 350-metre circular track turned from heavy to dead, the decision was made to pull the jockeys from their dromedaries – the 15 camels would now race without riders.
Race day is no doubt a weird one for the camels as well. The farm is home to 60 camels (most of them castrated males) who spend their days plodding sedately through sand dunes, taking tourists on short walks that showcase views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. There's no way to tell from these brief outings who's a good racer or not. As race day nears, staff put the camels through their paces. Those that look like real goers for this race include Ned Kelly, Nicko and Lazy Dazy (sadly Oprah, named in honour of Winfrey's 2010 visit to the red centre, doesn't make the cut).
We hop a lift to the track with Professional Helicopter Services, which is offering $50 joy flights during the day. The program unfolds against a backdrop of helicopters buzzing through the desert sky.
We're just in time to catch the last jockey race before the sky opens up. A few visitors have adapted their race-wear to the conditions – two kids are sensibly encased in gumboots and raincoats. Plenty of women huddling beneath the marquee are tottering in stilettos and high wedges (their short, floaty frocks would stand no chance against a helicopter draft). If there was a prize for the most non-practical footwear, the winner would be the woman wearing pale suede pumps (a disaster in red dust but a complete write-off in red mud).
Some can't easily change outfits because they've been planning their look for weeks in preparation for Fashions on the Field. Both sexes parade their finery while others, sporting singlets, tatts and thongs, swig a beer and watch from the sidelines. Local kids splash around in the red puddles.
First-time cup visitors might be surprised to learn there's no gambling at the track (although groups of friends run their own sweeps during the day). All the serious money action goes down the night before at the Outback Pioneer Hotel, part of Ayers Rock Resort. The calcutta runs like an auction, with camel farm co-owner Chris Hill looking for the highest bid on each runner. The most favoured beast – previous year's winner Trigger – is saved for last. He attracts a bid topping $2000 from Tennant Creek's Kevin Bradbury (who snaps up three others as well). The money is pooled and redistributed between the top three placings.
After more heats – and a collective belly laugh at Rex, the camel that comically kicks and bucks his way around the entire track to reach the lucerne hay waiting just beyond the finishing post – it's time for the big one. Turns out Bradbury was right to splash out on Trigger. "It's more of a relief than anything to put some money back into my bank account," he says, holding aloft the silver cup. As if on cue, sunshine breaks through the bank of dark clouds squatting on the horizon. "The sun really is shining on me today."
As for this year's race, organisers have their fingers crossed that unseasonal rain stays away. Farm co-owner Mark Swindells says: "It would be very unlucky for that to ever happen again."
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Ayers Rock Resort.