Speed humps

In Maree, Vanessa Murray discovers the camel race that draws a crowd and the Afghan settlers who led the way here.

'Don't stand too close," Pete Chantler warns, looking over his troupe of dromedaries (one-humped camels) as a crisp desert dawn breaks in Marree, 680 kilometres north of Adelaide.

An impressive two metres high at the hump, Chantler's 10 charges seem placid enough but he is adamant they're not to be trusted.

I take Chantler's advice and turn away to take in the gibber plain desert surrounding us. It stretches out like a great ochre canvas, broken only by scrubby outcrops of acacia and clusters of corrugated iron and stone buildings, such as the Marree Hotel.

Built in 1883, it's the oldest stone building in town and a remnant of Marree's heyday between 1860 and 1930 when the town was home to the hundreds of Afghan settlers - and their camels - who carried supplies between towns and stations and along the old Ghan rail route.

Hailing mostly from northern India and modern-day Pakistan, they laboured to open up the outback from Marree's pivotal point at the juncture of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks. They also built Australia's first official mosque and a sturdy mudbrick replica sits in the middle of modern-day Marree.

Visitors to this part of the country are often on long, self-catering road trips through the arid Simpson and Sturt Stony deserts and many time their visit for the Marree Camel Cup that has brought me here.

About noon, the women in the roller-shuttered cafe alongside the racetrack throw the first batch of chips in the fryer, a bookie sets up shop in the shade and race caller David Bell gets ready. Bell comperes the entire day's events: camel races, tug-of-war, children's donkey races and a fashions-in-the-field contest.

He has been coming to the Cup from the nearby family station since he was a child: "It's a great day for catching up and saying g'day."

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Bell's lilting drawl focuses the Akubra-hatted crowd on the dusty racetrack where the first batch of camels are being "hooshed down" (made to kneel) by their handlers.

"What will you get if you win on her?" I ask jockey Brett Scott. "A sore back and a sore arse," he answers and he's not joking. Scott and his fellow jockeys cling valiantly on behind the jiggling humps of their charges. "If they run in a straight line, it's a bonus," Chantler says.

The Cup is an important day for the town, according to Sister June Andrews, Marree's community nurse for the past 25 years. Marree doesn't have a local council, so the community uses the event to raise money for special projects such as street lighting.

Fast Facts

Getting there

Marree is 680 kilometres north of Adelaide and 80 kilometres from Lyndhurst. Air access is by charter flight.

Staying there

The Marree Hotel has double rooms for $100 a night with continental breakfast. Phone (08) 8675 8344, see marreehotel.com.au. The Oasis caravan park has double units for $100 a night with breakfast and campsites for $10 a person a night. Phone (08) 8675 8352. Coward Springs camping ground costs $10 a person a night. Phone (08) 8675 8336, see cowardsprings.com.au.

Camel races

The Marree Camel Cup is on July 9. See marree.com.au. There are also races at Alice Springs, see camelcup.com.au; Bedourie, see diamantina.qld.gov.au; Boulia, see www.boulia.qld.gov.au; Winton, see experiencewinton.com.au; and Tara, see tarafestivalncamels.org.au.

More information

See southaustralia.com, itravelaustralia.com.

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