When it comes to speed in the animal world one naturally thinks of sleek race horses or majestic leopards. You never think of a 2m (7-ft.) gangly creature with knobby knees, old teddy bear fur, and a rather large hump on its back. It’s hard to believe that the towering awkwardness of the desert camel can, with a little encouragement, turn into an 1,800-pound bullet traveling at 64kmph (40 mph) through dust and mayhem with a human clinging to its hump like a surrogate foal. This is exactly what happens in Alice Springs, Australia every July, where the “ships of the desert” transform themselves into “speedboats of the Outback.”
The Camel Cup originally began with two bored Australians in the 1970s racing their dromedaries along the dry river bank that cuts through this legendary town in the dead red center of the Australian outback. The race has since morphed into a serious 400m (1,312-ft.) race around an oval track at a venue known as Blatherskite Park. The event is organized by the Lion’s Club and has limited numbers of rider places. Camels are privately owned and usually used to ferry tourists around the rest of the year. Four thousand spectators turn up to cheer and jeer, including the Afghan ambassador, resplendent in robe and fez and looking almost as incongruous as the four-legged, long-necked bulls amidst the festival atmosphere of suntanned Australians intent on having a good time.
Camels are not usually associated with the land down under. Yet Australia has a sizeable herd of even-toed ungulates as they were once the main mode of transport to get around this desolate spot and were introduced by the British from their ex-colony in Pakistan. They have thrived so much there is now talk of an annual culling to keep their numbers down. Usually used to lumber tourists around the nearby McDonnell ranges or through Finke Gorge National Park, the camels have their moment of glory every second Saturday in July when they show their real mettle and ungulate for real. So famed is the Camel Cup, a statue of the beast of burden greets passengers off the train from Adelaide or Darwin after the 1,500km (930-mile) journey.
Alice Springs is a small modern town of 26,000 people. Known as Mparntwe amongst the local aborigines, it has become a center of indigenous art with galleries such as those situated in the Todd Mall retracing the area’s 50,000-year history and reliving the aborigine legends that the dry red dirt was carved by caterpillars and wild dogs. Less poetic were the shepherds, gold miners, and telegraph workers who soon turned the settlement into a sizeable collection of Australians with English, Irish, and Scottish roots. They turn out in force to watch the race with comical sideshows, busy food stalls, and busier beer tents keeping the crowds occupied between races. The races themselves often get off to a discouraging start. All the animals must be lined up and seated before the race sets off.
Often the camels have different ideas, facing the wrong way, refusing to sit, and then refusing to move. Many dart off with the jockey clinging for his or her life as they round the dusty bends at breakneck speeds. The riders often lose their grip and fall with the camel sprinting off into the distance, prompting the legendary cries from the stands: “Loose camel!”
Camel Cup ( 61/8/8952-6796; www.camelcup.com.au).
When to Go: Second Sat in July.
$$$ Bond Springs Outback Retreat, North Stuart Hwy. ( 61/8/8952-9888; www.outbackretreat.com). $$ Comfort Inn Alice Springs, 46 Stephens Rd. ( 61/8/8952-6100; www.comfortinn.com).