One man, one dog, four and a half camels and a mission to reach every state and territory in Australia. John Elliott has walked from Queensland to Tasmania with his motley crew of mammals and has no plans to stop.
When you imagine walking with a menagerie of animals through Australia you might think of minimalism. But this particular camel team is packing an electric chainsaw, party lights, a cinema, and a great sense of humour — John Elliot is taking on the Aussie outback his own way.
John’s a normal bloke from Perth who, like many Aussies, decided to sell up, pack up, and hit the road. Unlike most travellers, in place of a 4WD, John has Mongrel work boots, and in place of a camper trailer to carry his worldly belongings, he has camels.
Leaving Queensland in April 2019, John has now been camel trekking for two years. Once he reaches his finish point in Western Australia he’ll be the first camel trek to cross all eight states and territories.
I caught up with John for some pizza and a few beers to chat about his amazing, if not slightly random, journey so far.
ST: I first met you in Tasmania’s Cockle Creek, pretty far off your original route. What made it evolve the way it did?
JE: I never expected to be trekking for this long, and I didn’t expect to be in Tassie either, but here we are. In the beginning, I kept going because I didn’t want it to take longer to train and prepare for it than the trip itself.
So I had my route planned across Australia, and about 350km in I just turned left at an intersection instead of going straight through.
I thought I might be able to make it to Canberra for Christmas, I have a couple of sisters there. So I got to Canberra and people kept asking me how far south I was going to go, and I thought, let’s just see how far south we can get.
‘When we got to Cockle Creek, that was the furthest south in the world camels have ever been.’
How have people reacted to the camel train?
People say ‘You don’t see that every day’, which is something I hear several times a day, [laughs]. Thing is, I could rock up in the fanciest 4WD and the best caravan and no one would blink. But the camels are like a magnet for meeting locals, especially the more interesting ones.
I have a live GPS tracker on me all the time so I can be in a pretty remote bush camp and along comes four utes and a bunch of blokes with beers.
Along the way, I have a rough idea of direction, but then talking to locals sharpens the route up. I don’t normally have much of a plan so I just rock up places or call on the day and say, ‘Are you pet friendly?… How pet friendly?’.
Do you ever ride the camels?
Nah, I always walk. When I first thought about doing this trip I had this picture in my mind of me majestically riding across Australia.
‘But after my first camel training session, he said you always walk in front because if you’re riding the first camel and something goes wrong with the third camel you can’t do anything. You’ve got more control when you’re on the ground.’
Were you into trekking before you left?
I hated walking. I was known for catching an Uber for a 1km trip down the street. Walking wasn’t even an option I considered. Now we walk between 15 and 40 kilometres a day.
Tell us a bit about your four and a half camels (and dog)?
We’ve got Ted, he loves a belly scratch. Charlie, he’s the baby of the bunch, Jackson, Arthur, and Bill the Bastard. Bill makes a lot of noise. He’s alright, he just does a lot of bastard things. Like when we’re going up a hill and he’s at the back he’ll just slow right down and get pulled up the hill by the rest of them.
Bruski is a rescue dog, he’s named after my three best mates and has become my fourth after walking with me all this way. He can round up the camels, but not in any specific direction, [laughs].
Where did you get the camels from and how did you learn to train them?
I started by Googling ‘How do you buy a camel?’. That put me in contact with the guys at Camel Connection. I read the guy’s story and he’d done a 6,500km trip around Australia with camels. So I thought, that’s the guy I want to learn from.
After my training, I was off trying to catch my own camels when someone messaged me saying they had some wild camels in Queensland I could have. So I drove over and started training them.
What will you do with the camels after the trek?
I’ll just have them stuffed, mounted and put in the pool room, [laughs]. Sausages for years.
No, I’m joking. I could never get rid of these guys, after all we’ve been through together. The two weeks in Tasmanian hotel quarantine is the longest I’ve spent away from them in three years.
Which part of your trip has made the biggest impression on you?
One of the things that makes it hard to imagine going back to normal life is meeting such a variety of people that’ve made all these unique places and situations work for them.
‘I’ve seen such a variety of ways you can attack life. In my previous life, everyone was very similar — get a bunch of money, get a nice car, get the biggest house you can. This trip has opened up a can of worms for me, the idea of going back doesn’t really appeal.’
What gear do you pack in your saddlebags?
Travelling with camels means that weight isn’t an issue. I have about 930kg of gear, 350 of that is water.
My power setup is probably akin to some small caravans — a 125Ah lithium battery, two 180W solar mats, the Projecta Power Hub and a 1KVA Yamaha generator. It allows me to have things like my electric chainsaw — when you travel with a 3.5 tonne camel train through bush tracks and come across a tree on the track it’s invaluable.
I have a Nebula projector, a white tarp, and a few speakers so we can set up a cinema and have movie nights in the middle of nowhere (the camels don’t like anything too loud, they’re more into rom-coms).
My Garmin inReach allows everyone to follow the journey and also allows me to get help when something does go wrong. I have a lot of camel specific stuff such as a 250m solar-powered electric fence which means I can camp anywhere.
And a mobile phone signal booster on the back camel — that was an interesting phone call to the shop that installed it, [laughs].
What sort of safety equipment do you carry and have you ever had to use it?
I had an incident in High Country Victoria after a lot of rain, the track gave way under the weight of the camels and we all slipped down towards the river.
My Thuraya SatSleeve for my iPhone couldn’t get a signal, so hitting the SOS button on the Garmin inReach was the only thing that got us help. Whenever I’m walking it’s always attached to my belt.
I also have an EPIRB, and because my Mum made my medical kit it’s about half a saddlebag worth of stuff! My canvas gators have saved me from brown snake strikes twice now while walking in the long grass next to the road (tall grass is not as daunting as getting hit by a road train!).
What do you do for food on the road?
Because of my fridge I do have the fresh food option but I also have dehydrated food which is great for long days.
I got given an old Aussie Bush Kettle by someone I met on the trip, which can heat water by burning a few twigs and leaves in about three minutes. That’s been amazing.
I’ve also come up with new cooking concoctions in my camp oven. I discovered you can put a whole wheel of camembert into the middle of your damper to create a molten cheese explosion. Incredible.
If you could go back to the start of the trip what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t change anything. But, I say that nervously considering some of the really dangerous situations we ended up in.
Two years into the trip I have seen such a variety of ways things can go wrong. Having got through to the other side with all the camels and I surviving, I’m glad I’ve got it under my belt. But knowing what I know now there’s no way I’d ever go back.
‘I feel like the first half of the trip was the training for the second half of the trip. But if I’d waited to start the trip until I knew everything I needed to know to complete it, I would still be at the start line.’
You’re going to get into scenarios where you have to think on your feet, you’re going to have to problem solve your way out.
I try to have faith in that ability within myself as opposed to the fact that I was a good cameleer or a good adventurer, because I was neither of those things when I started.
Some of the places I take the camels, camels have never been before, and when I’m halfway through, I’m like, ah ok… this is why! This was the worst idea ever. But you just have to get through it. At least it’ll make a good book whenever I get around to writing it.
Tell us about the causes you’re supporting during your trip
I wasn’t going to attach a charity, but I got a skin check during my medical when I was getting ready for the trip and they found a stage one melanoma on my back.
If I wasn’t doing this trip I wouldn’t have got that check. So I dodged a bullet and caught a lucky break. Beard Season do free skin checks and pop up skin check clinics and they push everyone to go out and get their skin check so they can catch the same lucky break that I did.
What does 2021 have in store for you, and the camels?
Heading back to the mainland and up to Alice before heading west across the Tanami, Gibson, Great Sandy and Little Sandy deserts.
I have no timeframe, but you’re a little bit governed by weather, so I might wait out this summer around Central Australia. Like I said, I don’t plan too much, ‘Where to tomorrow?’ is a future John problem.
Photos by Stuart Grant