Focus correspondent Ruth Allen braved her fear of heights to chat with cameleer John Hardy from Port Macquarie Camel Safaris.
John, how did you end up running camels on Lighthouse Beach?
I bought the business 12 years ago; it started in 1989, but I met a lady who said she rode a camel here on her honeymoon in the ’60s, so they may have been here much longer. I’m the third owner, now with my business partner, Michael Doust.
I’ve been mucking around with camels since I was about 24. I was a miner in Kalgoorlie and needed to get off the grog, and my wife told me to go find a hobby. I tried licking stamps for a hobby, but the taste didn’t agree with me! I’d ridden a camel at the Perth Show and as soon as it stood up, I thought, “I’ll do something with this”, so I found a bloke on a cattle station at Coolgardie and asked him to teach me about camels. I’d go out there at the weekends for about seven years, and then I had camels as pets.
What made you move to the East Coast?
I actually came over here with the idea to do camel rides, but I was as dumb as mud and I thought I’d just bring the camels down the beach and get going. I hadn’t thought about insurance and permits and all that; there was already a business here, and the other shires weren’t that interested. By this time my wife had started working in Kempsey, and I couldn’t go anywhere, so I sold my camels and went working with the mentally disabled for about seven/eight years.
And then one day I called up the guy on Lighthouse Beach and asked if he had a camel he didn’t want that I could buy to ride at the weekend. He said he didn’t, but that he was selling the business, so I bought it and all of them!
Tell me a bit about the camels? Where do they come from?
Our camels are Dromedaries and they have one hump, unlike the Bactrian camels, that have two. Australian Dromedaries are descendants of Arab camels that came here in the 1860s for the Burke and Wills expedition, and they basically became outback trucks carrying pianos, bales of wool, mining equipment – all sorts. In the 1920s, when cars and trucks began to arrive, they let the camels go, and now we’re the only country in the world with a large population of wild Dromedaries – maybe up to 1.5 – 1.7 million.
My camels all have very different personalities. You can’t train two of them the same way; they’re all individuals. One of mine you can cuddle and pat as much as you like, but another one – a farmer took part of his ear off, and it took six months for him to stop kicking out when we got him. Some are more affectionate, others a bit more wary. Some of them we’re not entirely sure how old they are – you can guess from their teeth. The ones here are between about 10 and 14 years old.
They can live up to about 60 years old, but that’s rare – generally it’s more like 30 to 40. The previous owner had one whom we reckoned was about 43 when she stopped working.
I understand you’re getting some more camels soon?
Yes, at the moment we’ve got seven, and we’re getting four more after Easter. I lost a couple recently, one to a snake bite, and another swallowed some rope that was inside a hay bale. We’ll be up to 11, but we don’t want too many, because between the drought and the floods the price of hay has gone right up – and not only that, it’s getting really hard to come by. But the camels can eat from ground level to 3.5 m high; maybe I should take them to the reserves and charge the Council for pruning!
It must be hard on days when you don’t get many people on the beach?
Throughout the winter, and even February sometimes, we’re only doing it for the love of it. We’ll get down here, and we might only make eight bucks – sometimes we mightn’t make anything – but we just keep going. If it wasn’t for the holidays every ten weeks, we wouldn’t survive. We’re allowed a maximum of six camels on the beach; when we’re not particularly busy, I bring four down to the beach, and in the busy season we just do more trips.
Have you ever had any famous people do your rides?
Once I had a Tongan opera singer – he let rip, and there can’t be too many places you could listen to live opera from the back of a camel while watching whales and dolphins jump!
I’ve had David Hicks, the guy they locked up in Guantanamo Bay, and that bloke off The Bachelor, the one they called the Honey Badger.
You obviously enjoy a good yarn. Who would you most like to chat with while you’re leading the camels?
Other camel trainers – in India they have camels in the Army and they give them ranks, so a camel might be a Sergeant, and if he misbehaves he’ll get demoted. And there are people who teach them to dance; there’s an English woman who uses them for dressage; she says they’re better than any horse, and they never put a foot wrong. That would be interesting.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m 57 – there’s a lot of walking in this job! When it’s busy, we might do 15 trips,
that’s 30 km in a day. You need younger legs, and it’s good to pass it on to the next generation. I’m not very good with computers and the internet and all that, and Michael can take that stuff on. And I’m thinking we might go into perfume – Camel Number Five; what do you reckon?
I’ll pass on the perfume, but thanks for the chat and the ride, John!
Port Macquarie Camel Safaris, Sunday – Monday, weather permitting, 9:30am – 1pm at the southern entrance to Lighthouse Beach on Matthew Flinders Drive.
Tel: 0437 672 080.