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Australia remembers the 'cameleers' who helped to open up the Outback

By Kathy Marks in Sydney

Every Australian has heard of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, two white explorers who led the first expedition across the forbidding heart of the vast continent in 1860. Few people know that the pair were accompanied by 24 camels and three Afghan cameleers.

The three were among 2,000 cameleers brought to Australia in the late 19th and early 20th century, along with 15,000 camels.

The men and their beasts played a crucial role in opening up the arid interior, carving routes across the Outback, delivering supplies to remote settlements and helping to build the Overland Telegraph Line, which connected Australia with the rest of the world.

Their contribution to the exploration and development of a – to white men – inhospitable country has largely gone unrecognised. But an exhibition that has just opened at the National Library in Canberra, Pioneers of the Inland: Australia 's Muslim Cameleers 1860s–1930s, may go some way to rectifying that, with previously unseen photographs and artefacts providing new insight into the cameleers' remarkable story.

Most of inland Australia was untrodden by white people in the mid-19th century. Europeans were keen to settle the interior, but lacked the means. Horses and bullock teams were unsuitable because of a lack of feed and water for them in the Outback. The solution was camels, used in India and Afghanistan to convey goods long distances across similarly parched landscapes.

If camels were to be imported, the men who knew how to train and look after them were needed too. In Australia, the cameleers – largely desert nomads from Afghanistan and northern India, now Pakistan – were known collectively as "Afghans". These men seized the chance to cross the ocean and earn relatively good wages thousands of miles from home. They brought to Australia a new culture and a new religion: Islam. The country's first mosques were built by cameleers, in Adelaide in 1890 and in Perth in 1905.

The Afghans accompanied many of the white explorers, but they did more than guide their baggage-laden camels through the saltbush and spinifex grass. According to Philip Jones, one of the exhibition's curators, expedition diaries show that they also acted as guides and route finders. They, too, deserve the status of explorers.

When the Outback began to be settled, it was with the indispensable assistance of the cameleers and their charges, which carried supplies to far-flung communities, cattle stations and mining towns – and carried their produce, including wool and minerals, back to the ports and railheads for export.

They also transported materials for the Telegraph Line, which bisected the continent from Adelaide to Darwin. The 2,000-mile line, a monumental feat of civil engineering in that era, linked up with a submarine cable that ran all the way from Java, in the Dutch East Indies, to England. Completed in 1872, it helped to overcome Australia's isolation, bringing the telegraph and then the telephone.

Travelling along stock routes with their large tonnage of goods, the camels gradually transformed rudimentary Outback tracks into dirt roads – suitable for the first cars, which supplanted them after the First World War and made the cameleers redundant. Many of the latter went home, but some stayed, having married local women, often Aboriginal. Their beasts were turned loose in the desert.

Their descendants live on in Australia, many of them in towns that were significant camel junctions, such as Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, Broken Hill in New South Wales, and Marree in South Australia. Their forefathers had lived in enclaves – "Ghan towns", they were called – on the outskirts of those settlements. In 1901 the newly federated nation enacted a "White Australia" immigration policy which kept out new cameleers.

Eric Sultan's grandfather, Sultan Mohammed, came to Australia from Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the late 19th century. Working out of Marree, he travelled to Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. He married an Irishwoman; Mr Sultan's father married an Aboriginal woman. Mr Sultan, the director of Aboriginal housing in Alice Springs, calls himself "a Liquorice Allsort".

He is concerned that the contribution of the cameleers to the economic and cultural development of Australia should not be forgotten. "It's a part of our heritage. If it was not for the cameleers, Alice Springs for one would not have been developed to the stage it was in such a short time," says Mr Sultan.

Mr Jones said: "Rather than focusing on the European settler mythology, the history books should record that these men, through their skill and very hard work and their control over an ancient technology, essentially opened up Australia's interior for the sort of prosperity which it enjoys today."

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