Here in the Outback, the ‘Top End’ of Australia, is where you will see Crocodiles in the water, wild camels and Buffalo, native dingoes, incredible birdlife, cane toads and venomous snakes – not just in a zoo, but in the wild.
It is an interesting story of survival…
Here in the Northern Territory, you can visit a Croc farm and see Crocs being fed a Crocosaurus in the centre of Darwin, Crocodylus Park at Karara, Coolabah Farm in Katherine and Crocodile Farms NT in Palmerston, but you can also take River cruises to see Crocodiles in the wild too.
There are two type of Crocodiles here in the Northern Territory, the Freshwater, sometimes called the Johnson Crocodile and the Saltwater Crocodile – which is the much bigger and also more dangerous one, with a big male growing up to 6 or more metres in length and weighing up to 2000 kilograms.
Don’t be misled by the word “Saltwater” – it simply means that they can live in both freshwater and salty ocean water, and particularly where salt water and fresh water mix near river mouths and in the mangrove areas.
The Saltwater crocodile can live for up to around 70 years of age, and they date back to the dinosaur era – so are great survivors, and can move fast both in water and on the land, and each year people can get attacked and caught up in their massive jaws, and if caught, the croc will crush their victim and probably roll its dinner (you) in a death roll, with little means of escape!
If you are intending to swim – always check that it is a safe place to do it, and if fishing, also be aware that if you catch a Barramundi, a nearby croc may also want to claim your catch! Camping next to a river or area with crocs, is also not advisable for the same reasons.
A Saltwater Croc can stay underwater for up to about an hour, so you won’t even see it until it appears, and when it floats on the water, you may just see the eyes and nostrils exposed. They have great eyesight and excellent hearing, and using their powerful tail they can even leap in the air to catch a bird or other animal that comes into their territory.
Saltwater Crocodiles are farmed in the Northern Territory, but that doesn’t mean they are domesticated! The farms have the Crocs to show tourists, but also sell crocodile meat and the skins into the international fashion trade for making into leather for shoes, bags and other accessories.
Dingoes are Australia’s native dog and live in the wild. They have never become domesticated, other than by a few dedicated Dingo enthusiasts, and they hunt largely at night, living off smaller animals that they catch. Their history also goes back hundreds if not thousands of years.
About the size of an average size dog, their coat colour is a yellowish brownish colour, and they can hunt alone or in packs, and at night you might hear their howl, rather than a barking sound.
The Northern Territory’s most notorious crime story involved a dingo stealing 7 week old Baby Azaria from her parent’s tent in Alice Springs in 1980. The story made headlines round the world, and the even more headlines when the story in a bizarre twist became a murder investigation when the mother, Lindy Chamberlain was accused of making up the story to hide the murder of her child! The imagination of the press and people went into a frenzied overdrive – was she guilty or innocent? The mix of religion, dingoes, a baby, the outback, of cults and armchair expert opinion became an obsession and Lindy Chamberlain was found guilty and spend 7 years in prison, before being found innocent, her story becoming a movie, and a shameful chapter in the nation’s justice system.
Dingoes are a wild animal, and they can become scavengers for food, and people are warned not to feed them at camp sites or in the wild. While they will mostly not come near you, and shy away, they are also a unique animal in Australia, and a natural part of the outback.
Wild Buffalo, with their massive horns, have been used in India and Asia for centuries and you will see them in Rice Fields in Indonesia and Malaysia pulling ploughs, and in India pulling carts and also being milked in India for their rich buffalo milk used in preparing Chai tea.
Immensely strong, the Buffalo is a true ‘beast of burden’!
Buffalos were never native to Australia, but were first brought to the Northern Territory in the 1820’s from Indonesia and later India and used for their strength pulling carts and hauling timber as well as for their meat and milk too.
The buffalos continued to be brought into the Northern Territory until 1849, but with few fences and great difficulty in catching them if they escaped, many took to the bush. By the 1960’s there were thought to be around 200,000 buffalos living in the wild, and in spite of some domestication, culling, hunting and Crocodiles catching some, there are still thought to be between 100,000 and 150,000 Buffalos living in the wild. Even Melville Island off the coast has thousands of Buffalos living there.
They are true survivors, as are donkeys.
The first donkeys were brought into Australia around 1866. They were also like Buffaloes used for carrying heavy loads and for pulling wagons and other farm work. At the time horses were susceptible to a toxic weed, which did not affect the donkeys.
With the coming of trucks and roads, the use of donkeys declined and many were let go, and just as the Buffalo and camels survived, so too did the donkeys.
Today especially around Katherine, there are wild donkey herds and while culling has reduced the numbers of them, it is estimated that there are still millions of them roaming wild in the top end of the Northern Territory and in Western Australia.
HORSES, CATTLE AND DOGS –
When the first British Settlement in Australia was made in 1788 at Sydney Cove (today’s Sydney), eleven ships arrived in Sydney Harbour carrying convicts, their military guards, ships captains and seamen. The 3 supply ships also brought with them food, stoves and building supplies as well as a few cows, a bull, some sheep, geese, chickens, turkeys, and some horses from the Cape of Good Hope in Africa as well as some dogs and puppies. Captain Arthur Phillip, who became the first Governor of NSW brought his greyhounds with him, while another ship captain brought his Newfoundland hound!
The first settlement was almost a Noah’s Ark, bringing with it enough supplies they hoped to last two years.
While the first cattle escaped and were only found again in 1795 – seven years later in Camden, 60 kilometres from the settlement at Sydney Cove, dogs and the horses proved invaluable.
The horses provided both horsepower to carry loads, and also riders to enable bigger distances to travel – the only other alternatives being to walk or travel by row boat up rivers, and although the First Fleet had brought one stallion, two colts and four mares loaded on board when the Fleet had stopped for supplies at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, 33 more horses would follow in 1795.
Australian bred horses became known as ‘Walers’ – named because they were bred in New South Wales, and by the 1860’s Walers had built a great reputation for endurance, and large numbers were being exported to the British Army based in India. They also travelled to Africa with the 16,000 Australian troops heading to fight in the Boer War (1899-1902), and when the Australian Light Horse Brigade was formed, around 160,000 Walers went on to serve in the War.
As Australia developed, other breeds of horses were brought into the country, and the Australian Stock Horse became a legend in its ability to work with stockman, drovers, jillaroos, jackaroos and cattle. Here in the Northern Territory the stock horse played an invaluable role in the development of the cattle industry, and the tremendous horsemanship skills of aboriginal stockmen and rough riders have become legendary. The horse and its great manoeuvrability, and its ability to keep pace with cattle being moved or mustered before the start of the dry season are still being used today, even when the big round ups are done using helicopters.
The Northern Territory’s cattle industry began with British breeds, but in most cases these breeds did not fare well in the hot tropical climate, with ticks, flies, drought, floods and heat taking their toll and so over the past 50 years, Brahman cattle, more used to the tropical climate have become the main breed of cattle being raised, with mixed cross breeds also being raised, where the characteristics and qualities of Brahman cattle is mixed with breeds such as Santa Gertrudis, Senepol, Red Angus, Bonsmara, Charolais and others.
Where in Europe, Japan and many other countries, a cattle property may manage herds of ten or twenty cows, here in the Northern Territory the number of cattle and size of Stations (properties) can be huge.
One of the biggest cattle Station owners is AACO, who own numbers of Stations in the Northern Territory and Queensland, covering an area of 7 million hectares and carrying around 600,000 cattle. Most of these cattle are destined for sale to Indonesia and other export destinations, including the Middle East, leaving from Darwin Harbour either as live cattle or as meat.
Many of the big Stations are located on the Barkly Tableland to the east of Tennant Creek, and keeping track of cattle and horses too has always been an issue. Fences break and get broken and so over the years many horses have broken free of their owners, and run wild, becoming what is known in Australia as ‘brumbies’, tough and independent horses that run free on the land.
Words such as brumbies, drovers, jillaroo, jackaroo, stockmen, mustering, camp drafting, the outback, rough riders have become a big part of the language of Australia, and a central part in building the Australian character.
Dogs also have played a significant role too.
When the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove they brought with them a puppies and a small number of dogs – and one of, if not the first dog bred in Australia was the Australian Kangaroo dog – a mix of greyhound and deerhound, bred for its speed and given its name for its ability to catch kangaroos.
Kangaroo dogs, often called just Roo Dogs were great hunters, and killed their prey, which was fine if you were hunting, but not good if it was one of your sheep or calves. Kangaroo dogs are still bred, but by a very small number of breeders.
When people think of Australian farm dogs – they are generally thinking of Kelpies and Cattle dogs, and cross breed “mongrels”.
Both the Australian Cattle Dog and Kelpie have short coats and are bred to be tough working dogs working with sheep and cattle.
Kelpies can be in found in a number of colours – from back, to brown, red, smoky blue, tan and mixtures of these, and it is generally thought that they first bred in 1872 from a black English Collie Dog and a Dingo, but it is now recognized as a breed in its own right.
The Australian Cattle Dog, sometimes called “Blue Heelers” or “Blueys” and are also thought to have come from a cross between an Blue smooth coated Highland Collie (possibly Merle) and a dingo, and their main characteristic is stockiness and blue/black colour and their ability to run with and round up cattle, darting back and forward with eyes constantly focussed on the task at hand, and nipping at the heels of a cow if needed, but also lying low to miss a kick from the cow when it gets nipped.
Both Kelpies and Australian Cattle dogs have been used by cattlemen for well over a century and a trained Kelpie or Cattle Dog is said to be the equal or better than several men in rounding up cattle to head them into a paddock or cattle yard. Kelpies are the more popular dog for cattle work.
Every cattleman in the Northern Territory will have stories about their dogs and what they do, and most Cattle Stations will have one dog and more likely a number of Kelpies, Cattle dogs or cross breed dogs, often called “mongrels”. The most expensive dogs sold in Australia have been trained working Kelpie dogs due to their value in working with cattle and sheep.
The outback has always been a harsh and unforgiving environment, and while the coastline had been mapped and charted and Colonies established at points along the coastline, the interior was a mystery. With no planes to fly over the land, the only way to find out what lay inland was to walk and carry whatever supplies were needed using horses and camels.
Many of the early explorers died when they attempted to travel the vast distances – with heat, floods, mountains, salt lakes, exhaustion, animals dying, sickness, lack of water and food, attack from Aboriginals and other factors making it a nightmare journey.
In 1862 the explorer, John McDouall Stuart on his sixth attempt managed to make the journey across the continent from north to south from Adelaide to Darwin, and this led to one of the greatest building projects in Australia – the construction of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line. The Line began construction in 1870 and was finally finished in 1872, covering a distance of 3200 kilometres from Adelaide to Darwin, with Telegraph stations along the way. It would take until 1929 for a railway line to be constructed from Port Augusta to Alice Springs, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the rail line was extended to Darwin.
The Overland telegraph line linked Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and in 1875 also to Perth when a line was constructed across the Nullarbor Plain, and for the first time, using Morse Code, messages could be sent via the Overland Telegraph to link to the submarine cable that linked to Java, then on to Calcutta in India, and onwards to London.
Up until this time, messages and letters to or from London could only relayed via ship, and could five months or longer to arrive. The Overland telegraph changed this.
The outback has always taken a toll on both people and animals due to the harshness of its environment, and while horses and mules were used to both carry people and supplies, camels were also seen as more resilient. The first camels were brought into Australia around 1839 from the Canary Islands and the explorers, Bourke and Wills used both horses and camels on their expedition in 1860 that set off the travel from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Both Bourke and Wills would die on their return journey, but camels proved their worth.
The British Empire at the time spanned a large part of the world, and camels had been used for thousands of years in the Middle East, Africa, Persia, Afghanistan and India – camels being the so-called “ships of the desert” carrying goods along the trade routes across harsh landscapes and deserts.
Camels can be quite cantankerous animals and in the 1860’s a move was made to both import camels as well as people from the Middle East who understood camels and their ways. While these cameleers came from a variety of countries, they became known as “Afghan Cameleers” and in the years from around 1860 to 1900 there were more than 15,000 camels and 2000 Cameleers brought into Australia, with camels also being bred here too. The camels were all of the one hump type and came mostly from India and Palestine, with very few being of the two hump type.
The Afghan Cameleers and their line of camels (camel trains with up to 70 camels tended by 4 Afghani Cameleers) became the means of carrying goods to and from outback settlements and properties in NSW, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory, also pulling wagons loaded with wool. Most of the Afghans were men and given 3 year contracts, with their wives and children remaining in their homeland. The Afghans maintained their traditions, planting date palms, wearing their traditional clothing and turbans and even setting up Mosques – the first in 1861 in Hergott Springs, 685 kilometres north of Adelaide. This became the junction of both the Oodnadatta track and the Birdsville Track, and one of the bases for the Overland Telegraph and later Rail Junction.
The town was named by the explorer, John McDouall Stuart in honour of the German Botanist, Joseph Hergott, who had accompanied Stuart on one of his earlier expeditions in 1860. The Hergott Springs name was changed to Marree in 1919, along with other German town names, given the war with Germany, the word Marree derived from the aboriginal name “Mari” said to mean “place of many possums”.
In 1901, the newly formed Federal Government passed a law called “The Immigration Restriction Act, 1901”, which largely stopped non-Europeans from entering Australia. A so-called dictation test, to test their language skills allowed immigration officers to run a 50 word dictation test in any European language that those chose to determine a person’s eligibility to enter or remain in Australia – the “any language” provision ensuring that almost all would fail! In the period 1902 to 1909 just 52 people out of 1359 passed the test, with the test being used right up to 1959.
Chinese, Pacific Islanders, Afghans, Indians and many others became subject to this test across Australia, with the policy becoming known as the “White Australia Policy”. Under the Law, Afghans and others could not obtain miner’s rights on the gold fields, buy land and were restricted on where they could travel to, and where they were allowed to stay, they would be issued with a photo identity certificate to show that they were exempt for the “Dictation Test”.
Even so, many Afghans stayed on in Australia, marrying and in turn having children, and their descendants are still living here.
With the coming of rail, roads and trucks to carry goods, the Afghan Camel Trains slowly were gradually replaced by the faster transport methods, and by the 1940’s were all but gone.
The camels however remained, and rather than be killed, they were let loose and there is now thought to be over a million camels living in the outback, a large percentage of these being in the Northern Territory.
Some camels are now used to carry tourists, there is camel racing in Alice Springs and other locations, and camel meat and exports have started a renewed interest in camels.
The Afghan Cameleer story and the camel trains played an important role in the development of the outback and Australia, and it seems strange that Afghans and Afghanistan are in the news almost constantly these days, but the early special relationship between Australia and Afghanistan is known to very few probably in both countries.
Travel is about enjoyment, but it is also about learning too – and there’s a whole world to explore.