Alice Springs was a sea of dust and camel toes last weekend when cameleers from around the outback brought their speediest humps into town for the Camel Cup. They were joined by thousands of locals and tourists for a day of madness and hilarity at the Noel Fullerton Camel Racing Arena.
That's right, Alice Springs has a racing track just for camels. It's the only one in the southern hemisphere.
The facility is named after a local cameleering legend (Noel Fullerton), who founded the event 48 years ago when he and Keith Mooney–Smith raced camels down the Todd River on a bet. The track was built by volunteers in 1979, and has everything from holding pits to a commentary box.
After seeing my first camel race I can describe it as being much like a horse race but about ten times more entertaining on account of the fact that camels are batshit crazy. The start is the weirdest part. It's a battle between the camels and their handlers: the handlers pull, and the camels pull back. There's hissing, whooshing, and bucking, and wailing. Then out of nowhere the start gun fires and camels start running in every direction.
Eventually all humps are moving in the same direction, then it's up to the jockey's to hang on until the end. From what I can tell there's no real skill to riding a camel except for having a firm grip and zero concern for your personal safety.
Between the seven camel races the crowd were called upon to provide ongoing entertainment. My favourite was the 'Kids Kamel' race, which saw the young ones racing hobby camels across the grassy field. The event ended up being more dangerous than the real camel races, and many of the kids got tangled up in their "camels" before face planting in spectacular fashion.
I wish I could say I didn't laugh, but someone falling over is pretty much the funniest thing that could possibly happen, let alone someone falling over while straddling a pole with a camel head on it.
The toughest event was the Rickshaw Ironman race, which required pairs to tow a couple of mates around the camel track. All the teams started off enthusiastically, but as the wheels of the rickshaws sank into the red dirt it looked like the competitors were wading through quicksand. It got a bit slow and boring by the end, but at least it gave me plenty of time to get a good shot.
As with Finke, the real highlight of the day was the crowd, who were up for as many camel toe and hump puns that you could throw at them. Like most mental events in Alice Springs, the day was really just an excuse to get drunk because, let's face it, there's not much else to do when you're 1500km from anywhere.
As one women said to me, "I love the camel cup, it's nuts! We're in the middle of nowhere here, so we have to make our own fun."
I feel really fortunate to shoot these kinds of events for the paper because my Advocate t-shirt gives me the best seat in the house. I could go wherever I wanted at the Camel Cup; from seeing the premium view from the commentary box, to being so close to the start line I could smell the camel's breath, and walking onto the track for the Rickshaw Ironman.
The best part of my privileged access was being able to walk onto the field during the "Battleship Hose-Off" - a preview of one of the events at the Henley on Todd Regatta in August. The rules of a battleship hose-off are hazy, but from what I can tell teams drive "boats" around while the crews fire water cannons at each other, the aim being to get the other team as wet as possible.
A few times I ventured a little to close to the boats and copped a shower, which was a welcome relief from the heat and managed to clean six hours of dust off my gear and clothes. It was worth the wet t-shirt remarks from the pissed bogans as I left the arena.
And that, my friends, was the Camel Cup.
I'll be offline for a bit while I'm on holidays but will be back mid-August to report on the Henley on Todd Regatta. From what I've been told the Henley on Todd makes the Camel Cup look like a Japanese tea ceremony. I'm sure it'll be a fun blog post to write.
Emma Murray is a documentary photographer based in Alice Springs. The Alice Years is a personal project documenting life in and around the red centre.