Back in the early 70s, a guy by the name of Noel Fullerton challenged his friend Keith Mooney-Smith to a duel, with the "weapons being camels." A camel race, in other words, to be held in the dry bed of the Todd River, Alice Springs.
In 2017, the friendly competition has long since outgrown its humble origins. Nowadays, the Camel Cup is recognised as one of the largest camel racing festivals this side of the equator. It is, says Neil Waters, camel whisperer, as he swats away a fly, "the epitome."
Neil has been involved with the event since 1978: he's followed the race to its current home at Blatherskite Park, and in more recent years become Noel Fullerton's successor as the unofficial king of the Cup. Of the 15 camels that are here today, seven are from Neil's farm in Stuarts Well, 90 kilometres south of Alice. And among those is Chrissy: five-time Cup winner and near unanimous favourite to take out the 2017 title.
Neil describes Chrissy as a camel with a good heart, and warns me to watch out for his main competitors: a group of camel trainers from Uluru he calls "that mob from the Rock." He tells me about the Cup itself, and its reputation as the pinnacle of Australian camel racing. "I've heard others call themselves the 'Melbourne Cup of race meetings,' but they're not," he says. "Alice Springs has been going since 1971… and it's still the best camel race in Australia."
But the nation doesn't exactly stop for the Camel Cup. The 400-metre sand track is one-eighth the size of Flemington Racecourse, the $5,000 prize-purse a drop in the bucket next to the $6.2 million up for grabs at Australia's biggest horserace. And when I go looking for a bookmaker to place a bet, the best I can do is a bar operating out of a trailer and a food truck peddling dagwood dogs. It's high noon, an hour before the first race jumps, and a man is using a fire extinguisher to paint a starting line in the sand.
I'd asked the concierge at my hotel about it while checking in the night before. Having driven a good 30 hours out from Sydney to see the Camel Cup with my own eyes, I was curious to find out whether its reputation as the "outback Melbourne Cup" actually held any water. "Oh yeah," he said, with some conviction, and handed me the key to my room. "You get pissed."
So yeah, kind of like the Melbourne Cup. But also, as it turns out, not at all like the Melbourne Cup.
If the Melbourne Cup is a bottle of Moet, then the Camel Cup is an arse-slapped bag of fruity lexia: cheap, unpretentious, and not without a sweet note of debauchery. There is no glitz, no glamour, no gambling even. Just the barely controlled chaos that ensues when you shove a handful of untrained dromedaries onto a racetrack, strap riders to their humps and fire a gun.
"Compared to horse-racing the jockey has absolutely no steering control over the camel, so as soon as that gun fires anything can happen," says Dean, a camel-handler from Uluru and a seasoned regular at the Cup. "Anything… as you saw today."
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We're now four races into the afternoon, at the tail end of the qualifying rounds, and Dean is referring to something that happened in the previous race: a veritable shit-show when one camel ran the wrong way, several more jumped the gun, and a wily beast named Trigger—one of the camels that Dean and his mate Greg brought along—ended up winning without a jockey. It wasn't until the dust cloud had well and truly settled that Cup officials decided, after much deliberation, to deny Trigger his victory.
"Back at the farm they're controlled," Greg points out. "If they step out of line, if they start runnin' or pig rootin', then they're in trouble… [But] out here it's their time to shine, and they love blowing the cobwebs out."
And it's this, the fact that the camels have free reign to do as they please and the rickety kind of uncertainty that comes with that—a feeling that "anything can happen"—that really makes the Camel Cup a unique racing experience. These cantankerous animals aren't trained to compete, and the event ends up looking something like 25 percent race, 25 percent rodeo, and 50 percent man trying to control an uncontrollable beast.
You could call it untraditional, or even lowbrow. But looking around the Camel Cup at all the plainclothes punters—thousands of people more interested in the actual camels than the Cup itself—highlights a pretty gross truth about what "traditional" and "highbrow" racing events have come to represent. The Melbourne Cup, for one, is an obscenely polished turd: an event that's less about watching the horses than it is about skulling frosé in a fascinator. The race may stop the nation, but only because the nation has a fifty riding on the winner.
By the time the 12 finalists step out onto the track for the titular Camel Cup race, no one's even bothered to wager the odds. Chrissy is there, of course, with Neil's own daughter strapped to her back, while a motley assortment of lesser-known camels bellow and groan around them. There is no starting gate: the rowdy beasts are strong-armed to their knees in the sand, crouching, as they await the crack of the pistol. And then they're off.
The race itself is over in less than a minute. Nugget, another one of Dean and Greg's camels and a first-timer on the racetrack, breaks away from the pack and brings home a surprise victory. Chrissy finishes two full seconds later. At the finish line, the official judges—three senior women wearing sequin fezzes—jot down the results in an exercise book. "A winner's a winner," one of them tells me, and shrugs.
I find Neil with his camels after the race. He seems contented, unruffled by the final result despite the fact he finished second to his self-appointed rivals from the Rock. "There's a bit of banter rivalry going on but I've never been overly serious," he admits. "Otherwise I'd actually train my camel properly."
More than anyone, Neil Waters appreciates the Camel Cup for what it really is: a light-hearted camel race in the middle of the Australian outback; a pissing contest between mates; and, first and foremost, a chance to celebrate the wild nature of these animals that he holds so close to his heart.
"I prefer the camels to the jockeys," he says in a way that makes me believe him. Behind us, a disgruntled beast lifts its head and lets out a guttural roar. "They're just great animals, personality-wise. That's all."
Words and photos by Gavin Butler. Follow him on Twitter.