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Taking a Camel Out to Dinner Down Under

May 01, 1988|MICHELE GRIMM and TOM GRIMM | The Grimms of Laguna Beach are authors of "Away for the Weekend," a travel guide to Southern California.

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia — "Go with the flow!" was our guide's advice.

Then, suddenly, we were pitched forward, thrown back and tossed forward again--all the time rising from the safety of the earth. Soon we were up in the air and had leveled out.

No, it wasn't a space ride at an amusement park. We had just begun an adventure on the back of a camel.

Dry Riverbed

Ours wasn't to be a month-long trek through the Sahara Desert, but only a one-hour ride down a dry riverbed in the Australian outback. But that was enough to decide that we didn't want careers as cameleers.

Our affair with a dromedary took place near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. We just couldn't resist a brochure with this enticing headline: "Take a Camel Out to Dinner." It described a camel safari at sundown that ended at a winery where everyone dismounted to sip wine and dine.

Late that afternoon we joined other would-be camel drivers and wine tasters who were being welcomed by Michelle and Nick Smail, owners of Frontier Camel Farm and Tours. The couple started their business in 1982 and have developed a museum that traces the history of camels in Australia.

The first dromedaries were imported from the Canary Islands in the 1840s by explorers who used them as pack animals in Australia's vast desert. Others were brought from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But less than a century later, highways and railroads had been built, thus ending the camels' use.

Many were turned loose to roam the outback. Today Nick estimates that Australia has 35,000 camels living in the wild. He pays $500 to $1,000 for a young dromedary and trains it at the farm for riding.

Fit Over the Humps

Our group watched Nick at the corral saddle some of his 30 camels for the dinner ride. The saddles carry two passengers and are custom-made of steel and leather to fit over humps of various sizes. The saddles have hand grips and a sheepskin blanket to sit on.

Our camel, Capt. Morgan, seemed friendly enough and was contentedly chewing his cud. He did drool a bit, and we doubted that even a case of Clorets could cure his bad breath.

Camels may spit at you but they won't bite. "However, they're quite unpredictable," Nick said, "and they can kick and buck." We stopped petting Capt. Morgan.

Calling "hoosh . . . down" and pulling on the lead rope, Nick settled our camel on its knees and we climbed into the saddle. The movements a camel makes to stand up again seem similar to unfolding a troublesome deck chair. His rear end rises first, so we were instructed to lean back, hang on and relax.

Soon all the camels had seesawed to their feet, accompanied by shouts, laughter and an occasional scream from a whiplashed passenger.

Flocks of Birds

Our camel train left the farm with 17 dromedaries in single file, all attached by ropes that run from the nose of one camel to the next in line. With the caravan's direction and pace controlled by the lead camel, we had little to do but enjoy the scenery along the dry Todd River.

Between infrequent rains in this desert oasis, enough moisture remains along the river's banks to nourish red gum trees that are home to flocks of birds. Screeching overhead were countless galahs, Australia's dazzling pink-and-gray parrots. We also saw crowned pigeons and heard the evening song of a rare black cockatoo.

The sun was setting as our ships of the desert left the sandy riverbed to parade through the vineyard that surrounds the Chateau Hornsby Winery, our destination.

The camels rocked back and forth to their knees so we could dismount, and then they headed back to the farm. All the camel caravaners stayed behind to toast our one-humped friends with a few glasses of wine.

Afterward our group sat down for a meal of Northern Territory specialties--baked barramundi fish and roast fillet of buffalo. Chateau Hornsby is the only winery in all of central Australia and we sampled more of its Moselle vintage during dinner.

The evening ended under the desert stars with folk songs sung by the winery's entertainer, Ted Egan. His finale was an Aussie favorite, "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Mate," but our thoughts were on a very different animal.

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You can take a camel out to dinner on Sunday, Tuesday and Friday throughout the year. The five-hour excursion includes wine tasting, dinner and transfers from your hotel in Alice Springs for $36 per person. On Monday and Thursday you can take a camel out to lunch for the same price.

Visitors also can ride a camel back in time on Wednesday and Saturday to the historic Old Telegraph Station in Alice Springs. The outing costs $22, including a rest stop with billy tea and bush biscuits. On any weekend, dromedary devotees can spend a night with a camel for $108.

For more information, contact Australia's Northern Territory Tourist Commission, 2121 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 1230, Los Angeles 90067; (213) 277-7877 or (800) 468-8222.

Or write to Frontier Tours, P.O. Box 2836, Alice Springs, N.T. 5750, Australia.

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