An unlikely culprit is terrorising parts of outback Australia in search of water — a legacy of decisions made more than a century ago.
In the Gibson Desert, among the “long grasses” of Yirriya, lives a water snake.
“That was Charlotte’s great-great-great-great-grandfather,” says her mother Eileen, a Ngaanyatjarra woman, whose great-great-great-grandmother was also buried there.
Yirriya, a remote oasis near Warakurna community, at the end of the sprawling Rawlinson Ranges in Western Australia, is a testament to the enduring story of the Ngaanyatjarra people.
Their ancestors lived there “a long, long time ago”, Eileen says, and when they go up there, “it makes us remember how they lived back then”.
When they enter Yirriya, adds 15-year-old Charlotte, they make sure to greet her great-great-great-great-grandfather’s spirit.
“We’ll be screaming, ‘Hello, we came back to visit you,’ and then wind starts getting bigger,” she says.
Stories of Yirriya have been passed down through the generations, and Charlotte reflects fondly on days spent there with her family, simply eating a sandwich and listening to the birds.
As she puts it: “[It’s like] someone is patting you on the back, welcoming you. That’s how I feel when I visit that place.”
But in recent years, something has changed.
The spring’s once-fresh water is now “dirty” and undrinkable, while what remains of the long grass has been flattened.
“[It used to be] really clean and beautiful,” says Eileen. “But now it’s not.”
And an unlikely culprit is to blame.
Welcome to camel country
Across 160,000 square kilometres, the red sand plains of the Gibson Desert are home to an abundance of life.
But like swathes of outback Australia, the plains are under threat.
From 1840 to 1907, as many as 20,000 camels were imported into the country by the British, who sought to travel inland.
With the ability to survive without water for long periods of time, the animals played a crucial role in the discovery of goldfields, and in establishing transport routes from the coast.
But by the early 1900s, their usefulness was waning.
“Most of the Gold Rush was really off the boil by 1910, and then you’ve got this pipeline come in,” says Tim Moore, a local history and archives officer with the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in WA.
No longer needed, the camels were let loose into the wild, where they thrived and bred prolifically.
Before culling was introduced in 2009, there were an estimated 800,000 camels across the country.
The culling program’s success, coupled with the effects of drought in 2013, saw that number fall to about 300,000.
But it didn’t take long for populations to recover. Data is scarce, but there are now believed to be as many as 1 million camels across the outback.
For Warakurna, and other desert communities, the impacts of that decision all those years ago continue to be felt.
One camel that wandered into Yirriya “got stuck and was sinking in the mud and died”, Charlotte’s brother Bernie says.
“We used to go out there and get the spring water from Yirriya,” Eileen adds.
“But it’s all dirty. We can’t drink it anymore.”
‘They smelt the water at the school’
In the harsh terrain of the Gibson Desert, these camels have found a familiar home.
But when they drink, they drink.
They’ve been known to consume as much as 200 litres in a matter of minutes, and destroy what’s in their path in the search for more.
“Back in 2017 there was lots of camels marching along into the community every night, just walking along through the roads,” Eileen says.
They destroyed fences and signs. They even drank all the water from a fountain where the local kids used to play.
One died “right next to the school fence”.
“Seeing them in the community for the first time, [I was told to] stay inside the house,” Charlotte recalls.
“My mum told me, ‘They’re dangerous, they’ll kick you,’ so we had to stay [inside] for two days and then they went away.”
‘We got rid of 10,000 and that barely scratched the surface’
With the animals spread over 3.3 million square kilometres, covering Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, trying to control them is easier said than done.
In 2020, authorities in the drought-stricken Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands were forced to cull thousands of camels after communities reported large groups damaging towns and buildings.
While it helped ease the pressure, there are an estimated 600,000 camels across the APY Lands alone, general manager Richard King says.
“It’s not an easy fix. This has been happening since the days of the camel trains,” he explains.
“We’ve got 100 years of breeding of camels in Australia that we need to get sorted.”
They damage and desiccate the native flora, with staples like Quandong fruits and bush tomatoes “getting a bit rare now with the amount of grazing that’s happening”, Richard adds.
While communities can try to keep the camels off their boundaries, “unfortunately in the desert, it’s just not economical to round them up when it’s nice and wet”.
“You really have to wait before you can move to move them out.
West, in the Gibson Desert, local rangers “tried their best” to deter the animals from Warakurna, Eileen says.
They tried pumping water to another location, but the camels would drink it too quickly.
“People try hunting them out, getting the dogs to chase them,” she says.
“But they come back and the dogs get hurt because of their big feet.”
When the water inevitably runs dry, the camels move further afield and onto farms, where they’re competing with cattle for survival.
Pastoralists in WA’s remote northern Goldfields have previously warned the declared pests are running in “plague proportions”. But while the rains have drawn them away for now, desert life is cyclical.
It means it’s a case of when, not if, they return.
“[In 2019-2020] it was so, so dry that camels were coming in and they could smell water around tanks and troughs and trapyards,” says Michelle Donaldson, CEO of the Goldfields Nullarbor Rangelands Biosecurity Association (GNRBA).
“They were kicking and destroying quite significant infrastructure which was already just essential to keep cattle in healthy condition.”
Tasked with supporting pastoralists to manage pests, plants and animals across about “one-third of WA”, the scale of the problem is not lost on Michelle.
While aerial and ground culling programs offer some protection, funds are limited and logistics are not always easy.
In light of unprecedented camel numbers in recent years, however, moves are afoot to bolster their approach.
GNRBA is at the tail end of a pilot study involving eight stations, which are trapping or excluding camels from water points.
They’re trying to gauge how successful the measures are in protecting stock water and vital infrastructure, and the potential to develop an industry around the animal.
“[The current demand for camels] is not, ‘We’ll take everything you’ve got’. Quite often that demand is for pregnant females or females for milking, so we’re not talking big numbers,” Michelle says.
“When they’re destroyed, that meat can be quite readily utilised, so generally it’s not a complete waste, but it could be much better coordinated to make it more efficient.”
While early indications from the pilot are promising, life in the desert is seldom simple.
The yards have “stood up well” so far, Michelle says, but “we haven’t had a summer or camels like they were in 2019”.
The project comes with many challenges. Camel numbers fluctuate throughout the year, and when they are captured, they often have to be transported across vast distances and punishing terrain.
“But working together with all the other stakeholders, this could be quite an effective way to manage numbers and potentially, where people are interested or capable of [it], developing industry,” she says.
‘Leave your troubles behind’
How to solve the problem remains a vexed topic.
If you ask Charlotte, however, she says: “I was thinking of sending them away to a big creek.”
In recent weeks, they’ve only sighted one camel in the community — something Eileen puts down to the rains.
The animals have got more water “out in there, [in the] swamps and all that out in the desert,” she says.
“But I don’t know if it’s gonna get dry and they’ll start marching back to the communities.”
While the bush flowers and greenery that once enveloped Yirriya have been slowly eaten away, its story endures, as it always has.
Though the landscape has changed, the connection could never wane.
In its long grasses, the water snake keeps watch.
“It’s like when you’re going into water when it’s hot, it’s like that type of feeling, but more happy,” Charlotte says of Yirriya.
“[It’s like you] leave your troubles behind and take a break.”
Words: Bridget Judd
Photography/videography: Chris Lewis
Producer: Katie McAllister
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