About This Festival
It all started in 1970 when Noel Fullerton challenged fellow Lions Club member Keith Mooney-Smith in a letter to the editor in the local paper to settle a bet. Two men racing on camels down the dried bed of the ephemeral Todd River proved a mite too hilarious to pass up again, so the Lion’s Club made it an annual event, turning it into a 44-year fundraiser for local charities.
A Bit on Alice Springs
Alice Springs, aka “The Alice” in Aussie parlance, is a small funky town in the middle of the Red Centre. Founded in the mid 19th century (1871) by telegraph station workers who came upon the Todd River while they were stringing cable for the cross-continental telegraph line, they thought they had discovered an oasis, in what is a hot, arid, and very red desert region of central Australia. They settled in only to discover that the river is more often dry than flowing, so the “town” at the time consisted of only a few huts surrounding a switching station near a dusty riverbed. The town didn’t really boom until 1887 when gold was discovered and Alice Springs grew. It’s remained small for the entirety of its existence, never rising above 30,000 residents. In addition to hosting the Camel Cup, Alice Springs is also home to another kooky race—the Henley-On-Todd Regatta: every August, people race boats by carrying them down the dry river. There must be something in the lack of water there.
Okay, but Why Camels?
The Red Centre is a dry landscape, with hot winds and little water. What better mode of transportation than a camel? The first camels were shipped to Australia in 1840 and breeding camel farms began cropping up in the 1860s. The country, colonized at that time by Brits, brought over camels and immigrants from the Pathan tribes of present-day Pakistan (then known as British India). Because the national rail system didn’t arrive in Alice Springs until 1929, camels were often the ride of choice. When the railroad was built, many camel breeders relocated to Alice Springs and established farms. With the arrival of modern transportation, camels fell out of favor and whole herds were released into the wild. A pack of over 200,000 feral camels now roams the Australian Interior.
The Camel Cup (officially the “Lasseters Camel Cup”) always takes place on the second Saturday in July, with Blatherskite Park opening at 10:30 am before the parade of camels and their jockeys. Then it’s a series of races between noon and 4pm. Events include traditional man-on-camel races, rickshaw races where two people sit while the rickshaw is pulled by two other people (then they switch positions halfway around), children’s races (don’t worry, the kids aren’t racing camels, they’re on foot riding wooden hobby-camels), the “Honeymoon Handicap” where the rider has to pick his wife up along the race course, and assorted interstitial events like belly-dancing to keep the crowd entertained. Add food stalls, a weekend day with families, and it all has the feeling of a county fair.
The highlight of the day is the actual camel races. Camels, not known for their outgoing personality traits, can be stubborn. In fact, the official rules of the race read:
19. (a) Troublesome camels in the start will be moved to the rear and outside of the track on the field for a sitting or standing start at the discretion of the starter.
(b) If camel is still sitting down at the starting line when the rest of the field is racing/has raced, the rider will dismount and is encouraged to walk the camel around the track to the finish.
It’s man versus nature at its silliest, and the greatest joy comes from watching the riders struggle to control their beasts.