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Dingbats Down Under
Wednesday, December 17, 2008 • Posted December 17, 2008

While my friend, T.J. Greaney, and I were visiting recently, he mentioned that Australia has a feral camel problem. At first I thought old T.J. was just yanking my chain, which happens frequently. Not that T.J. lies particularly but, like me, he doesn’t make a habit of letting facts get in the way of a good story.

T.J. used to have a program on a radio station in Austin, which ran for an hour or so every Saturday morning. Sometimes he had me as a guest on the show. Several years ago, on April first, he had me call in as a shark expert, because the show was about a fictitious fish farm at Lake Travis that was supposedly raising great white sharks for local restaurants, and the story was that a gate had malfunctioned and the sharks had gotten loose in the lake. This being Texas, people were calling in, wanting to know what kind of bait would attract sharks.

So when T.J. mentioned feral camels in Australia, I was skeptical. As it turns out, he wasn’t kidding. Here’s what happened.

The first camel came to Australia in 1840. It somehow caused its owner’s death, and was shot. Dead. The camels have been trying to get back at the Australians ever since.

The next time camels were brought to the continent was in 1860, when 24 of them were shipped in from the Canary Islands to be used in the Bourke and Wills expedition. During the next fifty years about 12,000 camels were imported, mostly dromedaries, which have one hump. The Australian climate suited them very well, and they were used for transportation until trains and automobiles took over the job.

When that happened, a lot of camels were suddenly unemployed, and many of them were turned loose by their owners. And since the country agreed with them so well, the camels have proliferated abundantly. Officials estimate there are at least 600,000 wild camels in Australia, maybe as many as a million. That’s a lot of camels.

Out of 350 varieties of plants that grow in Australia, camels eat 325 of them. Unfortunately, some of these plants are crops. But camels need water, too. They’ve started going into communities to get to water faucets, wells, and air conditioners, and often ruin water troughs and water holes made for cattle. On some ranches up to 80% of the operating expense goes to repairs of camel damage. And that doesn’t even take into account the havoc the camels have caused in national parks and Aboriginal sacred sites.

So feral camels are a serious problem in Australia, but this is not the first time the Aussies have had to deal with something like this. Kangaroos have been pests down there for many years. The locals have started dealing with the camels the same way they’ve always dealt with the ‘roos.’ They shoot them. This, no doubt, upsets the enviroweenies, but Aussies are down-to-earth, pragmatic folks. They don’t care.

They are also witty and sarcastic. Several years ago a friend sent me a list of questions the Australian Tourist Bureau has received, and their answers. I have been trying to work these into a column ever since, and this is the first time I’ve had the chance.

Q – Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? (from USA)

A – Depends how much you’ve been drinking.

Q - I want to walk from Perth to Sydney - can I follow the railroad tracks? (Sweden)

A – Sure, it’s only 3,000 miles. Take lots of water.

Q – Is it safe to run around in the bushes in Australia? (Sweden)

A – So it’s true what they say about Swedes.

Q – Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia? (USA)

A – A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe. Aus-tra-lia is that big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not . . . oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday in Kings Cross. Come naked.

Q – Which direction is north in Australia? (USA, and my personal favorite)

A – Face south and then turn 180 degrees. Contact us when you get here and we’ll send the rest of the directions.

Q – Can I bring Cutlery into Australia? (UK)

A – Why? Just use your fingers like we do.

Q – Can you send me the Vienna Boys’ Choir schedule? (USA)

A – Aus-tri-a is that quaint little country bordering Ger-man-y, which is . . . oh forget it. Sure, the Vienna Boys Choir plays every Tuesday night in Kings Cross, straight after the hippo races. Come naked.

Q – Please send a list of all doctors in Australia who can dispense rattlesnake serum. (USA)

A – Rattlesnakes live in A-mer-i-ca which is where YOU come from. All Australian snakes are perfectly harmless, can be safely handled and make good pets.

Q – I have a question about a famous animal in Australia, but I forget its name. It’s a kind of bear and lives in trees. (USA)

A – It’s called a Drop Bear. They are so called because they drop out of Gum trees and eat the brains of anyone walking underneath them. You can scare them off by spraying yourself with human urine before you go out walking.

Q – Do you have perfume in Australia? (France, and my personal favorite)

A – No, WE don’t stink.

Q – Do you celebrate Christmas in Australia? (France)

A – Only at Christmas.

Q – Will I be able to speak English most places I go? (USA)

A – Yes, but you’ll have to learn it first.

Besides smart aleck tourist info clerks, Australia has lots of other interesting animals you won’t find anywhere else, such as Tasmanian devils, quolls, tree kangaroos, wombats, koalas (drop bears), and dingos, which are wild dogs, like Chihuahuas or something. As I understand it, the state has plans to conduct some scientific experiments to see if the wombats will interbreed with the dingos. If this is successful, they plan to call the new hybrid the dingbat, in honor of the wonderful folks around the world who send questions in to their tourism website . . .

Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who plans to visit Aus-tra-lia someday to bowhunt feral goats. Really. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or jeep@verizon.net

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