Starting out 20 years ago with a few locals sending wild camels down a dirt track, the annual Boulia Camel Races has grown into a huge, official spectacle overseen by Racing Queensland.
STORY + PHOTOS: KEN EASTWOOD
Mick Johnstone is extremely nervous. His heart is pounding, hands are sweaty, and he’s actually dry-retching. It isn’t a new feeling for Mick. For the past 10 years the Charleville council worker been a camel handler for champion camel jockey and trainer Glenda Sutton, and he’s joined her again on the outback Queensland camel-racing circuit, through Bedourie, Boulia, Winton and Tara. Today, at Boulia, Mick is leading Glenda’s gun four-year-old camel Hajime, a tall, dark and handsome beast, for the first race of the day. Pint-sized Glenda, in her blue and gold racing colours, sits atop the towering thing, which broke an Australian record the previous weekend, running 400m in 32.43 seconds.
Everyone involved in the sport says that handling the camels is the most dangerous job. Rather than a gated start, like horseracing, the camels are held by the handlers until the gun goes off. Then the handlers somehow scoot out of the way of the forest of tall legs. The jockeys have no reins to help steer, and the camels can be unpredictable or cantankerous, going backwards, sideways, trying to race back down the track before the gun, or even sitting down.
“Last year I got hooked up in the barriers and dragged under,” Mick says. “Once the camels see the barriers they build and build and build because they know they’re about to start running. I’ve been carried halfway up the track just to try to stop one camel from running.”
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Handlers scoot out of the way as another race gets underway at the Boulia Camel Races in July.; Glenda Sutton lavishes love on Kumite; the novelty camel tagging event; INTRO: Congo Red, one of Glenda Sutton’s racing camels.
Tiny clouds of red dust float up from camel hooves as they walk down the track to the start of this first race. In most camel racing carnivals, 400 or 600m events are the order of the day, but at Boulia, events include 1000m races and the cup final is the longest camel race in Australia – an exciting 1500m event, nicknamed the Melbourne Cup of camel racing.
Before each race, the handlers lead the camels – with the jockey on a small saddle behind the hump that looks like he or she is almost falling off the animal’s rear end – from the finish line to the starting barriers. The camels then supposedly know where to go. “Basically they’re running back to home,” Glenda says. “You can’t slow them down, you can’t steer. You’re monitoring – are they slowing down? Talking to them. Body control, using your legs and whip. You’re trying to take all the shock in your own legs – you don’t want to be rolling around up there. But with the young ones, you’re hoping to just get through safely.”
“At the starts I think we all become Christians – we pray so hard,” says local part-time camel trainer Dannileah ‘Danni’ Stewart. She got kicked in the chest by a camel at last year’s races, breaking a rib. “Some people call them wild, but they just want to run.” Danni holds down several jobs in Boulia, working in the council offices and after that, cleaning all six council buildings, but in her spare time enjoys working with and training her three camels.
“I love this,” she says. “It’s a break away from work.”
Like the other races on the circuit, the Boulia races are now official Racing Queensland events, with legalised gambling, so are attended by official stewards. Protocols on the track are serious, with breath-testing and an ambulance in attendance for every race. As the camels in this first race approach the starting gate, many in the crowd of 3000 put down their last bets, optimistically throwing away their $10 or $20 on camels with long odds (rather than the favourites, which win 11 out of 12 races, according to the bookies).
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Trainer Rod Sansom holds Razorback Jack, with Chontelle Jannese aboard; 17-year-old Tiana Taratoa, of Charleville, Qld.; Julie Woodhouse, with her Vintage or not stall;
The camels are jumpy at the barriers, with one bellowing and growling, and Hajime swings Mick to the ground, drags him under the running rails, then sits down and refuses to move. “There was a lot of movement of camels in the barriers – camels clanging and banging,” Mick says later. “I looked up at Glenda and her eyes were that wide.”
But finally starter Anthony Britton gets the race underway, and most of the camels lope down the track in the right direction. Hajime romps over in first place, completing the 400m in about 35 seconds. Glenda collects the $400 prize and yet another blue ribbon to add to the huge stash in her truck. Renowned as the most serious competitor on the circuit, Glenda – who spends months preparing her camels and has the double workload of both trainer and jockey – has collected some $250,000 in prize money over 20 years of racing camels, both in Australia and in the United Arab Emirates, winning more than 250 races and 40 cups. Based in Shepparton, Vic, she has won the 1500m cup at Boulia four times. “When I die I want my ashes put on the Boulia racetrack because so many good things have happened to me here,” she says.
But with a soft heart for camels on stations that are suffering from ricketts or malnutrition, or rescuing camels from the meatworks, most of her prize money goes back into looking after camels. “When you see them crippled and struggling, and their legs collapse, it’s heartbreaking,” Glenda says. “But I own 18 camels and I can’t keep rescuing more.”
One of the six camels she has at these races, called Kumite (which means ‘fight’), was rescued on one station. “He’s a bit of a miracle,” she says. “He was emaciated when I got him.”
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: the 2019 Boulia Camel Cup; handler Peter Towle holds Oakfield Ranch camel Sugar; the ‘Honey Badger’ himself, Nick Cummins, competently rides Dolly in the special 400m Honey Badger sprint;
A committee of just three committed locals – Anthony Britton, Shelley Norton and Bec Britton – organise this huge event, which is the biggest thing in Boulia all year. It’s been washed out three times, and the racecourse was underwater in late March this year as the Burke River flooded, but recovered in time to have one of the biggest crowds ever at the July event.
Manager of community services at Boulia, Julie Woodhouse, has been involved with the races since they started 20 years ago. “The camel races are the best thing that ever happened to Boulia,” she says, as some of the 3000 visitors pass by her ‘Vintage or not’ stall outside her house, beside the racetrack. In the 300-person town – which is halfway between Birdsville and Mount Isa – the supermarket and service station shelves have been almost emptied, the caravan park, pub and motel are booked out and the Min Min Encounter has had more than 100 visitors a day. “The event has grown every year,” she says. In the past four years visitor numbers have soared as tourists go from the Big Red Bash at Birdsville directly to the races.
Julie says not everyone in the town was convinced the races were a good idea when they started. “The opposition to it was unreal,” she says. “Local graziers threatened to shoot the camels and the local racing committee wasn’t going to let us use the track. But time just eases everything, and they saw how good it was and what it brought to the town.”
ABOVE: Glenda Sutton brings home Kumite, foam streaming from his mouth.
In the early days, the camels were mustered from the wild only a few days before the event, and half of them didn’t even make it down the straight. Julie’s son, Tom, manager of Pathungra station, which runs 1000 or so Droughtmaster cows, says he preferred things back then. “It was a lot more fun,” he says. “It’s just a lot more serious now.”
Tom musters 40–50 wild camels a year. He runs camel rides at the event, puts a couple of camels in the races and sells some after they’ve been involved in the novelty ‘camel tagging’ competition. The rest go to the meatworks. “This is just a hobby for six weeks – it’s something a bit different. A bit of fun,” he says.
Later in the day his wife Kyrraley, who is jockeying one of their camels, gets tossed off at the start, landing awkwardly on her leg. But she gives the thumbs up as she is placed in the ambulance, and is back on her feet within the hour. “She’s alright,” he says. “You’ve got to be tough out here. Tough or silly. That’s why I married her.”
Most of the visitors to the races don’t do it too tough. The luxurious motorhomes in the sprawling, impromptu city by the racetrack are well set up, and this year huge bell glamping tents were added to the accommodation options. Between races, visitors are entertained by whip-cracking displays, novelty events or camp-cooking demonstrations by Ranger Nick, and at night live music rings out until midnight. Leaning on a railing, jockeys 48-year-old Chris Massey and former bull rider Mathew Wilson are chatting. Mathew came second last in his race. “At least you finished,” Chris says. When asked how he is going to go in the next race, Chris laconically replies, “Forwards, I reckon”.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: injured jockey Kyrraley Woodhouse gives the thumbs up - no-one has been seriously injured in any Qld camel race this year; the crowd watches the camels down the straight; Tiana Taratoa wins her heat on Wason, the eventual cup winner;
Over at the biggest camel camp, members of Rod Sansom’s team – in red – are laughing and joking around a camp fire. Rod has 50 camels at home for his business running camel rides on Stockton Beach near Newcastle, and for the past nine years has gathered a large crew of mates from far and wide for the camel-racing circuit. His star jockey is Chontelle Jannese, a long, red-haired former health worker from Gulgong, NSW, who won all eight races she was in at Boulia last year – including the cup final – and is recovering after her last win with a coconut water and a cigarette. “I know the crowd thinks camel racing is a bit of a joke, but it can be dangerous up there,” she says. “You’re on top of a lot of power. The secret to winning is good camels – fit, well-trained camels. You have to get to know each camel – each one is a bit different. Some are better if you talk to them, some are better if you kick them along; some we whip, some we don’t. Some I sing to.”
On the Sunday, as the trainers, handlers and jockeys prepare for the 1500m cup, Danni gives instructions to her 17-year-old jockey Tiana Taratoa. Tiana is Mick’s daughter and began racing camels just two years ago. For the cup she’ll be on the big champion Wason, who won the 1000m final last year. Wason tends to slow down for the other camels if he’s in front, so Danni advises her to take it easy until the last 600m, then to “sool him” home.
After the long walk out to the start on the far side of the track, the camels finally settle and the gun goes off at high noon. One camel stops after a few hundred metres and turns around to go the other way. Wason slows right down to a walking pace for a while. Then some of Rod’s camels begin to kick in – Uncle Pete, Bob and Dolly. And then Wason seems to wake up, and there’s a great race down the straight, with Tiana – her helmet almost falling down over her eyes and a huge smile on her face – crossing the line first.
Danni, who as the handler in this race was at the starting barriers and didn’t even get to see the finish, is overjoyed when she catches up with Tiana and Wason, and receives the $4000 first prize. Beaming Tiana gives her the credit for training Wason and her other camels so well. “It was a big run for him,” Danni says. “He’s getting his hugs and kisses now, so he knows he’s done really well. He is going to get extra feed tonight.”
The next day, most of the travelling camel crews take a day off, before travelling to the next event. But Danni, the Boulia Cup-winning trainer, is back at her day jobs in Boulia – a true local champion.
LEFT: Ranger Nick; RIGHT: one of three hardworking organisers, Shelley Norton.
This story is from Outback Magazine: OCT/NOV 2019 Issue #127
GET A TASTE OF OUTBACK LIFE
We have handpicked a selection of articles that will immerse you in real Australian people, places, animals and issues. Come back regularly as we will be adding new articles fortnightly. Or, alternatively you can subscribe to have it delivered directly to you.