The hours tick by slowly when you’re driving Australia’s Stuart Highway. Named after the 19th-Century explorer John McDouall Stuart, who was the first European to successfully traverse the continent from sea to sea and back again, the road broadly follows the route of his marathon journey.
It’s 2,834km long; a near-endless spool of bitumen stretching from Port Augusta in the south to Darwin in the north, crossing what is largely open wilderness. They call it, with some understatement, ‘The Track’.
I knew to expect occasional wildlife, and sure enough the emptiness of the plains was sporadically broken up by the presence of the kind of climate-hardened animals Australia is famous for.
There were kangaroos gazing blankly into the distance and wedge-tailed eagles hunkered over roadkill. On one occasion a dingo – a sandy-coloured wild dog – appeared out in the scrub, lean and wiry in the heat. I slept in the little outback towns that dot the route.
Then, three days in, I saw a camel.
More than 1 million feral camels roam the Australian outback (Credit: Posnov/Getty Images)
I looked online that evening to make sure I hadn’t been hallucinating. Camels, you understand, are about as Australian as polar bears. Or rather, that used to be true. It turned out I’d just been ill-informed – and to a colossal degree.
The outback was, and is, home to an extraordinary number of wild camels. The government-supported website Feral Scan, which monitors invasive species, puts the current number at between 1 and 1.2 million, with this amount reportedly doubling every eight or nine years.
It’s a wonder, frankly, that the highway isn’t one continuous camel parade. So how on Earth did such a huge number of non-native animals come to be here?
The answer begins back in the pioneering days of characters like Stuart. To start with, there’s one crucial thing that needs to be understood about Australia’s outback. It’s big, in every direction. Very big.
This is a mighty obvious statement, but it’s the absolute essence of what makes the outback the outback. The region covers more than 6 million sq km, or an area almost twice the size of India. Out here, the horizons are just precursors to more horizons.
The outback covers more than 6 million sq km, making it nearly twice the size of India. When parts of coastal Australia were settled by the British from the late 1700s onwards, the colonial thinking of the day meant that a fuller exploration and understanding of this vast landmass became seen as a necessity.
Indigenous people had lived here for tens of thousands of years – adapting, surviving, reading the land – but for newly arrived Europeans, the interior was a sun-scorched, unknowable expanse.