"Good Camel, Rip, champion camel," cooed writer Derek Grzelewski as he reached for the reins of the 1,500-pound animal. "In that instant," he writes, "Rip lashed out at me, baring her large teeth ferociously, green slimy cud dripping from her enormous lips. I sprang back in horror and tripped over the saddle." It wasn't until a week into his month long camel-trekking trip that he finally realized that Rip and the other camels' lashing attacks and tooth-baring displays were mostly bluffs. To inaugurate Smithsonian's new travel section, Smithsonian Journeys, the writer joined seven urbanites and took a trip deep into the Australian outback with the Outback Camel Company. A month spent at close quarters brought him profound admiration for these large "ships of the desert."
Imported from Asia, one-humped camels, or dromedaries, became the go-anywhere jeeps and trucks of the 19th and early 20th centuries, lending their humps and muscle power to build Australia. Dromedaries proved indispensable to early parties of explorers, such as the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, which packed 60 gallons of rum just for their animals. Eventually, the internal combustion engine made camels redundant, and their handlers turned them loose. Today, Australia boasts a population of about 400,000 feral dromedaries. Government and private groups are looking at ways to develop a camel livestock industry.
By trip's end, Grzelewski found reward for his patience with these remarkable creatures: one evening he felt a gentle nudge from behind and turned around to find a gawky face nuzzling him for an interlude of smooching.