I’m so delighted – and a tad surprised – to hear Neil Waters and his trusty camel Othello have won the 2009 Camel Cup in Alice Springs. Surprised because he told me six years ago that he was too old for it and was going to retire. He was, even then, a fair age for such a rough sport but they make ‘em tough in outback Australia.
I’m so tickled to hear he is still racing, I have hunted around in my archives and found the story I wrote about him back in 2003… I hope you enjoy ‘meeting’ him as much as I did.
Neil Waters reckons he might be getting a bit old for the vigorous sport of camel racing. The wily bushman and hardy camel jockey, who is a veteran of Alice Springs’ crazy Camel Cup, says he’s thinking about retiring.
“I’ve been thinking about it for the last four years,” he says, scratching the ears of a much-loved camel. “After a week of whingeing and moaning about how sore I am, I say I’m never going to do it again. But then I forget!”
Neil concedes, with a grin, that he’ll ride again this month, as more than a dozen camels take to the track for the 2003 Camel Cup. His hopes lie with a handsome dromedary by the name of Othello, who tripped at the start line last year but almost caught the winner on the finishing line.
Neil is pretty sure he’ll be the oldest jockey in the race, but it seems few could match his experience as a cameleer. Born in outback South Australia, he started working with camels at Stuarts Well, 90 kilometres south of Alice Springs, in 1979. “It was good outside work for a young fella,” Neil says. “Back then we worked 16 hours a day but I loved it.”
Neil’s boss at Stuarts Well was local character Noel Fullerton, who had unwittingly launched the Camel Cup in 1970 by challenging another bloke at the pub to a camel race. The committee organising Alice Springs’ centenary celebrations took up the challenge and organised the race, down the dry bed of the Todd River.
In 1979, Neil went with his boss to Western Australia to race camels in Kalgoorlie, Coolgardie, Perth and Busselton as part of the state’s 150th anniversary celebrations. Coming years saw him go to places around Australia and even to the United States, to take part in exhibition races. There was no money to be won, but plenty of fun to be had. He fell off “once or twice”, but says the sandy track gave him a soft landing.
Neil and his wife Jayne later bought the Stuarts Well farm from Noel Fullerton and now run a successful tourist operation with nearly 60 camels. A dozen of those camels will line up among others for this month’s big race at Alice Springs’ Blatherskite Park, but Neil says he won’t know until the day how many will actually race.
“Blackie” has a habit of wandering off into the crowd in search of a packet of chips, while others will turn and go the wrong way or simply stand, belching, on the start line, refusing to move. “The race is still just a good fun day,” says Neil. “You get a few snarly camels that don’t want to do it, but that’s all part of the fun.”
Neil says the camel to beat will be “Bazza”, who is owned by another Alice Springs cameleer. Baz is one of those camels that genuinely loves to race, working himself up into a frenzy on the start line. “They wind themselves up and get all excited,” Neil says. “When they’re like that, they’re hard to beat.”
Talking to Neil as he tends his camels, it is clear that he has a genuine affection for the knobbly-kneed creatures. On any other topic, he is a man of few words, but he can talk about camels for hours. “They’re just a great animal, hard as nails, but really pretty soft,” he says. “They can carry huge loads. A horse would go sulking on you, a horse would give up, but a camel will never give up.”
Neil recently discovered that he had relatives who used camels to cart wool in South Australia in the 1800s. He desperately wishes he could share his stories and hear their tales. “You find these things out after you’ve got no one to talk to about them,” he says.
Neil’s wife Jayne, who shares his passion for camels, arrived on the scene eight years ago, as an English tourist. She went on a couple of safaris and fell in love … Neil is not sure if it was with him or the camels. “It was probably the camels,” he laughs.
Jayne also got into racing, competing in numerous races before a fall prompted her to retire. Neil says there are a “a few sheilas” who take part in the Camel Cup and a few have won over the years. “Last year was a bloke, but I think the year before that was a sheila,” he says.
Unlike horse racing, camel jockeys don’t have to be light – “you should see some of the American blokes!” – and while the rules say only experienced riders can take part, Neil reckons everyone is an amateur. “What can you teach people about a galloping camel?” he asks.
Copyright Jane E. Fraser