Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images and voices of people who have died.
During his first six months of rounding up camels, Warwick Hill got absolutely pummelled.
He is now a confident camel dairy farmer on South Australia’s Limestone Coast, but 30 years ago camels were a foreign concept to him when he first started mustering the wild animals.
The adventure started in the 1980s, when a 19-year-old Mr Hill travelled to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yunkunytjatjara Lands (APY) in the remote north-west of SA to hunt rabbits, only to find they had been decimated by the calicivirus.
Without any rabbits around, his best friend and elder, Roger Kayipipi, asked if he wanted to try catching camels.
On their first go they rounded-up a couple of big bulls using lassos and a four-wheel drive.
It was not until an expert camel handler came out to do some mustering in the lands that Mr Hill and Mr Kayipipi worked out how to break-in the wild animals using traditional tracking techniques.
“If you can stay on the track, you can find the camel,” Mr Hill said.
They learnt how to keep the camels as calm as possible by keeping the four-wheel drives and motorbikes at a distance.
“We’d have to bring them in as quickly as we could without riding them hard because they overheat and then react … you can’t get them into the yards,” Mr Hill said.
Thirty years later, Mr Hill has been running a camel dairy 2,173 kilometres from where he learnt to catch them.
He is now preparing to return to the APY Lands to muster a further 1,000 camels for an emerging camel dairy in Victoria, but it will not be an easy task.
“To find a good milking camel you’re only looking at a very small percentage,” Mr Hill said.
“Between three to five per cent of all the camels that you can catch will actually be worthwhile.”
Adopted by Aboriginal elders
Mr Hill spent 11 years living and learning from Aboriginal elders in the heart of Australia.
A rabbit shooter from Western Australia, he was sent to the APY Lands by his boss, a rabbit buyer and railway ganger in Kulgera, Northern Territory.
Mr Hill went without knowing he was entering Aboriginal territory and said permits “weren’t really required back then”.
He went on to live in the community and sell rabbits directly to the locals.
It was around then that he made the decision to learn the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara languages.
Bringing rabbits to the communities as a primary hunter gained him respect.
“That really got me in good stead and trusted, and just learning lots of firsthand stories and experiences, which I just loved, it was great,” Mr Hill said.
The elder who adopted him, Mr Kayipipi, passed away a few years ago.
Starting a camel dairy
After leaving Central Australia Mr Hill went travelling.
He was salvaging a sunken pirate ship in Timor-Leste when he met his wife, TJ, a filmmaker.
They travelled the world working on expensive yachts to fund their wanderlust.
In 2014 the pair were back in SA for what was meant to be a short stint.
Camel milk was gaining momentum in Australia and they decided to take the plunge and start a business.
In 2015 they started Humpalicious with 70 camels at SA’s Port Germein on the Spender Gulf.
But after three years getting the business up and running their landlord upped the rent and operations were no longer viable.
With a bit of help from Mr Hill’s father they bought 40 hectares at Robe, on SA’s Limestone Coast.
They have had one summer in their new home with their 50 camels, all individually named.
“It’s been tough, it’s been slow, but it’s now getting there,” Ms Hill said.
Camel milk a hard sell?
With minimal lactose and a similar level of protein to cow milk, Mr Hill does not understand why the camel product is not as accepted but he is undaunted.
“Starting a new industry where it hasn’t been proven, it’s not all laid out… that’s not for everybody,” Mr Hill said.
From the camels that are born at the farm only a quarter of them will likely produce milk.
“They’re either a good milker or they’re not,” Mr Hill said.
Back in the APY Lands, the young men Mr Hill taught to muster camels are continuing the practice.
“Those guys are now continuing to manage, and muster, and handle the camel business out in Central Australia, which is fantastic,” he said.
Despite travelling all over the world several times, Mr Hill’s love for Australia’s open land and the camels that roam it ring the loudest.
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