Walking with Dingoes
Monday morning at 5.45, laying on my back in my swag, I watch the International Space Station soar overhead, trailed by a NASA shuttle, the two dots brilliant in the sunlight that down here has yet to rise. Butcher birds are calling much more closely overhead. Their name is derived from the fact that they will catch and impale insects, lizards, and even smaller birds upside down on thorns of small branches and then peel the flesh from them. It's a truism that the desert breeds innovative survival techniques all up and down the evolutionary spectrum, whether it's stripping the carcasses of road kill, automobiles, failed settlements, or your live prey.
We start driving at nine, and pass a party of three vehicles coming out of the park, the only other people we see all day, save another solitary SUV with a couple inside. Bedell's road continues to thread the dunes until we break up and out into more open country. I'm struck by how the country changes every few minutes, from red dirt to white rock to red sand to brown rock--from grass to Spinifex to gums to desert oak. No wonder Aboriginal paintings of country sometimes look like a patchwork quilt.
Turning north, we come over a low saddle between two hills, and of course the guys have to stop to climb the high ground to take photos. I clamber up the nearest one, then scramble down the other side to walk down the road ahead of the others. Driving becomes a frame through which you see your surroundings, and the vehicle, even as it allows you to gulp down great draughts of the landscape, forces you into a synoptic experience. I need to feel the texture of the sand underfoot, feel the air on my skin, and get some unmitigated sunshine.
Within five minutes I spot what at first looks like an abandoned and burned car off to right, then another, but they turn out to be two dead camels. I stop to look and literally at my feet are two brass cartridge casings--two shots, two camels--the instrument of their demise a .308 calibre rifle. Camels in the park are culled because they compete with native animals for forage, and sometimes fall in and foul waterholes. The culling is part of Australia's constant battle against invaders, and I'm sympathetic, but it's still tough to witness the remains. I trudge over to see the carcasses and scare off a dozen large crows feasting on bloated and blackened remains. Two tawny dingoes are orbiting the scene and I keep an eye on them. They're thin but not scrawny, alert, and their paws seem hardly to touch the ground, so lightly do they walk.
The head of the first camel is pulled back on its long neck in a harsh rictus, lips shrunken back, jaws spread wide apart and twisted impossibly. The extreme heat our here explodes quartz boulders; what it does to a carcass is surreal. I take notes, the dingoes watching. Clumps of coarse camel hair are caught in bushes at ground level. I crouch down to look, finger the long bristles, still keeping the dingoes in view. They've moved in a little closer, and as I stand they stop about three metres away, the male on one side, the female on the other. Alright, I think to myself. Let's see how this goes. I ask politely if they would care to accompany me. They cock their heads. I walk toward the road. They follow. OK, then.
I regain the dirt road, the two dingoes following at a steady three metres to either side. I have no idea what they're up to, but enjoy the company. As we walk, I realize that every hundred yards or so there is either a camel carcass, or a skeleton, or a scatter of bones. There are hundreds of slaughtered camels in the landscape in various stages of decomposition. And on the other side of this grim avenue live camels are wandering in small packs, seemingly unconcerned with my passage and that of the dingoes. Australia has so many camels--perhaps 600,000 total with fifty per cent of them in WA--that it exports them to the Middle East. Camel racers there fancy them, and the Saudis have pleaded with the Australians to stop culling the animals that they prize. Like I said, the issue of invasive species is complicated when you start looking at them globally.
At one point the two dingoes come to a stop and fix their gazes to our left. What is it, I ask. Then I see another dingo watching us from atop a small rise. As soon as I look directly at it, the animal slinks back into the scenery and we three continue. About fifteen minutes from the first pair of dead camels, they stop. I stop. Saying here? I ask. They blink. I give thanks and continue on. A couple seconds later I turn to catch a last glimpse, but they've already melted invisibly into the bush. The dingoes, an iconic symbol of the continent, aren't exactly natives either, but immigrants brought here some 4,000 years ago by seafarers from Southeast Asia. Thought to be distant descendants of the Asian Gray Wolf, it's theorised that they are responsible for the disappearance of the Thylacine on the mainland, among other large fauna. The world is a constant turmoil of displacement, replacement, emplacement.