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Here's what happens at the annual Uluru Camel Cup

We have a sneaking suspicion that this is the best camel race on Earth.

By Georgia Rickard
Published: 29 May, 2017

The sky is bright blue. The earth is brilliant red. In the distance is one of the most world’s recognisable icons – but no one’s looking at it. Uluru might normally be the show-stopper around these parts but for one weekend of the year, when the annual Uluru Camel Cup comes to town, all eyes turn to the race of the season.

The Uluru Camel Cup just might be Australia’s most underrated sporting event. Each year, over a raucous weekend of camel racing, parties and good humour, this colourful outback festival sees local camels race the length of an outback track to determines the year’s champion camel. Some camels are born athletes. Others aren’t even interested in running. But all of them receive rewarding pats when they reach the end of the track – and at the end of the day, one lucky camel trots away as winner of the annual Uluru Camel Cup.

Queens of the desert

Camel Train Tour, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Red Centre, Northern Territory

Australia has a unique history with camels. With their immense strength and capacity for surviving desert conditions, these lovely animals were first brought to Australia in the 1800s to help explorers establish infrastructure in the country’s dry inland deserts. By the mid 1900s however, their services were no longer needed and sadly, the government issued an order for all remaining animals to be shot. What it hadn’t counted on, however, was how much Australia’s cameleers loved their animals, who secretly arranged for dozens of the camels to be let loose in the desert. The camels flourished in Australia’s outback; today, Australia is the only place with a wild dromedary (single hump) camel population on Earth.

Rides at the rock

Uluru Camel Tours, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory

It was an Australian named Chris Hill who came up with the idea of the Uluru Camel Cup. A passionate cameleer (and we mean passionate – Chris had tracked across every major desert in Australia on a camel’s back before he had turned 21), Chris runs Uluru Camel Tours at his unique outback farm. When you visit Uluru, it’s practically a requisite that you experience a camel ride here – there’s nothing quite like sitting atop one of these friendly, one-humped creatures as it strolls along a red-dirt track, the setting sun lighting up the sky, with that famous rock just 11 kilometres (seven miles) away on the glowing horizon. Chris created a purpose-built track for racing, and launched the first annual cup in 2011.

The bucks’ party

Uluru Camel Cup, Yulara, Northern Territory

Not just any camel gets to participate in the Uluru Camel Cup. The average camel has the intelligence of a 12-year-old human according to Chris, and some simply turn up their nose and refuse to take part in such a frivolous exercise. (“They’re like big kids,” he explains. “They have different personalities and different needs. Each even has its own custom-made personal saddle.”) Only camels who seem to enjoy racing are entered into the racing heats; each camel is ridden by a member of the Uluru Camel Tours staff (all trained cameleers). The cup is a time when the camels “let loose”, says Chris. “They know that the days proceedings are out of their normal schedule, and a lot of them get a bit silly during the race – pig rooting, misbehaving and bucking their way down the track with jockeys on their backs. It’s a real sight.”

The night before hump day

Uluru Camel Cup, Yulara, Northern Territory

The night before the race begins visitors gather to attend the Camel Calcutta, where rights to each competing camel are auctioned off to the highest bidder. Whoever wins each camel is then in the running to win a portion of the prize money, if their camel places in the final cup. Human winners often celebrate their victory with a beer, while the winning camel is treated to an extra tasty type of hay.

Getting off track

Fashions on the Field, Uluru Camel Cup, Yulara, Northern Territory

But the best part of the Uluru Camel Cup is what happens off the track. Over the course of the day, as camels run their heats, you’ll find plenty of activity and atmosphere to enjoy: including kids’ games (sack races, egg and spoon races, wheelbarrow races), camel petting, live music and a Fashions on the Field competition. “People dress up, there’s a lot of banter, and at this time of year the weather is just lovely – bright and sunny but not too hot.” In the evening, the farm is transformed into the setting for an outback ball. “It’s called the ‘Frock Up and Rock Up’ ball but people have different ideas about what ‘frock up’ means,” Chris laughs. “Some wear stilettos and evening gowns; others come in stubby shorts and thongs [that’s Australian for ‘flip flops’].” Whatever you wear, however, it’s guaranteed you’ll enjoy yourself. “The entire weekend is a good time.” 

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