Ever wonder if that must-do experience your mates tell you about will actually measure up? Fleur Bainger sets out to see whether a Broome camel ride is all it’s cracked up to be.

We’ve all heard it. The insistent tones, the urging enthusiasm. “You’re going to Broome? Oh! You’ve GOT to do a camel ride on Cable Beach at sunset – it’s the BEST!”

The best, eh? But is it? Is the most raved-about experience on one of Australia’s most famous beaches also going to be the biggest tourist trap this side of the Nullarbor? Will it, just maybe, be a massive beat-up that’s going to disappoint all expectations and leave me feeling like I need to take a shower?

Clearly, there’s only one way to find out.

There are three camel operators in Broome, and in trying to choose one I discover that they endure what could be best described as a frosty coexistence. The long-running so-called “camel wars” reached a truce in February 2011 after years of feuding over camel licences involving public acrimony, slashed tyres, nude photos and even – shock, horror – the throwing of camel dung. After one court ruling allowed all operators the right to conduct business, and another convicted a former cameleer of theft and burglary with a sizeable fine to boot, peace seems to have been restored.

I settle on Ships of the Desert, for no reason other than it claims to be Broome’s original tour operator and, with a different owner, I figure any disputes have been shoved in the “glad that’s over” files.

Booking my spot atop a loping camel turns out to be harder than I expected. With no booking mechanism on their website, I email a request. But after a three-word response checking the date I want, I get no confirmation and I wonder if I’m on board or not. I phone and leave a message once I touch down in the resort town. With still no reply, I call one last time at about 4.10pm. “Yep, we’re about to go in 10 minutes,” I’m told by the woman who finally picks up the phone. “We’ll wait for you, so you could probably get here in 20.”

I’m not sure if her arithmetic is out or if this is my introduction to Broome Time. I bolt.

I arrive, breathless, sandals in one hand and camera in the other. Most people are on their camels already, two apiece. I hoist myself up onto one of the largest camels, Indi, second from the leader. Before I know it I’m being swung around in a mid-air horizontal loop as Indi unravels her long limbs, concertinaed beneath her.

Camels have a reputation for surly behaviour, but these ones are unusually cordial, with no nips, snorts or bellows. Their only vice is some wayward walking, turning our long conga line into squiggles. Equally surprising is that there’s no commentary from the camel shepherds – who, incidentally, all have American/Canadian/UK accents.

After 10 silent minutes of labouring along on the dune side of wide Cable Beach and watching another daisy chain of tourist topped camels stroll along the waterline, I grasp the U-shaped safety rail protruding from the saddle in front of me and wonder if a shorter ride might have sufficed. Perhaps I should’ve booked the half-hour cruise, which runs earlier in the day, and sacrificed the sunset?

But there’s something soothing about the rhythmic pace. It calms a racing mind, and given there’s little else to do, I start to appreciate the simplicity of the surrounds.

For the first time in a while, peace settles on my shoulders. As I muse, the sun releases itself from behind a cloud, and those iconic camel-shaped shadows are projected on the flat sand, activating a flurry of shutters as amateur photographers try to capture the magical sight. That’s a bucket-list tick right there.

By the time our camels become silhouettes we are about-turned in a graceful circle, and led back along the water’s edge while the plunging disc turns the sky a pastel pink and clouds reflect in the table-top ocean. By this stage I’m thoroughly enjoying myself, lost in thoughts and staring out to the horizon. I’ve stopped mentally repeating the list of things I have to do, worrying about the work I’ve just handed in and whether my photos capture these idyllic moments. It’s all forgotten; I no longer care. And that’s when it dawns on me that this slow camel ride is the perfect way to be drawn into the carefree pace and nonchalant, almost blasé attitude embraced by Broome’s inhabitants. Without me noticing, my circadian rhythm has been reset to Broome Time, as the locals refer to it, and I no longer crave the constant stimulation I’ve been conditioned to expect.

While the earth doesn’t move beneath me metaphorically, it does literally, and somehow it is the ideal introduction to Broome.

Fleur Bainger, who paid her own way and visited anonymously, says:
“Initially, I was unimpressed. But once I settled in to the slow pace and wound down enough to appreciate the simple beauty around me, I could’ve sat on that camel back forever. You pay more to go at sunset, but it’s worth it.”

The Details:
Where: Ships of the Desert Camel Tours depart from the northern end of Cable Beach, Broome. You have to pick your way through scattered boulders to get there. See the map and directions on its website.
Notes: Camel tours depart in the morning for 40 minutes, (adults $40, children $30); in the afternoon for half an hour, (adults $30, children $20); and for an hour at sunset, (adults $65, children $45). Call ahead for departure times as they vary depending on the tides and sunset.
Contact: 0419 954 022; www.shipsofthedesert.com.au


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