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Burke & Wills camels 1860

Camel Heritage

Camels of the Burke and Wills Expedition at Royal Park, Melbourne, 1860.

As an Australian science entity, Australian Desert Expeditions (ADE) is totally unique, as technically we have a heritage that stretches back to when camels were brought to Australia for the Burke & Wills Expedition - the first camel-borne scientific expedition - 163 years ago.

Yes, there are various 'camel riding' tourist operations around the country but ADE has the only camel team still walking and exploring the remote Australian deserts and we are proud to continue a great cultural legacy - the last living heritage to the 'Afghan' cameleers who contributed greatly to the exploration and development of inland Australia. Indeed, this 'exploration cultural heritage' is an extremely strong thread in our scientific expeditions, as without the camels and the skills of the cameleers, we couldn't operate our surveys and thus continue to add to Australia's desert knowledge, including that of our First Nations people.

Prior to 1860 horses were used for major inland explorations and as the explorers encountered the great deserts it was very quickly realised that camels would be the only way to effectively explore the continent as they would be best suited to the dry arid conditions.

Even though camels had first been brought to the country beforehand in 1840, it was not until the Royal Society of Victoria instructed that camels be brought from the sub continent for the Victorian Exploring Expedition (later officially renamed the Burke & Wills Expedition).

Burke & Wills departure

The Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition, Departure of the Expedition by A.H. Massina & Co

The primary purpose of the 1860/61 Burke & Wills Expedition was to find a way north to the Gulf and thus become the first exploring party to succeed in crossing Australia, which would open up 'new country' for settlement and cementing the colony of Victoria as the pre-eminent outpost on the continent. It is also often forgotten that there was a substantial scientific legacy of the expedition.


Although Burke & Wills succeeded in crossing the country, the expedition ultimately ended in disaster on the return journey as a combination of ill-timing and incompetence resulted in the deaths of several of the party including both Burke & Wills themselves at Cooper Creek in South Australia in April 1861.

Burke and Wills portraits

Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, 1862. National Library of Australia nla.obj-135907470

Nevertheless, the value of camel based exploring was guaranteed and exploration of Australia by the 1890's was of a completely different nature from that of the preceding decades. The last unknown areas were now being closed in and the overall approach was changing to scientific research.


There were several major explorations using packcamels, the most notable being:
•    Elder Scientific Exploring Expedition 1891/92
•    1894 Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition
•    The 1896 Horn Scientific Expedition
•    Cecil Madigan's 1939 Simpson Desert Expedition

Private sources were also by then playing a considerable role in providing funding.


  • John McDouall Stuart's expeditions were backed, in whole or in part, by Chambers and Finke (after whom the central Australian landmark and town are named respectively).

  • John Forrest's expeditions were supported by a mixture of government funding, private donations and grants from scientific societies.

  • Peter Egerton-Warburton was financed by Sir Thomas Elder, who also provided the camels for both his and Ernest Giles expeditions.

  • Giles' five expeditions were funded by himself and his brother-in-law. Ferdinand von Mueller, and the South Australian Government.*

Madigan's scientific expedition across what was then unofficially called the Great Sand Ridge Desert was supported by Allen Simpson, the then President of the Royal Geographical Society in Adelaide, and a major financial backer of Madigan's work. Madigan named the area the Simpson Desert and the expedition contributed greatly to the scientific and popular understanding of this huge wilderness.


It's interesting to note that every year ADE continues to mount a modern day equivalent to the 1939 expedition, crossing the great dune field and alongside the vast salt lakes, collecting more scientific data than Madigan could ever have thought possible. And we use exactly the same mode of transport. 


Though still officially called the Simpson Desert today, two of the national parks in South Australia and Queensland, share the name with Munga-Thirri, or 'Big Sandhill Country'.

Madigan 1939
Madigan 1939
Madigan Expedition 1939
Madigan Expedition 1939

Cecil Madigan's 1939 Simpson Desert Expedition

Camels descending a dune

Our camels on a dune crest in the northeastern Simpson Desert

ADE 2008 Expedition

Our 2008 Archaeological Expedition on the move in the eastern Simpson Desert

The success of our inaugural expedition - the 2007 Arid Rivers Expedition - exposed the obvious need for dedicated research expeditions to explore and document those areas of the map that are never surveyed or ground-truthed by scientists or ecologists.

Camels carrying a boat

Early expeditions were prepared for anything. At the time it was believed there was an inland sea on the Australian continent.

Photo - Australian Inland Mission

Bejah Dervish

Bejah Dervish at Mullewa, WA,

leaving for the Calvert Expedition in 1896

Cameleer in Queensland 1910

Cameleer, Queensland, circa 1910

Alfred Canning circ 1901 NLA.png

Alfred Canning's expedition, WA, 1901

National Library of Australia

Camel coming ashore at Port Augusta

A shipment of camels arriving at Port Augusta, circa 1920 Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia: B 68916

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