Friday, November 6, 2009

Klaus the Camel Man

Camels were first imported to Australia by the British and the Afghans, who – before the railroad was built -- used these creatures as to carry supplies across the vast Australian Outback desert.

Klaus is another foreign import to this land. He arrived in 1968 from Germany. Now he, too, is using camels to cross the Outback.

We first heard about Klaus from a motorcyclist crossing Australia’s Outback plains. Despite the 15 liters of water, cooking gas and petrol clamped to this guy’s motorcycle, despite the leather and ropes and tent and mattress and pots and pans and pillow weighing down his machine, the biker didn’t imagine he was the most interesting show on the road. He knew that even his harrowing trip was outdone by Klaus.

Because Klaus, age 61, has been traveling Australia by camel for seven years.

He has two camels, in fact; Snowy, age 11, and Willie, age 12. He bought both of the camels 7 years ago when he started crossing Australia, and these original camels remain with him today.

“I have a pension now so I don’t have to waste time working,” he said, while patting Snowy’s nose. “I got no time for it, anyway, too busy.”

The camels dragged the body of a campervan behind them for the first few years, which was roomy, but not terribly efficient. Three years ago, Klaus traded in his campervan for the shell of a Suzuki Microvan, which, as the name implies, is smaller than a minivan – its about the size of a tiny truck that a college grounds staff drives across campus.

All of his automobiles are 100 percent camel-powered. The animals are attached to it through an aluminum mast taken from a catamaran, which is pressure-fit around the shaft coming off the steering. This steers the front wheels. When we examined it, the aluminum was fatiguing and cracking at the joint.

“A Suzuki without an engine is a pretty good car,” Klaus told us. “With its narrow size, I can walk in the shoulder quite comfortably. Any wider and I wouldn’t be able to.”

Four solar panels are bolted on top of the Suzuki – a mishmash of different brands, sizes, and wattages. The two panels over the cab of the Suzuki were the smallest, at 30 watts each, while the largest stood at 50. (To put this in perspective, our car’s solar panel is 80 watts, and doesn’t do much more than power a few camera batteries and this laptop I’m writing on).

We met Klaus the day after the motorcyclist told us about him. “He’s about 15 kilometers down the road,” the biker told us, “so you should be able to catch him tomorrow.”

Sure enough, we found him only a few kilometers away from where the biker had met him the previous day.

“Word travels faster than I do,” Klaus quipped. He walks 3 hours in the morning and another 3 hours in the afternoon, slowing down as the camels graze for Spinifex plants (which taste best in the morning when they’re covered in dew). Most days he averages 20 kilometers, but lately he’s been going 15 kilometers a day, “which I’m fine with, because its bloody hot.” He estimates he’s traveled 30,000 kilometers over the past 7 years. (To put this in perspective: we estimate we’ll drive about 30,000 kilometers in the 1 year we stay in Australia.)

Klaus has walked every inch of those 30,000 kilometers, rather than riding in the back of the Suzuki.
“(Whether you walk or ride) makes no difference to the camels,” he says. “But you’d fall asleep at that speed. You feel better when you’re walking. I feel sorry for people who have to sit on their butt all day, no matter how important they are.”

He never bothered with a desk job, working on machines as a pipefitter since he immigrated to Australia in 1968 from Germany. His job carried him across Africa, Asia and Australia, but he notes that you can’t really see a country when you’re there for work. Now that he’s retired, he’s seeing the country slow.

His lack of family ties make this possible. He was married for 14 years but divorced a decade and a half ago, which coincided with the last time he owned a vehicle with an engine. The couple never had kids.

He sleeps out under the stars every night, using only a mosquito tent. “I like looking at the stars, and besides, its too messy inside,” he says.

I peeked inside the Suzuki – it contains Dan Brown’s newest book, a small electric mini-fridge, and a dog named Shorty, who he received two weeks ago from a traveler who learned that Klaus’ initial dog was killed by a snake.

Klaus himself was bitten by a poisonous spider a few weeks ago, and taken to the northern city of Katherine for treatment. He kept his camels tied to a tree during his hospital stay, because – as he notes -- who’s going to steal a camel?

He’s never been in an accident. When giant trucks pass by, the drivers CB radio each other, so that every truckdriver knows to look out for him. “It’s the campervans that are worrisome,” he says. “The drivers seem like they don’t realize that what they’re towing is wider than their car.”

Klaus was eager to learn about our trip – what strange animals had we encountered? what interesting characters have we met? – and I realized he must get quite tired of discussing himself over and over, answering the same questions again and again.

The one question we never asked him is why he chose to travel. I suppose we thought the answer was obvious. The question was so simple it doesn’t need to be asked.