Camels in the Outback

Sunrise revealed a group of camels out on the treeless plains. We were using a small ridge as cover, the last crest before a vast open expanse. They were about 1.5km away. The camels aren’t always in this area, they come and go, and can walk long distances in a night.

Daytime temperatures were in the low-30s. It was such a glorious morning, everything was perfect. I peered over the edge with my 8x30 binoculars, looking for a big bull camel with a thick neck and a large bump on his forehead. There were some bull camels in the group, but they were not mature enough.

We decided to stalk to another high point to see if there were any good bulls on the other side of that ridge. A route was planned which took advantage of the low terrain and the vegetation which included mulga trees that the camels browse on. Although the camels were far away, they are so tall and have such good vision, that staying concealed is really important.

We reached the rim and found more camels out on the flat on the other side. Way in the distance was a big cream coloured bull camel all by himself. He was walking away from us, but wouldn’t have seen us. Even when the camels are just plodding at their normal pace on the stony plain, it is still faster than we can walk. When in the fine sand, their large padded feet don’t sink as ours do, making our progress even slower in comparison. A stalk on the cream coloured bull was planned.

There were a few cow camels with their calves between us and the cream bull so we had to work around them as stealthily as possible. The cream bull was walking into the mulga off to our front right corner. He was about 2km away.

We did a semi-circle around the other camels. They could easily see us and moved away from us without being spooked too badly. Using what little cover we could find, we eventually reached where we had last seen the cream bull, but he had moved further away. We tried tracking the cream bull but there were several other camel tracks and it wasn’t clear which one was his. The mulga trees and smaller ridges were obscuring our vision.

We walked until we were about 6km from where we had started and had lost track of the cream bull. I was carrying 2.4 litres of water in my backpack. It is easy to become lost in this type of country which can have dire consequences, so a GPS is strongly advisable. Even on the vast treeless expanse, the slight undulations in the ground surface can easily cause you to lose your bearings. Everywhere looks the same with very few landmarks. We abandoned the stalk for the cream bull.

Not long after we started to head back, a lovely grey coloured bull camel was spotted about 500m away and was watching us. This bull not only had great colouring, but also decent size and the thick neck and muscular forehead that signify a mature bull. So I decided to stalk closer to him. There was a thin shrub which I could use for cover if I just moved about 20 paces to my left.

The cover was roughly 100 paces in front of me. As I reached the shrub, the grey bull had started walking diagonally away from me. I wanted to move closer, but there was no vegetation between me and the bull. The shooting sticks were readied for a standing shot. Although I prefer not to use them on close shots, the bull was not letting me proceed close to him and there were no trees or other possible rests to use.

The bull camels are so large and the terrain is so devoid of high vegetation that they appear to be much closer than they are. I should have brought a range finder. It was decided to leave the scanty cover of the shrub and walk towards the bull on the stony treeless span. I had to start running to make any ground on him as he was walking faster than me. I covered around 100m and he had stopped.

The shooting sticks were set up again. I had to wait for him to turn and give a broadside target. Instead he started walking away from me. I hurried after him. He changed direction slightly, presenting a side-on target. He stopped. I chambered a .338 Win Mag round into the Winchester Model 70. Using the sticks to aim high on the shoulder, I took the shot at what I thought would be around 230m. After the distance was measured out it was 320 paces and the bullet had hit lower than I had expected. When I returned back to the camp, the scope was adjusted up three clicks to be 3^ high at 90m, which was a far better elevation for the longer shots.

The 225-grain Barnes TSX was recovered and had mushroomed perfectly into four petals, retaining all its weight. The chamber in my .338 Win Mag is long-throated so this allows me to use more powder and seat projectiles out to 3.52^ (they still fit in the magazine) without having pressure too high. Only in a chamber that’s been modified the same as mine can you use this load of 76g of AR2209 to give a velocity of 2950fps out of the 25^ barrel. For a standard .338 Win Mag stay well within the loads recommended by the reloading manuals.

I put some good portions of meat in my backpack and a strip of hide was cut so as to carry the heavy skull. We took it in turns to lug the skull, needing to rest frequently because of its weight. Back at the camp the skull was boiled out.

After about 1pm the afternoon temperatures are so high that nothing moves. It’s best to have a siesta and start hunting again around 5pm. The corrugated iron shed I was staying in becomes extremely hot so it was better to rest using shelters made by the local indigenous people out of mulga branches, which have better air flow.

I wanted a second bull camel on this hunt. There are estimated to be over 1 million wild camels in Australia and their numbers keep growing because of a lack of predators. One theory suggests that in their original environment camels preferred the desert to the savannah so they wouldn’t be attacked by lions. These majestic animals have an historic connection to the land but hunters play a role in keeping the numbers down.

The next day was spent looking for an even bigger bull camel. We drove along a track to a dry salt lake. There was a single immature bull near the edge of the water. The animals lick the salt. There were more camels in the vegetation further from the lake, but no large mature bulls. Later in the evening we waited near a dam where all the animals come to drink. Camels arrived, but no good bulls.

The third day we glassed for bulls on the stony treeless plains. During the morning a large mature bull was spotted away from the other camels. The stalk was commenced at a low point on the treeless spread, where the bull would not notice us. He was about 1km away. We were able to stalk about 250m towards him before he could see us. Around another 250m was covered as he watched us. He started to move away at a diagonal keeping an eye on us and we followed. He turned and was side-on and walking.

The shooting sticks were set up. The scope magnification was increased from 4 to 9 power. When he stopped, I aimed above the shoulder but level with the top of his hump as he was a lot further out than my first camel had been. He dropped on the shot. The camels are too heavy to turn over, so I couldn’t see where the entry wound was. There was no exit hole on the other side. That night we ate the camel steaks from the first camel I shot. The meat was extremely tasty, and so were the other meals of camel meat I had.

I find the .338 Win Mag in a rifle weighing 4.2kg inclusive of scope, provides a good balance between acceptable recoil and sufficient killing power for very large game, yet is not too heavy to carry for extended periods.

Camels are huge, tough animals and if they are out on the treeless stretch, shots can be long. For shots over 270m the 225-grain Tipped TSXs which have a plastic tip and a boat-tail would probably be superior to the flat-based 225 TSXs which I was using because they have a significantly higher ballistic coefficient.

If you can tolerate more recoil and muzzle blast and can accurately shoot a cartridge with a bigger case capacity (my first choice would be the .330 Dakota) and heavier projectile in .338 diameter that may be even better. I like to shoot through the thick-boned shoulder and a heavier projectile will often penetrate further.

The longer shots should only be attempted if you can make your rifle group reasonably well at those distances. There are opportunities for close shots on camels, especially where the vegetation is taller, for those not comfortable with distant shots using a large calibre.

One of the indigenous owners of the property, which is a few hours from Alice Springs, showed us where to dig for witchetty grubs. Bush tucker interests me and the witchetty grub I ate tasted quite okay. That finished a most unique and magnificent hunt in the outback.

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