Meet Chris and Mark, the best of friends also known as The Uluru Cameleers. Between the two of them, they’ve crossed every desert in Australia with their camels, but came to love the Red Centre the most. Inspired by the beauty of the red sand and dramatic desert skies, these entrepreneurial buddies have turned their passions for the outback and camels into their lives’ work.
Conquering Camels - Chris & Mark's story ...
It was a cool and fresh autumn day in the McLaren Vale, a wine country to the south east of Adelaide that’s nestled nicely between rolling hills and the mighty great Southern Ocean. On a farming property in the heart of this region, the leaves off the almond orchards and grape vines were turning from a grassy green to an incredible spectrum of red, orange and yellow. A young boy is learning how to drive a bulldozer, with his grandfather at his side. In this day and age of mass urbanization, digital technology and the plethora of consumer products at your fingertips – the sight of a little boy no more than eight years of age operating a massive bulldozer is a vision to behold.
Christopher Howard Hill was one of six boys who grew up on this farming property. Now at the age of 40, he reflects on his boyhood:
“I had an interesting childhood, I spent more time away from school than at school – basically my education was self taught, learning off the land and learning off other people. My education has been school of hard knocks”.
Growing up on the farm, Chris developed passions and skills that have stayed with him. Never one to embrace academia, Chris knew that his talents lay in the use of his hands and his passions were for land and animals.
On his 15th birthday, Chris received a gift that would set the course of his destiny in motion – a curious camel called Old Tom. The following year, Chris set out on a 517km solo trek that involved walking five camels from Birdsville to Maree along the Birdsville track that crosses the famously rocky Sturt Stony Desert. It was one of the hardest and best times in Chris’ life and as he recalls – he started the trip as a boy and finished it as a man.
“There was this one particular moment during the trip when I sat down and had tears in my eyes - I thought I was going to die out there, that these camels were going to kill me. The isolation got to me but it was a day that changed my life. I thought to myself that if I could get through each one of those days, I can get through the rest of my life with whatever challenges that get thrown at me.”
A Friendship Forged
In the bustling red capital of Australia, a young cameleer was causing quite a stir on the racing scene as one of the fastest gun riders. His name was Mark William Swindell. He left the comforts of Sydney and a top job in television production in pursuit of an adventurous life with little or no boundaries.
Mark was taken on as a protégé of Noel Fullarton, a legendary character in Central Australia and one of the founding fathers of the Alice Springs Camel Cup. Both men had heard about this young fella down south called Chris who was dominating the racing scene there. Both were nervous about the upcoming Cup and Chris’ reputation on the track.
When the young gunners and ‘enemies’ met on the day of the race – they circled one another like dogs and throughout that day, they competed in a total of 12 races fast and furious. And the result was that neither o
f them managed to win any major trophies. Instead, they decided to go to a local pub called Scotty’s in town and like most men they resolved their differences over a pint or two – or three or ten.
That night, a friendship was forged over their common love of land, racing and working with camels. Mark and Chris became the best of mates, fellow adventurers and later on, business partners.
“One of the best things about Mark is that he never gives up, he’s such a determined bloke and an absolute pleasure to be best mates and business partners with” says Chris.
For Mark, one of his best memories with Chris was at a time when they were both in their late twenties, penniless and in between their camel adventure business; they used to catch wild camels and sold them to businesses in Queensland. As Mark recalls, they didn’t have five cents to buy a 4WD so they used to catch these creatures on motorbikes:
“You’re out in the desert chasing camels on a motorbike, these are dangerous times and I felt secure in doing all this knowing that Chris had my back and I had his."
For the Love of Camels
It was the night of nights for the tourism industry in Central Australia. Other than a slight chilly breeze making its rounds; it was a perfect spring evening in the marquee at the Alice Springs Turf Club. All guests were there to honour and celebrate the achievements of individuals, businesses and innovations at the 2013 Tourism Central Australia Awards Dinner. The presenter makes an announcement:
“And the winner of the Imparja Small Tourism Operator Award goes to… Uluru Camel Tours”
A sea of clapping hands, a cheering crowd and a group of people make their way towards the stage led by Chris and Mark, in their signature red shirts and Akubra hats.
Chris tearfully addresses the crowd and thanks his whole team and industry peers for their support. The night was a success; Uluru Camel Tours went on to win another two awards.
Their professional success began at the start of 2011 when the boys’ dream of having a camel farm and tourism business out at Uluru were realised. They took over an ailing business and in the course of three and a half years, they went from owning 5 working camels to over 50 - making their camel farm the largest in the southern hemisphere.
Chris and Mark attribute their business success to their passion for working with camels, the never-give-up mentality and finally, to their love for the outback. They’re true cameleers at heart and their thirst for adventure and crossing uncharted sands remains at the core of their beings.
And between the two of them, they’ve crossed every desert in Australia with their camels.
Chris, “I love the pureness of nature and for me, some of the most moving moments when I’m out there is when I camp in the same spots that the early explorers camped in 100-140 years ago and thinking about what they went through and not knowing what tomorrow held”