A Day At The (Camel) Races

Camel Races in Alice Springs, Australia
Kraig Becker

The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes are three of the biggest horse races on the planet, collectively making up the prestigious Triple Crown. Steeped in tradition, each of those events deftly mixes exhilarating action on the track with plenty of pomp and circumstance in the stands. With their large purses, competitive fields and rich histories these races are the very embodiment of the “sport of kings,” drawing plenty of attention to thoroughbred racing on an annual basis.

The residents of the town of Alice Springs, located deep in the heart of Australia’s “Red Center,” aren’t particularly impressed with the Triple Crown, however, mostly because they have a fine race all their own. In the minds of local residents, their homegrown event more than rivals those races in terms of prestige, action and unpredictability, while easily surpassing it in quirkiness. The Lasseters Camel Cup takes place on the second Sunday in July each year and features some of the finest camel racing you could ever hope to see. That is, if you should ever find yourself at an actual event that features those irritable, obstinate and down right mean animals pitted against one another on a racetrack. The sport seems aptly fitting for Australia, however, where they not only have an abundance of camels but more than a few jockeys crazy enough to try to ride them.Considering the fact that camels aren’t indigenous to the continent, they have still managed to play a surprisingly important role in Australia’s history. The animals were originally imported to the country from Pakistan, India and the Middle East back in the 1800s and were used in both the exploration of remote regions as well as in the building of the all-important Overland Telegraph Line. Eventually, camel breeders set up shop within Australia itself, providing local animals that were healthier and stronger than those that were being imported. They remained a popular choice for draft and riding animals into the 1920s when motorized vehicles came to prominence and began to replace the creatures. When they were no longer needed, many camels were set free into the rugged Outback and over the years they have grown into quite the nuisance. It is estimated that more than 1 million wild camels now wander the countryside and in an interesting change of fate, some are occasionally rounded-up and actually exported to other countries.

The Camel Cup has been built on the legacy that the animals have created in Australia but also has a colorful history all its own. Now in its 43rd year, the race began as a bet between two residents of Alice Springs who decided to settle a feud by racing one another on the backs of the unpredictable beasts. They didn’t know it at the time, but those two men were starting a tradition that would continue for decades to follow, carving out its own identity in the process. The original race was so much fun for the locals that they actually decided to continue with the event in subsequent years. The Camel Cup became an important fund raiser for the Alice Springs Lions Club, which has been involved with the event from the start and uses the money raised to help fund a number of local programs.

Camel races in Alice Springs, Austin
Kraig Becker

The most recent edition of the Camel Cup took place last Saturday, July 13, in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd of over 5000 at the Noel Fullerton Camel Racing Arena located in Alice Spring’s Blatherskite Park. That arena became the permanent home for the race in 1979 and is the only venue dedicated strictly to camel racing in the entire Southern Hemisphere. It features a 400-meter, oval shaped track, plenty of seating for fans and a press box where colorful commentators provided interesting and funny comments all day long. Local vendors also set up stands that offered any number of tasty delicacies to keep those in attendance happy and well fed.

Much like the Triple Crown, the Camel Cup consists of a number of races that take place throughout the day. Each of those races brings an element of uncertainty and randomness to the event leaving spectators to wonder just what they might see next. The stubborn nature of the camels often provides good comic relief because when they aren’t busy trying to throw their riders they often race in the wrong direction or simply refuse to run at all. At the Camel Cup it is possible to see more unexpected action on the track in a single afternoon than you would see in months of horse racing. You’ll also be more than happy to be sitting safely in the stands rather than astride one the more temperamental creatures making its way around the track.

Between races the crowd is treated to a number of other entertaining activities. Young children race on the track’s infield on hobby-camels while rickshaw races involving teams pulling each other around the track are hilarious to watch. There’s even a spirited competition amongst contestants looking to be named Mr. and Miss Camel Cup, which is a unique honor to say the least.

As a visitor to Alice Springs taking in the Camel Cup for the first time, I loved how there was an air of seriousness about the entire event, but not too serious. Some fans came dressed up in their finest clothes, as if they were going to the Kentucky Derby, while others wore silly costumes and became part of the show. The bottom line was that everyone was there to have a good time and no matter which end of the spectrum you were on, I think that mission was accomplished. I’m not positive, but I believe that even the camels were getting a good laugh out of the whole affair.

Australia Invites You To Do The Outback Your Way

Vist Australia with the Outback Your Way promotionThe Northern Territory of Australia is inviting travelers to explore the Outback Your Way with limited-time promotions designed to make it easier and more affordable than ever to visit that famous part of the world. The promotions include a variety of great options such as free flights, discounted accommodations and other upgrades designed to enhance the experience.

The Outback Your Way program is designed to give travelers flexibility when exploring the Northern Territory without emptying their wallets in the process. For example, one of the most popular destinations in the Outback is Uluru, also known as Ayer’s Rock, the iconic sandstone formation that has been sacred to the Aboriginal tribes for thousands of years. As part of this new promotion, when visitors book a three-night stay at the Desert Gardens Hotel, they receive a free tour of Kata Tjuta National Park, the location of that landmark. Similarly, travelers who book three-night stays in the Crown Plaza, in either Alice Springs or Darwin, also receive free touring options as part of those packages as well.

Those looking to explore the Outback in a completely different way can travel from Darwin to Alice Springs aboard the legendary Ghan Railway. The package includes two nights stay in both cities, a wildlife tour and a visit to the West MacDonnell Ranges, as well as a number of other activities. Traveling by train across Australia’s countryside is an unbelievable way to experience the natural beauty of the place and when booked six months in advance, travelers receive a $500 discount.

Other special deals that fall under the Outback Your Way promotion include a free helicopter flight over Uluru, complimentary internal flights when booking a comprehensive Australian travel package, a free sunset dinner cruise and much more.

If you’ve been planning an Australian vacation for some time but have been waiting for just the right opportunity, then you’ll definitely want to check out the Outback Your Way website. This is the perfect time to head down under and experience everything Australia has to offer.

[Photo Credit: Huntster via WikiMedia]

5 Of The World’s Best Places For Viewing The Night Skies

milky wayIf you grow up in Southern California, school field trips to the Griffith Observatory are practically a requirement. For whatever reason, I always found the Planetarium more frightening than enlightening, especially in the sixth grade, when David Fink threw up on me on the bus ride home.

Despite many youthful camping trips with my family, I also can’t recall ever paying attention to the night skies (possibly because many of these trips were in the cloudy Pacific Northwest). Fast-forward 20-odd years, and to a solo camping trip on Kauai’s North Shore. It was my last night and the rainclouds had finally blown away. I stared up at the starry sky awestruck. It’s the first time l ever really noticed the stars, due to the lack of light and environmental pollution. I’ve been a stargazer ever since, and coincidentally, many of my travels have taken me to some of the world’s best locations for it.

Below, my picks for top-notch night skies, no student chaperone required:

Atacama Desert
, Chile

This stark, Altiplano region in Chile’s far north is the driest desert on earth, as well as home to the some of the clearest night skies on the planet. You don’t need anything (other than perhaps a great camera) to appreciate the stars, but a stargazing tour, offered by various hotels, hostels and outfitters throughout the town of San Pedro de Atacama, is well worth it.

I highly recommend the Astronomy Tour offered by the Alto Atacama Hotel & Spa, located just outside of San Pedro proper. For hotel guests only, this two-year-old program is led by one of the property’s guides, a naturalist and astronomer. The hotel has its own observation deck and a seriously badass telescope; you won’t be disappointed even if stargazing isn’t your thing. In addition to learning the constellations of ancient Quechua myth such as the Llama and Condor, you’ll have incredible views of the Milky Way, and be able to see telescopic images of Sirius and Alpha Centauri with a lens so powerful you can actually see a ring of flame flickering from their surface.

%Gallery-157717%alto atacama observatoryExmouth, Western Australia
Uluru (aka the former Ayers Rock, which now goes by its Aboriginal name) is considered Australia’s best stargazing, due to its location in exactly the middle of nowhere. In reality, the Outback in general has night skies completely untainted by pollution. But as I’ve discovered after many years of visiting Australia, the only bad places to stargaze are urban areas. The skies are also stellar above remote coastal regions, most notably in Western Australia (which is vast and sparsely populated).

The best skies I’ve seen are in Exmouth, located along the Ningaloo Reef. At Sal Salis, a coastal luxury safari camp, an observation platform and stargazing talk will help you make sense of the Southern sky. Be prepared for striking views of the Milky Way stretching across the horizon, seemingly close enough to touch.
mauna kea
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
In 1991, the year of the Total Solar Eclipse, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the Big Island’s Mauna Kea Observatory – located at the top of the volcano – to watch the sky grow dark mid-morning. I was waiting tables on Maui, so all I noticed was a brief dimming, in conjunction with some of my tables pulling a dine-and-dash. A visit to the volcano, however, will assure you stunning views if you take a Sunset and Stargazing Tour offered by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Day visitors can hike, and even ski in winter.

Bryce Canyon, Utah
This national park, known for its bizarre rock spires (called “hoodoos”) and twisting red canyons, is spectacular regardless of time of day or season. On moonless nights, however, over 7,500 stars are visible, and park rangers and volunteer astronomers lead Night Sky programs that include multimedia presentations and high-power telescopes; schedules and topics change with the seasons.
aurora borealis
Churchill, Manitoba
Located on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, the village of Churchill is famous for three things: polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. Its location beneath the Auroral Oval means the “best and most Northern Lights displays on the planet,” according to Churchill’s website, and you don’t need to sign up for a tour to enjoy the show. Save that for the polar bear viewing.

[Photo credits: Atacama, Frank Budweg; Mauna Kea, Flickr user sambouchard418;Aurora Borealis, Flickr user Bruce Guenter]

Qantas & Tourism Northern Territory offer cheap flights to Australia’s Red Center

Gadling loves Australia. We’ve been proponents of Americans visiting Oz for a while and I was fortunate enough to check out Australia’s Red Center last year. The added flights – and the costs of those flights – have often kept Americans from delving deep into the heart of this fascinating country. Now, however, Qantas and Tourism Northern Territory are partnering to make travel from America’s West Coast to Central Australia cheaper than ever.

Packages to Alice Springs, Darwin or Uluru (Ayers Rock) are only $999 from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Travel must be booked by January 26, 2010 and your visit to Australia will have to be between May 1 and June 8, 2010. You’ll want to spend a few weeks Down Under, so this five week window is more than enough time to explore the heart of Australia.

Qantas and Tourism NT are also partnering with local tour operators and hotels to offer deals for visitors. You can learn more on the Qantas Vacations website.

For more information on Australia’s Northern Territory, check out the series from my trip there last year.

It may seem like 2010 just started, but there’s no better time to plan your travel for the year than now!

Gadling Take FIVE– Week of Oct. 10 to Oct. 16

During this week, the start of Gadling’s 5th birthday celebration, we’ve also highlighted aspects of eco-friendly travel and have continued to ferret out travel bargains. Brenda found a screaming deal on a trip to China. Heather’s weighed in on how to get free beer from a flight attendant and provides a reminder as to what NOT to do as well. I haven’t been given free beer on a flight, but I have been given free wine.

Here five other posts that cover subjects from sports to destinations to eats. This week was filled with such goodies, it was hard to pick.

  • Although it may not be the cheapest destination to reach, Alice Springs, Australia has much to offer. Mike was fortunate enough to see this Outback location from the vantage point of a hot air balloon. Lucky him!
  • In one of the most creative ways to fund travel that I’ve heard about in awhile–if ever, Daniel Seddiqui lined up 50 jobs in 50 states. Katie’s post highlights how Daniel did it and gives just enough of a taste to make us want more details about Seddiqui’s grand idea. We’ll have to wait for his book. Here’s hoping he’ll send it Gadling’s way when he’s done.
  • One of the great things about traveling is being exposed to the variety of ways in which people entertain themselves around the world. Grant found an amazing video of people playing Sepak Takraw in Thailand, something he relates to volleyball and hackey sack with an acrobatic twist.
  • Sepak Takraw isn’t the only unusual aspect of Asia we’ve highlighted this week. Catherine found out about a dwarf village in China. This village near Kunming is actually a theme park where 80 dwarf residents perform musical numbers. I have to say, this place sounds odd, but very intriguing. Catherine’s wondering if she should go there after she moves to Kunming in the next couple of weeks. I’m wondering how can she not?
  • In Chicago, Felony Franks is an intriguing restaurant that hires ex-convicts to serve up the dogs and french fries. Tom also points to similar establishments doing good work while serving the public in San Francisco and Trenton, New Jersey.

And one more. Here’s some music for your weekend. In the “Top 10 travel-themed 50’s songs,” a follow-up to Jeremy’s post on the “Top 10 travel-themed ’80’s songs,” there are some songs you probably know. One song I didn’t know before has become my new favorite. “Wayward Wind” captures so much about how hard it is to pin a world traveler down.