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BOOK REVIEW – The extraordinary tale of Bourke’s Afghan cameleers

The book cover depicting Abdul Wade at right at one of his camel camps at Cunnamulla. Photo supplied

One of the most extraordinary chapters of the history of Bourke, is the story of the Afghan cameleers.

In a history already wildly colourful with characters, the story of the Afghan cameleers is unbelievable, and the most extraordinary cameleer of them all, and the most successful, was a fellow called Abdul Wade.

Abdul rose to great heights from his youth as a poor minority immigrant arriving in Australia in 1882, working as an indentured dairy farm labourer at the age of 16, to become one of the most successful transport entrepreneurs the nation had ever seen.

In 1903 he purchased Wangamana station, a grazing property 56 kilometres east of Wanaaring, where he bred his camels. Others were imported into Adelaide.

The camels’ ability to travel long distances without water and to survive on native bushes and trees meant that they were ideally suited to the harsh environment of inland Australia.

From their base in Bourke in the 1890’s, Abdul Wade’s camel drivers were able to reach almost every corner of the country, transporting wool, copper and other produce to city ports and markets.

His success spanned the continent, from the east coast to the Indian ocean, from far north Queensland to South Australia.

His history is part of Bourke’s folklore, arguably as important as Henry Lawson’s legend, but Abdul’s story has been shrouded in guesswork, often seen through a racial lens and with gaps missing in his remarkable travels from Bourke and beyond.

Author Ryan Butta, who spent his childhood at Boorooma Station 60kms east of Brewarrina, is hoping to set the record straight with a new book about the cameleer; a book called ‘The Ballad of Abdul Wade’.

Ryan had heard vague stories about camel trains around Bourke, but it was when he was making a return visit to his hometown in Brewarrina in 2018 to see family, that a nineteenth century photograph of one of Abdul’s camel trains captivated him.

He set about researching the life and times of the colourful businessman, camel trader and gambler and this week his book hits the shelves, telling the tale of our early transport industry - and yet another Bourke story entwined in the national fabric of Australia’s history.

“I started reading books about him and digging into the newspapers of the day and what piqued my interest was that what was written in the history books didn’t match the stories in the newspapers of the day,” Ryan said.

“The books described him as a villain, who starved his employees and was a gambler and all sorts of unsavoury things, but the newspapers said he was a highly respected businessman, very well-liked by other business owners, that he had business interests not just in Bourke, but in the copper mines in far north Queensland.

During his research, Ryan Butta found that Abdul Wade’s camel trade reached across to Western Australia, and that he rose to the highest levels of business, that he owned racehorses, and a mansion on Sydney Harbour.

“I saw a different picture of Abdul Wade and thought I would set the record straight,” Ryan said.

Ryan believed that part of the reason for the unflattering portrait of Abdul Wade was the racism that was widespread across Australia at the time.

Read more local news in the printed edition of The Western Herald.

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