From 1 November 1906 until 15 April 1907 the New Zealand International Exhibition was held in Christchurch. Amongst the many attractions that were offered to the visiting public, of which there were over 1.8 million during the period, was “Wonderland”. This was the amusement side of the Exhibition and covered an area of some six acres. There was a water chute, a toboggan ride, a helter-skelter, Chinese Dragon Train and the Katzenjammer Castle. For young visitors a more leisurely activity was also available, in the form of camel rides.
Three adult camels and two calves were imported by promoters from Australia, having been obtained from Hergott Springs (now Maree) in South Australia.
The animals were first brought to Adelaide where their saddles were made to order before they were shipped out for New Zealand with their aboriginal handlers “by special arrangement with the South Australian Government.”
The camels and their aboriginal handlers, 39-year-old ‘Sandy’ and 27-year-old ‘Jack’, boarded the SS Wimmera in Melbourne on Wednesday 10th of October and arrived at Lyttelton, via Hobart, Bluff and Dunedin on Friday 19 October 1906.
A description of their arrival was published in the press in the following week:
THE COMING OF THE CAMELS.
Chief among the circle of children’s amusements will rank the riding of the camels, which landed from the s.s. Wimmera on Friday afternoon. The steamer brought three full-grown and two baby camels, and the landing and trucking of these same strange beasts provided a free show for all about the wharfs. They were carried on deck in covered stalls. After the unshipping of a variety of sundries, from racehorses to monkeys, the camels were given right-of-way to leave.
“Oh. they’ll walk off all right,” said an officer in blue and gold; but the camels viewed things differently. They very much preferred the evils they knew on shipboard to the evils they expected to meet under strange skies; also a three-foot wide gangway did not appeal to them at all. They intimated they did not think it was very safe. They were remonstrated with, coerced, and abused, but the East was ever the home of passive resistance, and they of the East most characteristic are; so, smiling a disdainful smile of bored knowledge, they slowly sat down—and remained sitting. A rope was passed round the posterior part of their body, and brute force was brought to bear; but to pull a camel up a steep and narrow incline has various disadvantages not found out till tried. There was a pause for consultation, while the attendant crowd smiled aloud with delight. Then an attendant grabbed up a calf in his arms and amidst heartrending wails bore it ashore, where it was held, struggling and howling, also dragging the men all over the wharf, to the huge delight of the onlookers. Now, of all the joys of sound, a camel’s voice raised in song is least; but raised in wailing it is both ear-splitting and heart-rending; and so their parents found it, and concluded that if they ever wished to see their offspring again they had better arise and walk, which they accordingly did.
The camels are small in stature. The delight of the calves to be again on firm land was extreme. They gambolled round and round their mothers with all the grace of a collapsible two-foot rule out on the spree. Their efforts to project two legs aside at right angles to their bodies in a frolicsome kick was a sight never to be forgotten. There is a sense of supercilious hauteur about a camel, as if Nature had made them when she laughed, and then added dignity of bearing to prevent anyone else following her example.
But the tug-of-war commenced when they were invited to enter a cattle truck, for conveyance to “Wonderland. Now a camel’s neck is long and a cattle truck is low; so with a dignified air they quite plainly stated “it was quite impossible.” Then the men got cross. They also got hot and dusty; and still that camel sat down, and sat on “with ‘is silly neck a-bobbin’ like a basket full o’ snakes.” Arguments of all sorts were tried. Even the maternal one failed to move them.
“For the commissariat camel, when all is said an’ done.
“E’s a devil, an’ a ostrich, an’ a orphan child in one,”
as far as lack of perception goes. So brute force was again brought into play, and the rope argument became again law. The rope was inserted behind his haunches, passed over his neck, knotted, and passed out through the opposite side of the truck, where a huge railway horse, used to moving tons of dead weight, demonstrated even to the immovable Orient that sometimes things have to shift. And that camel arose by sections and precipitated himself head-first into the truck. But the look on his face as, thrusting his head out of the top, he surveyed the surrounding landscape, made the onlooker feel ashamed that so much sacrilege should be thrust, in a strange land, born but yesterday, upon the most dignified member of that most dignified world, the immemorial East.
Press, Volume LXII, Issue 12630, 22 October 1906, p7
Following the close of the Exhibition the camels were purchased by the Miramar Athletic Park and Wonderland Company and shipped to Wellington where they were again used to provide rides at the new Wonderland amusement at Miramar. Regrettably the only female camel died by early August 1907 and one male was sold to a zoo.
No “zoo” can be said to be complete without a camel. The ship of the desert may be a ship out of water, but it is a very convenient means of transport for children and others in “zoos.” The Newtown Zoological Gardens can boast of a celibate lion with a number of beasts of the field and fowls of the air. It is now to have a camel. The Rev. D. C. Bates, who has done, and is doing, so much for the improvements of the “zoo,” has negotiated the purchase of a fine, healthy bull camel from the establishment at Wonderland, Miramar. The City Council has given its approval, and the camel was installed in its new quarters this morning. A stand will be erected to save him kneeling down to receive passengers on his back, and he will soon be at work. His earnings are to be devoted to the lioness fund.
Evening Post, Volume LXXVI, Issue 132, 3 December 1908, p6
The fate of the remaining animals is unknown.
Their aboriginal handlers returned to Melbourne from Lyttelton in April 1907 aboard the Maheno. On this occasion they were not named on the passenger list but merely described as “Two Australian Aboriginals.”
© Ralph L. Sanderson 2004-2021