The Camel Who Crossed Australia

Written by Jackie French
Review by Elizabeth Jane

In 1861 Burke and Wills became the first white men to cross the Australian continent from the south to its north coast. Neither man returned alive. This novel, the third in Jackie French’s Animal Stars series, tells the story of their disastrous expedition. It is suitable for students in their upper primary school years.

The novel is written in a shifting first-person point of view. The main protagonist is Bell Sing, a camel transported to Australia from the region of present-day Pakistan. Bell Sing’s voice is wise, witty, and compelling. He is the strongest camel in the caravan. We sense that he should have been the leader of the expedition.

The second protagonist is Dost Mahomet, a young man brought from Lahore on the North West Indian frontier to care for the camels. We see the bigotry and foolishness of the expedition leaders from his viewpoint and are given the advantage of his differing world view and desert experience.

The remaining viewpoint character is John King, a young British soldier of Irish origin. King’s health has suffered during his military service in India. He had also grown wary of people from other races. King’s is the only British viewpoint in the story, but he is not an expedition leader. As a soldier, he faces the dilemma of being loyal to men whom he finds incompetent. He must also learn to trust the local indigenous people who offer him succour.

This is not a light book. Neither is it morbid or frightening. Tragic outcomes are seen to be the result of foolish and, for the most part, avoidable decisions. Through the kindness of Dost Mahomet, Bell Sing escapes and makes his home in the Australian outback. His story carries the narrative beyond despair and gives the reader a satisfying conclusion.