There is nothing I like more than shovelling pooh. I remember the first time I did it. I was with my friend Ben and we went to Marcus’s place on Ilparpa Road to get some manure for my raised vegetable garden.
Ben took his ute and together we drove out to see Marcus. Marcus’s place is past through the Gap and fifteen minutes out of Alice Springs. We arrive unannounced and knock on the camel man’s door. Marcus is in his forties and he is a little gruff. His face is unshaven and stubbly and he isn’t one for social graces. He likes his camels more than people and prefers not talking too much. I’ve known him for a while but every time he sees me it seems to take him a few minutes to register if he knows me or not.
In his yard Marcus has ten camels. Each one of the camels has a name and a unique personality. Occasionally I have ridden them and can vouch that some camels are more friendly and tolerant of people than others.
‘Can we take some pooh?’ I ask Marcus.
Marcus smiles scratches his stubble and agrees once I add, ‘It’s for the garden! I am building my first vegetable garden.’
‘Take as much as you want. You blokes got shovels?’ asks Marcus.
We didn’t and he lent us a couple and surreptitiously disappeared into his house nearby.
So Ben and I started shovelling shit and the camels didn’t seem to mind. It’s beautiful in Ilparpa valley in between the ranges. The sky seems bigger and more glorious blue than usual. It’s quiet too except for the birds. A bower bird watches. A finch flitters around the camels. The ranges look peachy red. I imagine what I will plant. Mostly herbs: coriander, basil, mint, chillies, beans, lettuce, spinach, capsicums, tomatoes and some marigold flowers for the daughters.
‘This is fun,’ I say enthusiastically.
Shovelling pooh straight from the camel’s pen mixed in with dirt is hard work. We get stuck into it and soon it’s a competition. I notice Ben is shovelling more pooh than me. So I try and increase my work rate. It’s getting hotter as the sun approaches its zenith. Ben and I are trying to see who can shovel more and faster. In between we talk about the difference between horse pooh, camel pooh and cow pooh. Each has their merits.
‘You can get cow manure from the cattle yards,’ Ben says. ‘And they load it up for you.’
Ben’s an expert. He’s the curator of the Olive Pink Botanic garden in Alice Springs.
I stay quiet. I am aware he is doing me a favour by agreeing to use his ute and shovel pooh with me all morning.
‘Horse pooh comes with its share of problems,’ says Ben. ‘Nematodes!’ And for a moment we catch each others eye and laugh.
‘Thanks mate,’ I say.
The camels seem curious. They listen in. Occasionally one of them pleasantly lifts a tail and adds a fresh, steamy turd on the ground. Ben and I don’t talk much more than this. This is physical work and slowly my mind starts to wander and I feel a sense of calm that I only get in certain situations.
‘This is going to be great for your garden,’ Ben says as Marcus comes over.
‘You blokes all right,’ says Marcus.
The tray on back of the ute is nearly full. The weight of the camel pooh is depressing the rear tyres. We have dug into the earth and made a significant dent in the ground. Marcus inspects the ground.
‘You blokes got stuck into it,’ he says.
I walk over to the passenger window of the ute, reach in and grab a bottle of water and take a sip. Ben puts down his shovel and I throw the bottle over to him. He takes a drink. There is sweat pouring down his forehead and his shirt is wet through. My usually soft hands are sore and calloused as they are not used to the labour of shovelling a couple of tons of camel manure.
Marcus doesn’t stay to chat. He whispers something conspiratorial to his favourite camels and disappears back into the house. I look at Ben briefly but he doesn’t waste time. He starts shovelling. Soon the back of the ute is full to capacity and we drive home. From the window I notice little pebbles of camel pooh spray off the tray and onto the road.
‘It’s like a blessing,’ I say.
‘What’s like a blessing?’
‘The camel pooh! It’s like we are driving through Alice Springs and blessing it with pooh.’
At home my wife and children eagerly greet us and make us feel like we are men who have returned from an epic odyssey bearing great gifts. We drink lemonade and talk about our day, the camels and Marcus. Our dog Honey immediately inspects the goods and sniffs it deeply, intoxicated by the aroma.
Together we all shovel the pooh straight from the tray on the back of the ute and onto the garden bed. The wind begins and gently lifts some of the manure into its bosom and carries it next door as we shovel and shovel. It is tough work and it attracts the flies but we all seem happier than we have ever been as we laugh and talk while we work filling in our garden with Marcus’s special camel manure.