A camel trek around Australia is raising awareness of endangered species - and telling how on the Internet and on teletext. Val Hall reports. Since ancient times, explorers have used camels as a means of transport and as beasts of burden. They have covered immense distances, but never the 17,000 kilometres (10,563 miles) it takes to go around Australia. Such is the aim of a two-year Anglo-Australian expedition due to set out in March, which, while exploring in the time-honoured way, will keep in touch, particularly with British and Australian schoolchildren, by satellite communication systems.
With Chloe the dog as mascot, Teletext CAMELL (Circumnavigating Australia Motivating Environmentalists at Local Levels) is aiming to raise awareness of endangered species - an enterprise endorsed by one of its patrons, explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
Twenty species of mammal have disappeared from Australia in the past 200 years and unless prompt action is taken, the gastric brooding frog, stick nest rat, western swamp turtle, dibbler, hairy-nosed wombat and golden-shouldered parrot - among others - will join them.
In an IT project developed with UK charity Tusk Force, schools will be able to keep up with the expedition's progress by accessing Teletext Camell's 30-page Internet site (sponsored by Atlas Internet), and Channel 4 Teletext Go Green page 461 on Saturdays. Schools in both countries are also being encouraged to use teletext or e-mail to exchange ideas or activities and "interact with the team in remote areas".
The site will contain expanded weekly updates, the expedition newsletter, and information on Australian endangered species and environmental issues, such as raw sewage pollution on beaches.
According to Alex Bannister Hughes, leader of the British contingent, Teletext CAMELL will "suggest tasks on the Internet such as a competition to write a 1,500-word article on an endangered species for our newsletter". She also hopes schools will link up and pool information garnered from libraries in their respective countries to retrace the historic circular route from Perth back to Albany in Western Australia, taken on horseback in 1831 by her namesake, Captain Thomas Bannister.
With WWF-Australia, Teletext CAMELL aims to support the action plans published by Australia in the 1992 Endangered Species Protection Act. "We will identify a certain number of endangered species," says Alex, "and promote them to the relevant communities, going into schools jointly with environmental organisations and using the expedition as a platform to get children excited through interactive learning."
Meanwhile, photographer Esther Beaton, Alex's co-leader in Australia, is to build up a photographic, documented archive of endangered species and their habitats.
There will be 10 British and Australian volunteers divided into two groups on the trek at any one time. Alex's number two, Chris Taxis, is responsible for ensuring the groups are in the right place at the right time with the right equipment. He expects to put logistical skills gained in the Army to good use. Every so often the vanguard of riding, back-up and baggage camels and humans will meet up with the vehicle party for "a gin gan gooly gooly round the fire", he says.
On board the camels will be a range of equipment including a Magellan 2000 GPS (Global Positioning System) which, says Alex, "tells you where you are and where you need to go, although we won't just rely on that as we have our own navigational skills to fall back on". An ICS satellite fax receiver normally used by round-the-world yachts will monitor weather - the images it brings up on the team's laptop computers will be relayed to the Internet site. Neste Advanced Power Systems is donating solar-powered "Magic Lanterns", Powerman portable multivoltage solar battery chargers, and a solar-powered fridge that can be carried by camel to keep anti-venom vaccines at 4deg C.
As the expedition progresses, it will celebrate and link into a number of anniversaries and events, among them "New Images", the British Council's 1997 youth programme to celebrate its 50th anniversary in Australia, and a bilateral trade conference in March next year which includes a one-day environmental symposium. And Australian and British schools will be invited to participate in an Endangered Species Week in April this year, to be organised with Tusk Force.
Most appropriately of all, 1996 is the 130th anniversary of Sir Thomas Elder's establishment of a camel stud in South Australia and 1997 is the 125th anniversary of the Overland Telegraph and 80th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railway, both of which used camels for haulage and transportation.
Further information from Sue Petrie, tel: 01705 296598, and http:www.atlas.co.ukcamell