x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Taste for adventure

Bill Jones is fulfilling his dream. When he moves back to Oz early next year, he'll export camels around the world.

Bill Jones, a professor of health and nutrition, drinks fresh camel milk at a friend's farm near Al Ain.
Bill Jones, a professor of health and nutrition, drinks fresh camel milk at a friend's farm near Al Ain.

Bill Jones is a professor in Al Ain. But after nearly two decades in the Emirates, he's ready to move on. Some people decide to open a winery or B&B. Others may travel, write a book or enjoy hobbies. Mr Jones is quitting for camels. "I enjoy teaching, but I am looking to the future," Mr Jones, 54, said. Mr Jones and Chris O'Hora are business partners at Calamunnda Camel Farm in Western Australia, about 23km from Perth. Since 1990, when the two joined forces, Mr O'Hora has handled the operations of the 4-hectare farm. Mr Jones, originally from Australia, has served as the company's adviser from afar.

But the farm is preparing to expand. When Mr Jones arrives permanently, early next year, they plan on exporting camels around the world. "We have a very interesting opportunity," Mr O'Hora said from Australia. "We've had inquires from Malaysia, Libya and Saudi Arabia. "There's an enormous business opportunity waiting for us." This ambition had humble beginnings. Mr Jones met Mr O'Hora in the late 1980s while on holiday in Australia. He visited the farm and immediately fell in love with the animals. Mr Jones has long admired their resilience, adaptability and patience. It is an affair that stretches back to 1980, when he and his wife were invited for dinner at the home of an Emirati.

After the meal, Mr Jones met the family's camels. He remembers stepping into the night and visiting the stables. He held the bowl as his host milked a camel. The experience was enough to get Mr Jones interested in the camel business. Prior to his partnership with Mr O'Hora, the farm's operations were modest. So they sat down and crafted a business plan. "We decided we could do more," Mr Jones said. "We had to get organised, create real care, maintenance and infrastructure, and make a real business of it."

The initial investment was less than A$10,000 (Dh24,700). Mr O'Hora already owned the land, and built the stables and infrastructure himself. "He can do anything," Mr Jones said. "He is very resourceful." The next step was gathering the product. Camels aren't indigenous to Australia, and were first introduced in the mid-1800s. Since then the population has exploded. Northern Australia's remote outback is now home to hundreds of thousands of wild camels. The population is so big that they have become pests to the Aborigines who live there. Baby camels are purchased from the Aborigines for about A$50, and adults from anywhere between A$200 and A$500. Considering a camel lives for between 30 and 60 years, this untapped reservoir is a valuable investment with longevity.

But transport is costly. The wild camels are at least 3,000km away from the farm, with travel costing A$400 to A$600 per animal. The bonus, however, is that camels, unlike horses, can be packed tightly. They are comfortable lying down. When they reach the farm the camels are carefully trained by Mr O'Hora. The aim is to socialise the animals as much as possible by touching them, exposing them to children and rewarding them with carrots and "pony cubes" each time they obey a command.

Mr O'Hora also exposes them to loud noises, cars and even the occasional shotgun blast. The process can take months, and the farm houses about 15 camels at a time. An obedient camel sells for several thousand Australian dollars. "The value of my stock is akin to the racing horse," Mr O'Hora said. "I produce the best stock, and my product is therefore well priced." For years the business has thrived by relying on a basic philosophy - the partners must be as adaptable as the camels themselves. To maximise income, they cater to a long list of services, everything from birthday parties, spots on Australian television and documentaries, rides and parades. Romantic couples sometimes want to get married on the back of a camel. Another time Mr O'Hora marched a herd into downtown Perth at the request of Emirates Airline for a grand opening.

If you visit the farm, Mr O'Hora offers half-day treks into the woods for A$180, full-day trips for A$370 and an overnight adventure for A$440 per person. Their costs lie mostly with labour. At the moment the farm employs six workers. The next biggest expense are the camels' feed and veterinary bills. Equipment and marketing are the farm's other major expenditures. Revenue remains constant at about A$500,000 a year.

Maintaining a business with a partner living overseas hasn't been easy. "For me, you need to have someone at ground zero who knows what he or she is doing," Mr Jones said. "You need total confidence in that person. I am only in Australia for a limited time." Mr Jones and Mr O'Hora meet this challenge through constant contact by phone and e-mail. They make the most of the time they spend together by discussing what is working, and what isn't.

Mr Jones believes a business partner should possess diverse skills. While he is a specialist in nutrition, which comes in handy for raising the camels, Mr O'Hora provides a charismatic face and voice for the business. Mr Jones also encourages his partner to unwind from his daily grind by taking time off. And alleviating the pressure of business has never been more important than now. Mr Jones and Mr O'Hora have bigger plans on the horizon.

Mr Jones said that when he begins working at the farm full-time his first task will be to spearhead the government paperwork required for exporting their beasts of business. They will have to meet regulations and quarantine policies. The plan is to purchase a new holding facility closer to a seaport to make these tasks more efficient. Mr O'Hora is hopeful they will be able to establish partnerships with local land-owners to help lessen the cost of buying more land.

A breeding facility and additional transport equipment will also be required. Mr O'Hora said their overall investment could run into the millions, financed through savings, loans and partnerships. Finding buyers for the camels is not an issue. Mr O'Hora said the demand was out there, but he has never possessed the infrastructure to meet it. The Singapore Zoo recently asked them for a pair, while some businessmen from Malaysia are interested in a reliable source of camel meat.

"The challenge for us is to have these animals readily available," he said. "Sometimes clients only want males, or sometimes they want specific ages. Transport will be a challenge, along with establishing partnerships and management facilities." The partners plan to limit their farms to Australia. In the UAE, as with most businesses, they would need a sponsor to get started. Also, according to Mr Jones, the camel business is too well established in the Emirates. Australia, he said, was relatively untapped.

Mr Jones envisions countless opportunities to generate additional revenue. He is interested in processing camel hides for leather. Their fat is a common ingredient in sun screen, and in China it is used in cooking oil. Indeed, Mr Jones has lofty expectations one year from now. "I hope we have increased our turnover by a minimum of 100 per cent," he said. "I hope we will be further along with the government in terms of exports. I hope we will have done our first export by then. Chris and I are going to do it." @Email:jtodd@thenational.ae To learn more about Calamunnda Camel Farm, visit its website at www.camelfarm.com