Happy 100th birthday to Wilko… Australia’s oldest cameleer

Wilko and Sauli
Wilko and Sauli

It’s Easter Sunday and John Wilkinson, known to all as Wilko, has driven his truck one and a half hours in a convoy to visit his camel, Sauli, named for his cook who “kept his back” in New Guinea during the Second World War. 

Sauli and seventeen other camels will begin the annual series of Australian Desert Expeditions (ADE) in a couple of weeks. The camels will carry supplies and equipment for scientists, tourists and desert devotees who will walk stages of the journey across the Simpson Desert from Andado Station in the Northern Territory to the Kalacoopah River near the Birdsville Track in South Australia. 

Wilko isn’t walking this year but it’s only three years since he was out with the camels. He’s lost track of the number of desert trips he’s done.

Yesterday was Wilko’s 100th birthday, celebrated as Wilko Fest at the Deniliquin, NSW property of ADE leader Andrew Harper. More than 80 people have gathered from far-flung places around Australia including north Queensland, Tasmania, and, in our case, Margaret River. Swags and campers cover the paddock as Wilko’s family, friends and desert comrades enjoy a weekend of feasting, yarning and sharing tales of desert adventures. 

Wilko has driven his truck from his home in Coleambally, about two hours away. He and his Jack Russel, Billy, are sleeping in the converted truck which is accessed by a ladder. He has joined in all the activities on his big day, from morning coffee to a sumptuous lunch with a ‘desert camel trip’ themed cake, and late supper around the campfire. He enjoys a glass or two of red wine.

Wilko’s erect posture hints at his military background. 

“I enlisted on 9 May 1941,” he said. “I served in the militia and the AIF. I was two and half years in the artillery. I went to officer training and served in New Guinea. Batallion 2NG1B.”

His unexpected answer to my question about his war experience was “it was fun”. In everything he says, his positive attitude shines through. Perhaps that explains his prescription for longevity. 

“It’s all about attitude, dealing with stress and eating well.”

After returning to civilian life in 1945, Wilko followed a career in agriculture with a refresher course at Roseworthy Agricultural College, working a scrub block at Mt Crawford in the Barossa Ranges for ten years and managing properties in SA and NSW before purchasing land in the Coleambally Irrigation Area where he and his wife, Jo farmed for 18 years. He also established a landcare group. 

The desert was always there in the background. 

“As a boy of eight I read about the explorers,” he told me. “When I left school I took a gap year before entering Roseworthy and persuaded my father to let me fly to Alice Springs.”

He regaled me with tales of riding on the mail truck, clinging to a rope on a tarp on top of the load, mustering cattle and driving a mob of 300 cattle from Alice Springs to Adelaide.

“Since then I always loved being out in the country. My wife and I travelled most of Australia. I started with the camels in 1986. The camel trips gave me the opportunity to meet wonderful people.

“I hadn’t realised I had so many friends,” he said. “Friends are terribly important.”

Daughter Susie summed it up in her speech: “Dad, when you decide to get old, we’re here for you.”

How has he managed to live so long? 

“I’m bloody pig headed. I don’t want to die.”

Happy birthday Wilko.