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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition.
Andrew Harper’s passion for sand dunes, saltbush, claypans and coolibahs drove him to explore more of Australia’s arid lands than any other contemporary desert traveller. Since 1995, he has led pack camels some 15,000 kilometres, including an west–east journey across Australia along the Tropic of Capricorn – the first person to do so.
Harper grew up in Deniliquin (NSW). He was 18 and a jackaroo on a sheep station near Longreach (Qld) when he came across a sign marking the Tropic of Capricorn. He wondered where this geographical construct came from and where it went to, but not much more.
Three years later, while backpacking in Morocco, Harper saw camels moving effortlessly across the dusty, rocky landscape. At school, he had fallen in love with Wilfred Thesiger’s evocative travelogue Arabian Sands and suddenly he was experiencing camel culture first-hand. He remembered his musings on the Tropic of Capricorn in Australia and decided that he should trace it by camel.
In 1995 Harper was hired by the legendary outback tourist operator Rex Ellis to work on a 25-day camel expedition across the Simpson Desert. It changed his life forever. Over the next four years Harper used camels to cross the Simpson three more times, then the Gibson and Great Victoria deserts and the Nullarbor Plain.
In 1999 he fulfilled his dream of crossing Australia along the Tropic of Capricorn in a 229-day, 4637-kilometre journey to raise funds for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Since then, Harper has made desert travel his business. He believes that “the best way to see the deserts is on foot”. And the best way to support such ambulatory exploration is with camels. He thinks that modern scientific expeditions that travel by vehicle are moving so fast, they miss the context of what they hope to study.
Andrew Harper has evolved from desert traveller to commercial operator to defender of the arid lands. He leads scientists, artists and paying clients into regions rarely visited over the past few decades, and even more rarely by Westerners. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and recently was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to environmental science, research and adventure tourism.