Four camels, a canine sidekick, and a journey across the Australian outback

TracksTracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback
By Robyn Davidson
254 pages, Vintage Books, New York 1995
Originally published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, 1980

The decision to walk 1,700 miles through the Australian outback with four camels and a dog named Diggity isn’t a light one. But it was perfectly reasonable for Robyn Davidson, who did that very thing in the late 1970s. In Tracks, Robyn navigates not only the harsh desert environment, but the complexities and tensions of the trip: public scrutiny, her sponsorship with National Geographic magazine, and the struggle within herself to keep going despite setbacks and perceived failures. Her interactions with the Aborigines invoked conflict too: she was perceived by the indigenous community as both a welcomed traveler and potential intruder. Engrossing and energetic, Tracks is a story of self-transformation and the simple, fierce persistence of setting your mind to something and following through.

The single most important quality about a story is truth. This book resonated with me because Robyn consistently and unapologetically tells the whole story, even the unsavory bits like her description of her conflicting feelings towards Rick, the photographer required by the trip’s sponsor, National Geographic. “In retrospect, I should have never allowed myself to see Rick as a fellow human being at all. I should have always regarded him as a necessary machine without feelings, a camera in fact. […] I liked him. And I realized that he needed this trip perhaps as much as I did. And that was the burden.” Her frank descriptions of conflicting emotions make her vulnerable and relatable. For her, Rick was the constant, unavoidable reminder of her “selling out”—sacrificing her trip’s integrity for four thousand dollars. By allowing National Geographic to fund the trip, she relinquished a subtle amount of control over the trip to them, which had begun as a personal and private endeavor. While I empathize with Robyn’s perspective, I don’t see the sponsorship that way. Sometimes practicality wins the day and the necessity for funds and gear override romantic notions of self-sufficiency. If a world-renowned and respected magazine offers funds and gear in exchange for an article and a few photos, it’s a good deal. I selfishly can’t help but think that without Rick’s photographs of Robyn’s journey, I wouldn’t be able to visualize her experience as accurately as the pictures depict.

Throughout the book, Robyn had a sincere empathy for the indigenous people of Australia, the Aborigines, who faced, and continue to face, rampant racism and prejudice. I saw many parallels to how Native American communities were, and continue to be, treated in the United States. A quote from Kevin Gilbert in Because a White Man’ll Never Do It summarizes the situation: “It is my thesis that Aboriginal Australia underwent a rape of the soul so profound that the blight continues in the minds of most blacks today. It is this psychological blight, more than anything else, that causes the conditions that we see on reserves and missions. And it is repeated down the generations.” On a reservation outside Alice Springs, the conditions were truly inhumane. The people had no access to water, sanitation or shelter. They had nothing to sustain them but alcohol. Robyn elaborates that even the small population of part-Aboriginal people who live in Alice Springs face subtle forms of racism everyday, which “reinforces their own feelings of worthlessness and self-hate. The constant frustration in not being able to change their lives makes many of them give up hope, turns them into alcoholics, because that, at least, provides some form of release from an untenable situation, and finally, grants them oblivion.”

On the journey, Robyn’s interactions with Aborigines ranged from being welcomed into the community as a traveler (and a traveler via camels at that, for certain tribes valued camels as a form of transportation before the introduction of cars) to her being an outsider, an intruder. In one instance, a group of old Pitjantjara women invited Robyn and her friend to dance. After the dance, one of the old women went up to them with an outstretched, expectant hand and asked for six dollars. Robyn and her friend gave the old woman the little money they had, but for Robyn the experience was “a final summing up of how I could never enter their reality, would always be a whitefella tourist on the outside looking in.”

Of special interest to me was the Aborigines’ relationship to the land, because it seemed the firmest connection to their identity. The capitalist notion of “owning land” is wholly incomprehensible to the Aborigines. For them, “the concept of owning land was far more impossible than owning a star or an allotment of air would be to us.” The land is everything to them—their law, ethics, and reason for existence. “Without that relationship they become ghosts. Half people. They are not separate from the land. When they lose it, they lose themselves, their spirit, their culture.” For the Aborigines, the land was “not wild but tame, bountiful, benign, giving, as long as you knew how to see it, how to be part of it.” Rarely does land evoke such intense feeling and appreciation in our Western minds. But perhaps this is a lesson we should learn, because without land, and without caring for the land, we could not survive.

The most curious attraction of the story were the camels. Previous to this book I knew very little about camels, except for their humps and desert habitat. They proved to be quite amusing and lovable. While some argue that Robyn anthropomorphized camels, I disagree. Taking into account my partiality to animals, still it was evident that they did have human personalities, amplified by Robyn’s endearingly delightful and hilarious descriptions of them:

They are the most intelligent creatures I know except for dogs and I would give them an I.Q. rating roughly equivalent to eight-year-old children. They are affectionate, cheeky, playful, witty, yes witty, self-possessed, patient, hard-working and endlessly interesting and charming. They are also very difficult to train, being of an essentially undomestic turn of mind as well as extremely bright and perceptive. This is why they have such a bad reputation. If handled badly, they can be quite dangerous and definitely recalcitrant. Kurt’s were neither. They were like great curious puppies. Nor do they smell, except when they regurgitate slimy green cud all over you in a fit of pique or fear. I would also say that they are highly sensitive animals, easily frightened by bad handlers, and easily ruined. They are haughty, ethnocentric, clearly believing that they are god’s chosen race. But they are also cowards and their aristocratic demeanour hides delicate hearts. I was hooked.

The camels provided comedic relief that helped counter the public scrutiny of Robyn’s trip. An obvious expectation of a trip like this is the incessant deluge of criticism from negative and ignorant people; Robyn certainly received her fair share of it. People called her a lunatic and a shameless publicity seeker, and worst of all looked upon her with a patronizing smirk and expressed sentiment that a woman would never be able to do such a ludicrous thing without getting herself killed in the process. After a chance encounter with a wormy overlander seeking the limelight, the “jackals, hyenas, parasites and pariahs of the popular press” heard of her success. They hunted her and caught her in the desert, dubbed her “the crazy camel lady”, and ran off to play their part in “the great ugly farce called ‘the public has a right to know'”. It is too easy a judgement to deem them the enemies of the story, but I felt it freely and without remorse.

The biggest critics have the weakest character. They can’t get past the thoughts of the journey’s potential hardships, the ones they weave in their minds, and so they stay stuck, chained to the molds of habit. “To break the molds, to be heedless of the seductions of security is an impossible struggle but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble.” Robyn expertly writes about the struggle within herself to keep going despite setbacks and perceived failures. She wants to shake the people who think they don’t have the courage to try, for “courage has much less to do with it than sheer luck and staying power”. Robyn’s account is one that encourages this central fact: we are as strong as we believe ourselves to be.

Rating: 4 stars
(to see rating scale, click here)

After reading the book, I highly recommend watching the 2013 film adaptation starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn and Adam Driver as Rick.

Further reading: “Traveling, Writing and Engagement in Robyn Davidson’s Tracks” by Magali Sperling Beck, 2016

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