Book Review – Tracks: One Woman’s Journey Across 1,700 miles of Australian Outback, by Robyn Davidson
Before taking off on any big hike or faraway travel, amidst the flurry of packing, repacking, setting up auto-payments, organizing cat food deliveries and attempting to create a comprehensive schedule of my anticipated whereabouts for loved ones at home, I sometimes lose sight of what it is I’m about to go out and actually do. In order to bring me back down from the towering to-do list and onset of doubt, I turn to books and movies to help inspire and reinvigorate my travel mission. A few years ago, in the lead-up to my John Muir Trail hike, I found the empowering memoir “Tracks: One Woman’s Journey Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback,” by Robyn Davidson. In March of 1977, at the age of 27, Robyn set off on a journey she had been planning for over two years and crossed the Australian desert with just four camels and her dog to keep her company. It was just the kind of confidence boost I needed.
It was the 2014 film adaptation that first introduced me to Robyn’s story. The gorgeous overhead shots of camels walking across large swaths of sand brought me so immediately and viscerally into her world. Scenes of vast open spaces and the graphic textures of the brush, clay and dunes were stunning. As I watched, I started imagining what my upcoming trek across the Sierras was going to look like. Seeing the repetition of the daily tasks she had to endure to keep herself and her camels fed and hydrated helped to snap me right back into the backpacking mindset. Whether on foot in the Australian desert or in the Californian forest, accomplishing a long journey is really just an accumulation of daily tasks and the ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other, regardless of what else happens. Watching her I knew I wasn’t crazy for going on another multi-hundred mile hike – or at least if I was, I was in good company.
I went on that hiking trip having only watched the film but was inspired to learn more about Robyn Davidson and her camel trip. I downloaded the e-book, giddy for the opportunity to dive into it on night after night in my tent. But as it went, and as it has gone on nearly all of my backpacking trips, I was way too exhausted to be able to comprehend reading at the end of each day. If I even got a chapter in during all 25 days of that trip, I barely remember.
Recently I’ve revisited her story, this time via audiobook. On it’s surface, it’s a coming-of-age tale of a young woman with a crazy dream to take some camels to the ocean, (which is exactly the kind of story I’m a complete sucker for), but to leave it at that would be leaving out huge swaths of understanding and context. Robyn moved from Brisbane on the east coast to Alice Springs, a “frontier-town” as she calls it, smack in the middle of the Outback. At a time when feminism was still finding its footing in the cities, she managed to strive in the face of misogyny and verbal abuse from her mentor, dissuade the advances (occasionally at rifle point) of some of the town’s more persistent drunks, live on approximately 50¢ per week and eventually earn herself four camels – all before even starting her 1700-mile walk toward the Indian Ocean.
During her two years of training and preparing in Alice Springs, she befriended a few Aboriginal women and children as well as some folks involved in Aboriginal rights. It is through them and their efforts that Robyn gained a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the overwhelming poverty, disease and displacement affecting the indigenous Australians at that time. In the 1970’s, traditional Reserve lands were being parceled out from under the Aboriginals feet by the Australian government to international mining corporations while tribes of native people were being encouraged to “assimilate,” which often meant moving closer to the cities and towns. Places where, at the time of her writing, offered little to no opportunities for them and which were fraught with overt racism.
The further she goes, the more Robyn understands and appreciates the sanctity of these disappearing ancestral lands, partially with the aid of Mr. Eddie, a Pitjantjaran elder whom she traveled a section of the journey with and who, despite a language barrier, taught her about many things, including many of the tribal origin stories. The deeper I got into the book and the Aboriginal plight, the comparisons to America’s bloody history with it’s own indigenous tribes were palpable. Throw in the continuing threat that our current President’s positions on land rights and fossil fuels pose to our sacred lands, and I find it hard to believe that nearly 40 years have gone by since the writing of this book. Sadly it seems as though the fight for protections for our underserved communities and solemn spaces is just beginning.
Robyn’s trip and subsequent memoir may never have happened, or at least not to the degree that we understand it, if not for sponsorship by National Geographic and the photography of Rick Smolan. Nearly two years into procuring and preparing camels for her trip, she still needed money for all of the food, supplies and various camel accouterments. After a chance meeting with a traveling photographer on assignment in the Outback, Robyn found herself convinced to write to the magazine and ask for their support. In exchange for the necessary funds, she would agree to write a piece about her trek when it was finished and to allow Rick to come out and photograph her and her camels a few times along the way. This contract proved to be a source of conflict for Robyn and which she agonized about throughout her trip. She couldn’t get away from feeling that by taking money from a publication, it ultimately changed the nature of her journey. She never felt as though the images which were created at the time showed her actual journey – the mental and the physical one which she was experiencing on the daily – but were somehow a mischaracterization of herself – a much more romantic version of the “camel-lady.”
However, with her finances in order, she was able to buy the remaining gear, solidify her route and say goodbye to Alice Springs for good. Camel-tending aside, it is in the actual travelling portion of her story where I am able to identify with some of her thought processes regarding traveling alone as a women and about growing strong and hardened in arenas previously unknown or unavailable. The myriad of memories that a long journey allows for one to contemplate fully and extensively, ultimately bettering one’s understanding of themselves is so visceral in her narration and from the experiences I’ve had on long-distance hiking trails, I felt a sense of fellowship with her growing joy and deep appreciation for the land moving along underneath her feet. This is by far my favorite portion of the book and which the film adaptation centers its focus.
While the creator/patron relationship is often ripe with compromise, and philosophical discussions regarding the act of writing about or making art to represent an actual experience and whether or not that act fundamentally changes the experience itself can continue on in infinite circles, (the kind of circles that could make a woman go mad as she’s walking alone across a sweltering drought-stricken desert with only camels and a dog to talk to), they are nonetheless necessary. Without artistic patrons to fund adventures, ideas and the people who conceived of them can become stagnant or lost to history.
That Robyn Davidson chose to enter into a kind of financial compromise does not devalue her trek in my opinion. Ultimately, the act of mark making of any sort is merely a representation of a lived or felt experience. Had Robyn not entered into a relationship with a magazine and left her own tracks across the vast Australian expanse, (which Rick Smolan so gorgeously documented at various points along the way), we would not have learned of her experience, nor been able to draw out our own inspirations from it. If the article, the photographs, the book and the film captured even glimpses of her lived reality, I am all the more inspired to continue documenting my experiences, ever striving to find new ways of presenting my truth.