Monday, July 05, 2021

Tracks - Robyn Davidson


Robyn Davidson did something as a twenty-seven-year-old back in 1977 that would be almost impossible today: she and her four camels made a (mostly) solo 1700-mile trek from Alice Springs, Australia all the way across the Australian desert to the Indian Ocean. As Davidson puts it in her postscript to the 2012 edition of Tracks:


“Could such a journey be made in the same way now? No, absolutely not. There would be many more people out there with many more ways of keeping tabs on you, more red tape to hold you back,  more no-go areas, more fences, more vehicles, more control. New communication technology would make it impossible to get lost no matter how hard you tried.”


Things have changed so much, in fact, that Davidson admits to finding it “painful and difficult” to revisit that part of Australia at all. But back in the day, things were much simpler, if not more primitive, in nature. Davidson had grown bored with the life she was living, especially with the several jobs she had by then experienced and with her various studies. She was more of a loner than any of her friends and family, and very much enjoyed her own company. So, what could be more natural for a young woman like her than six months or so spent all alone in literally the middle of nowhere?


There was one slight problem, however. Davidson knew that the best way to make it across such a wide expanse of desert was with the help of camels. And she knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about camels other than that she wanted to capture three or four of the wild desert camels, break them, and train them as pack animals. Easier said than done, of course, so Davidson ended up working eight months for a man who promised to teach her everything she needed to know and to pay her by giving her two fully-trained camels of her own. What Robyn Davidson experienced in Alice Springs makes up over one-third of Tracks, and very little of it is pretty. The Alice Springs that Davidson endured for those months was so racist and misogynistic that she suffered from severe depression much of the time she was there preparing for her great adventure.


But what an adventure it turns out to be.


In order to make the trip possible at all, Davidson did something that must have felt to her as if she had just sold her soul to the devil. For four thousand dollars, she agreed to allow a National Geographic photographer to join her along the way three or four times so that the magazine could do an expansive article on her and her trip through the desert. It was only with that money, however, that she was able to outfit herself with the equipment she needed to survive in the desert on her own. And despite what started out as a rocky relationship between her and the photographer, her trip may have ended disastrously without his help. At the very least, her experience was changed for the better. 


Bottom Line: Tracks is quite an amazing true adventure story, and Robyn Davidson was very frank about everything she saw and experienced during her journey. It is a book I strongly recommend to readers who enjoy reading about what I generally classify as “long walks” taken by one or two brave people who want to experience the planet in a way so few of us will ever manage to experience it for ourselves. There is also a movie version of Tracks by the same title out there, and it is sometimes pretty good despite failing to give much of a real sense of what Davidson went through in order to prepare for the trip or just how tortuous her days sometimes were. Even though the movie ticks off most of the milestone boxes of Davidson’s great adventure, it really comes nowhere near to meaningfully telling what her experiences were like. Do yourself a favor; read the book first.  

May 1978 National Geographic cover featuring Robyn Davidson's adventure


18 comments:

  1. As you can guess this is probably a book that would be for me. I'm stunned though that such a journey would not be really be possible now. Honestly shocked. I'll definitely be reading this at some stage.

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    1. I think her statement is a good reminder of just how much the world has changed in the last five decades, particularly in regards to technology. And with the aborigine population finally getting treated better, there are many more sacred no-go sites to be avoided, etc. Plus, too, there are simply more people living in the outback than ever before. Even with all of that, I wouldn't want to try this walk for myself. LOL

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  2. Good review. It seems what Davidson did & went thru was heroic. And I should go back & read the book of her journey ... the Alice Springs part seems beyond grueling. I'm curious too of what became of her after. Would you say that the book has a feminist perspective or agenda to it? Wiki says she lived at Doris Lessing's while writing some of it ... hmm. She knew quite a few famous writers it seems. She must have been very strong to accomplish what she did back then ...

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    1. The book definitely has something of a feminist perspective, if not an outright agenda, to it, I think. She describes herself, at the time, of being in a state of mind where she felt she needed this kind of drastic change in her life in order to go on. She was an extreme loner at this stage of her life, and she could barely tolerate being around people. The way she was treated by the locals - as a single woman in an isolated place - would have driven anyone to become an avowed feminist. It was all pretty awful - at least through her eyes.

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  3. What a story and experience this had to be. I love that National Geographic cover but, then, I'm such a huge animal lover. I probably would not read this type of story simply because I often feel more deeply for the poor animals than the humans in such stories -- just me probably.

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    1. You will be happy to learn, I think, that she really loved her four camels and her dog and that she pampered them as much as possible under the conditions. Too, the four camels had a very happy ending to the trip when they were "retired" on a little farm where they would be pampered for the rest of their lives. There are, however, some scenes in the book where camels are badly mistreated by their owners. Alice Springs just comes across as a terrible place filled with a lot of insensitive people in those days.

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  4. This sounds fantastic. And there was a Nat Geo article about her! I'm adding it to my reading list right away. Not the least because I'd enjoy reading about what it was like to handle the camels, and I've encountered descriptions of Alice Springs in some other fiction or memoir before, but this sounds like a v different viewpoint of it.

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    1. Jeane, I think you'll like the book, but keep in mind that not all the camel owners treat their animals very well, especially the wild ones they are trying to domesticate for use in their businesses there in Alice Springs.

      I have to admit that the overall impression of Alice Springs in the seventies is a bit of a surprise. Not a place I would have wanted to experience on my own...can't even imagine how a single woman all alone would have been able to stand it there for long.

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  5. Great review! As someone who enjoys an occasional backpacking escape from it all, this incredible tale is a must. Thanks for publizing it!

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    1. I think you'll like it, Bill, if you are one of those who enjoy long walks in remote places. Over the years, I've collected a few "long walk" books and still love reading them as much today as ever. My hiking days are pretty much over, but I still enjoy the kind of wandering road trip that usually leads to several nice surprises along the way. Hoping, in fact, to leave around July 18 for another aimless trek toward the Dakotas and surrounding states.

      Do let me know what you think of this one if you read it.

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  6. I used to dream of such adventures myself. Probably not on the cards at this point but I still like to read about them and dream.

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    1. Same here, Dorothy..nothing but dreams now, but I can still dream about doing things like this.

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  7. I do really love this book! I checked the movie out from the library and am hoping to watch it this weekend.

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    1. Let me know what you think of it, Lark. I think the movie actually made it look a lot easier than it really was.

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  8. Wow, this does sound like an amazing adventure story! I've never heard of it before. I do love reading books about people who are WAY more adventurous than I am (which is just about anyone, truthfully).

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    1. It does take a special kind of person (especially if female) to take risks like this. I can't imagine how she did it even after watching the movie and reading the memoir.

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  9. I have enjoyed books like this where an adventurer goes on a very difficult and dangerous journey (Wild and Into the Wild) and one important lesson is you must prepare for these trips. These cross country trecks are not for amateurs. Robyn Davidson understood this and so her books sounds well worth reading

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    1. I was as impressed with her preparation as I was with her actual walk through the desert, Kathy. She had eight months to prepare, but so many things went wrong during those months that she ended up wondering more than ever what the outcome would be out there on her own.

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