Originally published in 1982, Robyn Davidson’s travel memoir, Tracks: One Woman’s Journey of 1,700 Miles Across the Australian Outback, is a unique picture of life in the bush. To call it a travel memoir doesn’t do it justice. It’s really an adventure story, with camels, a dog, lots of sand hills, and a variety of indigenous people.
When Davidson took this journey, Aboriginal Land rights had just been legislated. The world was afraid of nuclear bombs and the Cold War. Women were just finding their feminist voices. And the Outback was entirely different than it is today.
For that matter, so was Davidson. She was a young, idealistic, and somewhat naive woman. Having been raised on a cattle ranch as well as lived in cities, she envisioned a journey from Alice Springs to the Western coast of Australia. Alice Springs is more or less smack in the middle of Australia, and Davidson heads there first in search of camels and knowledge.
Her stories of the people she meets both in Alice and along the way are altogether fascinating. There isn’t anyone who isn’t an odd character. Chief among them is Davidson herself, who spends plenty of her time in the desert naked due to the heat. In Alice, there’s the maniacal camel trainer, who abuses Davidson until she smartly leaves his employ. Davidson also meets a young photographer, Rick Smolan, who encourages her to apply for a grant from National Geographic, which she then receives. Once in the desert, she spends quite a few weeks with a Pitjantjara man called Mr. Eddie.
Davidson is fundamentally an angry woman, and Smolan gets under her skin more than once. But the book is not a romance / adventure. If anything, the romance is between Davidson and her animals – four camels and a dog. I learned more about camels than I ever wanted to know, especially about their dung. But Davidson paints them as half human in their behavior, which is charming.
As you can imagine, there are detailed descriptions of the desert, whether lush or barren. Davidson has her outright crazy moments, and doesn’t shy away from the details there either. Frankly, this city girl can’t blame her for getting a little loopy in the lonely Outback.
For Davidson, the journey was both spiritual and physical. Her writing paints pictures, and left me wanting more. Thankfully, I can watch the 2013 movie about her trek, and search the Internet for photos and articles.