Essay by Tony Birch

The filmmaker, Werner Herzog, believes there is only one way to truly engage with a place. That is to walk it. Herzog should know, having once attempted to circumnavigate Germany on foot. Walking as pilgrimage, as a means of finding oneself, is both a genuine experience of human history and a New Age fad. Robyn Davidson’s Tracks, a book mapping the journey she undertook in 1977 from central Australia to the Indian Ocean, with her camels and a dog, Diggity, for company, is a gripping and intriguing story. While reading the experience of her trip, at times gruelling and frustrating, and marked by moments of despair and a sense of failure, I returned again and again to a single question: why is she doing this? By the end of the book I was no closer to an answer, and Davidson never provides one. Oddly perhaps,Tracks is all the better a book for not addressing this question directly. Readers will speculate for themselves, and some will draw conclusions as to why a young woman craving solitude would go to such extremes to experience it. I reached no such conclusion, although I am sure there was nothing of the New Age attaching itself to Davidson on her journey. After all, fads and fashion will only take a person so far.

Davidson undertook her trek with the financial assistance of National Geographic magazine. The relationship was a pragmatic and tense one, providing Davidson with the cash she needed to equip herself and her animals with the necessities required for the longest of walks. In return, the magazine produced a feature on Davidson, ‘the camel lady’, along with a series of high-quality colour photographs that she hated, claiming they made her look like ‘a model’. Perhaps so. More importantly, what the photographs are unable to reveal, but Tracksgives detailed attention to, are the deep emotional challenges she faced. And whatever tension existed between Davidson and the magazine did not undermine the success of the subsequent National Geographic feature, which became the catalyst for the publication of the book two years later.

Contemplating the journey she was about to undertake, Davidson speculated that she lacked two essential ingredients for surviving the trip, ‘courage and conviction’ (p. 88). Of course, on the surface at least, she lacked neither attribute. She appeared strong, stubborn (perhaps a little too so) and full of physical stamina. But both the trekker and writer in Davidson knew better than us, her readers, barracking for her to succeed.

It was more the mental and emotional fortitude that Davidson felt she lacked. Faced with relentless psychological pressure as she walked for months across a dry and hot landscape (although, as she experienced, the temperature can drop to freezing of a night), Davidson would be entering a ‘new time, space dimension’ (p. 150) that threatened to overwhelm her. The level of emotional courage required to successfully complete the trip was the great unknown of the journey. It is where the notion of ‘finding oneself’ would shift from cliché to the daily challenges of existence itself. If the first third of Tracks is an exercise in preparation for the trip, the remainder of the book is one of survival. It is also the thread that most tightly grips the reader.

Davidson arrived in Alice Springs looking for work and for camels suitable for her needs. Her first impression of the town was not favourable, although this isn’t unusual for an outsider. On her first day in ‘the Alice’ she noted that there were ‘three pubs, a few motels, a couple of zed-grade restaurants, and various shops that sell “I’ve climbed Ayers Rock” T-shirts’ (p.8). It was also a town ‘characterised by an aggressive masculine ethic and severe racial tension’ (p.8). Davidson’s ethnographic reading of the white Australian male of the outback (and most likely, the city) is standard fare, and not particularly interesting, although she does recount a wonderfully perverse Wake in Fright sketch after pulling in at an outback pub for a rest during her trip across country:

I went into the bar for a beer, there to be met by a group of typical ockers, all talking, as is their want about sex and sheilas…one of them, an ugly weedy pimply little brute, had been a milkman in Melbourne and was entertaining his mates with gruesomely detailed stories of his countless conquests of sex-starved housewives (p. 128).

There are few white men that Davidson comes across who impress her, although the National Geographic photographer sent to cover the trip shifts from being an annoying, intermittent presence to a figure of romance. Davidson’s true love is saved for her dog, Diggity, and the camels. Her attraction to them is instantaneous:

They are haughty, ethnocentric, clearly believing they are god’s chosen race. But they are also cowards and their aristocratic demeanour hides delicate hearts. I was hooked (p. 14).

Of course, it’s of no surprise that for Davidson to survive a 1,700-mile walk across difficult country, her understanding of working with the camels and their own ability to cope with the distance, as pack animals, would become paramount. One of the more confronting aspects ofTracks is in fact the dynamic of this relationship. Thousands of camels roam free across central Australia, having been bought here by Afghani and Indian cameleers in the nineteenth century, but Davidson’s were working animals that at times appeared more than reluctant to perform the work required. (They are clearly headstrong, and were wont to ‘shoot through’ on her whenever the opportunity arose.) They also suffered a great deal of pain, brought about by various infections, sore feet and soft tissue injuries. Additionally, Davidson appeared unconcerned about giving the camels a disciplinary beating whenever the situation required it. Some readers may be affronted by this aspect of the book; others may, as I did, realise that the attitude of ‘city folk’ is to sentimentalise, even fetishise, our relationship with animals.

There is no doubt that Robyn Davidson loved her camels. She slept with them, doted over them, and on one occasion wept openly and uncontrollably for her animals. But she was also pragmatic. And it is this trait, along with her growing ‘bulldog tenacity’ (p. 35), that enables Davidson to push on when she has been beaten into near submission. When Davidson was in the planning stage of her trip, gathering suitable camels, she discovered that one of the older animals, Kate, was suffering and that it would fall to Davidson herself to ‘put [Kate] out of her misery’ (p. 57) by shooting the camel in the head with a rifle. Though she loved the animal, prior to shooting her Davidson was ‘determined not to get soppy about it’ and would even ‘sharpen up [her] knives so that [she] could take her beautiful coat and tan it’ (p. 57). The outcome of Kate’s death typifies the conflicting emotional state that drives Davidson forward. She is able to will herself to shoot Kate, for the benefit of the animal, but seeing the animal dead she can no longer take her coat: ‘I felt like a murderer. The idea of stripping Kate’s hide was unthinkable’ (p. 58).

As Davidson walks across central Australia with her dog and camels, a growing involvement with local Aboriginal people challenges and alters her perception of place and people. The first Aboriginal people she encounters in Alice Springs are those living in the dry bed of the Todd River. The non-Aboriginal community of the town have advice for Davidson, telling her that the local Aborigines are ‘dirty, lazy [and] dangerous’. It soon becomes abundantly clear who is actually dangerous; it is an Aboriginal man who is found one morning in the gutter, painted white. And it is members of the Aboriginal community who suffer the racism and apartheid of Alice Springs, forced to line up at the ‘dog window’, for instance, if they want a drink at one of the local pubs.

Although no expert on the perennial ‘Aboriginal Problem’ (and she thankfully offers no solution), Davidson does encounter and describe situations of hardship, including alcoholism, violence and welfare dependency within Aboriginal communities. As a historical narrative,Tracks documents the fraught political and socio-economic environment she literally walked into. She informs us that prior to his moral reassignment, the then prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, was responsible for a cut in the Aboriginal Affairs budget in 1977, which Davidson concludes had ‘almost devastated the work of Aboriginal health and legal aid organisations’ (p. 121). Another timely reminder she provides is that the Fraser government’s harshness was surpassed by Bjelke Peterson’s conservative Queensland government; in 1977, it asked the federal government to stop the Fred Hollows anti-trachoma team from working in Queensland ‘because two of the Aboriginal field workers were enrolling Aboriginal people to vote’ (p. 121).

Two striking encounters along the road highlight both Davidson’s limited understanding of Aboriginal people and her capacity for recognition and acceptance. The first occurs at Giles, a weather station, where a large group of Aboriginal people, mostly women, are camping. While talking with the women, Davidson and a friend, Glenys, are asked if they would like to learn to dance. Davidson accepts the offer and clearly enjoys the growing atmosphere of ‘much touching and laughing and reassurance’ (p. 144). She is swept up in the mood of the singing and dancing and becomes ‘transported…close to tears’ (p. 145). It isn’t long before Davidson feels that she belongs with these women:

The sound seemed to rise from the ground. It belonged so perfectly, it was a song of unity and recognition, and the old cronies were like an extension of the earth. I wanted to understand so much. Why were they doing this for us, these smiling women? (p. 145).

The women were teaching the dance for various reasons, no doubt. One of them would have been hospitality. Another was money. As the group of dancers breaks up, and Davidson and her friend are about to leave the gathering, an old woman approaches them and says, ‘Six dollar, you got six dollar’ (p. 145). Davidson quickly becomes embarrassed. For a start she had no money to give, but more profoundly, as she admits to herself (and the reader), ‘I had not thought…’ (p. 145). She leaves the camp despondent, feeling that she would never be more than a tourist in the eyes of Aboriginal people. It is a harsh judgement, but a confronting and honest self-assessment that lends integrity to her experiences. It is also an awkward scene that a lesser writer may have chosen to leave out of the book, and readers would have been none-the-wiser – to our detriment.

The most tender passages in the book deal with Davidson’s growing relationship with ‘Mr Eddie’, an Aboriginal Elder who accompanies her for part of her journey. It is through Eddie that Davidson begins to see both Aboriginal people and the land differently, in a more sophisticated and informed manner.

Eddie is a quiet man. He is economical in both movement and speech, conserving himself for the necessities required to thrive in his own country. The scenes between Davidson and Eddie would be difficult for any writer to achieve without mimicking worn-out clichés of the passive ‘noble savage’ of a colonised Australia. That Davidson is able to avoid this literary stumble while at the same time writing about Eddie with love is, I believe, testament to both her deep affection for him and her growing sense of awe at the deep understanding of place possessed by Aboriginal people such as Eddie.

Tracks is a book of great integrity, written by a forthright thinker and author. She is able to introduce readers to aspects of Australian culture and landscape that many will never personally experience. It is also clear that Davidson herself could not experience the same journey today in the manner that she did so many years ago – a lot has changed in this country since Tracks was first published. And yet, the book remains as relevant now as it was then, leaving us with much to think about. We can thank Robyn Davidson for this.


Further Reading:

Davidson, R 1993, Travelling Light: a collection of essays, Harper Collins, Sydney.

Benterrak, K, Muecke, S & Roe, P, with Keogh, R, Butcher, J & Lohe, EM 1984, Reading The Country: introduction to nomadology, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle.

Scott, K 1993, True Country, Fremantle Arts Centre Press Fremantle.

© Copyright Tony Birch 2015