Tracks writer Robyn Davidson on trekking 1700 miles through the Australian desert

John Curran's new movie tells the story of a woman who walked thousands of miles through harsh, unforgiving terrain in the '70s, with nothing but four camels and a dog to keep her company

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Tracks writer Robyn Davidson on trekking 1700 miles through the Australian desert
Written By
Jade Bremner

John Curran's beautifully shot new movie Tracks, based on Robyn Davidson's memoir, shows the spectacular wilderness of Australia through the tale of one woman, who travelled 1700 miles across the staggering landscape in 1977. She completed this monumental journey from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean by foot, with only four camels and a dog to keep her company.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre) will play Davidson in the movie, alongside Adam Driver (Girls) – who pops up in the desert as photographer Rick Smolan to document her journey for National Geographic.

RadioTimes.com speaks to the original adventurer ahead of the film's release...

You've continued to travel since your epic camel trek, but has anything matched that adventure since?

In a sense no, how could it really? For the simple reason that I was on my own for that length of time, I think my head got rewired frankly. Everything since then hasn’t been so intense, not that I haven’t done interesting things. That time in the desert would be a pretty hard act to follow.


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Have you had any similar experiences?

I’ve had an extremely eventful life, let's say. Going to India and doing a project with nomads there, going on migration with them, that was hard, that made Tracks look like a piece of cake.

What was so difficult about it?

There was no solitude ever, not even for a second. There were just people around all the time. Camels, sheep, desert, people. No privacy. You can’t drop your trousers in India without someone looking. There was a very funny incident, I got terribly tired and morally exhausted and one time I walked into this farm, owned by a very patriarchal peasant, and through an interpreter he said, “I can see you are suffering, what is it that’s wrong?” and I tried to explain to him that I could never be alone, and that in my culture having time to yourself is actually quite important. So the next day he put me on the bullet cart and he took me out into the bush and he put out a rug and sat me on the rug and he said “now you can be alone.” Meanwhile, there were about 40 villagers around me watching this foreigner sitting on her own.

What is it about the desert that draws you to it?

It’s always symbolic isn’t it? It’s large and it’s beautiful beyond description and your mind has a place to expand into. The Australian desert doesn’t have the bleakness of the Sahara, it’s very varied, incredibly beautiful, tears come to the eyes kind of beautiful and delicate. That the aesthetics of it, it’s like a huge garden, once you know how to be in it, once you understand it, it’s really a rather benign place. You know how to eat bushtucker, you know how to shoot game.

The survival aspect of your trek is quite remarkable, you had no fear. What preparation did you do?

I prepared in Alice Springs for two years. In that time, I trained the camels and developed so many skills that I didn’t know I had. Tracking for example; if I hadn’t learned to track I would have been buried out there somewhere. I would have been very foolish to go into the desert without any preparation.

Could you give us a couple of tips in case if we ever find ourselves in the desert?

It depends on the context but if you are worried about losing water then walk at night, don’t walk in the day. Follow where the birds are going and look out for animal tracks, they’re usually looking for water. There’s so much more, you’ve got to know what plants to eat, what plants never to eat, how to get sugar bags out of the trees, where to dig for widgety grubs – all those things.

You have no formal training either, would you agree that we can teach ourselves anything we need to learn?

I’m a terminal autodidact. I sort of dabbled at university, but it was in that era when life was so much more exciting. I was also meant to be a pianist, so I went to the Conservatorium for a while, but it was so conservative I couldn’t bear it. One of the good things about not going through a very formal education, is that I never stop learning. I never ever think that I’ve passed the exam. I’m consequently interested in everything and want to do everything and be everything. Often if people go through a very formal kind of education they see themselves as one thing.


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Does Mia Wasikowska portray you well in the movie?

I think she does. I don’t know how she did it. I’m always so fascinated by actors’ processes, how they channel somebody, I think we are not dissimilar people. I think she would have drawn on her own resources somewhat. I think she’s got a strong inner life. She understood why someone would do it, it wasn’t a mystery to her that someone would want to do such a thing.

During your trek, people kept asking you why you were doing it, what would you say to those who have a similar desire to go out there on their own, just because?

You absolutely don’t have to have a reason. It doesn’t have to be dropping your bundle and going bush, the principle of it is to extend yourself, find out a bit more about life and what you’re good at. People are so content to just go along. That’s particularly true for women; we accept the limitations imposed, instead of pushing the boundaries all the time.

Tracks does have unintentional feminist overtones, did you intend it to come across this way?

I didn’t, I was just doing what I wanted to do. I’m delighted that it has feminist overtones, I’m not ashamed of that at all. Although I would like the journey to be accessible to men and women, because I think it is universal. It might be more important to women because it's a woman doing something that usually would have been a man. I face huge opposition from the police to local blokes.

How did the police get involved?

I think I had to go and get my gun registered and they said, “what do you think you're doing, you’re just going to die out there because you’re a blond girl and you don’t know anything.” It was that sort of thing. These days there would be a different sort of opposition, it would be more subtle.

As opposed to the people in the towns, the people in the desert were extremely friendly and welcoming weren’t they?

Yes they got it, there were no questions [about what I was doing], my nickname down there was ‘desert woman’, which is so much better than ‘camel lady’.


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Have you stayed in touch with the people you met on your walk?

Oh yes, I go back quite a bit to see them particularly Eddie’s family [Eddie trekked through Ngaanyatjarra lands with Davidson, guiding her to water sources along the way]. The last time I went back to see him, he was in his wheelchair and it was at night. When he realised who it was he jumped up and grabbed both of my breasts and shook them! It was completely spontaneous. He’s very sweet and funny.

What can people learn from having a similar nomadic experience?

If you want to travel, just go and do it. Just make sure you prepare yourself well. It’s about knowing your environment, taking the trouble to work out what that environment is and then doing it. The journey is best thought of as a metaphor. Whatever situation you find yourself in, you can always be adventurous within it. If you’re a mum with three kids there are still ways you can extend your world.

You hated journalists when you were doing the trek, but now you’ve actually become a journalist…

Absolutely, what goes around comes around.


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Do you still see photojournalist Rick Smolan (played by Adam Driver in the movie) who documented your journey?

Yes, I see Rick all the time, and he still drives me mad. We’re still polar opposites, absolute opposites, but somehow we have this sweet friendship and I’m sure he’ll be my friend until I die. In a situation like that [walking 1700 miles across the desert] either you kill the person and bury them in a sand dune or you learn to tolerate them.

When you were out there on your own, did you actually enjoy it?

Yes most of the time. Particularly in the first third of the trip there were times when I was wondering what the hell I was doing, why I was doing it. I was bored sometimes, frightened other times. I was insecure. More and more as I went through the journey I got happier and happier and happier.

What kept you going?

Stubbornness.

You got to know Aboriginals during your trip and deeply respect them, what do you think of Australia’s current integration policy?

Ahh it’s so complicated, It’s so difficult. White Australians and post-colonial Australians have a great deal of trouble coming to terms with the history, the simple fact that the colonisation of that country destroyed aboriginal culture. So what do you do, how do you address that? I think these days there is a much better will to try and do that. But I don’t see it being very effective on the ground. People in those communities in the bush are pretty desperate. There's violence, drugs and everything you’d associate with destroyed people. However, I remember when I went back to Australia a few years ago, there was this terrific little film called Samson and Delilah. It’s wonderful, and made by a young aboriginal bloke. It’s a love story between two kids who are petrol sniffers. It’s very realistic. I watched that film and thought, “god, nothing has changed, it’s still as bad as it ever was,” but then I thought, “hang on, 20 years ago there would not have been a young aboriginal kid capable of making that film."

What are you going to focus on next? Are you hoping to do more films?

Yes, I’m sick of writing books – it’s too lonely and miserable. I’ll promise I’ll finish the next one, I do swear to that. But after that I think I’ll write film scripts, it’s much more fun because it’s somewhat collaborative. I would love to make a television series, I’m so inspired by some of the writing – Breaking Bad is genius.

We do need a good Aussie TV series…

Yes, they are not quite good enough yet.

Summer Heights High is popular here…

Oh that’s different, that’s gorgeous, I love it. It’s brilliant. And Jane Campion’s [Top of the Lake] out of New Zealand is also fantastic.


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