It has been four decades since Robyn Davidson embarked on her trek across the harsh Australian desert with her dog Diggity and four camels in tow — a 2,700-kilometre journey that spawned her bestselling memoir Tracks.
The first night she arrived in Alice Springs in 1975, an Aboriginal man was found in a gutter painted white. The Ku Klux Klan was making its presence felt, and — against the backdrop of the battle for land rights — the town was seething with racial tensions and resentments that were never far from the surface.
Davidson got a job as a barmaid at the local pub, where she was labelled the town’s “next rape case”.
“It was pretty tough, and pretty rough, and pretty much a kind of masculine ethos — you know, that harsh Australian masculinity,” she tells Life Matters.
“But all of those things I had to overcome and deal with and I strengthened myself in the process. And that was absolutely necessary if I was going to succeed in what I was doing.”
What Davidson was preparing for was a massive journey from Alice Springs to the West Australian coast, with Diggity and the four camels.
It became a seminal trek that would inspire other adventurers, spawn a movie adaptation and see her memoir never out of print.
For many years, Davidson rebelled against the label of “camel lady” bestowed on her by the eager press, but she is now at peace with the legacy of her journey and the book that followed.
She is also thrilled that the original readers of Tracks, many of whom were women, are now giving it to their own sons and daughters to read, to inspire them to take a different path in life.
“I think about it such a lot — it has legs, that book, and it is all the more surprising because I had never intended to write a book in the first place,” she says.
“Possibly I hit some sort of mythical element without knowing so.
“It was the 70s and I think it was a time when a lot of young people were experimenting in their lives, and freedom was hugely important to us — the idea of freedom — and I think we knew that freedom would ultimately involve risk.
“I would hope that the central message of the book is that you can expand your boundaries, and that you don’t have to obey the rules and you can experiment with your life in all sorts of ways.”
Davidson, who grew up on a cattle station in mid-western Queensland, says while it is difficult to remember what Australian society was like in the 70s, she does remember her own restlessness — that personal yearning she had “to do something big and challenging with my life”.
She had a fascination with the desert and wonders now if those “those early sensual signals of dry air and the smell of dry grass” of her childhood ran deep.
“Perhaps all Australians have some sense of the desert back there buried in their psyches,” she says.
“Also, it was a very private and personal thing that I wanted to do. I didn’t want anyone else involved, I didn’t want anyone else to know and I had no idea that people would be interested or fascinated by what I was doing.”
‘The antithesis of loneliness’
When she first arrived in Alice Springs, Davidson had her faithful dog, $6 and, as she writes in the opening sentence of Tracks, “a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothing”.
She would spend the next two years working various jobs around town, learning about camels and trying to get her hands on some animals before she could start her trip in earnest.
Although the 26-year-old was alone for much of her journey, she was accompanied, somewhat begrudgingly on Davidson’s part, for small pockets of time by a photographer from National Geographic, Rick Smolan. His images of Davidson grace newer editions of the book.
She also met an Indigenous elder called Eddie, who walked with her for a month through his Dreaming country of the Jameson Ranges.
“It is very difficult to delineate what he taught me because it was by example, not by instruction,” Davidson says.
“But I think the main thing was being able to let go of a Western previous preoccupation with time and structure and just let myself move into a more sensible way of being.
“After we parted in Warburton (Western Australia), I then had a month going through the Gibson Desert area. Theoretically that was going to be the most challenging, the most difficult and I would be seeing nobody in that month.
“The paradox was I was as remote from the rest of humanity that it is possible to be, and yet I had never felt as connected and indeed as existentially at home.
“It was sort of the antithesis of loneliness, if you like.”
The same journey would be impossible today
Davidson still believes one of the greatest gifts of living in a country like Australia is the physically large open spaces — “the big, big spaces and possibilities” that “are metaphors for other things”.
But she concedes doing the same trip she did in 1977 in the same way would be impossible today.
She says she got in just in time, before our culture became one of “constant observation”.
Back then there were no mobile or satellite phones and “to come across a two-way radio every three months was how you got messages out of there”.
“There was a tremendous freedom in that,” Davidson says.
“There was something about having to expand myself in all sorts of directions that made me realise that there were all sorts of abilities and talents there that I had no idea I had.
“It was a wonderful, life-changing, fabulous thing to do with my life and I am very lucky to have been able to do it.”