When I was a kid, my dad subscribed our family to the National Geographic magazine like so many other families during the 60s and 70s. You could find stacks upon stacks of the Nat. Geo. magazines in most of my friends’ homes, as well. Every month I would devour its contents and dream of travelling and the adventures I would have. (Sadly those stacks were eventually either given away or thrown out; who knew that decades later people would be selling back issues of the magazine for astronomical amounts on eBay?) I took a few dozen issues, (this particular issue included) when I eventually moved out.
I distinctly remember this particular cover of Robyn Davidson’s trek across the Australian Outback in the May 1978 issue because I was so blown away by her courage to even think of attempting such an risky journey across a desert! Then of course to actually achieve this journey seemed utterly crazy, right? Audacious? No doubt. But she certainly did it.
Davidson trekked across 1,700 miles of brutal yet breathtakingly beautiful desert landscapes with four camels and her beloved and faithful dog, Diggity, all the way to the Indian Ocean. What makes Davidson’s journey so interesting is the fact that she accomplishes this trip virtually on her own. The fact that she had had no prior experience trekking in a desert, let alone to even undertake such a trip solo, would ultimately test her physical, mental and emotional strength. What, you may ask, would lead someone to attempt such a journey to begin with? One answer may be the fact that at 27, Davidson had attempted a variety of jobs and even studies before deciding on this long term goal, when nothing else seemed to bring meaning and purpose to her life.
In her memoir, Tracks, Davidson describes her ultimate decision to cross the Outback as final once she arrives in Alice Springs. “ I experienced that sinking feeling you get when you know you have conned yourself into doing something difficult and there’s no going back.” She then spends almost two years getting ready; from acquiring four camels to training these ‘beasts of burden‘ to carry gear and provisions for the journey. Nevertheless, the question remains as to why she actually wanted to undergo such a treacherous and ultimately dangerous crossing, lies perhaps in her own personal ambitions. “…I had made a decision which carried with it things that I could not articulate at the time. I had made the choice instinctively, and only later had given it meaning.”
In order for Davidson to begin the trip she needs money, and lots of it, for food, supplies and feed for herself, her camels and her dog. Although throughout the many months of preparation she has tirelessly worked in a local bar/restaurant in Alice, where she realizes that she needs much more than what she has saved up for her trip. Through coincidence she meets a freelance photographer who then puts her in touch with National Geographic when she mentions her monetary dilemma. Thus the famed magazine eventually becomes her benefactor, with the express stipulation that this freelance photographer, Richard (Rick) Smolan, also take photos of her during her trip, meeting up with her at various locations along the way. This is where Davidson becomes quite uncomfortable with Smolan’s ceaseless photographing of her and her animals (not to mention the local Aborigines, and much to her dismay for Rick’s seemingly sheer lack of respect of privacy) . She feels this as an invasion of her own privacy and that this minimizes the actual spontaneity and perhaps the integrity of the journey. Yet without her sponsor, as well as the photographer, she would undoubtedly have been unable to make the trip at all, financially speaking. During her odyssey, Rick eventually becomes much more important to her than she could possibly imagine. There is no doubt that while ‘doing his job’ he also marvels at her extraordinary abilities to push on despite a few minor setbacks. Without giving away much of the story, it is an interesting read and which also deftly conveys Davidson’s insightful observations of her environment, both physical and human.
Much of her solo journey I believe comes down to the fact that Davidson herself is a loner, rarely needing the company of others in order to accomplish any task. This particular trait is evident in her memoir (as well as in the film) when she is pursued by the press (media) for photo ops and quotes about her trip. She shuns any and all spotlight opportunities in spite of her sponsorship. For Davidson, this trek is all about her own private experience rather than any fame or glory in its ultimate achievement. Which invariably makes this such a deeply personal experience.
Personally I think it takes a truckload of mettle but also a kind of grace to accomplish a life altering experience such as this one; you must be self-reliant and possess inner strength whether or not this comes to you before, during or after a journey, of any kind. Davidson tested her limits and embraced uncertainty and finally succeeds where others would have understandably given up at the first sign of trouble. How many of us can say the same? That she survived at all says a great deal about her tenacity, indeed her strength and ultimate courage. I highly recommended this memoir for a look at an adventure that most of us will never even contemplate let alone undergo. But oh! what an adventure! When she was asked by someone before she left why she was going on such a perilous trip, she simply replied, “Why not?”. Why not, indeed!
The film also entitled Tracks, was directed by John Curran (The Painted Veil) and stars Australian Mia Wasikowska as Robyn. (I found their physical resemblance remarkable). It also stars Adam Driver (Girls) as Rick Smolan. The exquisite cinematography is by Mandy Walker who conveys the harsh landscapes with beauty and dexterity.
It is worth watching with family and friends. Then after perhaps you could discuss the film and ask yourselves whether or not you would ever entertain such an idea as crossing a desert just to get to the other side.
This is the word on books and film for August. Enjoy the remainder of these summer months. Do something green and pay it forward, in every way, every day! Cheers!