Why did Robyn Davidson cross the Outback on foot?

The cover of the May 1978 issue of the National Geographic is a portrait of a young woman in profile, her head close to that of a camel, one hand grasping a feed bucket, the other holding on to the chinstrap of the animal’s harness. The woman is Robyn Davidson, the photograph was taken by Rick Smolan.
Tracks - In 1977, Robyn Davidson travels from Alice Springs to the Indian OceanTracks - In 1977, Robyn Davidson travels from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean
Tracks - In 1977, Robyn Davidson travels from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean

Davidson was a 28-year-old Australian woman who the year before had walked 1,700 miles across the deserts of the Outback from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, accompanied only by four camels and her dog, Diggity. Smolan was the magazine photographer sent to cover her journey, meeting up with her roughly once a month as she crossed the inhospitable landscape.

Davidson had never intended to publicise her journey, but after working for two years in Alice Springs trying to earn a crust and learn how to train camels she had realised the only way to finance her adventure was to agree to write about it.

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The eventual article and photographs caught the public imagination. Davidson became known as “the camel lady”. The book she wrote about her journey, Tracks, published in 1980, became a global bestseller, and a kind of bible for young women backpackers travelling around Australia.

Davidson, now 63, has continued to travel and write, but something of that first journey has shaped her life and its popularity has continued. And now, after many false starts, it has become a film.

Davidson was born on a cattle station in western Queensland. Her father was a keen bushman and explorer who had spent time in Africa in the 1920s and 1930s.

When Davidson was 11 her mother killed herself and she was sent to live with an aunt in Brisbane. In 1968 she hitched to Sydney where she studied and fell in with the Sydney Push, a leftwing libertine subculture.

By the time she was 25 Davidson had dreamed up her adventure across the outback. Two years after arriving in Alice Springs one morning in 1975 with a suitcase of “inappropriate” clothes, $6 and her dog, she was ready to set off. Her journey took nine months and pushed her to her mental and physical limits.

Tracks, the film of Davidson’s journey, which stars Mia Wasikowska and is directed by John Curran, is searingly beautiful. Anchored by a riveting central performance, it simultaneously captures the epic scale of Davidson’s journey, but also the intimate, never quite explicitly resolved motivation for why she took it.

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Curran came to the project in a fittingly idiosyncratic way. At 24 he was working as a graphic artist in New York and yearning for his own adventure. “I had this notion that I just had to get out of there,” he says of New York.

“I arrived at the idea of Australia without really knowing much about it. When I got there I did some travelling around and I became aware of this book that all these girls were reading. It was Tracks,” Curran smiles. “But I didn’t read it, of course.”

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That didn’t happen until more than 20 years later, when Curran, by this time a film-maker (Praise, The Painted Veil), was looking for projects. Curran knew that Davidson’s book didn’t obviously make a movie, it was too abstract, too unresolved, but he knew there was a lot to explore.

And then he met Davidson. She is, he says, “remarkable and funny and intelligent”. That was enough to convince him that he wanted to make the film.

Davidson likes the movie more each time that she sees it. It is, she says, “honourable”.

For anyone, looking back at their life can be an odd, discombobulating experience. Davidson says that watching this episode of her life being played out on the screen has been both strange and enjoyable, and more than that, it has made her reappraise that epic journey.

“It does force one to think about how other people see it,” she says, in an accent only faintly Australian. “It’s really quite disorienting, in the nicest possible way. I know it’s me, but who was she?”

In the nearly 40 years since she made that journey, it has become harder to remember the reality of it. The experience, she says, has been taken over in part by Smolan’s pictures because they are, as she puts it, “such a powerful memory parasite”.

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But it’s also been overlaid with Davidson’s own bestselling book. “There’s what happened and then there’s the artefact or the abstraction, which is the book that I made of it,” she says.

“Then there are the further abstractions of the film and what other people have made of it. It’s sort of an endless process of taking the seed of something and fictionalising it, or building worlds around it. It’s fascinating.”

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Davidson twice visited the location where the film was being shot. Curran describes a moment when because of the brightness of the sun, he had a cloth around the monitor on which he was watching as he shot. “Robyn was in this little tent with me. It was a scene where Mia was appearing over the brow of this hill with the dog and the camels. Robyn had seen some interior shots but this was the first time she’d seen an exterior with the dog and the camels and Mia wearing a sarong just like she wore. After the shot I looked at her and there were tears on her face. I think for her, it just brought her back to that experience, to when she was that age.”

Much has been made of the physical similarity between Wasikowska and Davidson. It’s true, they look uncannily alike. Casting the central role was, “everything” says Curran and finding Wasikowska was “a fluke”. “She was the right age, she’s Australian, she looked like Davidson, but beyond their physical resemblance, they’re the same type,” he says. “They are quietly observant but you can tell there’s a fierce intelligence too.”

The question which has dogged Davidson, and shaped responses to both the book and the film is: why did she do it? What made a 25-year-old decide to walk across the Outback?

“Why? Why? Why?” Davidson laughs. “The thing that Mia said to me was that no man would be asked that. She’s absolutely right. But then perhaps if I’d been a man people wouldn’t have been so interested in the first place. Who knows? But I think that anyone who steps outside of a boundary or a cliché, it disturbs something in the culture at large so the question is, why did she do it? What does it mean that we didn’t?”

“My sense of myself is that I was a rather unformed kind of person trying to make myself up out of bits of spit and string,” is how she once described it. “Some instinct – and I think it was a correct one – led me to do something difficult enough to give my life meaning.”

In the film, Curran posits a backstory about the impact of Davidson’s mother’s death, having found a clip of her being interviewed in which she makes the connection. Davidson, though, remains unconvinced. “John and I had quite an altercation, but I felt his obsession with the mother’s death was because he had to find a why. Really, it is obvious: why not?”

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What is beyond any doubt is that the journey she made nearly 40 years ago, shaped Davidson profoundly. In some senses this was practical, but it also changed her emotionally and intellectually.

“It was absolutely key because it gave me the resources to travel,” she says. “You have to remember that I was an Australian girl of the Fifties and Sixties. For Australians at that time it was imperative to get out of the country and discover the world. So Tracks in a way gave me, without me having planned it, a way out and the resources to investigate life.”

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Tracks got Davidson out literally in that she had to go to America to write about it first, fulfilling her obligation to National Geographic, and then to London where publishers wanted her to turn the article into a book. So her next move was working in her friend Doris Lessing’s house as she did so.

Given how successful the book has been, it seems incredible that it’s taken this long to bring it to the screen. But Davidson says that she’s glad it has, as she puts it, “taken the long path”. I’m sure she’s right given that at one point Disney owned the rights and at another, Julia Roberts was slated to play Davidson. “Apparently,” says Davidson, “and this is what I hear but who knows if it is true – when [Roberts] was an 11-year-old, she had pictures of me from National Geographic on her mirror.”

Davidson has lived at dozens of addresses, spending time in Europe and in India. Recently, though, she has for the first time bought a house and, in some way, put down 
roots. “It’s fantastic,” she says, “so thrilling. It’s this whole new way of being. It has a garden, all those sedentary things that I’ve not been able to do before, it’s kind of wonderful.” There is a pause. “But if I thought I had to spend the rest of my life there, I’d slit my wrists.” She laughs. Travelling, unsurprisingly, remains a fundamental part of her life.

“Not necessarily literal but metaphorical, absolutely. It’s more a state of mind, I think. The idea of finding things out, I hope that will stay with me until I drop.”

• Tracks (12A) is in cinemas on April 25.