I stumbled on a reference to this book by chance and waited, itching with impatience, until my very own copy arrived. Be still, my heart! Now, anyone who knows a thing or two about Australia has heard the continent is sinking under the explosion of feral camels. That is not what this book is about.
Yes, the setting is the enormous Australian outback where men are men and women are barely tolerated, where bigotry and racism are as endemic as the camels, at least in 1977. I cannot say if such attitudes are the same today but despite the times, one determined woman had a mad adventure and lived to tell the tale---the superbly written tale. Having read Sir Wilfrid Thesiger and Bruce Kirkby on crossing a (different) desert, I was prepared for an adventure. I was not prepared for the exceptional writing skill, the humour, the fits of self-examination, the immediacies of survival that transport the reader right into the grit and sweat of her days.
Train some camels as pack animals and lead them across 1,700 miles of lonely, difficult terrain is what Davidson did. This was a walking journey for the most part; the camels carried essential supplies that had to be supplemented by wild plants and game. It began as a journey to divest herself of lingering bourgeois responsibilities and insecurities, to see if she could mentally sustain herself alone. The preparation took two years. The physical work was enormous. Accepting a come-lately offer from National Geographic caused her much ambivalence: she needed money for supplies but hated the notion of public exposure. She didn't want to share her personal journey while it was happening. Thus, a love-hate relationship with the intermittent photographer.
First thoughts after agreeing to allow photographs at certain points:
"Suddenly it seemed as if this trip belonged to everybody except me. Never mind, I said. When you leave Alice Springs [to begin] it will all be over. No more loved ones to care about, no more ties, no more duties, no more people needing you to be one thing or another, no more conundrums, no more politics, just you and the desert, baby. And so I pushed it all down into the dim recesses of my mind, there to fester and grow like botulism." (105)
The journey itself took nine months from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Along the way her communion became near-perfect with her animal companions, the Aborigines, and the astonishingly diverse landscape. This is not to say she didn't go mad at times. Or get lost. Or lose her gun. Or lose the camels---the worst fear of all in empty country. Care and feeding of the animals was paramount through sand, rain, mud, rocks, canyons, wadis, insects, snakes, predators, and above all a scorching sun. Avoiding the occasional, curious passerby was easier than fending off the penultimate publicity she so unwanted.
Reference to the abysmal plight of the Aborigines was inevitable; Davidson was crossing a great deal of reservation land. Encounters with their settlements and one particular elder who voluntarily accompanied her for several days mid-trip provide some of the book's most vivid moments.
"For the next two days Eddie and I walked together, we played charades trying to communicate and fell into fits of hysteria at each other's antics. We stalked rabbits and missed, picked bush foods and generally had a good time. He was sheer pleasure to be with, exuding all those qualities of old Aboriginal people -- strength, warmth, self-possession, wit, and a kind of rootedness, a substantiality that immediately commanded respect. And I wondered as we walked along, how the word 'primitive' with all its subtle and nasty connotations ever got to be associated with people like this." (165)
As she struggled with the Pitjanjara language, there is much more about Aboriginal linkage to their Land---which is always shrinking---and the energies left on earth by their dream-heroes. All the more poignant her: "The Aborigines do not have much time. They are dying."
On eventually allowing "social custom" to fall away:
"On the one hand, I didn't want to be anywhere but in this desert and on my own; on the other, I was running very low on food, my last meal before I got there being dog-biscuits liberally laced with custard powder, sugar, milk and water. And I was nervous about seeing people again. By now I was utterly deprogrammed. I walked along naked usually, clothes being not only putrid but unnecessary. My skin had been baked a deep terra-cotta brown and was the constituency of harness leather. The sun no longer penetrated it." (211-212)
On achieving a goal:
"I had discovered capabilities and strengths I would not have imagined possible in those distant dream-like days before the trip. ... That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one's weaknesses. A vigilance which requires a moral energy most of us are incapable of manufacturing. We relax back into the moulds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. ... To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe. I had learnt to use my fears as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks, and best of all I had learnt to laugh."(222)
Tracks is one crazy, chilling, joyful, hair-raising, inspiring story, completely full of life, courage, despair, and love. Wikipedia tells me it is being made into a feature film in Australia as we speak. Will they get close to capturing the essence?
© 2013 Brenda Dougall Merriman