Robyn Davidson's 1,700 mile, four camel journey

After a compelling journey across Australia's Outback, Davidson's never-out-of-print novel Tracks hits the big screen

Arts+Culture Q+A
Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson Courtesy of Entertainment One UK

"And so I'm writing to you in the hope that your magazine will sponsor my trip," writes Robyn Davidson. "The trip will take me through some of the most beautiful and barren country the desert can show. I have three trained camels and one small calf." This was how Tracks author Robyn Davidson started a letter to National Geographic in 1977 to fund her 1,700 mile, four camel and one dog journey from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock. Now, the 63-year-old bangle-wearing author is ready once again to share her story. After appearing in National Geographic, "the camel lady" became an overnight sensation that captured the imaginations of readers worldwide. She inked a book deal and Tracks became a best-selling novel in its own right, was then tapped to become a film in the 80s and, back in 1993, a young pre-Notting Hill Julia Roberts was slated to play Robyn. After coming out of the revolving-door of pre-production 21 years later, budding Australian actress Mia Wasikowska digs in to the harrowing role for what is a real-life, gritty portrayal of a truly inspiring woman.

How involved were you in the making of the film?

Robyn Davidson: Initially not at all. I didn’t want to be, because the penultimate version had this really hair-raising script that had so little to do with what actually happened. Julia Roberts was going to play me. I thought, 'Well, that’s fine, but it’s got actually nothing to do with me.' For whatever reason that fell through, and then Emile Sherman wanted to do it. I went to see him and I really liked him. I was very pleased that it had come back to Australia after this long diversion through Hollywood. I still didn’t want to be involved, but I was pleased with who it had ended up with. Slowly I just got more and more sucked in. John [Curran] would ring me up from New York, or somewhere, in the middle of the night asking questions. They were interested in me. They wanted to know what actually happened. I’d always wanted Mia [Wasikowska], so when she signed up, I thought, 'Yep, this really could be something to be not ashamed of.'

“Julia Roberts was going to play me. I thought ‘That’s fine, but it’s got actually nothing to do with me.’ That fell through, and when (Mia) signed up, I thought, ‘Yep, this really could be something to be not ashamed of’”

Did you have any quibbles with how the film turned out?

Robyn Davidson: It’s not the film that I would of made, but I think it’s a good film, and I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t think it was a good film. It is a quiet film. It’s quite subtle. I can see it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. There’s one thing in particular that I argued with John quite heavily about, and that was the reference back to the suicide mother. Because it’s true that my mother suicided, but that is not the reason I did the camel trip. It indicated that for a woman to do anything extraordinary she’s got to be a bit mad, or have some tragedy. But otherwise, it’s been a really charming experience. Not many writers can say that.

Had you written at all before Tracks?

Robyn Davidson: No, just letters. I mean, I’d always loved writing, in the same way that I’d loved painting. I wouldn’t have seen it as a career. But then I capitulated because I needed that little bit of cash. So I wrote the piece for Geographic, and they were extremely pleased with it. When I read it, I’d seen that they had edited it into this slightly pappy piece. I thought, 'Well, that doesn’t do.' So I wrote a longer piece for the London Sunday Times. On the strength of that, Liz Calder and Jonathan Cape read that and wrote to me, and said, 'Would you do a book?'

Your father went on these grand adventures during your childhood. Were you quite close?

Robyn Davidson: We were very close. But he was very much the Edwardian gentleman. He would have no more thought a woman could do something like (my journey across the Outback) than fly to the moon. It just wasn’t in his universe to think like that. But when I did do it, he was over the moon and proud. There was a sort of hiatus in our relationship because after my mum died, I was sent away. I went to boarding school, and then I took off, so there was a long period where we hardly saw each other. Then we went out bush together, I guess in my early twenties.

Did you embark on those adventures after a revelation, or some group psychic exercise?

Robyn Davidson: Not really, no. There was a quite famous alternative style theatre maker, called [Jerzy] Grotowski from Poland. He had a huge effect on the theatre in those days. He came to Australia and I ended up in one of these actors training sessions where you don’t sleep or eat for a week, and it’s all terribly deep. But the chap who asked this interesting question at the end of it said, 'What is the substance of the world in which you live?' For some reason that I still don’t know, or understand, just out came all these symbols of desert, purity, fire, hot wind. So somehow out of that arose this notion that I needed to be in the desert on my own. I was probably half fooling myself that I would eventually do it. But if you keep going, taking these small steps, eventually you find yourself doing it.

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Courtesy of Entertainment One UK

It seems like quite a trajectory and preparation?

Robyn Davidson: Preparation was the hardest thing. First of all, I was very green, a hopeless little kid and certainly not competent – very dreamy. I had to toughen up. Alice Springs in those days was very much a frontier, bloke-ish town – a lot of racial tension, a real redneck city. Someone like me arriving gathered a lot of attention and fear, I think – they just didn’t know what to make of me. There was a lot of opposition, which I had to stand up to. As well as this, I had to train the camels, learn how to build saddles. All of those skills were essential to not dying out there.

Did anyone try and dissuade you from going?

Robyn Davidson: Lots of people. The police did, for example. The police in Alice Springs in those days, most of them were just bullies and racist. They were sexist beyond belief. I remember I had to get my rifle licensed and they said, 'No, we’re not going to license your fucking rifle. You’re just going to be out there, you’re just going to die out there and you expect us to come and save you?!' It toughened me up. It just made me more resolved. When I met that sort of brute opposition, my chin would come out.

Do you think kids these days would do such a thing?

Robyn Davidson: We’re in different times. It’s interesting to me that people have responded so much to the film, and the book has never been out of print. That’s extraordinary. I would hope that it encouraged young people to kind of unplug a bit, and ask questions of life, and extend themselves.

“The point is you find adventure wherever you are. Life’s the adventure. You don’t have to drop your bundle and go bush. It’s about being brave within the context that you’re in”

Have you heard any kind of stories of people who’ve read the book who go on crazy adventures afterwards?

Robyn Davidson: I’m afraid I do, and I always want to say, 'Look, that’s not the point!' The point is you find adventure wherever you are. Life’s the adventure. You don’t have to drop your bundle and go bush. It’s about being brave within the context that you’re in.

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Courtesy of Entertainment One UK

What were the camels like as companions?

Robyn Davidson: They were all so distinctive. They have different levels of intelligence, different personalities. I’d always thought that the two bullocks were gay, and Dookie was gorgeous, and Bubby was in love with him, and would sort of trail along behind him. Zeleika was the brains. She was the smart one and was never quite as seduced by me as the other two. She always had an eye for pissing off one day, whereas the other two would never have thought of such a thing. They were enchanting companions.

It always sounds so twee, but it’s really the mystery of how human consciousness and animal consciousness connects. They understood me; I understood them. What does that mean? It’s one thing to say that you can perceive them and perceive how individualist they are. But what do they see when they look? What were they seeing? How did they incorporate me into their consciousness? It’s really mysterious.

“(The camels) sustained me at all levels because I had to think about their welfare. They entertained me. But also they were true company. It was like we were a team”

Did you feel like you could have done it without all of them?

Robyn Davidson: They sustained me at all levels because I had to think about their welfare, so I was constantly engaged with something other than myself. They entertained me. I worried about them, thought about them. But also they were true company. It was like we were a team.

What did you first think when you met Rick Smolan? In the movie he’s portrayed as this goofy-like gnat you can’t get off your back.

Robyn Davidson: He sort of was like that. I think Adam [Driver] got something there. Rick’s an extraordinary character. He’s a sort of archetypal, New Jersey, Jewish boy, who’s a kind of shy star, and a genius. He’s never still. He’s never just there. His brain is always active. We’re chalk and cheese really. I’m deeply fond of him. He’s a good man.

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Courtesy of Entertainment One UK

Did you have any head butts at the beginning?

Robyn Davidson: Yes. I was resentful of any photographer being there. Anyone being there I would have been resentful of. I didn’t want this bloody useless boy there. The whole issue of taking photographs was the first understanding or indication that this wasn’t actually my journey. It belonged to everybody but me, and the photographs were the evidence of that – they were very objectifying. It was puzzling in a way.

How did you come to live with Doris Lessing? Did she ever ask you to read anything you wrote?

Robyn Davidson: No, she never did, to her great credit. The way it started was, I wrote to her. When I was approached by Jonathan Cape to do a book, I was really in two minds. I’d just finished The Golden Notebook and I wrote a fan letter to Doris. I’d never written a fan letter before or since. I think I can remember saying, 'Thank you for the books', or whatever. I said, 'I found them so useful.' For some reason she wrote back, and we had some correspondence. At some point I said, 'What should I do? Do you think I should write this bloody book?' She said, 'My dear, if you can write a good letter, you can write a good book, and I think you should come to London to do it.' So I did. And I lived in this ghastly little flat. She visited one day, and she said 'Roby, you can’t possibly live here. You better come and move into my house.'

Did you speak to her up until her death last year?

Robyn Davidson: We’d had a sort of a misunderstanding. She’s a difficult old bird. I’d spoken to her a couple of years before, and I’d come over here to see her because we’d been on the phone and she’d said, 'Well Roby, if you’re going to see me, you better come soon.' In other words she thought she was dying. I got here and she was perfectly fine. It’s very weird to come back to London (now) and she’s not here. It feels sort of wrong.

I read that you used to live by Columbia Road market.

Robyn Davidson: Yeah. A bunch of us bought this old shoe factory. It was Julie Christie, Sally Potter, and me, and a bunch of other people. It was the most wonderful way to live, actually. We bought the whole factory, and we turned it into separate apartments. We each had our own separate space, so you didn’t have to see anybody if you didn’t want to. But of course we’d be in and out of each other’s flats. It was like Rear Window. It was a great way to live. I miss that, but still, I’m very happy to be back in Australia too. London sort of wore me down. I can’t cope with the winters!

Tracks is in cinemas today

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