Sometimes there are books you pick up and you know instantly that you’re going to love them. For me, Tracks was one of those books. It may have helped that I had already watched the movie, and it was this that had prompted me to decide to read the book anyway, but I’m not convinced that explains it entirely. Instead there is something about the cadence of the early paragraphs, the feeling of the words spinning me straight into the mind of this woman “There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns – small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track. I watched a pale dawn streak the cliffs Day-glo and realised this was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence – and lasted about ten seconds.”
Tracks is the true story of how Robyn Davidson set out to cross the Australian desert accompanied only by camels. She arrived in Alice Springs, a town for which she expresses little affection, equipped only with an idea, a dog (Diggity) and an independent streak. Davidson had no money, no real knowledge of camels and no support network in the local vicinity. Consequently she spent much of her early time in Alice Springs being taken advantage of, working rubbishy jobs, not really getting anywhere, hating the misogyny and the nasty attitudes towards the indigent Aboriginal population.
A considerable part of the book describes how Davidson put off, by any means possible, actually starting out on this journey. For a start, she knew next to nothing about camels and had to learn from scratch. This resulted in an exploitative relationship with a local camel rancher called Kurt whose behaviour was manipulative and abusive. Eventually she exits this relationship, but does so without getting hold of the camels she needs. Later on when she does acquire her camels, the problems she faces continue to grow. The camels are frequently sick, one of her first camels has to be euthanized due to illness, and when they’re not sick they’re wandering off. This trend continues on her trek.
I enjoyed the honesty that Davidson conveys in this early part of the story. That she was torn between going and not going becomes apparent, and some of her behaviour suggests that not going is the preferred option. She recognises this in herself, in her uncompromising nature which will not allow her to borrow the money she needs to start the trek. Then she encounters Rick Smolen, a photographer for National Geographic who convinces her to allow the magazine to sponsor her trip. She agrees, but at a cost: Rick must photograph her along the way and she must allow the magazine to report on her journey. Thus she embarks on a love/hate relationship with both Rick and the magazine which crops up at regular intervals throughout the trip (pretty much whenever Rick appears to take photographs).
The trip itself is the real meat of the story, and Davidson is equally honest about this. A lot of the time she hates the journey, the endless walking, the pain, the camels disappearing, the heat, the sweating, the drab food. Yet there are moments of sheer transcendence, as she describes here:
“And as I walked through that country, I was becoming involved with it in a most intense and not yet fully conscious way. The motions and patterns and connections of things became apparent at a gut level. I didn’t just see the animal tracks, I knew them. I didn’t just see the bird, I knew it in relationship to its actions and effects. My environment began to teach me about itself without my full awareness of the process. It became an animate being of which I was a part[…] What was once a thing that merely existed became something that everything else acted upon and had a relationship with and vice versa. In picking up a rock I could not longer simply say, “this is a rock,” I could now say. “This is part of a net,” or closer, “This, which everything acts upon, acts.” When this way of thinking became ordinary for me, I too became lost in the net and the boundaries of myself stretched out for ever.”
This is not just a story about a journey, but also a story about a place and time. Whilst Davidson is a key character, so is the desert, so is Australia and so are the Aboriginal people who make their home in this seemingly barren land. Davidson reflects widely on the position of Aboriginal people in Australian society and the cultural identity of the people themselves. That she generated a high degree of respect and admiration for these oft put down people is heavily apparent throughout the book, and whilst drawing the line at a complete understanding the nature of Aboriginal links to the land become more apparent to Davidson as she traverses the desert. I always find talk of the Aboriginal beliefs soul-stirring and this was no different hear. Davidson shares with affection her time travelling with Eddie, an aged Aboriginal man who helped her across a difficult part of the desert. I think this part of the story was the most heartwarming for me.
She also discusses in some depth the misogyny inherent in Australian ‘outback’ culture, and the way in which being absent from it freed her from social conventions. I’m not sure Davidson set out to write a feminist book, but throughout her musings she is also unable to contain her absolute belief that women, people, can achieve anything they set their minds to. As she explains here:
“I was now a feminist symbol. I was now an object of ridicule for small-minded sexists, and I was a crazy, irresponsible adventurer (though not as crazy as I would have been had I failed). But worse than that, I was now a mythical being who had done something courageous and outside the possibilities that ordinary people could hope for. And that was the antithesis of what I wanted to share. That anyone could do anything. If I could bumble my way across a desert, then anyone could do anything. And that was true especially for women, who have used cowardice for so long to protect themselves that it has become a habit.
The world is a dangerous place for little girls. Besides, little girls are more fragile, more delicate, more brittle than little boys. ‘Watch out, be careful, watch.’ ‘Don’t climb trees, don’t dirty your dress, don’t accept lifts from strange men. Listen, but don’t learn, you won’t need it.’ And so the snail’s antennae grow, watching for this, looking for that, the underneath of things. The threat. And so she wastes so much of her energy, seeking to break those circuits, to push up the millions of tiny thumbs that have tried to quelch energy and creativity and strength and self-confidence; that have so effectively caused her to build fences against possibility, daring; that have so effectively kept her imprisoned inside her notions of self-worthlessness.”