Robyn Davidson’s book is one of those things that challenges you because it describes something that is so utterly alien. And there’s more than a few reasons why, on the surface, I thought there would be little to relate to when I began reading her account of a trek across nearly two thousand miles of Australian desert. For instance:
- Despite the fact that I have lived my entire life in Australia, I have never seen more than a few patches of desert through a car window.
- My tolerance for hot weather peaks at about twenty degrees Celsius.
- I have a deathly fear of anything that clicks or slithers.
- I have never, nor do I ever intend to, sleep in a ‘tent’.
- Cleanliness is an issue with me; so much so that I am prone to anxiety attacks if I don’t shower at least once a day.
- Since the fourth grade, when we learnt about the dangers of melanoma, I react to sunlight in the same way that your average teenage vampire does: by slapping on three layers of skin-concealing shirts and scurrying into the welcoming shade of the nearest building/tree/bus shelter, arms held above my head like it’s raining locusts.
Despite all these things, I was curious to know why Davidson’s journey was so important that they had decided to make a film about it, more than thirty years after it was over. So, mentally preparing myself for worry-inducing descriptions of snakes and bugs in sleeping bags (the idea still makes me shudder) I began reading Tracks.
As a reader, one of the first things you want to know when reading a book like this is Why. Why did Davidson choose such a difficult, dangerous, and seemingly random challenge? It’s not something that’s clearly spelled out, but during the first half of the book you begin to get a little bit of a feel for her reasons. Davidson describes herself arriving in Alice Springs, a town roughly in the middle of Australia, knowing scarcely anything about the land or the creatures she will be taking with her on her journey. For my non-Australian readers, I have drawn up a helpful (and in no way geographically precise) map to illustrate Alice Springs’ position on this sun-parched continent:
Determined to learn how to handle camels and survive in the wilderness, the first half of the book actually describes the challenges Davidson faces in this tiny rural town. The locals are suspicious, rough, and most treat her with a great deal of contempt. She goes on to describe the “Australian cult of misogyny” (Chapter Two), something which surfaces again and again as she struggles to learn the ways of the outback.
Despite the (at times) appalling way she is treated during her stay there, it seemed to me that Davidson was determined to push boundaries. Why did she choose this challenge? From the way she describes some of her run-ins with the locals, it seems that at least part of her desire to go was because people believed that she couldn’t. Both as a woman, and as a middle class, city-grown individual, she wasn’t seen as capable. But Davidson shows a remarkable desire to push the envelope. And although I was reading it thirty years later, in a ‘civilised’ city on the West coast, I think I could definitely relate to some of her distaste for the “cult of misogyny” that she had experienced in its extreme form.
Finally, there is the journey itself. It actually makes up less than half the book, and there are long sections that describe the behaviour of her camels, to whom she became very attached, as well as that of her dog. I don’t know what I was expecting, but aside from the descriptions of the dazzling landscape, Davidson’s trip is less about self-exploration and more about surviving. There are many nicely-written passages about small moments of realisation, release, escape.
Her language is sparse, and there are sections of genuinely lovely prose. Occasionally I felt a little niggle because I would read a sentence and desperately wish for a comma (one of my favourite grammatical elements, and one I’ve often been scolded for using too liberally), but I think that was a part of her economical style. She mixes moments of withdrawn interior monologue with descriptions of her pure joy in the company of others. The book is also coloured by her social consciousness; she frequently describes her admiration of Aboriginal culture as well as her concern for living conditions in many Aboriginal settlements. Davidson is also very interested in the landscape, and distressed by the changes that are visible in it. Much of the land that she travelled through has since been altered thanks to the expansion of mining in Australia, and she frequently comes across signs of what is nowadays a fact of life.
I was impressed with Tracks, especially with Davidson’s writing style and her concern for what was happening around her. The book is a snapshot of 1980s outback Australia which is still very recognisable. Non-Australian readers need not fear; apart from a few moments where heavy Australian slang is used, Davidson is careful to explain social and cultural factors, and it’s clear she’s writing for both a domestic and an overseas audience. There are a few moments of humour, but the main thing about this book is the way that Davidson describes her challenging journey. She never slips too far into mythologising or romanticising her trip, but it remains affecting nonetheless. It even makes a bush-fearing, reptile-hating, soap-loving city slicker like me wonder, just for a moment, what it would be like to follow in her footsteps.
Rating: 4 Stars