Robyn Davidson was 25 when she arrived in Alice Springs, a remote frontier town in the Australian outback, with her dog, $6, a "suitcase full of inapproapriate clothes" -- and a grand plan. She had decided to acquire three wild camels and train them to carry her gear so that she could walk from Alice Springs 1,700 miles across the Australian desert to the Indian Ocean. "Tracks" is her account of that remarkable walk.
Davidson makes up in sprit what she lacks in supplies. As she stands shivering in the deserted railway station and watches dawn break across the outback, she experiences one of those "small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track . . . It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence -- and lasted about 10 seconds."
After this fleeting auroral vision, Davidson in fact spends nearly two years in Alice Springs struggling to overcome obstacles -- physical and emotional -- that stand in the way of her trip. To make money, she tends bar in a local rough-and-tumble pub, and to gain experience handling camels, she works under an Austrian camel-trainer named Kurt -- a tyrannical lunatic with an extreme cleanliness fetish.
Acquiring camels in Alice Springs proves to be a long and tricky business, and even after she has them, endless problems arise. The camels get sick and require expensive doctoring. After turning them out to feed each night, in the morning she must track through miles of desert to bring them home again.
At times, this litany of mishaps and hardships may exasperate the reader -- when is this trip going to get under way? But the circumstances are so downright odd and Davidson is so completely immersed in them that curiosity usually prevails. As she recounts the welter of detail that made her daily life, the garrulous narrator roams from the idiosyncrasies of camels -- comples creatures that can be cheeky, playful or brutally vicious -- to the pesky escapades of Akhnaton, a pet crow who has grown into a bully and a kleptomaniac. She offers profiles of several aborigines, commentaries on the plight of aborigines as a race and analysis of the "range-war mentality" that pervades small outback town. And throughout all this she turns, as a kind of constant check and reference, to the haunting and exotic imagery of the land around her.
The trip itself is finally triggered, ironically, by the complete disappearance of the camels. Eventually they are found, of course, and Davidson, who in their absence considered giving up the trip, turns back to it in earnest. Having scrupulously refused loans from friends and family for months, she dashes off a drunken note to National Geographic magazine and lands a contract with them.
From the moment she accepts their sponsorship, she feels she has "sold a great swatch of . . . freedom and most of the trip's integrity for four thousand dollars." She is also troubled by the occasional visits of a Geographic photographer. From the first, Davidson has felt that his presence will "alter irrevocably the whole texture" and spoil the purity of her trip. That she and the photographer eventually become lovers does not resolve this issue -- for Davidson or the reader -- and near the end of the trip the dilemma of publicity has only escalated. To her horror, she discovers that she has bedcome a media phenomenon known as the "camel lady" and that hordes of journalists are pursuing her. She admits to being "bloody thick," but insists that it never occurred to her that "the combination of elements -- woman, desert, camels, aloneness -- hit some soft spot in the era's passionless, heartless, aching psyche."
If Davidson stumbles over the forces of civilization, she triumphs in the face of nature. Her trip is staggering as a physical feat alone. Loading and unloading 1,500 pounds of gear and walking 20 or more miles daily, she crosses the 1,700 miles of desert wilderness. Countless crises arise along the way; she must navigate through desolate, poorly mapped country, shoot wild camel bulls that threaten her, retrieve her own runaway camels and scrounge for food and water. One needn't be agoraphobic to understand the potency of isolation in such overwhelming space, or to hear the truth in Davidson's words when she says: "Some camps on those nights were so desolate they stole into my soul." Or later, when she believes she is lost: "My heart felt like a macaw in a canary cage. I could feel the enormity of the desert in my belly and on the back of my neck."
But as she continues, she gains a growing ease with the desert and her own daily routine. Her language begins to prickle with words like ghostgum and acacia, cockatoo and willy-wagtails, kunga-berries and eucalyptus manna, Arcturus and Aldebaran -- the names of the trees, birds, foods and stars that populate her desert. She herself notes this change and remarks on it in language that is, for her, stark and stripped: "And as I walked through that country, I was becoming involved with it in a most intense and yet not fully conscious way. The motions and patterns and connections of things became apparent on a gut level. I didn't just see the animal tracks, I knew them."
Throughout "Tracks," Davidson has been endlessly chasing and circling around the meaning of her trip, as if it were the most elusive prey of all, more skittish than the wild camels she has in tow, more difficult than the trip itself. But in the end we see that she has netted even this, in her bold and competent way, through the simple process of the trip itself. This is perhaps the most distinctive lesson of Robyn Davidson's book. "Tracks" is not simply a written account of travel and adventure; it is an explicit demonstration. It shows us that decisions and ideas -- even the seemingly wild ones -- can be corralled, can be domesticated from fiction to reality and, most importantly, that the process itself is its own reward.