In 1977, 27 year-old Robyn Davidson embarked on a nine month journey across 2,700km of Australian outback to the Indian Ocean with only her dog and four unpredictable camels as companions. National Geographic learned of her story, leading to an article in the publication the following year and ultimately a memoir chronicling the expedition written by Davidson herself. The book, titled Tracks, went on to become an international best seller and was eventually adapted for the big screen in 2013 under the same name. Davidson is played by fellow Australian, actress Mia Wasikowska.
In Western Academy of Beijing’s (WAB) second Distinguished Speaker Series event of the academic year, (see first post here), Davidson shares breathtaking photos of the Australian desert, and clips from the film as she details the life-changing back story of her adventures. Over 60 WAB teachers and staff, students, and members of the Beijing community were in attendance in WAB’s Founders’ Theatre last Monday to listen to the Australian native’s tale.
Davidson first speaks about the chief reason she took the trip, emphasizing her interest in Aboriginal culture as well as the need to test herself, and “get beneath the radar.” Beyond that, she was compelled by the desire to discover her own country and felt the best way to accomplish that was to walk it. Before she could begin, however, Davidson notes she had a steep learning curve ahead of her and even describes her younger self as a ‘most incompetent person.’ “I had to get wild camels somehow, I’d had to get a job to earn money, build [the camels’]equipment and saddles, learn how to use maps, learn tracking, and all the desert skills I’d need for the journey…I was quite naïve.” In the end, it took about two and half years to prepare. “It was kind of one crisis after another. But what was wonderful was that each failure, in a sense, allowed me to develop a skill set and those skill sets were imperative to get me through the eventual journey.”
It’s ironic, considering the level of attention Davidson received, that she initially had no intention of writing about her travels at all. That all changed, however, when she met American photographer Rick Smolan by chance, who encouraged her to write to National Geographic for sponsorship. “I got very drunk one night and wrote a letter [to them]. They gave me USD 4,000 to do the trip and I had sold my soul,” she recalls. “I sort of knew that I was doing the wrong thing because the point of the journey was not to record it, not to be visible, or to do it for someone else, it was for me. But I was seduced by that 4,000 dollars.” Smolan ended up joining Davidson on a few locations throughout her journey to take pictures for National Geographic.
The Highs and Lows
Davidson shares pictures on the projector of Smolan’s gorgeous landscape photos describing the desert as an “exquisite, infinite garden,” and tells touching stories of her camel companions. “There was one incident when I woke up and the camels had vanished. A herd of wild camels had come in the night, and they had spooked my camels. I had to spend a whole day tracking my animals but by then I could tell my camels’ foot prints and droppings, and when I found them they were very apologetic and ashamed,” she jokes.
The trip took a turn for the worst after a huge downpour of rain caused her favorite camel, Dookie, to slip and tear his shoulder “Camels aren’t designed for rain. Their feet are flat, they skid,” she explains. “I had no idea whether he would survive, whether the shoulder would heal, whether I’d have to shoot him, or if the trip was over.”
Three days later, the group limped into a small Aboriginal community where they stayed five weeks while they waited for Dookie to heal. By this point, Smolan had rejoined the group as the magazine had requested photos of Aboriginal people. Unfortunately, Smolan committed the ultimate faux pas when he was caught taking photographs of a secret women’s ceremony. “[After that] people didn’t trust me because I was associated with Rick and he had done the wrong thing. I felt that I had squandered my connection to Aboriginal people and I just didn’t know why I was doing this thing – It was sort of the low point of the mood of the journey.”
Further adding to her unease, two events unfolded soon after leaving the Aboriginal community. The first night out, Davidson had to shoot two wild bull camels who entered the camp, “a horrible thing to have to do,” in her words. At the same time, she was running low on her water supply. “There was a well marked on the map, we got there a few days later and it was bone dry. I had ten days walking to get to the next well and had no idea whether it would have water… I was starting to unravel. I didn’t know why I was doing this thing. I don’t know if you can imagine walking day after day with this message in your head: ‘Am I going to die? Am I going to die? Are my camels going to die?’ By the time I got to the well, I was feeling quite fragile.”
(To be continued, See part 2 Wednesday at 1pm)
Photos: Rick Smolan and Courtesy of WAB