Dream big. This has long been the mantra for adventurers such as Robyn Davidson, Cheryl Strayer, Ellen MacArthur, Amelia Earnhart. To achieve what seems to be the impossible: and what could be bigger than walking across the Australian desert only accompanied with your dog and four camels?
Introvert and self-proclaimed nomad Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowski) arrives in Alice Springs, Australia in 1975. She plans to walk to the Indian Ocean, a distance of 1700 miles. Directed by John Curran, the movie Tracks documents this epic adventure which would last over half a year and encompass a truly unique solo experience – an authentic, female spirit of strength and perseverance. Why are you doing this? She’s asked. Why not? comes the defiant reply.
‘Shoot for the stars you may hit the moon!’
It might be a bit more hardcore than your average travel itinerary, but why not indeed. All travel is about pushing your own boundaries, so why not set that bar as high as you can? And, as Tracks quietly enforces, who’s to challenge whether anyone’s drive for any kind of pilgrimage is more or less valuable than another. Perhaps more personally, why must there be some kind of explanation or underlying reason – why can’t a trek be a trek by itself, pure and simple, and any personal reasons behind it remain personal?
Along the way, Robyn learns how to live with and use camels – an unsuspected animal you might not associate with the Australian deserts – and confounding the general expectations and prejudices she faces. To raise money for her trip she reluctantly sells her story to National Geographic Magazine and has to put up with Adam Driver’s photographing presence, raising some of the issues expressed above.
As a way to really get a sense of experiencing life in all its colours and cultures, travel isn’t just a means to an end – the journey itself is more than just going from A to B, although it takes a lot of strength and persistence to really live each and every moment, step and stumble. It’s the kind of
something that builds a person – like a pilgrimage – and which should be treated with respect and a kind of dignity. Having to document her story and have it photographed along the way is a huge thorn in Robyn’s side; her journey is hers alone, and she hates the idea of making it available to people who perhaps wouldn’t fully appreciate it. Tracks occasionally touches on the ignorance you get in some situations where presumptions and stereotypes come into play; the problem here is that ignorance can blind you to the culturally enriching experience travel can (and should!) be.
Someone once asked me what was the toughest thing that’s happened whilst travelling. I couldn’t respond with a single event, they fade into insignificant first world problems. It’s hard to imagine the difficulties of the kind of hardcore travel that Tracks portrays – or the mental strength and journeying it takes – but this kind of personal voyage has and always will be a popular idea that sparks the imagination, even if not everyone can pull it off.
Robyn is joined for part of her journey by the Australian elder Eddie, who recognises in her a deep respect for the country in which she travels, the people and their wisdom. There’s something shared here which is very real, and very touching, as the heat of the outback radiates from the screen and scorches Davidson’s body – the journey making a very physical mark on the journeyer. Like most travellers, she feels the drive to push herself to the limit; unlike many travellers, Robyn Davidson lived out her principles. Where else but the dry, desolate, harsh reality of the Australian desert stretching out its vast emptiness in all directions. It’s almost a sacred space, alive and ready for any daring enough to brave it, and a clear parallel to the life of celebrity and publicity she knows lies on the other end of the story with the constant packs of tourists and journalists waiting for a glimpse of the “Camel Lady”.
The desert as a place to forge out an identity is an old, old idea that really makes the heart of Tracks work. It’s as unknoweable as Robyn Davidson, it’s a place of perspective to dissolve the sense of self. As long as both desert and journey remain that way, they maintain their lasting effect. Robyn’s trip – intensely personal, guarded and undefined despite the public’s need to define it as something – is one that’s inspirational, poetic and strong.