Tracks by Robyn Davidson

In 1977, Robyn Davidson traveled with camels across Australia, a journey that she captures in Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback. The memoir is broken into four parts: the two years during which she learned about and earned money to buy three camels, and then a section for each third of the journey. Davidson is honest in Tracks, a book originally published in 1980, sometimes to the point of turning me off to her story.

Interesting she’s on the camel in this photo, as most of the journey she walks.

If you are someone who gets emotional over animals, Tracks is not recommended to you. Early on, Davidson decides she wants a pet crow: “If you are careful, it is easy to steal a baby crow from a nest without disturbing the others or apparently distressing its parents.” Several birds die in the process.

The camels are constantly slapped and beaten, they get infections in their noses where wooden lead lines are shoved through and splinter, and on the journey they are fed so poorly they’re skin and bones, causing Davidson to wonder if she should put one down only for it to recover when they stay at a ranch for a while and the animals are properly fed.

Besides the three camels, Davidson has her beloved dog, Diggity, on the trip. “I shouted at Diggity and laid a kick at her when she spooked the camels,” Davidson writes. Two pages later when the dog dies after eating poisoned meat that’s all over the trail in an effort to reduce the dingo population — a fact Davidson knows and ignores — I just couldn’t feel sad.

While she does espouse liberal ideas about Aboriginal people, on her journey Davidson comes across as oblivious in her desire to be liked and accepted by indigenous people. After she and Glenys, a half-Aboriginal woman, enter a weather station where people use slurs to describe Aboriginals, Davidson writes that Glenys must have felt those comments “more strongly” than she did. Well, yes, Robyn, you’re a white woman. It read like Davidson was attempting to push her way into a culture rather than be invited in, especially when she admits, “. . . how I could never enter their reality, would always be a whitefella tourist on the outside looking in.” Yes, this is how culture works. I do not recall her gratitude or feeling honored to be part of the different Aboriginal communities she visits.

What I’ve written so far is pretty negative, but I was drawn to Davidson’s honesty about her own volatile personality. Unlike Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, in Tracks it’s not clear what caused Davidson to want to cross 1,700 miles alone. And the longer she’s alone, the more uncivilized she becomes. She’s walking naked, with menstrual blood running down her legs. She’s completely sun-burned and peeling, and washing her hair once ever week or so in salt water isn’t doing much for the people she runs into, who are stalking “the camel woman” because they don’t get why she’s making what is essentially a suicide voyage.

And though reviews and articles made much of Rick, a National Geographic photographer whom Davidson agrees can meet up with her to take photos, he wasn’t in much of the book. Still, Davidson is hostile to Rick early on:

How can you tell a nice person that you wish they were dead, that they’d never been born, that you wish they would crawl away into some hole and expire? No, not that, nearly that you wish fate had never caused you to meet. In retrospect, I should never have allowed myself to see Rick as a fellow human being at all.

I did enjoy Davidson’s comments about time and patience. If you have nothing and no one waiting for you, is there a need for time? It’s an obsessive thought left over from civilization that Davidson struggles with, and even though she’s in a desert, her comments prodded some deeper thinking on my part: “Christ, if this keeps up it will take us months to get there. So what? Is this a marathon or what? . . . stretch it out, idiot, stretch it out. But but . . . what about routine . . . ?”

In the end, Davidson’s mostly feral demeanor struck me as an interesting contrast to life in a proper society, and she wasn’t required to fit into a patriarchal system nor hurry because structured time exists. But all the crappy treatment of animals was exhausting, especially as she proclaims her love for them. And, of course, there’s loads of Australian idioms I didn’t know that still made me titter, like “Two young men hooned up on bikes.” Also, “troppo”?? Either way, I never forget Tracks exists in a different culture from my own, making the memoir immersive in that way.


  1. Well, I’m glad you read it, and then proceeded to a review. I’ve always been disappointed that I missed the film and lecture tour Davidson did later.

    I was fascinated by her experience and now I’m going to have to read it again to see if I agree with you (I generally do, on re-reading)

    There was a hint somewhere early on that her father was an explorer in Africa, and that that was part of her motivation, but I’ve never followed it up.


    • I don’t remember anything about her parents, but it makes sense. I can’t imagine she just decided out of nowhere that traversing Australia was a great idea without some kind of reference. I wonder how original readers, from when the book was first published, felt about the treatment of animals in Tracks.


  2. “Troppo” is slang for going a bit mad. It comes from how the excessive heat of the tropics can affect your mental state.

    I have never read this, though I’ve seen much about it. I’ve always felt I “should” (that word again) read it but have never felt driven to. I imagine my reaction would be similar to yours – impressed by her honesty and willingness to be exactly herself but a bit of horror at what that self is and does. And I’d also be interested, as you are, in some of the ideas she makes you think about in terms of life and one’s own decisions.

    Great post.


    • Thanks, Sue. Actually, this memoir made me want to look more into travel books by aboriginal people so I’m not getting their culture through a white lens. Do you know of any books like that?


      • Forty or so years earlier three little Martu girls escaped internment and walked home 1200 kms. Their path was at right angles to Davidson’s and the two would have intersected around Meekatharra, 800 km north of Perth. Their story, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence was written by one of their daughters.

        I also have the autobiography of Western Desert woman Lizzie Markilyi Ellis who lived at various places along Davidson’s path at about the same time.


        • I’ve read Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence but didn’t realize how closely the paths would have crossed. It looks like I can borrow Pictures from my memory : my story as a Ngaatjatjarra woman / Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis from a local library through interlibrary loan. Thanks, Bill!


      • Oh, that’s a good question. I’m not sure I know any because, I suspect, travel in terms of personal, cultural, geographic exploration as the west understands it, is probably not intrinsic to aboriginal culture. So, I googled and didn’t find much. Mostly I found books about Aboriginal tourism, including FN writer Marcia Langton’s Welcome to country. I think memoirs by First Nations writers might be a place to start but they will mostly be also about issues like racism and intersection with the western world, and so you have to glean culture through that. One book that might be good is Marie Munkara’s Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea. She grew up as a “stolen child” in white culture and found her Aboriginal family in her late ZOS early 30s, and visited them, on the beautiful Tiwi Islands off Darwin. She writes about it as someone learning her culture. There is some tough stuff in it about her growing up but she has a great sense of humour. Her fiction book, Every secret thing, is based on stories told to her about culture, via her community’s experience with Missions. Again, intersection with western culture, but you get a good sense, through her stories of the “bush mob” of Aboriginal culture. I’ve reviewed both these books. I see they are listed on Amazon but how available they are, I don’t know.

        For more serious works, FN academics are starting to write about FN history and culture, but I haven’t read much of that.

        Not perhaps what you wanted but the best my brain can do right now.


  3. I feel like something people say they love animals but what they actually mean is that they love the function of animals but don’t necessarily view them as living creatures who might experience pain or that it might matter how we treat them. There’s something intriguing here about a woman breaking away from society so much but I don’t see myself reading this any time soon.


        • I haven’t read Wild but I’ve just started a book about women hikers that covers some of the same material (and includes Cheryl Strayed as one of its walkers, although it goes back about three hundred years). It covers women who walked for lots of different reasons, from the very famous (like Virginia Woolf) to the totally unknown. It’s very interesting so far, though I’m only a couple of chapters in! I think it covers the stuff that sounds interesting to me about Tracks, but with a more analytical eye since it’s biography/history rather than memoir.

          Liked by 1 person

          • That does sound more like what I would want to read. I tried another “woman hiking” book recently called Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis, but I’ve never read about a bigger flake in my life, from having nearly limitless spending to talk about her “mommy” and “daddy” to describing in detail how hikers earn a trail name that is given to them only to learn she named herself “Aspen.”

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  4. Hm, apparently I read “Desert Places” by her in 1998 but I’m not massively motivated to go through my box of reading journals to see what I thought. The animal stuff would do for me, too. I mean, I kind of admire her going feral like that, because who gets to do that, but I’m not sure I’d want to read and read about it. Was she the woman whose big toes split in two because she always walked barefoot or was that someone else (I wonder)?


    • I don’t recall her big toe splitting, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Much of the time she was wandering naked — a white woman with no clothes in the desert. I mean, that’s a problem if you think about skin cancer, but then I also wonder what the indigenous people she ran into thought of her through their cultural lens.


  5. Just imagining a woman walking through the desert, naked, with menstrual blood running down her legs? Wouldn’t this attract wild animals? LOL

    One time we were tenting in the mountains with our kids last summer and I got my period overnight, and didn’t bring anythign with me (very stupid on my part). Anyway, I made a homemade pad out of toilet paper and scratchy moss. Do not recommend! But I much preferred that than blood running down my legs, attracting bears to come eat me. Yikes!


    • I was totally with you until you said moss! Ha, inventive, but you couldn’t pay me. I’d be like, “Why yes, I am willing to sacrificed this sock.”

      That’s funny you mention wild animals because in Friday the 13th Part 2, the counselors mention that the women need to be safe while on their periods to attract bears. In the next scene, you see a guy and girl starting to get it on and then there’s a cut. It’s obvious she turned him down because of her period, and he’s written on the mirror, in lipstick, WATCH OUT FOR BEARS.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve heard rumors that in wilderness camping courses they make women sleep apart from the group if they’re on their period, which seems…unfair? and, likely, not all that effective LOL

        Liked by 1 person

    • True, and it’s hard for me to separate the fact that I eat animals that were more than likely treated cruelly during their life time in the farming process with what I see one person doing to animals.


  6. Ah, yes, the old “I love animals, but I still abuse them” kind of person. She sounds very self-centered. I get that she’s not a part of a society, making her more feral but I feel like you can still be a decent percent even in that situation. Her abuse of animals, wishing one person dead and being an idiot about culture, chalks this up to not going on my TBR list.


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