Identity is a theme, or issue, that I think becomes part of all autobiography or memoir; to write about oneself it to write about who you are and why. This is certainly the case with the wonderful Tracks by Robyn Davidson. She not only writes about her own experience – it is a singular, personal experience that she undertook largely on her own. There is therefore plenty of time to muse on her own sense of who she is, was, and might perhaps be. That said, she is not an especially introverted writer – the exploration of her own identity comes through the ways in which she relates to and thinks about other people, the landscape around her, and the journey she is on.
Perhaps some context. Tracks is Davidson’s account of her journey, alone, across the Western Australian desert, which she completed in the late 1970s. She knows that camels will be the most suitable animals to travel with, and to carry her things, and so the first few chapters cover the two years she spends in the town of Alice Springs trying to learn as much as she can about camels, and to get hold of some that she can take with her on her trip. This section is hugely eventful and entertaining in itself, but it is also fascinating because Davidson dedicates plenty of time and space in Tracks to examining the lives of the local Aborigine people, and the ways in which they are maligned and marginalised. She also examines the deeply sexist nature of many, if not all, men she encounters during this time. She is an intelligent and deft writer, and has a great gift for social perception and analysis. She continues to muse on the plight of the Aborigines as she continues her journey, some of it through a huge reservation, and she is hugely engaging and passionate, and I could have read her thoughts and theories, as well as the cold hard facts she presents, for hours. Before reading Tracks I did not know much about the social history of Australia, and modern society’s attitude to it, and Davidson is a great source for this. She writes not as an academic or a journalist, but just as a real, normal woman, encountering these things, and speaking about that state of her native country. It is greatly fascinating.
Also fascinating is the day to day life experienced on her trek. Her relationships with the camels are emotional, difficult, rewarding, draining, and many other things besides. As an animal lover it is difficult for her to be tough with them, but her time in Alice Springs taught her that sometimes that is the only thing that works. She learns how they operate, and in turn how she must behave in order to keep them under control. She is forced to become their master, their controller, to be strict and mean when necessary, and to take care of them when they are hurt (which seems to happen very easily). Her relationship with the camels has already challenged Davidson’s view of herself – she is forced to toughen up in order to live with these animals, and to force herself through all the hardships in order tor reap the rewards.
It is fascinating to read such eloquent descriptions of the spectrum of emotions she goes through on the trip, through the ups and downs – Davidson’s writing is so vivid, so personal, so completely there that you are captured and feel the emotions too, as much as you can as a reader. The fact is, as with all memoir, that we cannot ever really know what happened, how it felt, the details of life, the real experience – we can only know what is related to us. But Davidson excels in making it seem as if, when she wants us, we are there with her. She was ambivalent about having others document her trip at the time – she reluctantly allowed a photographer from National Geographic, Rick, join her for sections of the trip. His photos are reproduced in the Bloomsbury paperback edition that I have, and they really are beautiful. But Davidson resented that he was part of the outside world intruding on her experience, and that the publicity meant people she met along the way would hound her with questions and cameras. So, for me, it seems that reading her book, written by her alone, is the best way to learn about her trip. It is what she wants to tell us.
There is so much more that I could say about this wonderful book. I feel like I learned a lot about what it is to challenge yourself, and be brave, and to be alone, and to be part of the world. It is a book about Robyn Davidson at that time in her life as much as it is about her journey. Her psychological and emotional journeys are as important as the physical. I was drawn to Tracks after having loved Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and while the two books do have things in common, reading them brings two very different experiences with two different women – but I hugely admire both of them.
I’d say that Tracks is the more rewarding of the two. I particularly loved Davidson’s relationship with her dog Diggity (I am a mad dog person), and the exploration of the society and history that she travels through, as well as the fascinating and beautiful landscape. I just loved it, and I would recommend it to anyone.
First published in 1980 by Jonathan Cape, and by several publishers since. The movie adaptation of Tracks was released in 2013.