In 1977, photographer Rick Smolan went to Australia on an assignment for Time magazine. During his travels, he encountered an angry woman in a small town called Alice Springs. The woman was Robyn Davidson, or as she later came to be known as the “camel-lady.” Robyn was on a 1,700-mile trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean – on foot! Well, both her own feet and those of camels. On the journey with her and the camels, was her dog.
But suddenly, she met a man who told her that he was just supposed to be taking photos for an assignment. Little did either of them know that they would embark on a journey together, form a relationship, and all but 37 years later, their story would be made into a film. The movie Tracks, starring Adam Driver and Mia Wasikowska, is based on the unlikely encounter and brief romance between a photographer and a wanderer who had no interest in communicating with the outside world.
“I was sent to do a story on Aborigines,” Smolan said. “I walked out of my hotel, and I looked up and saw Robyn washing the windows. I took some pictures and she got really pissed off and started yelling at me.” She yelled at him: “Put your f—–g cameras down!” Smolan then tried to explain to her what he was doing there.
Yeah, “angry woman” seems to be a correct description. Robyn Davidson then replied: “Oh, you’re American…What are you, some kind of journalistic parasite here photographing the Aborigines?” Ouch. I don’t think Smolan would refer to himself as a parasite. But either way, Davidson wasn’t having it. She was about to embark on her journey and didn’t want anyone getting in her way.
When Davidson began her ambitious trek across the Australian Outback, she really didn’t think that it was that big of a deal. Modest and private by nature, she didn’t tell anybody why she was going on this trip. She mostly just wanted to be left alone. But then again, she also needed money. After having met the “journalistic parasite,” Smolan introduced her to editors at National Geographic.
The editors offered funding in exchange for her story. 28-year-old Smolan was then assigned to photograph 27-year-old Davidson’s trip for the magazine. Davidson, in need of money, agreed. But what she really wished for was for him to go away. Davidson later admitted that said she felt the trip worked magic on her in the most strange and unexpected ways.
After their unusual and unexpected agreement, Davidson said to Smolan: “‘I only want you to come out once.” Smolan told her that he had to come a number of times. The problem, well at least one of them, was that while Davidson had been training her camels and preparing for this trip for years, Smolan on the other hand, had absolutely no experience in the outback.
“I went to Alice Springs and bought way too much stuff. I was such a rube. I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t even a boy scout,” Smolan recalled. “My friends in New York thought it was really funny that I was assigned to the outback. I was so completely clueless.”
Over Davidson’s nine-month journey, Smolan visited her five separate times. While she initially fought his presence, the two eventually developed a friendship, which soon became a brief romance. Smolan, of course, didn’t tell his editors about their relationship as it would have been frowned upon. But as he continued documenting her journey, he started to become involved in her personal story.
Smolan explained that he had to decide whether his commitments were with her or with National Geographic. “Even with her fierceness, there was something about her that was very vulnerable. I felt very protective of her, even though she didn’t want to be protected. Every time I left her, I wondered if it was the last time I would ever see her again. She could have died out there.”
Smolan was right – Davidson absolutely could have died out there. Along her journey, she suffered multiple hardships, like dehydration, sick camels, the poisoning of her dog. Not to mention the many intrusions by simply curious people who just wouldn’t leave her alone. In the evenings, the temperature in the desert would drop below freezing, so a fire was needed to pass through the night.
After setting up camp, Davidson would cook dinner and listen to language teaching tapes that taught her to speak Pitjantjara, the local aboriginal dialect. When Smolan heard a rumor that Davidson was lost in the desert, he flew in from Asia to Australia to track her down. But he unwittingly led a group of other journalists along with him. Davidson, as you can imagine, was furious.
Davidson was always on Smolan’s mind. But Davidson, on the other hand, didn’t think much about him…
Robyn Davidson kept a memoir on her journey, and by day 71 of her trek, she was feeling lost. “Some string somewhere inside me is starting to unravel. It is an important string, the one that holds down panic. In the solitude of the desert night I feel the patter of rain on my sleeping bag – too light to lay the dust, too heavy for normal sleep. Sometime before midnight I come fully awake, and I do not know where, or who, I am.”
She wrote of hearing three voices inside of her. The first said, ‘So this is it, you’ve finally lost it.’ The second told her to ‘Hold on, don’t let go. Be calm, lie down and fall asleep.’ And the third voice was screaming. By dawn, her dog, Diggity, licked her face awake. Her four camels were standing hobbled nearby, which came as welcome, familiar shapes. Instinctively, she started her morning routine of boiling tea, packing her gear, saddling the camels, and heading south.
At the age of 25, Robyn Davidson gave up studying Japanese language and culture at the university in Brisbane, Australia. She then moved to the town of Alice Springs, where she got the idea to plan an expedition alone from there to the Indian Ocean, which would be a distance of about 1,700 miles. She would take camels and her dog, Diggity.
Why cross it by camel? She didn’t really have an answer. But she also figured why not? Australia is a massive country, and most people who live there only a see small fraction of it. In the outback, camels are the perfect form of transport. And since you can’t see much by car, and horses could never survive the hardships of the desert, camels were the reasonable choice.
Since the 1860s, camels were commonly used in the outback. They were imported from Afghanistan and India, and proved very successful until cars and trucks started to replace them in the 1920s. When Davidson arrived in Alice Springs, an Australian-born Afghan and a veteran handler by the name of Sallay Mahomet, agreed to teach her the art of camel training.
She worked with Sallay for three months. Camels are not the easiest animals to train – they can kill or injure you with one kick, and their bite is as painful as a horse’s, apparently. She learned how to understand camel behavior. Believe it or not, camels are similar to dogs – a well-trained one answers best to its handler.
For an expedition such as hers, it was essential that she did most of the training. And after working some part-time jobs, getting loans from friends, and receiving support from the National Geographic Society, she was finally able to buy the necessary equipment and four good camels. And yes, she named them: Dookie, Bub, Zeleika, and Goliath.
After a year of training and preparations, by early April 1977, she was ready to leave. Sallay and her father (who came from Brisbane to see her off) gave her, the camels, and her dog a ride to a camp 80 miles west of Alice Springs. From there, she ventured off for the west coast, alone. Well, except for the intermittent visits by Rick Smolan.
The first full day on her trek was both exhilarating and terrifying. Her first stop was to be the Aborigine settlement of Areyonga, and about a dozen times during that day, she was struck by the distressing thought, ‘Am I lost?’ That came to be an all too familiar question in the months ahead of her. At dusk, she camped beside the track and estimated that she had gone 20 miles. Not bad for her first day – she only had about 1,680 miles left to go.
She slid into her sleeping bag and spent most of the night dozing and wondering if she would ever see her camels again. But hearing their bells was reassuring, and she was able to actually sleep. The next morning, it seemed as though her camels were more scared than she was. Diggity, however, was snoring happily under the blankets.
On her 4th day, she reached Areyonga, which came as a pleasant sort of shock. Her feet were blistered and her muscles were sore. Diggity was also footsore and rode for a whole day on Dookie’s back. Zeleika was a total mess as her hind legs were weak, her nose was infected, and she had a big lump in a vein leading to her udder. Bub was uneasy. Dookie was the only one that was doing okay.
Davidson and her animals were greeted by children shouting, giggling and begging for rides on the camels. She rested there for a few days, worrying about her camels, and if they could handle their next 30-mile stretch to the farm at Tempe Downs.
As the villagers bid her goodbye, they warned her that the route over the mountains was an old one, which hadn’t been used for many years. After 15 miles, sweating over maps and her compass, she took a few wrong turns. To make matters worse, Bub threw an unforgettable fit, bucking the entire 500lb pack off his back.
Finally, the dislodged saddle hung under his belly and the items from the pack were scattered for miles. But despite the setbacks, they made it to Tempe Downs within three days and marked their 100th mile. She made a radio call to her friends, filled her drinking-water bag with rainwater, and headed out for Ayers Rock, 150 miles south-west. And her next trek was to be infested by flies, which covered every exposed square centimeter of human, dog or camel flesh.
After 250 miles since the start, Davidson and her furry friends reached Ayers Rock, which was flooded with tourists who come to see the great natural wonder. There, Davidson met her friend Jenny Green from Alice Springs, who came to meet her. They talked – well mostly Davidson spoke – for four straight days. Davidson wrote about it in her journal:
“Having travelled for most of three weeks without company, I babbled on to Jenny like a madwoman, and, as is often the case, one makes oneself better by making others sick. Dear Jen. She flew home feeling depressed, and I rode out of Ayers Rock feeling on top of the world.”
The next 140 miles to the eastern edge of the Gibson Desert went smoothly at first, that is until the weather almost killed them.
They had yet to encounter rain, and Robyn wondered how the camels would take to the orange plastic raincoats she made to cover their packs. Heavy clouds began to stir over the horizon and suddenly the downpour hit them like a ton of rocks. Within an hour, the trail became a river and they were drenched. The camels, though, took well to their flapping raincoats.
But the things about camels is that their feet are like bald tires – they can’t cope with mud. In the midst of the storm, Dookie, last in line, decided to give up and sit down. Robyn went to him and tried to help him up, but he refused. She yelled at him and had to kick the poor thing until he groaned and stood up. But that’s when she saw that he was limping. It seem as though the trip was over.
They painfully made it to Docker River. Each night, she tended to Dookie, bringing him shrubbery, massaging his shoulder, cuddling him, kissing him, crying and begging him to heal. But nothing really worked. She didn’t want to even entertain the idea of having to shoot her best camel to put him out of his misery.
Docker River is another Aborigine settlement, where the people were very hospitable. Robyn was able to use a few phrases of Pitjantjatjara and joined them in hunting, dancing, and even gathering insects and wild plants. In the end, it took a month for Dookie to recover from what was likely a torn muscle in his shoulder.
Dookie was finally well enough to travel again, and so they head westwards into the Gibson Desert. Wild camels suddenly appeared, which her trainer Sallay warned her about. “Make no mistake,” Sallay told her. “Wild bull camels can kill you when they’re in rut. They will try to take a female, and if you are in the way, you’ll be attacked. The only thing that will stop them is a rifle bullet. If the time should come, don’t hesitate.”
It looks like the time had come. 200 yards ahead of them stood three large wild bull camels, in the middle of mating season and aware of Zeleika – the female of the bunch. Robyn was faced with sudden danger and remembering what Sallay said, she took it one step at a time. First, she tied up Bub. Then, she carefully took the rifle from its case. She loaded it, cocked it, aimed, and… FIRE!
By then, the bulls were just 30 yards away. She took her first shot and one of them spurted a small amount of blood where his heart should be. But all three came forward again. Fire! This time it hit the back of the wounded one’s head. Fire! This time in the heart. Fire! Finally, it hit him in the head, and it was over. The other two ran off, and Robyn could breathe again.
That night, she could hear the rumble of the two bulls circling their camp. At dawn, one of the bulls stood just 50 yards away. However, she chose to not shoot him unless he directly threatened her or her camels. As she rounded up her camels, Bub took off with the new young bull camel. For an hour, Robyn tried to catch him, but the bull was too close to him. It was Bub or the bull. Through tears, she aimed at the bull. Fire!
It was on this night that she heard those three voices in her head. She thought she was going mad, maybe the combination of worrying over her water supply, the awful monotony of sand dunes, and the effect of shooting those wild bull camels. But by dawn, her feelings of insanity passed and they kept on keeping on. Her worry over water, however, was real. They were down to 10 gallons.
Somewhere ahead, and according to her map, there was to be an artesian well and an abandoned windmill with a storage tank. But what if she missed the well, or the tank was dry? Robyn started to sob as she walked, saying to herself: ‘God, please, the windmill must be over the next hill.’ They climbed the last hill to find a patch of green. Everyone drank from the water, and she was reminded that it’s good to be alive.
The 75th day was a memorable one for Robyn Davidson because it brought them to Mr. Eddie. The Pitjantjatjara man arrived at her camp that evening with carloads of Aboriginal people from nearby settlements. They all drank tea together and chatted. The next day, they decided that Mr. Eddie should accompany her to Pipalyatjara, which was a two days’ walk ahead.
For those two days, they communicated in pantomime and broken Pitjantjatjara or English, succumbing to helpless laughter at times. At Pipalyatjara, Robyn met another friend from Alice Springs. As Robyn was packing for Warburton, 180 miles west in the Gibson Desert, Mr. Eddie announced that he was going to join her.
After a mile or two, Mr. Eddie insisted they take a detour. He wanted to gather Pauri, the narcotic tobacco plant that Aborigines chewed on. They searched in silence for hours and, and Robyn began to wonder if they would ever reach their destination. But unlike her, Mr. Eddie flowed with time rather than measure it.
Spending time with him taught her to relax and enjoy her surroundings. The next was a disaster or a delight, depending on your perspective. They trekked 15 miles and were exhausted, hot, dusty, and fly-ridden. Cars were on the trail, and she was in no mood to be gawked. The car, with tourists inside, came up beside them. A few guys in silly hats got out, draped with cameras. “Hey, Bruce,” one of them yelled, “come look at this gal.”
He said, “And she’s got a boong with her!” The term ‘boong’ is a racist word for an Aborigine. All of a sudden, Mr. Eddie went berserk. Waving his walking stick, he drove them back to their car, raving in Pitjantjatjara and broken English, demanding money for those photographs. The men, startled, emptied their pockets of bills as they walked away hurriedly.
Mr. Eddie tucked the money away, and he and Robyn cracked up. By the 94th day, Robyn called on a friend in the Australian Flying Doctor Service radio to take Eddie back home. “I still think of our three weeks together on the trail as the heart of my entire journey,” Robyn wrote in her journal.
The most dangerous part of her journey lay ahead of her: the Gunbarrel Highway. Robyn, her camels, and her dog traveled 350 miles of the highway’s total 900-miles. On July 15, they headed out. The camels had a hard time walking under loads of water. Progress was achingly slow. Two weeks and 220 miles into the mission of a highway, Robyn realized that something was missing.
She wasn’t hearing the sound of familiar camel bells. She noticed that Zeleika and Bub were gone. Where were they, and how far had they gone? She then remembered what a wise friend in Alice Springs once told her: “When things go wrong on the track, rather than panic, boil the billy, sit down and think clearly.”
So she sat down with Diggity, and went over the relevant facts: “You are a hundred miles from anything; you have lost two camels; one of the other camels has a hole in his foot so big you could sleep in it; you have only enough water to last for six days; your hip is sore from walking; this is a god-awful place to spend the rest of your life.”
After all that self-real talk, she started to panic. After a few hours of panic, she finally managed to get Zeleika and Bub back, tended to Dookie’s foot as best as she could, and set off again. The water situation was solved when her friend came with his truck to deliver her water.
After her friend left, the silence and solitude closed in again. “I was not in the best shape. My left hip, sore from endless slogging over sand hills, was barely usable. My skin was dry as dog biscuits, my lips were cracked, I’d run out of toilet paper, and a sun blister was trying to take over my nose. Had it all been worth it? I still thought so.”
Day 118 rolled around by the time they hit a cattle station called Carnegie, at the end of the Gunbarrel Highway. But unfortunately, the station was dry, and she couldn’t restock with food as she had planned. All she could do was trek north-west for 75 miles to Glenayle station and hope for the best.
Food ran so low that Robyn had to share Diggity’s dog biscuits at one point. With a stroke of good luck, Robyn met two men who were traveling by car to Carnegie. One of them made a leather boot for Dookie’s foot, although it didn’t last very long. At that point, the only thing on her mind was reaching Glenayle and escaping the drought.
By the time they arrived there, Robyn hadn’t washed for a month, her face and clothes were covered with red dust. “I was exhausted, and I looked like a scarecrow.” When she reached the farm, a middle-aged woman watering her garden, smiled, and said, “How nice to see you, dear. Won’t you come in for a cup of tea?”
Robyn Davidson spent a week with the Ward family on their farm. Next up: the Canning Stock Route, an Australian legend. It runs about 1,000 miles, crossing the Great Sandy Desert, which is one of Australia’s worst. Fortunately, she only had to cover 170 miles, from Glenayle to Cunyu. Then, the remaining 450 miles to the Indian Ocean would be a heck of a lot easier.
They were about to enter dingo country, and Robyn was terrified that Diggity would stumble upon one of the poisoned baits that were placed to exterminate the wild dogs. She put a muzzle on her, but her whining and scratching led Robyn to finally take it off the poor thing. The area was rougher than anything they previously crossed, but at least the scenery was picture perfect.
“The setting was lovely, an infinitely extended bowl of pastel blue haze carpeting the desert, and in the far distance five violet, magical mountains soared above the desert. I longed to journey to those mountains. I had found the heart of the world,” Davidson wrote in her diary.
For three days, it was perfection, and Robyn thought to herself, ‘I never want to leave.’ But on that third night, Diggity took a dingo bait. Sadly, Robyn had to shoot her beloved dog to put her out of pain. Before dawn, she and the camels left the place that she just hours earlier thought was the heart of the world.
At that point, after losing her best friend, her only thought was to push on to the end of her route. “The country passed unnoticed beneath my feet, and I recall little of that time. I think I reached Cunyu on August 27.” It was there that the media caught up with me, and it was then that she first learned that she was known as ‘the camel lady.’
To avoid questions, she left the camels and sneaked away to Wiluna, 40 miles south. The people there asked her no questions: they just took her in and cared for her. Within a week, she and her camels set out for the coast of the Indian Ocean. Behind her were nearly 1,300 miles – five months of travel. There were 450 more miles to go.
Zeleika fell very ill. She nursed Goliath, her calf, throughout the whole six months up until that point, and now she suddenly was bleeding internally. Robyn tried giving her everything she had in her medicine kit and hoped for the best. A month after leaving Cunyu, they arrived at a cattle station, 156 miles from the sea.
The farmers took them in and fed them. Luckily, Zeleika began to improve. During their final stretch of 156 miles, 30 of them were smooth. At Woodleigh, 36 miles from the coast, two farmers, David, and Jan Thomson offered to take her and the camels on their flat-bed truck to a point where it would only be a couple of hours’ walk from the beach.
Six miles short of the final destination, they unloaded the truck and set out on the final leg of the trip. “Oh, how my spirits soared,” she wrote. “Two hours later, I saw it, glinting on the far side of the dunes – the Indian Ocean, end of trail. An anticlimax? Never. We rode down to the beach towards the sunset and stood thunderstruck at the beauty of the sea.”
The camels just couldn’t comprehend the amount of water lying before them. They would stare at the ocean, walk a few paces, and then turn and stare at it again. As Robyn was riding Bub, the surf sent foam tumbling over his feet. He bucked and nearly sent her flying.
She stayed there for “one glorious week.” Then it was time to go. She ended up leaving all four camels in the care of David and Jan Thomson. On October 27, they showed up in the truck, and they left the beach for the last time. Robyn was now left to reflect on such a journey that she bravely took. “Many times since the trek, I have been asked why I made it,” she wrote.
“And I answer that the trip speaks for itself. But for those who persist, I would add these few thoughts. I love the desert and its incomparable sense of space. I enjoy being with Aborigines and learning from them. I like the freedom inherent in being on my own, and I like the growth and learning processes that develop from taking chances. And obviously, camels are the best means of getting across deserts. Obvious. Self-explanatory. Simple. What’s all the fuss about?”
It was the end of her physical journey, but it was just the beginning of her sharing this story with the world. First, it became the feature of a 1978 National Geographic article, and later, it turned into her best-selling memoir called “TRACKS.” Oh, and remember her secret admirer, Rick Smolan? The one who did what he could to be with her, yet she couldn’t stand the sight of him?
Well, when the National Geographic story was published, she told him that she hated the photos and that she was dissatisfied with the editing of the piece. According to Smolan, “I think she didn’t like the pictures because she thought [they were] my experience, not hers… In a way, it’s true, because I was only there for portions of the trip. I wasn’t there for the moments of panic.”
But now, after time has passed, Robyn says she loves the photos. The images he took have a timeless, cinematic quality to them. There’s nothing like photos taken with film, where the color is golden. “I used to develop the film myself in Sydney or Melbourne to show her. And the more beautiful I made her look, the more she hated them,” Smolan explained. “You made me look like a goddamn model,” she said to him.
Smolan actually got into trouble with the National Geographic because he wasn’t supposed to develop his own film. “But one of the challenges was that she didn’t wear clothes a lot, and I didn’t want to send pictures of her naked.”
Smolan later published more of his photos from that trip in his 1992 book “From Alice to Ocean.” It was those images that helped set the stage for the cinematic version of “TRACKS,” with Mia Wasikowska as Davidson and Adam Driver as Smolan. “They used the book to set the color palate and tone [of the film],” Smolan said.
Smolan and Davidson both went back to Australia to spend time on the set of the film in 2013. Smolan said of that experience: “It was very surreal to watch people wearing our clothes, dressed up like us — the whole thing was very surreal. I hadn’t been back there since the trip. It’s completely the same.”
According to Smolan, the filmmakers stayed true to the details of their journey, including the mystery behind Robyn Davidson’s motivations for her trip, and even the nuances of their confusing relationship. “[The movie makes] her coldness and nastiness, and my goofiness, very extreme, but I think they did a good job capturing the friendship.”
He explained how, when you go through something like that with someone, a friendship lasts a really long time. She asked him whether he wondered what would’ve happened if they had stayed together. Smolan said, “We’d probably be divorced and hate each other now.” So instead, the two have remained friends.
Smolan is married with two children. Traveling with Davidson and having to make difficult choices about covering and becoming involved in her story, ended up changing his career. She asked him: “Are you going back to being a prostitute?” She was making a point was that he was always going to be “a cog in someone else’s machine.”
But Smolan explained how her scorn eventually led him to stop taking assignments. Instead, he started producing his own photo books, including the successful “Day in the Life” series, which sold millions of copies worldwide. As for Davidson, she spent some years in the ‘80s in a relationship with Salman Rushdie. Like a true nomad, she moved frequently and had homes in Sydney, London, and India. Today, she lives in Castlemaine, Victoria, in Australia.