Making Tracks: Robyn Davidson's Australian camel trip on the big screen

At the end of Tracks, the book Robyn Davidson wrote about her journey by camel across the Australian desert in 1977, she concluded that...

At the end of Tracks, the book Robyn Davidson wrote about her journey by camel across the Australian desert in 1977, she concluded that "camel trips … do not begin or end, they merely change form." For the past eight months or so, the trip has taken her to the red carpets of Venice and Telluride rather than the sand of Pipalyatjara and Uluru and the alarming encounters have not been with rogue bull camels or reptiles but with all the crazy hoopla that comes with the promotion of a film based on your own life. Although Tracks was regarded as a spectacular piece of travel writing, it was always much more. It was also about the sexism and racism – specifically affecting Indigenous Australians – the then 26-year-old encountered, and about alienation and how we limit ourselves through fear or insecurity. "Men are men and women are an afterthought," she wrote of her native land, the chaps who mocked her proposed journey were "bigoted and boring" and it was no surprise that some of the world's angriest feminists were antipodeans. Since then, of course, there has been a first, albeit beleaguered, female Australian prime minister. Talking in an east London flat she once called home, I ask how much has changed. "Every country is sexist and racist, they just have their own versions of it and now I have travelled the world and seen how all men have difficulty with women," says Davidson. "I feel much more tender towards Aussie blokes now. They're usually good company – funny and self-deprecating. Anyway, there's good blokes and bad blokes, and good women and bad women. As for the racism, when I first got back to Australia and saw Samson and Delilah [the 2009 film by the Indigenous Australian director Warwick Thornton], I thought: nothing's changed. But then I thought – there wouldn't have been an Aboriginal film-maker then." Robyn Davidson with Mia Wasikowska and camels on the set of Tracks. Robyn Davidson, right, with Mia Wasikowska on the set of Tracks We met more than 30 years ago, through the late photographer Penny Tweedie, around the time that Tracks came out. Soon afterwards, Davidson was off again, travelling across the US on a Harley-Davidson with her then partner, Steve Mark. She seemed unstoppable. There used to be an idle game among us in which people said who they would most like to have with them on a bank robbery and Davidson was always everyone's first choice. Tracks was originally optioned as a film in the 1980s and made its way through various production companies. "One idea was to make the main character a dotty American secretary who gets a postcard from an uncle in Australia. She's in Central Park with her mother who tells her 'darling, you've just got to go on this walk' and then the mum gets run over by a bus," she says, laughing at the memory. "We used to joke that there would have been tyre marks over the mother's body and then 'TRACKS' coming up on the screen." Unsurprisingly, that version did not fly. There was a big-budget approach, too, with Julia Roberts in the part, but Davidson balked at the idea. "I had always seen it as an independent film and once it got into Hollywood, any control would be zilch," she says. "But this lot [producer Emile Sherman and director John Curran] were so charming and they were a smaller company and in Australia." Mia Wasikowska, who plays Davidson, has captured her eerily well. The Australian-born actor's presence eased the journey through the festivals and junkets. "I am fascinated by actors, how they do what they do, and it's clear that this young woman is very intelligent and has a strong inner life – and we had fun together," says Davidson. "We were on the red carpet in Venice – I had no idea that they actually had red carpets, I thought it was just an expression." Robyn Davidson Robyn Davidson: 'I feel much more tender towards Aussie blokes now. They’re usually good company – funny and self-deprecating.' Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images Now she is working on her memoir, a perplexing expedition through her life that has been delayed for how many years? "Fifteen – let's say 10, that sounds more respectable." She wrote a beautiful essay for the Telegraph ages ago in which she explained why she would be unable to write the book. As someone remarked at the time, it read like the perfect first chapter, which it now will be. A couple of years ago literary agent David Godwin flew to see her in India to persuade her to finish it. It is a journey with its own personal sadnesses, which started in a cattle ranch in Queensland before going through the "60s and 70s wild years". After Tracks was published she lived on four continents and had more than 40 addresses. In the early 1980s she moved to London, staying first with Doris Lessing and living for a while in an east London studio flat where we now sit. An Indian landowner and former politician called Narendra Singh Bhati persuaded her to go east, which led to another journey with nomads and camels in north-west India, a tough experience that became a book, Desert Places. Although Bhati died in 2010, she still spends part of the year there and maintains a close – often infuriated – relationship with it, exacerbated by the current elections. "If Modi [of the rightwing Bharatiya Janata party] gets in, it would be a disaster. I find him truly terrifying." For a while she made a living taking wealthy and sometimes demanding travellers into the Rajasthan desert. Would that make a film? "It would have to be a comedy. You certainly find out how groups function: everyone gets a bit infantilised so, as the guide, you inevitably end up as the mum." She has a new home near Melbourne to which she will retreat, when the red carpets are rolled up, and face her deadline. Something that is clearly just as daunting to her as Australian dust bowls, blazing suns and spinifex spines.


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