“Camel trips, as I suspected all along, and as I was about to have confirmed, do not begin or end: they merely change form.”

Brown Baggers book club met in person at the Central Library on Thursday, July 15, from 12-1 pm to discuss Tracks by Robyn Davidson. The subtitle, “a woman’s solo trek across 1,700 miles of Australian outback,” is a little ironic hovering above an image of Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver — the actors chosen to play Robyn and Rick in the movie adaptation. No, the journey is not completely solo; but, it’s solo enough to include plenty of zingers from Davidson’s chatty, whizzing inner monologue. As one reader put it, “I think she’s nuts, but that’s just me.” 

Readers revealed that they found Davidson to be somewhat of an unreliable narrator; in her, we found quick, eccentric storytelling (and for a “solo trek” saga, plenty of nearly unbelievable sidekicks, enemies, and friends). While the book was said by our group to be vivid, reading it was like chasing a butterfly — darting from one thing to the next. We found the writing compelling, but some wanted Davidson to pick a lane, and we discussed how the book would have read differently had it come from a scientific/academic angle. One person noted the book was more like a slideshow than a movie (it would have been interesting to discuss how (or if) the movie smoothed over any choppiness from the book, but no one had seen the movie). Ultimately, some of the most memorable moments were the genre-bending, slightly wacko, purely human, diary-like snapshots: Davidson walking around naked in the desert, dissolving into angst over her relationship with National Geographic, or rounding up her long-suffering friends for what felt like another fool’s errand. The Kirkus review of the book puts it well: “An unusual work–not as travel or adventure but for the total, personal experience, met head on.”

Another cover image of Tracks is a photo of Robyn riding a camel, which again, is a little ironic, given that the gist of her trek was to walk alongside the camels, who were used to haul about 1,500 pounds of supplies. Camels, though, fascinated our readers. This was not a book about camels per se, but the little details were a chance for us novices to learn a lot about camel life. Their feisty, sometimes violent tendencies, their maternal instincts, and their habits of grazing and wandering all night were all named as fascinating new discoveries for the group. Australia, known for its invasive species, was also a bit of a character itself. We didn’t talk much about the landscape or dialect/jargon used, but those components certainly drove the book into territory of its own. We did discuss how the time period (1970s) also contributed greatly to the book, because it was a time when people questioned norms and the status quo. Anything was possible. 

Gender was also a point of discussion for us. Davidson was the first ever recipient of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980, and for the 24 years that it was awarded, she was one of only two women to receive the award. Travel writing is known to be dominated by men, so it’s interesting to see here a book that fits the bill but also breaks the mold. As one reader noted, unlike many travelogues, in which male voices attempt to be supernatural survivalists, here we have Davidson “‘fessing up” about the ways in which she was helped. From friends who took her into a prop plane to search for lost camels, to an Aboriginal guide, Davidson’s trip was not perfectly executed or perfectly packaged. At the moment, it might have felt a little weird to read from a narrator who seemed to have self-esteem issues, was self-indulgent, and had a temper. We don’t expect that kind of emotional or mental rawness from a soaring travel adventure story. Reflecting back, it’s a gripping twist of storytelling, as the embodiment of Australian culture (macho, rugged Outback) was a woman. One reader described Robyn like this: “She was the type of character who would have done anything after being dared at a party.” It says a lot that Davidson, a real person, was so easily thought of as a “character” by our readers. Sometimes you read a true story, but the person’s journey is so different from your own, that it almost feels unreal. The truth really is stranger than fiction. 

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss Anne Patchett’s The Dutch House on Thursday, August 19, 12-1 pm, at the Central Library. Email kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Books Mentioned:

Inside Tracks: Robyn Davidson’s Solo Journey Across the Outback by Rick Smolan

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert 

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides 

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard 

Movies Mentioned:

Rabbit Proof Fence (2003)

Tracks (2013)

Links:

‘The Camel Lady’ painting by Jean Inyalanka Burke – Warakurna history paintings at National Museum Australia

Nomadic cultures, journeys, and coming home: A conversation between Robyn Davidson and Dr. Mike Smith – National Museum Australia

Robyn Davidson reflects on 40 years since “Tracks” – Hilary Harper, Life Matters for ABC

Robyn Davidson is a nomad – interview by Anna Krien for DumboFeather

Excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition at the Australian Museum

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