The photographer who captured one woman’s epic journey across the Australian outback shares his own account of the now-famous trek.
When I first met Robyn Davidson she was living in the desert town of Alice Springs, Australia, and preparing to cross the outback alone with only four camels and Diggity, her beloved Kelpie. She didn’t feel she owed the world an explanation, but she did need money to fund her trip. National Geographic was the perfect solution: the magazine agreed to provide her with the resources she needed. But their funding came with one big catch: me.
Robyn never planned on sharing her trip, which began in 1977, especially not with a fledgling photojournalist who dropped in periodically. Then again, she certainly never intended to write a book about it, never suspected she would become one of Australia’s best-loved authors or imagined in her wildest dreams that her story would, so many years later, attract the attention of See-Saw Films, the Oscar-winning team behind The King’s Speech. And, when she set out on her journey, she would have been speechless to know that one day in the distant future, Mia Wasikowska, a chameleon-like Australian actress who wasn’t even born when Robyn crossed the outback, would bring her story to life on the silver screen in a film bearing the same title as Robyn’s book about the trip: Tracks.
Davidson had rescued her Kelpie, Diggity, as a puppy from certain death in a medical research laboratory. Diggity returned the favor by alerting her to human intruders, poisonous snakes, and other dangers.
And, for me, what began as a dream assignment for a 28-year-old photographer turned into a much more profound and life-changing experience.
Robyn loved the outback, thought it was magically beautiful. As a big city kid from New York I couldn’t understand what she saw: to me it was dry and ugly, simply an exotic background for my photos of her. But, as I tracked her down numerous times during the journey, my photos began to change and I started to see the desert through her eyes. The intensity and color of the light in the outback was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and it was as if I’d been wearing sunglasses my entire life and then suddenly taken them off.
Robyn was the most direct human being I had ever met and she constantly challenged me, as she did herself. Even when I disagreed with her, I found her thought processes and bluntness unlike anything I had ever encountered.
We had a thought-provoking conversation on my third visit. Robyn hadn’t seen anyone for several weeks and as we sat by the campfire she suddenly demanded: “When are you going to get here?” I remember wondering if she was losing her mind and said: “Robyn, I’m sitting here right across from you.” She stared at me and said: “No, you’re not. You are worrying about the film from your Taiwan assignment and where you are going to drop your car in two weeks when you leave me, and whether your photo is going to be on the cover of Time next week. You show up out here and then you are everywhere else but here. If you’re going to come, then be here with me and not lost in your head the whole time!”
One of my biggest fears was that something terrible would happen to Robyn and that she would die during her journey. Being attacked by wild bull camels, getting lost and running out of water, sunstroke, poisonous snakes and insects, being thrown from a camel and hurt, her camels running away with all her supplies, crazy humans... the list of dangers seemed endless.
One day between outback trips, I was on assignment in Hong Kong and had arranged to meet Time magazine’s bureau chief Richard Bernstein, at the Hilton Hotel for breakfast. Richard knew that I was joining Robyn intermittently during her journey and when I got to his table he looked very pale and told me I better sit down.
He handed me the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s daily English newspaper, and there, on the front page, was the headline: “Mysterious Camel Lady Missing in Gibson Desert: Desperate Search Underway.” My heart sank and I have no memory of how I got to the airport but the next thing I recall is waking up while the plane re-fuelled in Darwin en route to Perth. Flight attendants distributed morning newspapers from around Australia and there, on the front page of every paper in the country, were my photographs of Robyn. I immediately assumed National Geographic would never have given out my photos unless she was confirmed missing.
Despite her intentions, Davidson and her journey became a popular news story at the time.
What I didn’t know at the time was that two weeks earlier a race car driver looking to set a new world record for crossing Australia had spotted Robyn’s campfire and screeched up to her in the middle of the night. He stayed a few minutes and then blazed off in a cloud of dust. She later told me that she was so exhausted she was never sure if he was real. His effect on her trip was certainly real.
I later learned that when the racing driver reached Sydney and held a press conference to celebrate his accomplishment, one of the reporters asked him what had been the most memorable part of his journey. He told them about the romantic evening he’d spent with “a mysterious camel lady.” That remark led to a completely fabricated story about the “missing camel lady” and to more than 80 paparazzi from around the globe descending on Western Australia. Like the rest of the world, I had believed Robyn was truly missing and probably dead, perhaps never to be found.
I was desperate to find her but, by the time I did, there were dozens of reporters and camera crews following me. These parasites, with their fabricated stories, descended on Robyn like flies. For a few days it looked as if they were never going to leave, forcing her to consider abandoning her trip. One night, while everyone was asleep, I hid her in my Toyota Land Cruiser and drove to a cattle station 32 kilometers away where we waited a week until their news budgets ran out and she could return to continue her trip.
Throughout the trip I kept encouraging Robyn to keep a journal so that she could one day write a book about it. Her response was predictable: “Why do you have to turn everything into a product that can be packaged and marketed and sold? Why can’t you just experience something for its own sake and not be constantly thinking of how you are going tell your friends all about it?”
Smolan's forthcoming book Inside Tracks.
Three years after she finished her journey Robyn called to tell me she had written a book about the trip. I was stunned and asked if she wanted a copy of my journals. She politely declined but sent me a draft to read.
I remember two things about my initial reading of Tracks. The first was being stunned at what a powerful writer Robyn was; how I was hypnotized by the story, sucked completely into her world. The second was that while most of us have memories like sedimentary layers, with the most recent memories on top and fresh while older memories are faded and compressed, Robyn had an extraordinary ability to remember every day of the trip as if it were happening in real time.
Without any journal or notes she had conjured up and brought to life the tiniest details, sounds, smells, emotions, verbatim conversations, reflective observations, even the patterns small insects had made in the sand. I called her at her home in London and asked how on earth she had been able to recreate the trip with such verisimilitude. She chided me: ‘Because I was there. While you were snapping away and thinking about f-stops and underexposing half a stop to increase the saturation of your film and scribbling away in your journals, I was letting myself experience every moment.’
She was right. While I was always filtering the experience, she allowed herself to actually experience every moment of the trip, the pain and the wonder.
Before Tracks was released in movie theatres around the world, producer Emile Sherman and director John Curran graciously set up a private screening for me in Los Angeles. As I walked into the small screening room on Sunset Boulevard I was excited and looking forward to a trip down memory lane.
Instead, a few minutes into the film I found myself gripping the arms of my seat, breaking out into a sweat, my heart pounding, experiencing a full-blown anxiety attack. Sitting alone in that darkened theatre I was flooded with a sense of dread, suddenly remembering that every time I drove away from Robyn during her journey I would look in my rear view mirror and wonder if that would be my last memory of her; if she would die out there.
That rush of forgotten memories made it impossible for me to enjoy my first viewing of Tracks. It wasn’t until I saw the film again at the Toronto Film Festival with 800 other moviegoers, heard them hold their breath when Robyn was attacked by wild camels, heard them laugh in unison at Adam Driver (who amusingly captured the social awkwardness and fish-out-of-water aspects of ‘Rick’ when he shows up with a raft he’d been conned into purchasing “in case of flash floods”) and cry when Robyn lost her best friend, that I was able to properly experience Tracks for the first time.
Left: Rick Smolan and Robyn Davidson in 1977, Right: Adam Driver and Wasikowska in character for Tracks in 2014.
Robyn and I have been asked many times since Tracks debuted how accurate the film is to what actually happened. Obviously the Robyn and Rick in the film are fictionalized versions of us and many of the events have been tailored and altered to fit into the movie’s 90-minute narrative arc. And, in many ways, even Robyn and I were on different journeys and we each remember parts of the trip very differently. Ironically, the thing we both fear now is that the movie version of events may begin to replace our memories of the real events.
One big question has always loomed over Robyn’s trek. When tens of millions of National Geographic readers first experienced Robyn’s story, when more than a million people in 18 languages read Tracks and now when hundreds of millions of movie-goers watch the film Tracks, the first question people always ask is, “Why did Robyn make this trip?”
It’s the one question that Robyn has never felt the need to answer. Perhaps allowing each person to reach their own conclusion is what makes Robyn’s unlikely journey so compelling. To me, what matters is that Robyn permitted herself to listen to the little voice inside that so many of us ignore.
As dawn broke on the morning the trip began, Robyn feared, even after two years of preparation, that she still wasn’t truly ready for what lay ahead.
Evening temperatures in the desert often dropped below freezing so a warm fire was a welcome way to end a hard day’s work. After making camp, Davidson would cook dinner and then listen to tapes that taught her to speak Pitjantjatjara, the local Aboriginal dialect.
One night at the beginning of the trip Davidson dreamt of an old Aboriginal man who became her friend and shared the secrets of Dreamtime with her. Months later, just as she was beginning to feel the trip was empty and meaningless, Mr Eddie appeared and travelled with her for the next 186 miles.
Uluru is the world’s largest single rock and has a history that goes back hundreds of millions of years. A sacred site for the Pitjantjatjara and Lowitja tribes for over 10,000 years, Uluru today attracts many Australians who regard a trip to the Rock as a pilgrimage. The painted white line is designed to keep tourists from falling off the edge.
After nine months and 1,700 miles, it was late afternoon on a perfect day when Davidson and the camels had their first glimpse of the Indian Ocean. The camels had never seen any body of water bigger than a puddle and their eyes bulged at the infinite expanse in front of them. Their arrival marked the end of an extraordinary odyssey.