Tracks - Robyn Davidson interview
ROBYN Davidson reflects on some of her real-life experiences of journeying across the Australian desert as a young woman and what she learned both during and after the formative adventure.
She also talks about the film, Tracks, and why Mia Wasikowska was such an important part in convincing her that the time was right to make it. And she reveals what it was like to bond with her camels and what became of them afterwards as well as her views on contemporary society’s reliance on technology.
Q. There is an intriguing quote at the beginning of the film – ‘some nomads are at home everywhere, some are at home nowhere and I was one of those’. So, going back to that time, what was life for you like before you undertook your trek and what finally made you acknowledge your nomadic gene?
Robyn Davidson: The 70s were a wonderful time to be young. I think most young people at that time were pushing the boundaries, asking all sorts of questions of society, of life and of themselves. They were very politicised. It was part of the air that we breathed. So, I think in that sense it wasn’t such a strange thing to do. It seemed like young people, anyway, were all doing quite adventurous things. As for my nomadic gene… I don’t know. Certainly, after the trip I kind of didn’t stop wandering. I’ve only recently bought my first house.
Q. It’s 34 years since your book, Tracks, came out. What was the journey like from page to film? There must have been previous offers? So, why was this combination right? And why Mia Wasikowska?
Robyn Davidson: I think partly chance. I remember the first person who wanted the film was Sydney Pollack and he took me to lunch. This was six months after the book was published. And he started the conversation with: “Well honey, you’re not going to like what I’m going to do to your book!” He was so charming and adorable but I felt strongly that the story shouldn’t go to Hollywood. It’s not that I don’t like Hollywood films. It’s just that I felt responsible, particularly towards the Aboriginal people, so I cared very much about how that might be portrayed. So, I’d always hoped that the film would be the sort of film that it has turned out to be, made by independent producers. But frankly, by the time it came right around, it had gone to many producers over the years and I’d got, any scripts in the post and each one seemed to be more insane than the one before. So, by the time it came around, I was pretty disillusioned. I thought the film would never be made and if it was it would be a piece of crap [laughs]. But [producer] Emile Sherman slowly talked me into being more involved with the script, on giving information about my back story and so on. The real clincher for me was when Mia signed up. I think she is an extraordinary actress. She’s really the bee’s knees. Since seeing In Treatment, I’ve wanted her to play the role. So, when she signed up I felt much more confident about the film turning into something that I too would be proud of.
Q. What were the qualities in her that you responded to?
Robyn Davidson: Intelligence, I think. There’s just an intelligence in that girl. Inner life… she’s got a strong inner life. There’s a sort of fragility married to a will of steel. Those were all qualities that I recognised and qualities that she brings to her work. I just think she’s fantastic.
Q. Did you keep a journal when you actually did the trek? We don’t see you writing one in the film…
Robyn Davidson: It was the strangest thing. I didn’t keep a journal. I didn’t want to. But also I had no intention of writing about the trip ever. It was a very personal and private gesture. I only ended up writing about it because there was so much attention focused on me at the end of the trip, so I thought that if I write it [the book] it would be like throwing a bone to the ravenous wolves and they could have the book and I’d be left alone. But then, of course, it became a best-seller and the whole thing has just gone on and on and on [laughs]. Two years later, when I was in London and came to write the book, I was in this horrible little flat and I swear I remembered every single day and ever single camp-site on that nine month journey. It was like this feat of very vivid remembering. But then as soon as that first draft was written, it was as if the book absorbed the memories. It was most peculiar. And with each iteration, I guess it becomes harder to remember what actually did happen. I think memory does get kind of commandeered by the various productions.
Q. Did you have any further romance with your photographer?
Robyn Davidson: Um, no. It never was really a romance. I think the film does try to portray that honestly and I really admire them for doing that because I think it would be very easy to turn it into a romance. But Rick [Smolan] and I are still very good friends. He still drives me completely nuts! We’re absolute opposites. But on a trip like that, you either murder the person and bury them in a sand dune or you get to love them [laughs]. So, yes I do love Rick. He’s a dear friend.
Q. What did you learn from the trip and what was different to what you expected?
Robyn Davidson: Well, so much was different. The thing that I so totally hadn’t expected was the interest in it. And indeed right from the beginning, when I was first in Alice Springs, it did seem to galvanise people, either in terms of being opposed to it or wanting to be a part of it. I really wasn’t prepared for the attention that came at the end of the trip. My life was altered completely by it. And what I learned was sort of everything really, from the most mundane learning. I would say that when I went to Alice Springs I was a pretty feckless, incompetent, dreamy girl. And by the end of that trip I had developed all sorts of skills and abilities that I had no idea I had. So, even on that level it formed me into a likeable human being. But also, I think just the fact of being alone for that length of time and in that vast landscape, I do think that my brain literally got re-wired. And in some sense, I often think that I haven’t quite fully come back.
Q. I was conscious how blissfully free that world is from technology. So, how is your relationship with technology? The film examines the desire for isolation and yet we’re almost not allowed to have it anymore…
Robyn Davidson: Yes, I’ve said that it’s going to be illegal soon to get lost [laughs]. I’m not particularly good with technology, as my friends know. I can turn off the phone for weeks on end because I’m aware of how valuable… not just my solitude but I resist the idea that we should be available 24/7. So, I’m probably a bit odd in that way. But I also think that the story continues to be popular because people do long to disappear under the radar for a while. When you think about it, every culture in the world has had space for people to do that, either as a pilgrimage or that sense of it being important to understand and love solitude. So, I don’t know what it means that in our contemporary world we’re connected all the time. It seems to me that it’s not so much about connection as it is about control.
Q. Did you really not have a very good hat when you were out there, or was that just artistic licence?
Robyn Davidson: I hate hats! Hats just give you really bad hair [laughs]! I had a hat sometimes. Frankly, you get burnt so much anyway, it’s beside the point. And when you’re walking into the western sun, no hat in the world is going to save your face and neck from being sizzled.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit more about your relationship with the Aboriginal people and, in particular, Eddie?
Robyn Davidson: Well, the background to that time in central Australia was quite important because that was when land rights legislation was just about to come in. There was a tremendous backlash against it. Alice Springs was a very racially uncomfortable town. I remember the night before I arrived there an Aboriginal bloke was found in the gutter painted white. So, it was kind of heavy duty. The Ku Klux Klan… there was probably only five of them but they were out there. So, it was a strange time because it was both full of excitement about the possibilities of this new legislation and at the same time quite frightening because of what it showed about the underbelly of Australia. I was very pro-Aboriginal, if you like. And I think people seemed to genuinely like and understand what I was doing. So, the two years’ of preparation I did before the journey, I lived next to an Aboriginal community and got to know them very well. I’d go out with them to learn the ropes a bit. And on the journey, I called into various Aboriginal communities along the way and they kind of got it. My name down there is ‘Desert Woman’, which is kind of a step up from ‘Camel Woman’ [laughs].
As for Eddie, that’s just such a piece of good fortune. For some reason, that old man decided he wanted to walk with me. I would say it is unprecedented. For me, it sort of formed the heart of the journey because being with him, it was impossible to continue to be obsessed with all the structures that I needed initially. After being with him, I felt free to actually enter the desert in the right way.
Q. Did you ever fear for your safety – not just in terms of the heat?
Robyn Davidson: No. But I think I was probably stupid not to. Luckily, I’ve never had that crippling sort of fear. I’ve always felt that I could look after myself and that if someone tried to attack me I’d punch right back. I did have to develop that kind of battle axe mentality because there were some very heavy duty people around trying to stop me doing what I wanted to do.
Q. One of the characters tells you at one point in the film that you don’t have to be unlucky to die out there. Was death a real possibility? The film shows you disorientated at one point and with a snake at another…
Robyn Davidson: There was no snake [smiles]! It could have been real. But my answer to that question, in general, is that you’re actually statistically more likely to get run over or to have a car accident on the way home. So, death is ever present. We sort of carry our skeleton around with us. Certainly at the time, I don’t remember feeling frightened of death in that way. And also I was too busy looking after my camels and worrying about them. Also, I guess young people don’t really understand death. I’m sure if I was planning such a thing now, I’d be terrified!
Q. What happened to the camels?
Robyn Davidson: Well, they broke my heart when I had to leave them. That was really terribly difficult for me because by the end of the trip, we were so integrated and I was so grateful to them… I’d lost my dog, of course. So, I found these wonderful people on the West Coast who couldn’t have been better people to look after them. They owned a big sheep station and those people understood the value of the animals. So, they were perfect. But then a few years later the owner of that property became sick and had to go to the city and the new owner was a real nitpicker. He rang me up and said: “If you don’t get these f**king camels off me f**king property, I’m going to f**king shoot ‘em!” So, I had to run out, all the way to Western Australia, to save the camels. I took them on the train back to Alice Springs, where I left them with another station owner. He was OK but he was lazy. And when the drought came… I was living in London. So, when the drought came he didn’t look after them properly and they just crossed a fence and disappeared. So, I don’t know.
Q. How long did Mia have to get used to the camels in the film?
Robyn Davidson: Mia was fantastic. I hadn’t met her. I’d seen her in In Treatment and thought she was a star. But then two weeks before the shoot we met and went out Bush together. She was quite a frail creature. She was recovering from an illness, so she was even more fragile than she looks. But she just instantly got in there [with them] and was fearless. And so the camels got that as well. I think that comes across in the film that she seems quite comfortable with them. That was the only time we had together but somehow she got the animals and she also got something of me.
Q. How has the film been perceived in Australia?
Robyn Davidson: So far, so good. I think people are very… it’s mixed I guess. The question ‘why’ is always asked. There’s sort of bafflement as to why I would do it. And my feeling is that if I’d been a bloke, that question wouldn’t have been asked, or it would have been asked differently. So, I think there is still this sense of a woman doing anything out of the ordinary demands explanation.
Q. Have you had any experiences in your life that measure up to Tracks?
Robyn Davidson: It was a hard act to follow [laughs] in terms of its length and intensity and because I was young. But I’ve had a very busy life since then. It’s not been without incident or interest. But I have to say that my time in the desert was so formative… so deeply formative. It would be very hard to repeat anything of such importance.
Q. You’ve said that you have continued to walk. Have you had a better pair of sandals since?
Robyn Davidson: [Laughs] Well, the clothing I wore was perfectly practical. Sandals are absolutely the best footwear to wear in the desert. If you wear shoes, the sand forms ridges under your feet and your feet sweat and it’s awful. One of the very nice things about doing that journey was that I kept peeling away everything that wasn’t absolutely essential. So, I ended up with two sarongs, one jumper, one pair of woolly socks and battered old sandals. It was a liberation getting rid of so much stuff, both physically and metaphorically. It always amuses me when people go to the Bush and buy all this stuff.
Q. The landscape is exquisite. Did you ever stop noticing the beauty?
Robyn Davidson: I don’t think I ever became blasé about the landscape. The landscape in the film is beautiful but, frankly, nothing compared to what I saw. It’s an achingly beautiful landscape and incredibly varied.
Q. What about the moment you saw blue? Was it an extraordinary moment?
Robyn Davidson: Yes it was. I just happened to arrive at one of the most stunning pieces of coastline in Australia. There was water through the journey. Usually it was brackish and salty and not very deep. And there were water mirages as well. But the funny thing about arriving at the ocean was the camels… they just could not believe there was anywhere on Earth with that much water [laughs]!
Q. Could they drink it?
Robyn Davidson: They kept trying to drink it! They just didn’t believe that it couldn’t be drunk.
Tracks opens in UK cinemas on Friday, April 25, 2014.