When I started reading Tracks: One woman’s journey across 1,700 miles of Australian Outback by Australian author Robyn Boyd, I wondered if by the end of the book I would feel inspired to take a momentous journey of my own. As it turned out, I wasn’t at all inspired. I’m staying home. And not just because of COVID-19 (as I write this Melbourne is in Stage Four lock down and I am limited to one hour of daily exercise within five kilometres of my home). I wasn’t very far into this book when I realised that walking half way across Australia through the heat and desert with a herd of troublesome camels was something I would much prefer to read about than do.
Tracks is the true story of the author’s arrival in Alice Springs in central Australia during the 1970s with the intention of making an extraordinary trip through the desert to the Western Australian coast. When she arrived in Alice Springs Robyn Boyd had six dollars in her pocket and no idea of what to expect. At the time Alice Springs (and possibly much of Australia) was a far more difficult place to be a woman travelling alone than it is now.
Robyn became an apprentice to a man who ran a camel business where she worked for food and board while learning to manage camels. The camel-ranch owner, a volatile German, agreed to sell her a camel after she had worked for him for a certain amount of time.
Robyn also worked at a pub in town where the patrons were rough. Her descriptions of the men that she served were that they were without charm, “biased, bigoted, boring, and above all, brutal.” Her experience at the pub were often frightening and the racism that she saw towards Aboriginal people was vicious. This attitude was echoed by the people of Alice Springs and the tourists towards the Aboriginal people in the area (and as Robyn pointed out long before this was a popular opinion or even an agreed upon truth, this was in those Aboriginal people’s own home long before anyone else came to Australia).
After a particularly nasty and frightening attack at the pub, Robyn left town to live permanently at the camel ranch, although life there wasn’t much better than in town. Although she was successfully learning to manage camels she was unable to get along with the ranch owner. Eventually Robyn left the ranch without the camel she had been promised and went to work for another camel man.
Two years after arriving in Alice Springs Robyn had her own herd of camels, a bull camel called Dookie, another bull called Bub, a female called Zelly and Zelly’s calf, Goliath. Despite owning the camels, Robyn was still too poor to set off on her journey until a photographer friend, Rick Smolan, helped her to gain sponsorship from National Geographic magazine.
Robyn was conflicted about taking the money from National Geographic and frequently complained throughout the remainder of the book that she felt as if she had sold herself and her trip out. However, as someone who appreciated and enjoyed reading about her trip, I’m grateful she made the deal and wish she had left some of the whinging out of her book.
Robyn had arranged to meet Rick at intervals along her trip for him to take photos of her, the camels and her dog Diggety for the story. Robyn’s emotions towards Rick were connected with her feelings about selling out and she frequently expressed how resentful she felt towards him, although eventually she managed to move past this.
The story of the trip itself is fascinating. Robyn walked to various waterholes and stations along the way, sometimes by road and sometimes across country (although the roads were unsealed and were often no more than a track, leading the camels as she went. These tracks sometimes turned out to be dead ends, causing Robyn to have to backtrack to a previous point to set out again).
Robyn describes practicalities of the trip, such as setting out with an enormous amount of gear but finishing with only the bare essentials, and how long it took her to load the camels, or to find them when they disappeared during the night.
The trip itself was quite dangerous, which Robyn downplayed. The camels frequently disappearing overnight despite being hobbled was just one example. Robyn chose to walk rather that ride a camel as a fall in such isolated surroundings would have been disastrous. The sweltering heat, the possibility of a waterhole being dry, of being injured by one of the camels or by a feral camel were all very real dangers.
The section of the story with the happiest tone was when Robyn was accompanied by Eddie, an elderly Aboriginal man who walked part of the trip with her and guided her to waterholes along the way. Generally, Robyn was irritated and angry with the people in her life and with those she met along her journey, particularly those who wanted to take her photo, but she seemed genuinely friendly with and empathetic towards the Aboriginal people she met along the way.
Robyn discusses racism and sexism quite candidly throughout this story and both subjects are difficult to read about. The racism is probably more difficult to read about because less has changed since Tracks was written. Some readers might also find the treatment of the camels distressing because although Robyn and the other camel owners in this book obviously loved their animals, they also beat them. Apparently the only way to get a camel to do something it doesn’t want to do is to beat it.
I’m keen to find a copy of the May 1978 edition of National Geographic to see the photos and story of Robyn’s journey as they were originally told.