Why would you do that? That was all anyone seems to have wanted to know when Robyn Davidson was planning her 2700 kilometre trek with camels across the Australian desert back in 1977. Tracks, the book she wrote about her journey, became an international best-seller, but it didn’t quite answer the question. And now, nearly 40 years later, it is still hanging in the air around Uluru, where Davidson’s book is finally being turned into a film. Why would anyone walk for nine months in this heat, which meets you like a burning wall the instant you step off the plane?
Mia Wasikowska is playing Davidson. With her fake tan covering her pale Polish skin and wispy blonde hair, she looks uncannily like her. She is also chary of the ”why” question. ”That was something I remember even at the very early stages, when they were still trying to find finance and I’d talk to John and Emile about the script,” she says. John Curran, who made Praise and The Painted Veil, is the director; Emile Sherman is one of the producers. ”They’d always be like, ‘People don’t understand why’. And it was so infuriating, because it seemed perfectly understandable to me why someone would want to simplify their life in a way and try to live presently in each moment. This hunger for solitude seemed to me some kind of yearning to hear her own voice.”
Next day, she and the crew are back on a small knoll with a view that stretches forever in all directions, with Uluru looming red in the middle distance; swing the other way and you see the Olgas. The shot is simple: Wasikowska has to saddle the camels. The heat is terrific, the flies friendly and the dust incorrigible; someone has to sweep the desert back into neatness after each take with a dustpan and brush. Everyone except Mia Wasikowska is swathed in scarves and seems to be wearing an extra T-shirt. ”At a certain point,” says the unit publicist, ”you get cooler the more you wear.”
Everyone on set likes to tell each other that the camels are stealing the show. The four stars – Mangan who plays Dookie, the snappy lead camel, Istan, Mena and Mindy the baby – are reclining on old sacks. One problem with camels, apparently, is that they will eat anything. ”They ate a washcloth because it was green,” says one of the wranglers. ”He saw the scourer and thought ‘Beauty!”’ Four weeks in, Wasikowska is clearly at one with her humped companions; between takes, she sits in the dust with baby Mindy’s head in her lap.
”I do miss the camels,” she will say a year later, when we meet at the Venice Film Festival, where the film is unveiled. ”They are so personable and sweet and strangely affectionate. They’re like big dogs.”
Davidson asked for Wasikowska herself. Even so, she had misgivings when they first met to spend three days in the bush. ”I thought, ‘Oh no, she’s so tiny and frail; how is she ever going to muster the earthiness?’ But we went to see the camels and she just got straight in there; she was totally fearless,” she says. Davidson was just a slip of a thing herself, come to that.
”But how you appear from outside is so different from how you see yourself. I look back and see photographs of that girl and of course she was young, she was beautiful, she was blonde. I didn’t see myself like that.”
Back in the ’70s, Robyn Davidson was known simply as ”the camel lady”, which appalled her at the time. She never imagined there would be public interest in her personal adventure. She had successfully asked National Geographic magazine for sponsorship and promised to write an article when she finished, which meant they sent photographer Rick Smolan to intercept her every month to document the trip. Those interruptions infuriated her, but the tourists and posses of journalists who tried to waylay her were much worse. ”Suddenly I became a famous person and I found that very weird,” she says. ”So when a publisher asked me to write a book – because I had had no intention of writing about it – I said yes, because I thought the whole world could focus on the book and I’d be left alone and I could go back to my normal life.”
How wrong she was. As a vision of the outback, Tracks seized the imagination first of suburban Australia, then the world. Davidson herself became an instant heroine at a time when second-wave feminism talked a great deal about role models. ”I think it just hit some sort of combination for mythical qualities,” she muses. ”We’ve got Ulysses but we haven’t got the female version. So I think it was some combination of those factors with the zeitgeist of the time. It just hit some nerve and continues to do so.”
John Curran is a decade younger than Davidson. At 25, he left his job as a graphic artist in New York where he had grown up and came to Australia with vague thoughts of seeing if he could be a filmmaker and a slightly more well-developed idea of having an adventure. ”I think that’s how I came to relate to this thing,” he says. ”I think any of us knows that if you decide to take a trip, where you end up is always different from where you start. Otherwise, why would you do it, you know? But I don’t think, until you do it, you’re really conscious of what that’s going to be.”
Curran was shooting on film, not digital, using lenses that were popular in the ’70s; he set out to make an epic that has both the grandeur and intimacy of Walkabout, in which the landscape would be a dominant character. The story, however, is a series of encounters between strangers, of whom the most memorable is the indigenous elder who guides her through sacred land, Mr Eddy (Rolley Mintuma).
The real Mr Eddy was almost silent, except when he sang his relationship to the land and its plants – ”like singing to a loved one”, says Davidson – but Mintuma was a natural chatterbox, telling endless stories that are clearly very funny if you can understand Pitjatjanjara. ”Even though I didn’t know what he was saying, I was always laughing so we used that,” says Curran. ”You got the sense of someone who was very happy in the moment.”
Given the book’s success, it seems bizarre that it has taken so long to bring Tracks to the screen. In fact, there were several attempts; Disney held the rights at the point when producers Sherman and Ian Canning first sought them out. ”The previous history of the film was long and kind of sordid,” says Davidson. ”You think you have control, but ultimately you don’t really.” Scripts were sent to her that had her swimming glamorously under waterfalls or falling in love with Smolan. ”They did fool around, but it wasn’t a magical romance,” says Curran. He decided to stick with the truth: some comradely sex, followed by dawn, camel-saddling and another day’s trek. ”If anything, you’ve seen the beginning of a good friendship. That was enough for me, something very small.”
Rick Smolan has just arrived at Uluru from New York, jet-lagged but happy, to see how his character is shaping up in the hands of Girls star Adam Driver. Like Wasikowska, Driver seems to have become physically indistinguishable from the man he is playing. Like him, too, he is dipping in and out of Davidson’s story, flying back to New York between his scenes. ”It’s nice to go from New York to Australia,” he says. ”The reverse isn’t as pleasant because you get used to being totally isolated. When you start inching your way back to civilisation, it’s a little bit overwhelming – even in Adelaide airport. All those people, going to Sydney!”
The real Smolan’s memories of his monthly encounters with the feisty camel lady conjure the conflicts and confusions of an entire era. Why were women so angry? The way he tells it, Davidson called him on everything. Photographing indigenous Australians for Time magazine made him a parasite. Doing jobs for the money made him a prostitute. She made him read all of Doris Lessing. ”When I saw that movie An Education, I was thinking this trip was my education,” he says. ”I was 27 and she was 26, but I was like 19 emotionally.
”Every time I met her she would insult me, in my view. I’d never met anyone like that before or since; she’s one of a kind. There’s no subterfuge or subtlety; I didn’t agree with her a lot of times, but it was just interesting not to have to guess what the other person was thinking.”
Davidson even hated the pictures he took of her trip; she thought he made her look like a model. ”I’m not in a fashion show; that is not what I’m doing,” she railed at him. ”’OK, what are you doing?’ She said: ‘It’s none of your business.’
”She would never answer that question.”
She still can’t: the reason why is like a Rubik’s Cube, always a few twists short of a solution. She craved escape; she had something to prove; she was young and uncompromising and driven to extremes.
”My sense of myself is that I was a rather unformed kind of person trying to make myself up out of bits of spit and string. Some instinct – and I think it was a correct one – led me to do something difficult enough to give my life meaning,” she says. Why she had to prove herself is unclear; perhaps it had something to do with the fact her mother killed herself when she was only 11, but there is no way of knowing. ”I think the thing I’d say about the journey is that mostly it was joyous,” she says.
”In a way, when you get into the psychological too much, it’s almost like it robs the journey of the pleasure it gave. Fun is important!”
She could never have guessed how the story would stay with her. Five years after she reached the coast, she went to visit Mr Eddy. ”It was then I found out – I guess men are men anywhere – he’d told his community that you know, there was something a little bit more than friendship between him and the camel lady,” she chuckles, ”and he had put me into a skin category that made me his wife.
”It ended up OK with both of us understanding that nothing of a sexual nature was going to be asked of me but we had to sort of save face. So we sat on the swag from six in the morning till night-time with everyone coming along and saying hello.”
Her camels, too, remained part of her life; she found a home for them with a family on the West Australian coast, then had to move them to Alice Springs. A decade later, she visited them. ”I’d brought them watermelon and licorice and all the things they liked,” she says. ”And without a nose-line or a rope or anything they remembered all the commands. So I spent an hour with them, cuddling them and so on, and then, very tearfully, I had to walk the 10 miles back. And they fell in line behind me and followed me all the way.” She gives a sigh that turns into a sort of groan. ”They really are extraordinary.”
Tracks opens on March 6. Advance screenings this weekend.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.