Book & Video: Photographing Robyn Davidson’s Tracks

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Tracks, by Robyn Davidson, is one of those books which you know of and have an idea of what they are about but then never quite get around to reading.  Then, when you do, you wonder why it took you so long.  

Tracks is Davidson’s account of her 2,700 kilometre, 9 month solo journey across the Australian desert with four camels and a dog.  Although raised on a cattle farm from the age of four, Davidson had few practical skills which would assist her and so she spent two years, including doing a dummy run of 300km before attempting her longer 1977 journey.  

I had understood freedom and security. The need to rattle the foundations of habit. That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one’s weaknesses. A vigilance which requires a moral energy most of us are incapable of manufacturing. We relax back into the moulds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. To break the moulds, to be heedless of the seductions of security is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe.

I’ve seen Tracks on the shelves in bookshops and referred to in the lists of best or favourite travel books but, if I’m honest, hadn’t paid it too much attention until I recently came across a video on Deskbound Traveller, the site of Michael Kerr, journalist with The Daily Telegraph.

The video is a TEdX video of Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer assigned to photograph Davidson’s journey which he did by periodically locating her along her route.  He would then spend a few days with her before leaving, not knowing whether she would be alive the next time he came to look.

Rick Smolan’s talk is an unassuming yet jaw dropping insight to a quite extraordinary journey and watching this video has ensured that Tracks is now firmly on my ever-growing to read list.  A separate book of Ricka Molan’s photographs is also available:

Smolan’s TEDX talk seems to be a re-run of a better edited version with more imagery available on National Geographic‘s website and also on Youtube:

Throughout the trip I kept saying to Robyn you need to keep a journal because someday you’re going to want to write a book about this and she said why do you have to turn everything into a product like why can’t you just experienced things and not always be filtering it and recording it and documenting it like you’re never there because you’re always outside looking in at it so when she called me and said she written a book I was like you’re kidding me…

Despite initial reluctance, Robyn obviously went on to write about her journey.  A National Geographic article appeared in 1978 and the book followed in 1980, published by Jonathan Cape.  Tracks was awarded the first Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980.  It is in good company as the list of subsequent winners of that award (it has been the Dolman Best Travel Book Award since 2006) reads like a who’s who of travel writing from the last 40 years.  

In the course of writing Tracks, Davidson became friends with Doris Lessing and, according to Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography, also with travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who introduced Davidson to Salman Rushdie, an encounter which resulted in Rushdie leaving his wife for the woman Chatwin called “my friend the ‘camel lady'”.   

There are videos available online with Robyn Davidson talking about her experience which are worth watching.  Davidson has interesting observations on the objectification of her trip by others as well as nomadic culture and, in this interview, tips on how to work with camels:

MIKE SMITH: What would you give to the audience as Robyn’s three tips on how to work camels?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Watch the camel day and night, watch its behaviour and learn how it works. The first thing is just watch them endlessly. Adore them, but never let them take an inch or they will take a mile. And don’t be afraid to beat the hell out of them.

Robyn Davidson has written other travel books, including a book of essays, Travelling Light, Desert Places, about nomadic cultures and an anthology of travel writing published by Picador, Journeys.

Article: In Athens & Crete with Daphne Du Maurier

Fasten your seat belts. Anticipation is the breath of life. 

Unexpected and great article from Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, about a trip to Athens and Crete from the 1971 issue of Holiday magazine.  

Daphne du Maurier transports her readers from the wild, rainy winter of Cornwall to the bright sunshine of Crete via reminisces of youthful journeys to Greece.  

Nothing surpasses the feeling of excitement that comes with the first sight of scenes unglimpsed before.

In contrast to the rough, vagabond trips she made when she was young, du Maurier opts for luxury and after treating herself some pre-trip shopping takes the plane to Athens.  After a short spell sight-seeing, she continues on to Crete and picks up a rental car to reach her destination, the fishing village Hagios Nikólaos. 

In this enthusiastic piece, du Maurier conveys the excitement of realising a travel dream and finding an idyll abroad. She happily makes comparisons with fishing villages in her beloved West Country while unabashedly acknowledging the change in her travelling style.  Bouncing bus journeys may have been amusing once but having someone being sick on her feet (or her velveteen slacks) on this trip would have been less than funny.

Holiday is a testament to the fact that some things still manage to get lost in an age when almost everything is archived, or at least mentioned, online. (Josh Lieberman)

Holiday was an American magazine published between 1946 and 1977 well known for employing famous authors to write travel essays which drew its readers into the jet-set lifestyle of the post-war years – when travel by ocean liner was still common and air travel glamorous and new.  

Boasting among its contributors Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller, James Michener, Eric Ambler, Paul Bowles, John Steinbeck, Lawrence Durrell, Ian Fleming and VS Pritchett the magazine was also famous for its striking and original artwork as this article in Vanity Fair explains.    

In a loving tribute to Holiday in the Paris Review, Josh Lieberman explains how he stumbled across the magazine in an old bookshop and started collecting it after realising it was a trove of lost masterpieces.  Although a “handful of the pieces are dated”, Lieberman notes, “like the greatest travel writing, many are timeless.” 

Holiday was relaunched as a bi-annual publication in 2014.  A collection of full text stories from the original magazine appear on Josh Lieberman’s blog.