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.

Book: Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads (1,276 words)

The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene
Vintage, 1st published in 1939

Only the bullet-hole in the porch showed the flaw in Paradise – that this was Mexico. That and the cattle-ticks I found wedged firmly into my arms and thighs when I went to bed. 

Mexico held a long fascination for Graham Greene, who had been wanting to see it since reading DH Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent in 1926.  

The Lawless Roads is Graham Greene’s second travel book.  Journey Without Maps, his first, was about Greene’s 1935 journey through Liberia and was published in 1936, the same year that Greene started in earnest to plan his Mexican journey. 

Mexico had been a secular state since its contitution of 1857 (amended in 1917), although the anticlerical provisions of the consitution were not seriously enforced until after the Mexican Revolution and the enactment of a law by President Calles in the 1920s which led to 10 year campaign of anti-Catholic persecution.  

img_9839Calles lost the 1928 election but, although the new Cardenas administration condemned his policies and arrested and exiled Calles, some states refused to repeal Calles’ policies which still existed in some states by the time Greene visited the country 10 years later.  

Although the ostensible reason for Greene’s journey was to visit the Mayan ruins at Palenque, his real purpose was to visit those remaining parts of Mexico where Catholics were still persecuted and were forced to practice their religion covertly.  His journey yielded not only the travel book The Lawless Roads but also provided inpsiration and ideas for his 1940 novel The Power and the Glory.

The trip had a long gestation period.  Greene didn’t make it to Mexico until the start of 1938 and over the two year planning period his plans suffered several setbacks.  It did, however, give him plenty of time in which to prepare himself and according to his biographer, Norman Sherry, Greene had formed a dim view of the counry before he had even left England:

The reading is as morbid as Liberia’s.  There seem to be even more diseases, and an average of one shooting a week.  This is a conservative estimate by a pro-Government writer!

Greene was joined by his wife, Vivien, for the first part of the journey in the United States.  After a brief stay in New York the couple travelled south to New Orelans where Greene parted company with Vivien and continued alone to San Antonio before heading to the border at Laredo.

THE border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers… The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveller expects the death he never finds. The atmosphere of the border – it is like starting over again; there is something about it like a good confession: poised for a few happy moments between sin and sin. When people die on the border they call it ‘a happy death’.

Once he had crossed into Mexico, Greene made his way to Monterey, San Luis Potosi and Mexico City before reaching the coast and Veracruz, where the adventure proper was to begin.

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Writing about his Mexican journey, Norman Sherry writes that “one has the impression that all was not well with Greene”.  That is a considerable understatement.  Greene takes every opportunity to express his hatred for Mexico and Mexicans.  Little escaped his censure, from the food, fruits, the Mexicans’ attitude to one another, their habits and the insects.  He was obviously not enjoying himself yet, as Sherry notes, “there is no doubt about the genuineness of Greene’s reactions” during his journey.  Greene was not playing a character simply for literary effect. 

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From Veracruz, Greene continued his journey to Villahermosa on the Ruiz Cana, a boat he claimed he would not have travelled down the Thames on.  The risky passage lasted 50 hours and the majority of it was on the Gulf of Mexico.  The overland journeys he makes by mule are also dangerous and arduous and one senses Greene’s eventual relief at reaching San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, the object of his journey.    

The entire journey seems to prove Paul Theroux’s point that travel is only glamorous in retrospect but, even though Greene is not breezy company, his descriptions of people and places make The Lawless Roads a great read.

From the Mexican Greene meets in Veracruz who is intent on proving himself a good sport, to Greene’s atmospheric portrayals of Villahermosa and Salto, the epic journeys over the mountains by mule and nights spent in remote huts with armed strangers arriving in the middle of the night, The Lawless Roads must be one of the best accounts of the self-inflicted boredom, discomforts and risks that travel can involve.   

He retains an acerbic sense of humour throughout, whether about the food (“the food at lunch-time proved unexpectedly good. I don’t really mean good: one’s standard in Mexico falls with brutal rapidity”) or the relief suggested for his dysentry, (“we stopped at a cantina, and had some mescal – the driver told me it was good for dysentery. I don’t think it was, but it was good for our spirits”).

The Lawless Roads contains many quotable passages and a great deal of truth about the experience of travel including crossing borders; the precautions travellers’ take; the intimate conversations travellers have; the dangers of the ‘quick tour’ and forming generalised judgments about a place based on limited observations; obsessions with insects, not to mention a need to describe toilets and the state of his bowels.  

Greene also considers the perennial problem of what to read when travelling: 

What books to take on a journey? It is an interesting – and important – problem. In West Africa once I had made the mistake of taking the Anatomy of Melancholy, with the idea that it would, as it were, match the mood. It matched all right, but what one really needs is contrast, and so I surrendered perhaps my only hope of ever reading War and Peace in favour of something overwhelmingly national. And one did want, I found, an English book in this hating and hateful country. [He chose William Cobbett’s Rural Rides and Trollope.]

Perhaps most importantly though, Greene describes the anticlimax that can accompany the end of a journey.  

Having suffered with dysentery, Greene was relieved to back on the ‘tourist track’ in Mexico and was looking forward to enjoying its comforts.  Yet he seems to arrive back where he started.  Despite enduring hardships and achieving what he set out to Greene experiences no joyful climax before the same “irritations and responsibilities of ordinary life” he sought to escape in the first place crowd back in on him.  He also seems to feel little pleasure at being home, with war is casting its shadow over daily life in the form of posters warning about the possibility of air raids.  

Apparently dissatisfied with Mexico yet not happy to be home, Greene quotes from Yeats’ The Wheel near the end of the book to express an incessant restlessness and desire for change which possibly explains his own wanderlust.  A similar sentiment is neatly summed up by the professor he meets earlier in his journey: 

Motion is life,’ he said, ‘and life is motion. 

For further reading see Kevin Hartnett’s review of The Lawless Roads in The Millions or follow Graeme Woods’ 2009 journey in Greene’s foosteps for The Atlantic magazine:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4.

Book: RL Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes

by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)

But we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of this world—all, too, travellers with a donkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his journey through the Cevennes is a classic travelogue.

Undertaken in 1878 when Stevenson was a young man and before he had found fame as a writer, Travels was published in 1879 and was one of Stevenson’s first published works.

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The journey itself was a 12 day, 120 mile, self-supported hike through tough, sparsely populated terrain in an area of south-central France that had seen a protestant uprising during the reign of Louis XIV.

An often remarked feature of the journey is Stevenson’s love for occasionally sleeping out of doors, preferring to use a bespoke sack, rather than using a tent or finding an inn.

A tent, above all for a solitary traveller, is troublesome to pitch, and troublesome to strike again…A sleeping-sack, on the other hand…does not advertise your intention of camping out to every curious passer-by. This is a huge point. If a camp is not secret, it is but a troubled resting-place.

From his description, what he refers to as a sleeping-sack sounds like a setup akin to a bivvy bag and improvised basha.

I decided on a sleeping-sack….and….in case of heavy rain I proposed to make myself a little tent, or tentlet, with my waterproof coat, three stones, and a bent branch.

With his love for informal and makeshift outdoor sleeping, Stevenson would have a great deal in common with modern day adventurers Alastair Humphreys and Anna McNuff.

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Stevenson writes evocatively about being outdoors at night, sitting smoking and drinking brandy (these two items seem to have sustained him on his journey) while looking at the silhouettes of trees around him, appreciating the silence and beauty of the night sky.

I…sat upright to make a cigarette. The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still…I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars.

Communing with nature and being self sufficient is a large part of Stevenson’s quest in Travels.

He writes about his yearning for pure adventure and the thrill of waking and finding himself in completely unfamiliar surroundings.

He has no high purpose beyond that of travelling “for travel’s sake”, “to move”“to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly” and “come down off this feather-bed of civilisation.”

He yearns to be ‘in the moment’, an “exacting present” that occupies and composes the mind and he delights in travel’s non-conformity, feeling “independent of material aids”, and thinking that he had “rediscovered one of those truths which are revealed to savages and hid from political economists.”

Unable to carry his heavy sleeping sack and equipment, Stevenson purchases himself a donkey at the start of his journey.

It is through his relationship with the donkey, Modestine, that Stevenson highlights the second theme of Travels.

From the preface and throughout, Stevenson continually returns to notions of friendship and companionship. This creates a tension with his desire for occasional solitude rather than a “close and noisy ale-house”, although ultimately he reconciles them.

He writes of the “partial intimacies” formed when travelling and enjoys the easy camaraderie of travelling, setting the world to rights with strangers, meeting Trappist monks or expressing his “hearty admiration” to the waitress Clarisse which she took “like milk, without embarrassment or wonder.”

As is also true for many travellers, Stevenson found that the parting of company was accompanied by a mixture of regret and glee as the traveller “shakes off the dust of one stage before hurrying forth upon another.”

If he doesn’t quite anthropomorphise Modestine, he gives her real personality and humanises their relationship when he writes of the agony he feels at causing her pain, her virtues, faults and the loss he feels when they part company which it is difficult not to share.

A charming and personal travelogue, Travels is an absorbing, short read containing a great deal for modern travellers to identify with.

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It is still possible to follow Stevenson’s route and a small tourist industry has grown up around visitors who want to retrace his steps along what is now walking route GR70, either with or without a donkey.

Examples of writers who have done so are here and here.

Travels with a Donkey is available as a free ebook from the Internet Archive and also Project Gutenburg