In the 1970’s, Australian Robyn Davidson decided she wanted to cross Australia on camel back. She didn’t know anything about camels or much about the desert but she was drawn to the desert and the way of life of the Aboriginal people. So she and her dog, Diggity, headed to Alice Springs to start the first part of her journey: learning everything there is to know about camels and finding camels to take on her trip.
“There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns – small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track. I watched a pale dawn streak the cliffs with Day-Glo and realized this was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence – and it lasted about ten seconds.” – Robyn Davidson
When she arrived in Alice Springs she found a camel wrangler, Kurt, that she could work for and learn from. They made an agreement that she would work for 8 months in exchange for a camel. Kurt was a tough man and worked Robyn to the bone. She worked sun up to sun down seven days a week with the camels. He was cruel to her and the animals and once made her go without shoes until her feet got bloody and so infected that he finally allowed her to wear sandals. She stayed in a tent on the outskirts of the ranch and made friends with the neighbors.
She worked for Kurt for over a year and he refused to give her the camel they agreed on. Eventually he left the ranch without a trace and a new owner took over claiming he knew nothing of their agreement and refused her the camel she worked so hard for. She found another camel rancher, Sallay, and started over again. She was devastated about the delay but Sallay was kind and taught her valuable lessons about the wild camels. Finally, 2 years after arriving in Alice Springs, she got her camels: Zelly, Bub, Dookie and baby Goliath.
She met a photographer, Rick, through her friends and he mentioned that she should appeal to National Geographic to fund her journey. She sent them a letter on a whim and then found out that she got the funding. There was a caveat, though, Rick would meet her at points throughout the trip and photograph her for the magazine. She was looking forward to being completely on her own with no distractions, but she reluctantly agreed. But it didn’t matter, because she was finally ready to begin her long-awaited journey.
“From the day the thought came into my head ‘I am going to enter a desert with camels’ to the day I felt the preparations to be completed, I had built something intangible but magical for myself which had rubbed off a little on to other people, and I would probably never have the opportunity to do anything quite as demanding or as fulfilling as that ever again.” – Robyn Davidson
She started her walk in 130 degree heat. She found her way, slept under the stars, kept track of the camels and figured out how to load everything so that the weight was evenly distributed. She stayed in Aboriginal villages learning from the people. She picked plants for food and mended her own things. Word got out about her in the media and tourists and photographers started following her on the trail. They called her “the camel lady.” She didn’t like the attention. She would have much rather been with the Aboriginal people or by herself.
“All around me was magnificence. Light, power, space and sun. And I was walking into it. I was going to let it make me or break me. A great weight lifted off my back. I felt like dancing and calling to the great spirit. Mountains pulled and pushed, wind roared down chasms. I followed eagles suspended from cloud horizons. I wanted to fly in the unlimited blue of the morning. I was seeing it all for the first time, all fresh and bathed in an effulgence of light and joy, as if a smoke had been cleared, or my eyes been peeled, so that I wanted to shout to the vastness, I love you, I love you, sky, bird, wind, precipice, space sun desert desert desert.” – Robyn Davidson
After 1700 miles Robyn and the camels immersed themselves in the sparkling aqua ocean. They made it and their miraculous journey was complete. Many people didn’t think she could do it, that it was an impossible task, but she spent years preparing and learning. She did everything possible to make her goal a reality and put in the hard work needed to prepare.
Robyn’s memoir, Tracks, is a must-read for any adventurer and it’s perfectly sized for backpacking. Her story was also made into a fantastic movie in 2013 that is currently available on Netflix.
You must see the photos that Rick Smolan captured of Robyn, they are incredible:
Rick Smolan’s Trek with Tracks, from Australian Outback to Silver Screen on National Geographic