Until quite recently, no one needed to ask explorers why they put themselves at risk in the wilder places on the globe. Obviously they were looking for some rumoured wealth or a tribe of which hints had been heard, or else they were simply trying to fill in blanks on the map, to find out whether it was indeed possible to get from point A to point B. These days, when we think we know everything about the planet, it is much harder to explain to the static why one should volunteer for discomfort and worse in the emptinesses of land or sea: it smacks too much of masochism, exhibitionism or self-indulgence, and none of us likes to be caught out in any of these. Of her own wandering for several months across the Outback of her native Australia, Robyn Davidson says: ‘The lunatic idea was, basically, to get myself the requisite number of wild camels from the bush and train them to carry my gear, then walk into and about the central desert area.’ As if realising that this might seem a bit short on motivation to some, she adds 30 pages later that going into the Outback with her camels would be ‘a way of getting to know’ Aborigines ‘directly and simply’. With that we have to be content.
Almost half this book is about the two years Davidson spent in and around Alice Springs preparing to go west – which must be one of the most sustained and dogged examples of getting ready for the off in the history of travel. She arrived as a young woman with little knowledge of life outside big cities, and with none at all of camels and their stubborn but gallant ways. She applied herself to learning, with great guts and splendid devotion to the beasts, in the most off-putting circumstances imaginable. She makes the Alice sound much further from civilisation than it is supposed to be – largely populated by drunken slobs who before long were taking bets on the likelihood of Davidson becoming the next rape case in town. She survived them, and also weathered a dreadful fellow who exploited her badly on the pretext of teaching her camel work. Gradually she found out what she needed to know, and set off with four camels, a pet dog, two guns, a radio and a vast assortment of edible stores.
The desert she describes is not quite like any I have seen myself – though all of them contain more vegetation than is usually supposed. Of the Australian variety, Davidson writes: ‘Contrary to popular belief, the desert is bountiful and teeming with life in good years. It is like a vast untended communal garden, the closest thing to earthly paradise I can imagine.’The pictures in the book almost entirely bear this out. Not once does she seem to have been in much peril from water shortage or lack of food: indeed, ‘far from being deficient, the desert had me so healthy I fell like a cast-iron amazon; cuts and grazes vanished in a day, I could see almost as well at night as I did in sunlight, and I grew muscles on my shit.’ Nor does she appear to have spent more than a few days at a time without human company (though it’s hard to be sure of this, with a rambling text that is notably vague about dates and distances). A photographer with whom she shared the sponsorship of the National Geographic magazine kept popping up to take pictures, to leave water supplies at strategic places along the more arid Stretches, and, inevitably, to make love. National park rangers crossed her path, as did tourists, for whom she has little but withering scorn (‘they came, of course, a whole convoy of them, daring the great aloneness together like they were in some B-grade movie’). Settlements – aboriginal, white or a mixture of both – regularly gave her a respite from the labours of her trek, and once she flew back to Alice Springs from some airstrip in order to consult the vet. But eventually she wended her way across half Australia, even if the last fifty miles lo the Indian Ocean were travelled by truck (camels and all) from a friendly cattle station. That is not a small feat.
In the course of it she had seen a great deal of the Aborigines, whom she was predisposed to like and respect, and on whose behalf she blazes with anger at the patronising (and worse) they get from Australian whites. I’d guess that her happiest time was the couple of weeks when she was guided across the Pitjantjara lands by Mr Eddie, a lovely old codger with an identical sense of fun, enormous dignity and much inbred wisdom about the bush. They bumped into some tourists on the way and one of these, brandishing a camera, required Eddie to pose in the following terms: ‘Hey, Jacky-Jacky, come and stand alonga camel, boy.’ Whereupon, Eddie ‘turned himself into the perfect parody of a ravingly dangerous boong... demanded three dollars and cackled insanely and hopped up and down and had them all confused and terrified out of their paltry wits’. Excellent.
Robyn Davidson became a considerable drover, who needed all her guts when her beasts attracted the unwelcome attention of some wild bull camels on heat: she was obliged to stand her ground and shoot the predators one by one. Yet nothing she did was braver than putting down her dog, which had eaten a Strychnine bait left lying to kill dingoes.
It needs a pretty tough character to accomplish what Robyn Davidson did in 1977, and I take my hat off to her for that. At the same time, there are things in this book that I could have well done without. God knows the drunken slobs of Alice Springs more than justify the tedious sermonette she delivers near the end: it’s the tone and lack of originality, the strident echoing of the most commonplace feminist slogans, that grate. Elsewhere, she weighs into whites who address Aborigines as ‘Jacky-Jacky, boy’, but she herself ridicules a German’s English (‘You tink dis iss a bloody holiday or sometink?’) apparently without seeing that this is equally offensive. And I’m not quite sure whether she knows what her own role was in the desert, or since, when she has started to enjoy her journey’s fruits. She resents the Australian press labelling her as ‘the camel lady’ – which is a bit much when she insists so vigorously on reminding us that she is a woman, after all. Early on she laments the National Geographic sponsorship, wherewith ‘I’d sold a great swatch of my freedom and most of the trip’s integrity for 4,000 dollars,’ and subsequently protests her loathing of publicity in whatever form. So concerned is she to portray herself as a shrinking violet in the face of fame that one is bound to ask why she marketed herself in an English colour-supplement and topped everything off with this book, which her publishers are aiming at the best-seller lists. I’m afraid that, in a small way, it recalls Richard Aldington’s crack about T.E. Lawrence for ever backing into the limelight.