Leaving 'Tracks' behind
The past caves away and dissolves behind us, leaving a few clues with which we try to reconstruct it. Hopeless task. History lives in the present.
It is over 30 years since I walked across half of Australia with my dear camels and dog. If I concentrate, I can retrieve flashes of a particular place, the affection I had for my animals, the happiness of walking into that transcendent landscape, the klutziness of fear when its indifference was brought home to me by some small, potentially lethal mistake. But they vanish quickly.
I wrote a book two years after I reached the Indian Ocean – journey’s end. In a mean little flat on the other side of the earth, an extraordinary feat of remembering took place, making the entire nine months, every single camp site during a 2000 kilometre walk, limpid. (Or so it seemed to me then.) But once the book was published, the memories began to fade, as if the book had stolen them. The real journey, who I was when I made it, all of it caved away, leaving behind a similitude called Tracks, and some photographs of a young woman I had difficulty identifying with.
They were stunning photographs, but from the moment I saw them they made me uneasy. I understood, in an inchoate way, that they represented a loss of subjective agency, and that the journey, my journey, would eventually be subsumed by its reconstructions. And I was right. First it was hijacked by my own book, then by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan’s images, and any day now, by a film that will have almost nothing to do with ‘what really happened’.
The question I’m most commonly asked is “Why?” A more pertinent question might be, why is it that more people don’t attempt to escape the limitations imposed upon them? If Tracks has a message at all, it is that one can be awake to the demand for obedience that seems natural simply because it is familiar. Wherever there is pressure to conform (one person’s conformity is often in the interests of another person’s power), there is a requirement to resist. Of course I did not mean that people should drop what they were doing and head for the wilder places, certainly not that they should copy what I did. I meant that one can choose adventure in the most ordinary of circumstances. Adventure of the mind, or to use an old-fashioned word, the spirit.
From my point of view, there is either no answer at all to that question, or the answer is so complex and manifold that it’s pointless to go there. I hope that the action speaks for itself. Who would not want to be in that exquisite desert? And camels are the most sensible way of travelling through it (I couldn’t afford a truck). But even if I were to attempt a simple response, I am in any case no longer the person who made that decision with her life. I have an affinity with her, occasionally even feel proud of her, but she isn’t me.
So who was she? To answer that one has to understand something of her era – the late 1960s, early ’70s, when anything and everything seemed possible, and the status quo of the developed world was under radical scrutiny by its youth.
We were lucky to have experienced only postwar prosperity. We were not anxious about money. We were afraid for our future in other ways – nuclear bombs, the Cold War and its various hot spots, ecological collapse. We shared houses, learnt to live flexibly and on very little. We formed intense friendships that seemed to have the tenacity of the biological ties they were meant to replicate. You could choose not to participate in politics, but you could not avoid politics. It was in the air you breathed. And politics was about justice. It was high-minded, and nothing to do with the low-life power struggles of career politicians.
We reacted against the closing in of the postwar nuclear family, its concern with safety and security, in particular its assumption that women should remain inside the domestic realm. We wanted to understand the political forces that shaped society, the injustices that allowed us material wellbeing while vast swathes of the world starved, the imbalance of power and opportunity between classes, races, sexes. But perhaps most importantly, for someone like me, nothing was as important as freedom. The freedom to make up your own mind, to make yourself. And such aspirations inevitably involved risk, unleashing opportunities for learning, discovering and becoming.
I am describing a cliché of course, and the reality was far more variable and complicated (we were also spoilt and selfish). But no one can live too far outside the clichés of their time. I arrived in Alice Springs carried at least in part by the momentum of that era’s sense of promise, quest and justice.
Aboriginal land rights had recently been legislated. Young, tertiary-educated idealists came from the cities to Alice Springs to administer that legislation, or to set up organisations designed to empower Aboriginal people. I was not directly involved in this social movement (I was too busy training camels and building saddles), but I was certainly a fellow traveller, inclined to left-wing ideas, more because I disliked the other side than that I fervently identified with this one. Although I was not a writer then, I nevertheless had a writer’s sensibility. A writer’s task is to look at the world from an independent viewpoint and to tell the truth as you see it. And that was not an easy thing to do at the time in Alice Springs. (It is never an easy thing to do.) There was a ‘correct’ political view, and if you did not back that view 100%, you were accused of providing fuel to the opposing side. The discomfort I felt under that moral pressure has stayed with me all my life, and made me eternally wary of the blindness of ideological certainty.
Could such a journey be made in the same way now? No, absolutely not. There would be many more people out there with many more ways of keeping tabs on you, more red tape to hold you back, more no-go areas, more fences, more vehicles, more control. New communications technology would make it impossible to get lost no matter how hard you tried. When I set out it was still just possible to travel through that country as a free agent, to stay beneath any kind of radar, to take full responsibility for your own life.
As well, the notion of privacy has changed, the desire for it being almost a cause for suspicion these days. The motivation behind my decision was intensely personal and private, such that accepting money from a magazine felt like self-betrayal. I suspect that would be thought eccentric now.
The early ’70s saw the beginning of group tourism and of the fashion for buying four-wheel drive vehicles to go bush in. It struck me even then that the people in those vehicles, for the most part, were sealed against their environment, which they sped through without really seeing, without really connecting. Their cars bristled with two-way radios, they had suncreams, air conditioners, special bush clothes, refrigerators – they seemed burdened with stuff, and the stuff cut them off from the place they were in. For when you understand that country, it is the easiest thing imaginable to wander through it with minimal equipment.
I wanted to shed burdens. To pare away what was unnecessary. A process that was literal, in the sense of constantly leaving behind anything extraneous to my needs, and metaphorical, or perhaps metaphysical, in the sense of ridding myself of mental baggage.
I could not know that in just 30 years the landscape I knew so well would be refashioned to such an extent that I would find it difficult and painful to return there.
Up on the sandhills, where I would sometimes sit to watch a sunset, there would be the delicate little scrawls of tracks in the sand, made by lizards, marsupial mice, particular insects. There would be the drag marks of perenties, the pretty scallops of a snake, the long indentations of roos, the triple prongs of emus. In the evenings those silly curious birds would come into my camp, dingos would howl close by, there would be the thump of wallabies all night and the rustle and hop of little native creatures. Now, many of those animals are rare or gone. Their tracks are replaced by camel pads and pussy cat tracks and fox prints and rabbit holes. Wherever you look, these new patterns and marks spread over the earth like myceloid webs. In other areas, dark green buffel grass introduced from Africa has taken over, suffocating everything beneath it, and changing the unique palette of the Australian interior.
Sometimes I find these changes so upsetting that I never want to go to the desert again. Other times I think that the homesickness is for an experience that could in any case never be repeated, and for people and ways of thought whose rightful place is the past. This desert belongs to another ‘now’ and it’s foolish to compare them.
As that young woman in Tracks so wisely said, “Camel trips do not begin or end, they merely change form.”
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription