March 2014


Robyn Davidson and Mia Wasikowska make ‘Tracks’

By Gail Bell
Shark Bay, WA, 1977: Robyn Davidon completes her nine-month trek across the desert. © Rick Smolan / Getty Images

Shark Bay, WA, 1977: Robyn Davidon completes her nine-month trek across the desert. © Rick Smolan / Getty Images

An epic desert trek finally reaches the screen

In a suite on the 17th floor of the InterContinental Hotel, Robyn Davidson and Mia Wasikowska are preparing for the last interview of a long day. Later that evening, the film of Davidson’s book Tracks, starring Wasikowska as Davidson, will have its Sydney premiere at a harbourside open-air cinema, complete with three camels, saddled and harnessed for the red carpet.

Turning Tracks into a film has been a quixotic journey – one far longer than Davidson’s nine-month camel trek across the Australian desert in 1977, aged 27. Content to play the long game if it meant holding out for the right team and the right lead, Davidson finally found what she was after when Academy Award–winning producer Emile Sherman secured the rights. “I just liked him,” she has said. “I thought he was terrific.”

“I just didn’t want Hollywood to have it. I thought, ‘No, this should be an Australian film. It should have its own values that are close to what the journey itself meant, and what the book meant.’”

Still, as I wait in the anteroom, being briefed by the publicist, I catch a whiff of Hollywood and the siren-song atmosphere of red carpet premieres. Lively preparations are underway in the suite proper for the evening ahead. Platters of food are whisked through doors that slide open to emit chatter and clinking glasses before closing firmly on outsiders. Davidson enters the anteroom, faces the bright light from the January sky, and smiles in greeting. With full make-up, styled hair and a patterned summer dress (in desert colours), she appears every inch the celebrated author ready to answer questions about the experience of having her iconic book turned into a film.

A minute later, Wasikowska arrives, smaller than she seems on film, wearing a long grey cardigan over a cropped bustier top and flared black skirt. It is difficult not to think of her as a well-brought-up teenager called out to say hello to a visiting aunt. Gracious in greeting, she moves our chairs into a tighter circle, the better to hear one another as the party hots up in the adjoining room. When everyone is comfortable, she sits down, breathes in, and readies herself for the final scene of the day.

Wasikowska is 24 and a seven-year veteran of the film industry. The smooth – one wants to say alabaster – skin and the preternatural composure are striking enough, without the slightly unsettling feeling that she is drinking you up with her “old soul” eyes. W Magazine’s tag, “the love child of Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton”, is not far off the mark. My first thought is to wonder how such a small young woman managed those camels.

“I had two days of camel training with Robyn in South Australia before shooting,” she says, with a slight American twang. Given that she has recently returned to Australia after four years of living and working in the United States, the occasional leaning vowel is not out of place.

“Mia got right into it,” Robyn adds. “She just went straight into the yard, straight up to those furry monsters with no fear. She’s a natural.”

Wasikowska was Davidson’s first choice for the lead. Her 2008 breakout performance as Sophie in the HBO television series In Treatment caught the eyes of talent spotters, including Davidson. “If we can get Mia,” she’d told the producers, “that would make me very happy.” A film with a lot of silences needs an actor who can portray the vividness of a character’s inner life – a quality that the director Tim Burton recognised in Wasikowska when he cast her as the eponymous character in 2010’s Alice in Wonderland.

Wasikowska read the Tracks script before she came to the book. “My parents, when I told them I’d got the script, they were like, ‘You’ve got to do the part, she’s a legend.’ Then I read the book and I knew immediately who Robyn was, or felt I had an understanding of her. I was sort of desperate to play her then.” Shooting a sideways glance at Davidson, she continues, “I was super in awe of her. Slightly terrified, too. You would only want to play the part if you felt some connection to the character. That was why I was nervous to meet Robyn. I thought she was going to bite me.”

Pausing, she addresses Davidson directly, “You were so feisty in the book, I was sure you were going to give me an earful as to why this was an awful idea, and I probably felt the same level of feistiness and was probably going to bite back.”

“Interesting,” replies Davidson, as though hearing this for the first time. “It’s so layered, so complicated, this experience. Giving interviews sitting next to each other, talking about a film about me that’s not me, and her that’s not her, all these layers of complexity.”

Davidson takes up the subject of her reputed feistiness. “Being in Alice Springs [where she learnt to handle camels before the trek] toughened me up. I was dealing with — I don’t think it was conscious antagonism, it was just part of the cultural onslaught, to be in that frontier world as an urban person, and as a woman, as a ’70s-style woman. I’m sure I must have been quite confronting in one way or another.”

Filming took place over eight weeks at the beginning of the 2012 hot season in South and Central Australia.

“We shot ten or 12 hours a day,” says Wasikowska. “It was quite long, but it wasn’t as hard as it was for Robyn actually doing it.”

“I’d contest that,” counters Davidson. “I think it was much harder. When it was just me in the desert I had my routine, I was used to it, and I was travelling mostly through winter so I wasn’t having to deal with those high temperatures so much. Mia had to deal with the heat, with being directed, all the boredom, the standing around, having to bring things in on budget. I had freedom.”

Shark Bay, WA, 1977: Robyn Davidson completes her nine-month trek across the desert. © Rick Smolan / Getty Images

Questioned last year about the physical stamina needed for a 2000-kilometre trek, Davidson quibbled with the assertion that she should be admired for her endurance.

“I don’t really think of it now in terms of huge endurance,” she told her interviewer, Fenella Kernebone. “That seems to me slightly negative, whereas it seemed to me this was a positive striving towards something, an overcoming of something, and, in fact, when the journey was both proceeding and when it was completed it seemed like a thing of joy.”

A few pages from the end of Tracks, Davidson, who has thrown off her anger at the antics of journalists who were inventing stories about her journey, revels in the sight of “the Indian Ocean behind the last dune. The camels could smell it and were jumpy as hell. And here I was at the end of my trip, with everything just as fuzzy and unreal as the beginning … There was an unpronounceable joy and an aching sadness to it.”

Davidson’s literary career began accidentally. Needing money to finance her trek, she “sold the trip” (she says ruefully) to National Geographic for $4000, wrote it up as an article to accompany Rick Smolan’s stunning photographs, and left the country to escape the unexpected clamour of publicity that descended when the story was syndicated to approximately 90 magazines around the world. Two years later, she fleshed out the article into a book, in part to fend off publicity hunters who wanted a fuller account.

“I thought writing a book would be like throwing the dogs a bone,” Davidson told Fenella Kernebone. “They would focus on the bone and leave me alone. Hey, that didn’t work.”

Landing on her feet is another of Davidson’s talents. She boarded in the granny flat of the celebrated author Doris Lessing while writing Tracks in London and was visited there by the travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin, who was keen to meet “the camel lady”. He later introduced her to his friend Salman Rushdie, with whom she spent three years in a “volcanic” relationship. Later she had a chance meeting with the Indian politician Narendra Singh Bhati that eventually led to her second long trek and a second book. Desert Places, published in 1996, is an account of walking ancient migratory paths with the Rabari, pastoral nomads of north-west India.

“Thank God for being a writer,” she told the New York Times in 1996, “because you do sort of find out what you think by the process of writing.” Davidson progressed to formal travel essays, reviews and columns, scriptwriting and anthology editing, describing and analysing what she knew at first hand and earning her place as a visiting scholar at prestigious universities. This progression plays out in the writing and gives the truth to her claim in Tracks that she made the choice to take the trip “instinctively, and only later [gave] it meaning”.

 Robyn Davidson with Mia Wasikowska at the Sydney premiere of Tracks. © Richard Milnes / Corbis

Yet it remains one of life’s ironies that as each journey unfolds and eloquent essays unfurl from her pen, another layer accretes to the fame she spent her earlier years attempting to dodge.

In the preface to her Quarterly Essay of 2006, No Fixed Address, she writes, “I study nomadism because I am a nomadic person … The origin of my own peripateticism is difficult to pinpoint, but once you are on a certain trajectory, the world colludes to keep you on it.” The scholarly language, perfectly pitched for this form of written account, is a long way away from (but no less valid than) the “fuzzy and unreal” expressiveness of the ecstatic wanderer of Tracks, in the grip of journey’s end. Tracks has never been out of print, a tribute to the writing’s closeness to real experience, to the clarity of detail, the smells and the soundscape of a desert few of us will ever visit (and if we do, it will be in specially adapted vehicles with the benefit of GPS).

To read her memory of just one sensory moment is to remember why we need the records of those who go forth. “I was woken that night by the most chilling, hair-lifting sound I had ever heard. A soft-pitched keening that got louder and louder.” It matters not to learn that eerie sound turns out to be “the wind whistling through the top tips of the trees I was under”, it matters that we hear it in the author’s voice.

The surprise of reading Tracks again after three decades is that it brims with anger. It’s not just purposeful anger directed at the redneck loutishness of outback pub drinkers or at thoughtless tourists pointing their cameras, but a substratum of wilfulness (a trait that Wasikowska nails beautifully in the film) that feels innate and  defies interpretation. Davidson will do all the awful jobs that Kurt Posel, the cruel camel man, demands of her – picking up camel shit, getting up at 4 am to catch and unhobble the animals, leading tourists around for a dollar a go, trimming “a mile of couch-infested curbing with a pair of scissors” – but when Posel accuses her of treachery and insults her friend, she explodes into curses.

“Kurt was stupefied. He had sized me up wrongly, and pushed a sucker too far … He had lost a patsy and a slave. But he was too proud to apologise and the next morning, early, I moved into the pub.”

It is not difficult to imagine Davidson recognising a soul sister in Wasikowska. As a 15-year-old Canberra high school student, she gave up ballet (a 35-hour-a-week discipline she credits with “improving her ability to handle her nerves in auditions”) to chase a new career in acting. Her lack of formal training was no obstacle to the active sign-me-up campaign she aimed at talent agencies. In 2011, only seven years after debuting in two episodes of the Australian drama series All Saints, she was invited to join the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That same year, she was named in the Time 100, a listing of the world’s most influential people.

Before returning to Sydney for the premiere of Tracks, Wasikowska had just wrapped up filming Sophie Barthes’s Madame Bovary. (“Someone told me that arsenic is the sort of taste that the minute it touches your mouth you know you’re going to die. As an actor, that’s good to know.”) At the end of January, she flies to Toronto to begin Guillermo del Toro’s haunted-house movie Crimson Peak. Later in 2014 she will join Cate Blanchett in the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian classic Carol.

Of the look of the film, Wasikowska enthuses: “John [Curran, the director] and Mandy [Walker, the director of photography] worked hard to get the feel of that time, the ’70s, in the colour palette, all this sort of dusty, milky orangey-browny mix of colours. They wanted to do the ’70s but not overtly ’70s, not a caricature, so they found a wonderful balance of costumes that integrate so nicely into the colour of that world.”

 “They actually copied one jacket, literally made it from the photo,” Davidson says. “I hadn’t remembered it until I saw it. Japanese and silky, it was so comfortable.”

As a contemporary of Davidson, I recognise the look; I even had a similar wraparound skirt, as many did back then. So when I read Xan Brooks’s review in the Guardian after the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year, in which he describes the film’s depiction of Davidson’s journey as “lengthy, sweaty and relentlessly solipsistic” and asks “where are we going and what is it for?”, I wondered what it was that he found so hard to get his head around. Was it the ’70s? The Australian outback? He tells us he hasn’t read the book or the original National Geographic article; perhaps he’s also unfamiliar with the generation of postwar children who came into their maturity as adequately nourished, suntanned, strong-boned wanderers, ready to jump on that ship or (funds permitting) that aeroplane secure in the knowledge that friends and family at home always expected them to turn up again, on the other side of wherever. Or perhaps it’s the camels, which are in the film – he speculates – only to carry Davidson’s “extensive wardrobe” that looks “for all the world as if she’s modelling the autumn collection for Banana Republic”.

As one reads the many different ways Davidson has dealt with the question “Why?” over the 34 years since Tracks was first published, the simplest answer seems to be that she was on a quest to be alone with herself, to depend on herself and herself alone, to forgo the kind of assistance that implies reciprocity. For readers, all kinds of inferences can be drawn from the text. Silence works in a memoir. Less can be more. One clue might be encoded in the first sentence of the epigraph chosen from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook: “Anna knew she had to cross the desert.” Another is in the use of “self-proving” in Lessing’s cover blurb. Self-proving is a term Davidson returns to again and again in comment.

For the filmmakers, adapting a first-person narrative required something more than a character study. Producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning felt that it was an amazing story “but in some ways it didn’t really have a third act in the traditional sense of a film”. The challenge of finding a third act fell to the director – and ultimately the screenwriter – who set about probing the book’s silences. In Davidson’s background they found her father (played in the film by Robert Coleby), who walked the Kalahari Desert as a young man, prospecting for gold. The loss of Davidson’s mother, who hanged herself when the author was 11, is threaded through the narrative in flashbacks. Davidson’s first dog, Goldie, comes and goes in both flashback and hallucination.

“Writers have this sort of innocence that a film is going to be some sort of continuation of their book, not understanding that it requires completely different skills and forms,” says Davidson, who has seen the film four or five times. “You have to let it go and trust people to do what they do best.”

At one point in Tracks, the book, Davidson leaves Warburton, an indigenous community in Western Australia just south of the Gibson Desert, to walk the Gunbarrel Highway in a new pair of sandals. She sets her course across what is possibly “pure, virgin desert”, landscape of a character so different from where she’d been that she might be “treading now on country where no one had ever walked before”.

Losing herself, disconnecting her agenda from the ticking of her clock, removing herself from society’s rules, learning to read the land: these were the treasures Davidson had hoped to find on her journey, and which she stumbled into after many months of walking. As Wasikowska plays the scene, sunburnt and chapped, menstrual blood running down her legs, one feels the power of true abandonment translated from book to screen.

“That girl in the film has a sort of essential sense of security in the world that is something like we had in the ’70s,” Davidson tells me. “I do feel oddly connected to Mia … and I’m at peace with the whole thing.”

At the end of the interview, Davidson and Wasikowska pose for the camera on my phone. Wasikowska folds into Davidson’s embrace. “I think of her as an adored niece,” Davidson says, words she has used elsewhere to describe the way she now thinks about her younger self who took on the desert in 1977. Later that evening on the red carpet, dressed in a Roland Mouret top and pants and towering Brian Atwood platform sandals, the Mia Wasikowska of my interview has metamorphosed into a catwalk model who has a good 4 inches on Davidson. Peter Conrad wrote of Cate Blanchett, “She is an artist whose medium is her own body.” The same will be said of Wasikowska as she takes on more and more roles on her walk into the halls of fame.

See the film. Read the book again. Something magical is played out in both versions of Tracks, something about the essential nature of Australian identity, something about how we can take on the world if we choose. On camels, on red carpets – it hardly matters where we put our feet, only that we move forward, step after step.

Gail Bell
Gail Bell has worked as a pharmacist, educator and writer. Her books include The Poison Principle and Shot: A Personal Response to Guns and Trauma.

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