A young woman from Sydney has an audacious goal: to walk alone with camels from the center of Australia heading west across 1,700 miles of desert and sacred aboriginal territory to the Indian Ocean. Thrilling, thoughtful, and gorgeous, Tracks matches the real true grit experiences of the stubbornly independent 25-year-old Robyn Davidson, who set off in 1975 through stunning landscape and challenging conditions. The film is infused with insight into her drive and gradual connection with animals, indigenous people, and the kindness of strangers.
Director John Curran and star Mia Wasikowska, throwing herself into embodying the feisty Davidson, returned home to Australia to reenact a quest that became a media sensation, first Down Under and then internationally in a March 1978 National Geographic article and the subsequent best-selling memoir and photo-documentation by (the now well-known) Rick Smolan (Adam Driver).
Alice Springs looks like the rugged, male-dominated outback town in Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) when Robyn arrives with her loyal (and essential) dog, spurred by her inspiration—to follow the example of her father who walked extensively around Africa before settling, and failing, at a Queensland cattle station—and her plan: to procure camels out of the wild herds numbering almost a million, the world’s largest camel population since being introduced into the country in 1840.
She signs on with Austrian Kurt Posel (Rainer Bock) after picking up one of his tourist brochures for camel rides. To learn the basics of camel training, she undergoes long, hard months of work in exchange for the promise of her own animals. But he turns out to be a mean stingy liar who is as cruel to his wife and employees as he is to his camels.
Luckily, she finds the supportive, big-bearded Sallay Mahomet (John Flaus), a descendent of the original Afghani cameleers in the country, who helps her find three camels (one soon pregnant), and he shows her how to better treat and pack them for a long trip, by then an almost forgotten skill, and how to fend off (really scary) attacks from feral bull camels in the bush. (Davidson on the set taught Wasikowska her way around the animals.)
Years later, Davidson admits to visiting friends at her primitive campground her discouragement of ever being able to afford pursuing her dream, just before the pushy, fast talking New York photographer Smolan suggests she apply for National Geographic sponsorship. But the funds come with strings attached—for him to meet up with her to photograph her progress.
His periodic intrusions boomerang from friction to romance and hindrance. He goes from offending aborigines by photographing them without their permission to earning Davidson’s grudging appreciation as he learns to deftly help with the water supply during her nine-month walkabout. Cinematographer Mandy Walker’s 35mm lensing of the extraordinary landscape is put to much better visual use than in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008), and becomes an essential character in the story.
Davidson’s lengthy and vociferous defenses of aborigine rights in her memoir are conveyed more personally here, such as her sensitivity toward using Ayers Rock (the spiritual landmark Uluru) as a backdrop rather than traipsing through with the tourists. (All the aborigines on screen speak or sing in their native languages, with no forced pidgin English.)
More important is the mutual agreement to proceed with the elder Mr. Eddy (Rolley Minutma) as a geographer, survivalist, and, most importantly, cultural guide. He makes it possible for her to traverse areas otherwise forbidden to outsiders, particularly women, limits she struggles to accept.
In or out of her sarong, she goes native. Because of the heat and hydration, real dangers mix with her dreams and hallucinations, and the film provides more about her childhood insecurities than are in her memoir. Davidson succeeds in becoming completely one with nature, to the point of almost mental and physical collapse. (Spoiler alert—you do get to see camels frolicking in the ocean.)
Attaining that feeling was more her aim than the conquering of foreign wilderness that so many great white male explorer adventures celebrate, such as the latest reenactments of Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mt. Everest in Beyond the Edge and Thor Heyerdal’s rafting the seas in Kon-Tiki. Davidson was certainly no more crazy or obsessed than these historic figures, and Tracks succeeds in making her solo achievement as exciting and admirable.