The beautifully lensed story of one woman’s journey through the heat and dust, John Curran’s Tracks is an inspiring expedition into the dead heart of Australia.
Walkabout by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Rather than the bestselling autobiographical memoir that bears the film’s name, John Curran’s Tracks seems rather to be based on the sensational photo-essay that appeared in the National Geographic magazine in 1978, following the journey of Robyn Davidson with a dog and four camels from Alice Springs across the deserts of Western Australia to the sea. Brimming with stunning landscapes of cracked red earth and blazing blue skies, it’s photographer Rick Smolan’s photographs that provide the inspiration for Tracks, the director’s fidelity to these images in costume, colour and framing revealed as the credits roll, as the original magazine article takes centre stage. For the Australian-based director of The Painted Veil with an adaptation of The Beautiful And The Damned starring Keira Knightley in pre-production, Tracks feels like a glorious adventure, low-key and indie, just like its bohemian and rebellious heroine.
It’s 1975, and Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Alice Springs with her dog Diggity and a dream, to follow in her father’s footsteps by walking the 1700 mile trek from the Red Centre to the Indian Ocean. She finds work at a local boarding house before moving on to a nearby camel farm, where she works for board, lodging and an unbroken camel she can train. Finally, equipped with four camels but without the funds to pay for her journey across the desert, Robyn writes to National Geographic for sponsorship, eventually agreeing to meet her sister and the magazine’s photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver). Robyn arranges to meet Rick three times during her journey, and then sets off across the desert, meeting Aborigines and locals while doing her best to avoid tourists and journalists en route. But alone, half-starved, beaten by the sun, attacked by a wild bull camel and forced to shoot her beloved dog after he’s poisoned with strychnine, Robyn becomes engulfed by the heat and dust – until finally she reaches the ocean.
Opening with a quotation by Robyn Davidson casting herself as a new kind of nomad, “Not people who are at home everywhere, but who are at home nowhere”, Tracks offers a deliberately down-beat perspective on travel. Bored of life in the city and the self-indulgent negativity of her generation, sex and class, Robyn insists her solo trek is not an adventure. She’s spurred on by ghosts, of the mother who killed herself when she was a girl and her beloved dog Goldie who was taken away shortly after, on a mission to finish what her father, who was lost walking across Western Australia, started. Her self-imposed exile stems mainly from her desire to be alone – imagining silence when her sister and her friends come to see her, shutting out their senseless chatter. But for all Robyn’s solitary navel-gazing, Tracks is unexpectedly inspiring, as Robyn throws a metaphorical grenade at where she’s standing, jumps and prays. And exhilaratingly uplifting in its proof that an ordinary person is capable of anything.
Not that she has it easy, training her feet for the hot, rough sand by walking barefoot, taming aggressive bull camels while braving sandstorms and risking thirst. Her six-month trek leads her round the mystical grandeur of Uluru, where she’s led through the sacred country by aboriginal elder Eddy and into the parched desert, alone with only Diggity and her four-strong camel train for company. En route, she gets lost (going back to retrieve her father’s compass that she dropped), only finding her way back when she orders Diggity “Home!” She loses her camels when they disappear one night, and even has to leave one behind. She even fends off snakes and from somewhere finds the strength to restrain herself from eating a sacred kangaroo. But blistered and sunburnt, and as the desert dust dissolves into an existential mirage of smoke, Robyn wages battle on herself, plunging the depths of loneliness while gradually learning to accept her faults and grow. By turns utterly dejected and yet also determined to finish what she’s started, Robyn makes it (in a breathtaking scene from cinematographer Mandy Walker) to the glittering azure ocean, plunging her camels into the life-giving water and emerging as a new person from this fiery crucible.
Beautifully lensed and quietly affecting, Tracks, for all its one-woman-in-the-desert spareness, is a surprisingly profound look at life’s journey. Images of tracks are a recurring theme, from animal prints to motorbike tyre marks, as Robyn strives to follow in the footsteps of her country’s natives while walking the road less travelled. But as the wind-brushed tracks are filled over with sand, there comes a warning that no matter how great those feats are, one day those adventurers too will be forgotten. Like Robyn Davidson’s book or John Curran’s film, some Tracks can cast deep shadows but won’t necessarily last for ever. But, whether fleeting pleasures or just another one of life’s chapters, it’s Davidson who has the last word; “Camel trips, as I suspected all a long, and as I was about to have confirmed, do not begin or end, they merely change form.”
Tracks is released on 25th April 2014 in the UK