Robyn Davidson's extraordinary desert adventure; Tracks, by Robyn Davidson. New York: Pantheon Books. $11.95.
"There are some moments in life," Robyn Davidson writes, "that are like pivots around which your existence turns -- small intuitive flashes when you know have done something right for a change. . . ." That was the moment Davidson knew that she could and would hike across the great Australian desert with a few pack camels and her dog, Diggity. Her first book, "Tracks," is an inspiring, irritating, wonderful record of that adventure.
Most adventures worth reading about are inner as well as outer journeys, and the younger, greener Robyn the author describes early in the book does not seem like a very promising adventurer. Weak, insecure, manipulative, she arrived in a small outback town with little but a basic dissatisfaction with herself and a determination to learn. And for two years learn she did, about training camels and small repairs and camel diseases and desert survival and pregnant camels and self-esteem and camels.
By the time she set off into the desert with Diggity and four huge pets, she seems to have conquered that inner dependency and cowardice which women are still encouraged to confuse with "being a lady." "Fear had a different quality now. . . . It was direct and useful. It did not incapacitate me or interfere with my competence. It was the natural healthy fear one needs for survival."
With fear under control, Davidson got down to sorting our her life, step by step, as she toughened her feet, replaying old memories, friendships, resentments; making peace with her past life and letting go of it as a snake sheds an old skin that has become too small to live in.
Many trekkers, and mountaineers experience this process of spiritual housecleaning and transcendence, but few have written about it as well as Robyn Davidson:
"As I walked through that country, I was becoming involved with it in a most intense and not yet fully conscious way. The motions and patterns and connections of things became apparent on a gut level. My environment . . . became an animate being of which I was a part. . . . If you are fragmented and uncertain it is terrifying to find the boundaries of yourself melt. Survival in the desert requires that you lose this fragmentation, and fast . . . . Just as the aborigines seem to be in perfect rapport with themselves and their country, so the embryonic beginnings of that rapport were happening to me. I loved it."
Of course her trip was not all spiritual discipline. She had to plan around scorpions, learn to forage, and shoot down attacking wild bull camels.
She began to learn an Aboriginal language and befriended an elder of the Pitjanjara tribe, who walked with her for several hundred miles and taught Robyn about Aboriginal bushcraft and reverence for the desert.
As the author grew stronger, her concern grew for the plight of Australia's Aboriginal people and their ancient homeland. Her book may do much to awaken her fellow Australians to these treasures which white culture is so busily destroying.
Davidson's greatest difficulty was with the popular press, whose ruthless search for instant heroes distorted the trip in which she had invested so much of herself. It is partly to scuttle the legend of "the camel lady" that she has written "Tracks." Toward the end she has little to say about Robyn Davidson and much about transcendence and moral courage.
Readers who feel grateful for "Tracks" might thank her by realizing more fully the adventures of their own lives, secretly hoping, of course, for another book from this exacting and imaginative new writer.