Solitude in the Sunburnt Country: How an actress, a cinematographer and an adventurer make seclusion appealing in Tracks
In April 1977, at the age of 27, Robyn Davidson commenced her walk from Alice Springs in Australia's Northern Territory, heading west towards the Indian Ocean. Accompanied only by four camels and her dog, Diggity, Robyn's 1700-mile journey was not simply a pursuit of adventure, but rather the solution to her cravings for solitude. Tracks is Davidson's story. Its first form was as her memoir, published in 1995; the second was the ethereal 2013 biopic of the same name. Although helmed by a male – director John Curran – the film is very much the embodiment of the spirit of three women: AFI-nominated cinematographer Mandy Walker; Mia Wasikowska who portrays Davidson in the film; and, of course, Davidson herself. Through Tracks these three women share their interpretation of solitude in the sunburnt country and paint two detailed portraits. The first is of Davidson as a young woman whose thirst for solitude in the unknown is unparalleled; the second is of the world she encounters, which holds a wealth of hidden stories all on its own. Carrying audiences through this unimaginable quest for isolation is Wasikowska, whose portrayal of the fiery and ardent Davidson imprints on audiences a desire to channel their own woman in the wild. Asked why she would embark on such an arduous task, Davidson (in her memoir) and Wasikowska as her stand-in, candidly respond, "Why not?"
The Australian desert is red hot. It is dusty, it is dirty, and it gives the impression that it would leave a stain on you inside and out, one that is not easy to wash away – much like the seemingly permanent dirt that marks Robyn's face and body from the moment she arrives in Alice Springs. Mandy Walker, as Director of Photography for the film, has the arduous task of capturing this vast and endlessly appealing landscape with its harsh textures; combinations made up of heat and dirt in some of their most natural, unblemished forms. The warmth of these shots with their colours are inviting even when its population – namely rogue camels, as well as the regularly hostile Davidson – are not. At the very heart of Tracks is this combination of colour and texture. Shots which look down on Robyn's footprints from high above imprint the scale of the young woman's boundless journey. Other shots blur the profile of the young explorer against the desolate terrain, just as her distinction as an "other" in the landscape becomes less clear. The desert sequences are infused with an awe-inspiring beauty, and the shots of Robyn's figure outlined against sky and sand are chilling but enticing, as the eerie vastness of the landscape remains as elusive as Davidson herself. These breathtaking images – inspired by the photographs that National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan took of Davidson's journey – capture minds, keeping them hostage until they too realise how appealing the gruelling task of walking across the rugged landscape could be when surrounded by such beauty.
In Tracks, and in the majority of Australian cinema featuring the nation's desert, the motif of the sunburnt country has come to stand for a character in itself; its own entity crafted by many characterisations. Two of these representations – one of unparalleled beauty, the other of ominous danger – are polar opposites, yet they reflect the common duality of such a unique and evocative landscape. The first representation is of the bush as a beautiful sanctuary. The cinematic-quality images that the Australian landscape provides are unparalleled. The vast spaces, and the emptiness within these thousands of kilometres, are often recognised as a world which "allows people to reach their full potential."1 According to film writer Ross Gibson, the Australian landscape is "often shown to have a strong effect on the nature of the human characters who encounter it."2 For modern Australians, the bush and the outback have become recognisable for both their spectacular beauty, and eerie and mysterious atmosphere. For Davidson, this duality provides a sanctuary to the unnecessary havoc of civilisation.
Tracks also aspires to provide a nuanced and thoughtful interpretation of the connection between Indigenous communities and their land. It depicts a recognition and respect for the Aboriginal presence within the Australian landscape that for decades of Australian cinema has been excluded from storytelling. In one scene Robyn's indigenous guide Mr Eddie puts on a "performance" – that of a scary blackfella – to frighten away the intrusive tourists, all of whom are trying to capture images of the "crazy camel lady," but in doing so are being disrespectful of local customs. The film also asks the question about whether Davidson too is merely a transient tourist. The audience sees her encounter the harsh environment both as an outsider – in one scene she realises she will have to divert her path in order to avoid sacred Indigenous ground – but we also see her incessantly trying to see herself differently from the tourists. Tracks' exploration of the misunderstandings between the Indigenous community and those who settled on their land repeatedly touch on the traces of racism and misogyny that were ingrained in Australian culture at the time; traces of which linger today. As explained by Robyn in the opening scene, her dissatisfaction with this "self indulgent negativity that was so much the malaise of [her] generation, [her] sex and [her] class" is partly what encouraged her need to escape to begin with.
Wasikowska's portrayal stands out in contemporary cinema, where many films showcasing a young woman undertaking a journey of some description would also feel obliged to include a focus on improving one's self, either physically or spiritually. Tracks rejects this notion of a need for individual improvement, and suggests instead that Robyn just wants to be alone. The further Robyn's journey progresses, the more she seems to blur into the landscape around her, her face and shoulders becoming as sunburnt as the ground she walks on. The hazy shot, caused by refractive heat waves bouncing upwards off of the ground which emerges in the hottest of conditions, is often representative of a character's delusion or dream-like state. While at many points in her journey Robyn was not entirely lucid – the scarcity of water in particular causing confusion and moments of irrationality3 – in this case, however, it is employed to reflect the erasure of identifying Robyn as an outsider in the world around her. Many previous "bush narratives" have depicted the colonial woman at odds with the rugged bushland, and one essentially in danger against the harsh world around them. Robyn's battle seems to be less with the beautiful but barren nature she becomes a part of than with the people around her. Unlike the doomed girls in Peter Weir's 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, in Tracks we find a narrative in which the young woman can survive – and even thrive – in Australian nature.
Imparting a necessary sense of monotony, the film's progression conveys to contemporary audiences the need to disconnect from a society that often fears isolation from the rest of the world. Tracks is both a breathtaking chronicle of adventure and an in-depth character study of personal strength. Through the visual story, as illustrated by the craftsmanship of the eminent Mandy Walker, and characterisation and authorship depicted by the two women at its core, Wasikowska and Davidson, the three combine to showcase an appealing world of seclusion. As put by Davidson herself, "an ordinary person is capable of anything."