It is 37 years since Australian Robyn Davidson headed out from Alice Springs with a team of three adult camels and a calf, her black dog, a compass her father had given her and a lot of tins of lentils, determined to walk 2700 kilometres across the desert to the Pacific Ocean.
Tracks, her account of the journey, became an international bestseller a couple of years later. Now we have the filmed version. When Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska as an astonishing look-alike Davidson, screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival last year there was a certain irony watching that little camel train cross sand dunes and desert scrub under a blinding Australian sun as we sat in permanently water-logged Venice.
Tracks is a story of epic proportions told in an intimate way. In a film about a nine-month walk, director John Curran says he was anxious to avoid the monotony of endless scenes of walking. With the help of cinematographer Mandy Walker, he makes the most of the grandeur of the landscape, but the narrative focuses on incidents and characters along the way.
The brisk result, riveting as it was for most of that first press audience, obscures the fact that monotony was intrinsic to the journey. Every day involved unpacking, making camp, feeding animals. "We are always on phones or emails or attending to our future and clamouring for the next thing, the next thing, the next thing," Wasikowska said in the press conference after the screening.
"What was really nice about this story was that it was a young woman who takes herself out of that and back to the very basics of survival, to putting one foot in front of the other and attending to immediate needs, whether it's water or shade or something to eat."
It was also, above all, about a journey in pursuit of solitude. What we remember, however, are the characters, including Mr Eddy (Rolley Mintuma), the indigenous elder who leads her through sacred land, telling her long and clearly funny stories in his Aboriginal language; a station owner's wife who washes her hair in a tin bath; and Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), the National Geographic photographer she both resents and needs.
None of these strangers ever attacks or threatens the woman alone in the wilderness. Horror arrives only with the reporters and tourists who pursue her as her fame spreads.
Davidson now laughs at her naivete, but she never imagined anyone would be interested in her little adventure. "I think that a young woman doing it today would assume that she would get backing and she would be on TV – and she would want that."
She reluctantly but successfully approached National Geographic for financial backing, but even a monthly visit from their photographer seemed an imposition.
Wasikowska, whose career has included leads in the Oscar-nominated Jane Eyre, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and the recent Stoker alongside Nicole Kidman, said making Tracks crystallised her decision to stay in Australia.
"It was the first time being back in Australia, filming in the place I'm from, and it was very much reconnecting to my roots. A couple of months after the film I decided definitely to stay in Australia. It was really important for me to spend time filming in Australia and to feel that my film world was also part of my home world, because they have always been essentially separate."
It may seem surprising that it took so long to film Tracks. There were previous plans – she is glad they did not succeed. When producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning, who made The King's Speech, had their idea for making Tracks with Curran as director, they found the rights were held by Disney.
"We had to patiently wait out the end of that option period, so we had a chance to meet with Robyn and John and convince her that we were the right team to tell the story," Canning says.
She remains convinced, both by the film and by Wasikowska as her younger alter-ego. "When we met for the first time I was to take her into the desert to show her something of camels," she recalls.
"There was this delicate person and I thought, 'Gosh, how is she going to muster up the earthiness and strength the role required?' Anyway, we met the camels and very fearlessly she just got straight into it. The next time I saw her she had transmogrified into a sort of version of me."
Tracks is screening now.
- Fairfax Media