A Troppo Romp Through the Mulga

In order to get my mind off my impending prelims despite the fact that I ought to be working on them more, I actually started and finished a book this weekend. It’s actually supposed to be on its way to someone in Champaign, Illinois, via PaperBackSwap, but they don’t have to know that. It’s a book that’s been sitting on my shelves for years: Tracks by Robyn Davidson.

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Tracks is a firsthand account of Davidson’s trek across the Australian Outback with a dog, four naughty camels, and her own wacky self. It starts in Alice Springs, a remote town in Northern Territory (where the first half of the book takes place), and continues as Davidson wends her way through South Australia and Western Australia to the Indian Ocean. It was also made into a movie in 2013 starring Mia Wasikowska, which I’ve heard is much, much better.

The book has its pluses and minuses. First, the positives. I was entertained by Davidson’s spunky “no holds barred” personality and amused by her weirdness, such as the image of her walking naked through the desert because there was no one around. She is definitely someone who marches to the beat of her own drum. She is also brutally honest and doesn’t hold back; when someone treats her poorly, she tells us the truth. She is not afraid to defend herself, whether it’s verbally, against the guy in Alice Springs under whom she apprentices to learn the ins and outs of camel maintenance, or physically, fending off men and wild animals. She’s also more hardworking than almost all other travel writers I’ve read and it seemed like an actual undertaking rather than just a pleasure trip.

However, as someone who is a huge fan of travel writing as a genre, I was kind of disappointed. The book seemed to not really know where it was focusing. The first few pages have a map, but the author doesn’t even leave Alice Springs until halfway through the book. Seriously. You could have chopped the book in half and sold the first part as a manual on the care and keeping of camels. Next, the style of writing seemed kind of sloppy. The author used a lot of jargon and dialect, and often wrote seemingly in stream-of-consciousness; I didn’t need to know her every thought. The journey part of the book seemed kind of lackluster as well. I suppose it was not the most glamorous of trips, but she seemed so irritated the whole time. There were obvious reasons why, but after a while it seemed like she was doing it because someone told her to. And though it’s not like every travel book needs to have an Eat Pray Love style moment of great spiritual meaning, it could have been a little brighter – she’s on this amazing adventure, yet she has so much to complain about. That’s the thing that bothered me the most – aside from the choppy writing, Robyn Davidson just came off as so ungrateful and pithy. She was sponsored by National Geographic and had a photographer for parts of the journey; she should have been more cooperative, or just told them all to screw off and have that be the end of it. She was upset when people wanted to learn more about her, take pictures with her, or just in general get some info on her well-being; well, as a person traveling through the Australian desert alone with a bunch of camels, do you think that’s not going to attract attention? The last few chapters of the book, while the most exciting parts of the journey, are tough to stomach because of her attitude. She is so loath to talk to the press that she deliberately misleads people, takes pleasure in throwing them off her trail, and even changes her route at the last minute to avoid some people who are waiting to talk to her at the end of her journey. It’s not like she’s a criminal on the run, and while these people might be a nuisance, what would you expect?

Aside from the word troppo, meaning “crazy,” I learned a few new words to add to my collection of…words:

  • Yalka – a type of bush onion. Comes from Arrernte, an Australian tribal language.
  • Mulga – a type of Australian tree, also a term for the Australian Outback in general, as in “going to the mulga.” Comes from Yuwaalaraay, another tribal language.
  • Quandong – a type of Australian fruit tree. Comes from Wiradjuri, another Australian tribal language.
  • Pituri (pronounced PITCH-er-ee) – another type of Australian tree, also a mild narcotic. Comes from Wiradjuri.

This book review was brought to you by the stuff stated in the first paragraph, and having no direction in life.