In 1977 photographer Rick Smolan was traveling in Australia on assignment for Time magazine when he encountered an angry woman in the small town of Alice Springs. Little did he know that 37 years later their story would be dramatized by movie stars.
“I was sent to do a story on Aborigines,” Smolan says. “I walked out of my hotel, and I looked up and saw Robyn washing the windows. I took some pictures and she got really pissed off and started yelling at me: ‘Put your f—–g cameras down!’ I went to explain what I was doing, and she said, ‘Oh, you’re American…What are you, some kind of journalistic parasite here photographing the Aborigines?'”
The woman was Robyn Davidson—the so-called “camel-lady” who undertook a 1,700-mile trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean on foot with four camels and a dog as her companions. “TRACKS” is the movie version of her epic journey and evolving relationship with Smolan.
When Davidson embarked on her ambitious walk across the Australian Outback she didn’t think it was that big of a deal. She didn’t tell anybody why she was going, and she mostly wanted to be left alone. But she also needed money, so Smolan helped introduce her to editors at National Geographic who offered funding in exchange for her story. In turn, 28-year-old Smolan was assigned to photograph her trip for the magazine. Davidson just wished he would go away.
“She told me ‘I only want you to come out once,’ and I said ‘No, I have to come a number of times,’” says Smolan. The problem was, although Davidson had been training her camels and preparing for the trip for years, Smolan had no experience in the outback.
“I went to Alice Springs and bought way too much stuff. I was such a rube. I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t even a boy scout,” Smolan cheerfully recounted. “My friends in New York thought it was really funny that I was assigned to the outback. I was so completely clueless.”
Over Davidson’s nine-month trek, Smolan visited her five times. While she initially resisted his presence, eventually they became friends, then started a brief romance. Smolan didn’t tell his editors about the affair—the relationship would have been frowned upon. But as he continued to document Davidson’s journey he became an inextricable part of her story.
“I had to decide whether my allegiances were with her or the Geographic,” says Smolan. “Even with her fierceness there was something about her that was very vulnerable. I felt very protective of her, even though she didn’t want to be protected. Every time I left her, I wondered if it was the last time I would ever see her again. She could have died out there.”
Along her trek, Davidson suffered multiple hardships, including dehydration, sick camels, the poisoning of her beloved dog, and intrusions by curious people who would simply not leave her alone. At one point, when Smolan heard a rumor that she was lost in the desert, he high-tailed it from Asia to Australia to track her down, unwittingly leading a mob of other frenzied journalists along with him. Davidson was furious.
She eventually made it to the Indian Ocean where she took her camels for a triumphant swim. It was the end of her physical journey, but the beginning of her sharing her story with the world—first in the 1978 National Geographic article, and later in her best-selling memoir called TRACKS.
When the story was published, Davidson told Smolan she hated the photos in the magazine, and she was dissatisfied with the editing of the piece.
“I think she didn’t like the pictures because she thought [they were] my experience, not hers,” says Smolan. “In a way, it’s true, because I was only there for portions of the trip. I wasn’t there for the moments of panic. But now, with the passage of time, Robyn loves the photos.”
The images from 1977 have a timeless, cinematic quality to them. The light is golden. The camels are dusty. Davidson’s face is streaked with dirt. You can almost smell the campfires, imagine the silence, and conjure both the difficulty and the romance of the trek.
“I used to develop the film myself in Sydney or Melbourne to show her. And the more beautiful I made her look the more she hated them,” Smolan says. “You made me look like a goddamn model,” she told him.
“I got in huge trouble with the Geographic because you weren’t supposed to develop your own film,” he continued. “But one of the challenges was that she didn’t wear clothes a lot and I didn’t want to send pictures of her naked.”
Smolan later published more photos from the trip in his 1992 book From Alice to Ocean. Those images helped set the stage for the film version of “TRACKS,” starring Mia Wasikowska as Davidson, and Adam Driver as Smolan. “They used the book to set the color palate and tone [of the film],” he says.
Smolan and Davidson both traveled to Australia to spend time on the set.
“It was very surreal to watch people wearing our clothes, dressed up like us—the whole thing was very surreal. I hadn’t been back there since the trip. It’s completely the same,” says Smolan.
He says he was pleased the filmmakers stayed true to the details of the journey, including the mystery of Davidson’s motivations for her trip, as well as the nuances of their relationship.
“[The movie makes] her coldness and nastiness, and my goofiness, very extreme, but I think they did a good job capturing the friendship. When you go through something like that with someone— something that is so emotionally intense—a friendship lasts a really long time,” Smolan says. “She asked me whether I wondered what would’ve happened if we’d stayed together—and I said we’d probably be divorced and hate each other now.”
Instead, the two have remained friends. Smolan is married with two children, and has published a series of photo books with his wife, Jennifer Erwitt. He reflects that traveling with Davidson—and having to make tough choices about covering and becoming involved in her story—ultimately changed his career.
“[Davidson] asked me after the trip was over, ‘Are you going back to being a prostitute?’ Her point was that I was always going to be a cog in someone else’s machine.”
He says her scorn eventually led him to stop taking assignments and start producing his own photo books, including the wildly successful “Day in the Life” series, which have sold millions of copies worldwide.
He adds that part of the modern day appeal of Davidson’s tale is that it would be almost impossible to do again today. “The reason the filmmakers made the film is because it’s a burden that we can’t ever untether ourselves from civilization now. They are hoping [people] will find the story interesting because it’s about trying to find yourself.”
Watch Rick Smolan talk live at National Geographic about his experiences in Australia with Robyn Davidson.
Smolan is co-creator of the best-selling “A Day in the Life” series, which has sold more than three-million copies worldwide. Other projects, among many, include America at Home, America 24/7, The Human Face of Big Data, and The Obama Time Capsule. He is CEO of Against All Odds Productions, and lives in New York with his wife and collaborator Jennifer Erwitt.