The West

Mia Wasikowska and Robyn Davidson. Picture: Supplied

In 1977 an attractive 27-year-old blonde named Robyn Davidson set out to walk from Alice Springs to Uluru and then across the Gibson Desert to the Indian Ocean with only four camels and a dog for company.

During the journey, which took nine months and covered 2700km, Davidson became a global media sensation, sparked by a National Geographic cover story and reports in Australian newspapers in which Davidson was dubbed the Camel Lady (a term that has stuck like the flies). However, that trip was a doddle in comparison to the decades-long odyssey Davidson's amazing story, which she told in the bestselling memoir Tracks, took to reach the big screen.

"I was offered a lot of money for the rights but I never wanted it to be made by Hollywood," Davidson tells me at the Duxton Hotel during her recent visit for the Perth Writers Festival.

"I had lunch with Sydney Pollack (director of such classics as The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor and Out of Africa) and he told me, 'Well, honey, you're not going to like what I'm going to do to your book'," recalls Davidson, dropping her voice a register and slipping into an American accent to imitate the late Hollywood legend.

"Pollack is a very fine filmmaker but I said no because I didn't think Hollywood could do justice to the story. I was concerned to protect the Aboriginal material in the book, which needed a sensitivity which Hollywood is not known for," Davidson continues.

"I also thought it would automatically be turned into a love story - Pollack had just made Out of Africa and was looking for something similar - but this is contrary to what Tracks is all about.

"I always felt it should have been an Australian film or at least have some Australian involvement so I turned it down," Davidson says.

Since that early encounter with the Hollywood machine, Davidson sold the rights to a succession of producers who failed to get the film made, with at one point the world's biggest female movie star, Julia Roberts, keen to play the Australian traveller and author.

Eventually Tracks found its way to the classy Anglo-Australian production company See-Saw Films, which won a best picture Oscar for The King's Speech and is behind such first-rate films as Shame and the Jane Campion television series Top of the Lake.

See-Saw's ace team, Brit Iain Canning and Australian Emile Sherman, hired director John Curran, an American who spent his early years in Australia and made his debut with Praise (1998) before establishing a fine international career (We Don't Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil), to recreate Davidson's extraordinary journey across some of the world's harshest terrain.

However, what really excited Davidson about Sherman and Canning snapping up the rights to Tracks was their idea to cast red-hot Australian star Mia Wasikowska to play her.

Amazingly, the young star of Alice In Wonderland, The Kids Are Alright and Jane Eyre was the actress she always believed was perfect for the role.

"I had seen in the television series In Treatment and thought, 'She's the real thing'. It comes along very rarely but she's got it. Mia made me want to get involved with the film."

Even though Davidson resisted Hollywood offers she says she was not precious about the material, that in the journey from book to screen there has to be changes to make it more dramatic and cinematic.

"I'm not a total naif," says Davidson. "Of course, they've got to make changes. Film is a completely different form to a travel narrative. So long as they stayed true to the essence of the book, which I believe they have. The filmmakers have been incredibly respectful to me all along."

The only change to the book that Davidson disagrees with is showing the death of her mother and making it the motivation for Wasikowska's Robyn's desire to undertake the journey. Davidson's mother committed suicide when she was 11 years old but the event doesn't figure in the book. The scenes in the movie dealing with the death of her mother were taken from a later memoir.

"I felt it was too determinist. Life's not like that. I argued with John (Curran) about this but he insisted. I understand it from a structural point of view but I don't agree with it."

Indeed, seeming lack of motivation for the film's character spending two years training with the camels then going on the dangerous cross-country trek has been one of the sticking points with critics, who are struggling to get inside the head of Davidson.

It is not just a point of contention with the film. Davidson has been answering the question of why she undertook the journey - or, more accurately, not answering the question - ever since the publication of Tracks. Davidson says that you can only understand her journey and that of the character in the movie by placing her in the context of her times, that she was a product of the massive political and social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s.

"We were swept up by the ideas of freedom and testing ourselves and feminism. We were pushing against social pressures and social norms," says Davidson, who still clings to the ideals of the era, never marrying or having children or establishing a permanent base.

Davidson believes that it would be much more difficult for a young person today to throw themselves into a similar adventure and push the boundaries because of the change in economic conditions. There is a greater nervousness about jobs and a greater lust for material possessions, she argues.

"Young people today care about having stuff much more than I did. I've never cared about having things," says Davidson, who after spending time at the Perth Writers Festival returned for yet another journey to her beloved India.

"I cannot understand why people want to wear brands and display them, to be sandwich boards for these vast anonymous corporations," she says. "And we are so immersed in useless information that it's virtually impossible to get lost in the way I did back in the 1970s. I don't think you need to look too hard to find my motivation for taking that journey."

The West Australian

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