Pet Travel Book Club: Four Camels, a Woman, and a Dog Walk Into a Desert…

A Voyage of Discovery

Camel Crossing in AustraliaWhen she was 27 years old, Robyn Davidson set out from Alice Springs in Australia to walk 1700 miles to the Indian Ocean.

She had something to resolve deep within herself. And she was willing to risk her life to do it.

But Davidson didn’t go alone.

She took her loving dog, Diggity, three camels she had prepared for the journey, and the calf who was born to one of them just before they set off.

It was Davidson’s choice to go. One might argue that Diggity followed her willingly. They were bonded to each other. And the dog was not tethered.

But the camels—well, the camels would have headed straight for home if Davidson had not hobbled the adults and tied down the calf when they made camp.

So what does the presence of animals mean for a voyage of self-discovery?

Alone, But Not Alone

Walking for days without human company, Davidson’s inhibitions dropped away. She felt freed from the constraints of making conversation, worrying about her appearance, and keeping track of artificial measurements of time. Diggity didn’t care about those things. Nor did the camels.

But they were a comforting presence. And a necessary one. Davidson did not have the skills or knowledge to survive in the Australian bush without the camels to transport 1500 pounds of food, water, and other supplies.

She even had to rely on Diggity. After getting lost in the Gibson desert, it was the dog’s sense of smell that helped the pair find their camp.

But the animals’ presence also led to painful introspection.

It Was Them or Me

The hardest part of reading Davidson’s account of her journey were the stories about the animals.

Traditional camel training methods don’t include operant conditioning and positive reinforcement. And, in 1977, when Davidson took her journey, traditional was the only training. If Davidson, or anyone else, wants to repeat her journey today, they’ll have many online resources for positive camel training methods. But back then, camel training involved physical restraints, pulling on sensitive areas, and hitting with a switch, crop, or even a log over the head.

In the stress of her journey, Davidson constantly dealt with the tension of adoring the camels but dealing cruelly with them to force their compliance.

It was always the animals who paid the price when Davidson made a poor choice, out of exhaustion or frustration.

Making Choices for Animals

Camela Caravan in AustraliaWhether trekking across the Australian Outback or sleeping on a couch in suburbia, domestic animals do what we make them do. The responsibility for making good decisions for the animals in our care is daunting.

Autonomous dogs and cats don’t have it easy. Just look at the lifespan of a indoor cat, 12-18 years, compared to that of an outdoor cat, 4-5 years. And few would argue that a street dog living near garbage dumps scrabbling for food has a good life.

Caring for a pet means hundreds of daily decisions. Raw food, kibble, homemade? Adopt a companion for the existing pet? Travel with our pets or leave them home?

When we make unconventional choices, like choosing to live on a boat, or wandering into the Australian wilderness, we bear an even greater responsibility for our pets’ happiness and well-being.

Who Pays the Price for a Bad Decision?

All four camels survived their trek with only minor injuries. Diggity, the dog, did not.

One night, too exhausted to find a rabbit to feed her dog, Davidson fed Diggity basic rations before going to bed. The hungry dog found her own meal, an animal carcass laced with strychnine placed in the bush to reduce the dingo population.

I don’t want to criticize Davidson too harshly for her poor choice. I can’t say I’d do any better.

Besides, we all make bad decisions every day. Most of the time we are lucky. She was not. And unfortunately, Diggity, and Davidson paid the price.

Davidson set out on her long walk to do something she needed to do. She laid herself bare to the elements and the harsh landscape. She changed her life in ways she could never have predicted.

But she could not have done it without the help of four camels and a dog.

Make Tracks to A Traveler’s Library

Robyn Davidson wrote about her journey in the book Tracks. More than 30 years after its publication, it’s still widely read and will soon be made into a feature film.

Please stop by Pet Travel Thursday at A Traveler’s Library and read my full review. And don’t forget to leave a comment to say hello.

My next book for the Pet Travel Book Club is Kristin Henderson’s Driving by Moonlight: A Journey Through Love, War, and Infertility. It’s the beautifully written story of a woman who sets off on a cross country road trip with her German Shepherd after seeing her husband off to Afghanistan in the week following the September 11 attacks. Pick it up so you can join the discussion on September 13.

Would you take your dog with you on an extreme adventure? How do you decide if it’s worth the risk?
photo credit: Aldo van Zeeland via photo pin cc
photo credit: Fraser Mummery via photo pin cc

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  1. I’m so glad you reviewed this book, one of my favorites of all time. There are so many amazing things about it, not least of which is the fact that the author went off on her own — well, without human company — into the Australian outback. Women just didn’t do that kind of thing. They still don’t.

    It’s funny, when I read the book — probably in the 1980s – it was the camels I was fascinated by. I barely remembered that there was a dog in the book!

    Speaking of bad choices… Davidson ended up living with Salman Rushdie for many years, which would be outside the scope of this review except that she wrote a roman a clef about the relationship. I guess there are some lessons you can’t learn from a dog and camels.

    • I loved this book. But I had a hard time getting my head around it. It’s one that leaves you pondering but not necessarily knowing what to say.

      Hmmm, didn’t know about the Rushdie connection. But I found it kinda amazing how she hooked up with Doris Lessing. Robyn Davidson is definitely a woman with Balls? Ovaries? Who knows.

  2. Thanks for the review Pamela, I’m not sure it’s ‘my cup of tea’ but I love hearing your take on it.

  3. Wow, what an amazing journey and story. Davidson sounds like a fascinating woman. I am having trouble imagining what could have sent her out into such a hostile environment all alone with animals to care for. But I guess I need to read the book for that.

    Australia kind of terrifies me. There isn’t much – living and non – in that country that won’t kill you. It’s amazing to me that such a large human population can survive for so long there, even in cities. The thought of heading out into the outback, where even the tiniest bug is deadly, sends chills down my spine. I don’t think I’d ever go on an adventure like this one but I do know if I go on a solo journey of any kind, I’d rather have my dog with me, even if it means a heavier burden to carry.

    • I have a feeling you might really like this book, Kristine. It’s very well written. Funny in places. But it’s a hard subject. I’d recommend it to anyone who ever thinks about what it means to be afraid.

      BTW, you realize how many people in the world would look at our story, seeing you move across the country far from your family and think you’re a brave adventurer? :)

  4. Oh, I’m glad you reviewed this. I have a strict rule for my personal dog reading/movie watching, called “Does the dog make it?” (I formulated this rule many, many years before I even had a dog, after I read ahead of my classmates in Old Yeller in the seventh grade. I was crying, copiously, right there in the middle of class, while everyone else was still reading the happy parts.) Sometimes one sneaks past me.

    • Yes, I thought the details of the animal’s lives would be important to convey to my readers. It’s a wonderful book. But I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

      BTW, please check back on August 30 when I’ll be reviewing Following Atticus. It’s a delightful book and it definitely meets your criterion.

    • I’m right there with you. I was thinking I would probably pick this up and read it until I got to that part of the review. I still might, but only when I’m in a decidedly happy frame of mind and feeling able to deal with the bad parts of life. Which would not be now. Hehe.

  5. I’m also glad you reviewed the book because it was one of the few i couldn’t get through. I peeked a few pages ahead and then had to put it down forever. Like Jessica I was scarred years ago by Old Yeller Syndrome.

    • I certainly understand. I think it was a wonderful book. But I wouldn’t call it an easy ride–certainly not for an animal lover.

      Every time I read a dog memoir I wonder why the writer waits until the dog is gone to write an appreciation. That’s why I was so thrilled to read Following Atticus which I review on August 30. Given your appreciation for tough poodles, you’ll probably appreciate the miniature schnauzer who climbs mountains. And yes, he’s still alive today. :)

      BTW, to anyone reading this after Jan, please click through on her name to see a fabulous 7 years of blogging links. Yes, 7 years. This is the matriarch of dog blogs. :)

  6. I’ve heard about the book you’re doing next month! :)

    I think it would depend on what kind of adventure I was going on and the dog I was considering taking. If I didn’t have to worry about extreme temperatures, I’d consider taking a dog like Morgan with me, but I’d be a lot pickier about taking Bunny. She’s done some fantastic hikes with me, but I don’t think she’d enjoy something that was a long term kind of deal. I think I have a pretty good idea about the limits of each of my dogs, and while risking my own health and safety is one thing, theirs is another.

    If I were on some kind of extreme adventure and a dog happened to join me along the way, I’d be more than happy to let it come along with me, though!

  7. Amazing journey in many ways and pity about Diggity. Thank you for the review. Have a fabulous Friday.
    Best wishes Molly

  8. I’m glad I read this review, although it made me feel sad…for the camels, Robyn, and Diggity. Interesting your comments about humane camel training vs. the methods she used during her trek. I can imagine her exhaustion. The theme of your responsibility to provide for your dog reminds me of a movie I keep meaning to review but haven’t yet…Wendy and Lucy. It’s a pet travel story, but I”m not sure if it was originally a book or not. Wendy has no job and no money and is traveling a great distance with her beloved dog. Most of the time it’s very sad. In the end, the dog makes it, but I can’t say the ending’s happy. I don’t want to give it away.
    p.s. I know of a good memoir where the author didn’t wait until the dog was gone to write it! 😉

  9. I loved the book for the candid writing style, the author’s fight with inner demons, how she described and embodied the harshness of Australian outback culture. I disliked it because of how the animals were treated. She was warned by the family at her last stop that poison baits were set out, yet made the poor decision to cut Diggity – the dog – rations. And that became fatal. Loosing a dog before to poison baits – before she embarked on the trip at all, left me baffled how you could make the same mistake twice.
    The treatment of the camels is so sickening I had to put the book down multiple times. And then there was the shooting of the wild bull camels, which first came to a halt when the gun jammed and the author discovered she could scare them off just as well. Of course it was written in another time.
    But I was expecting the end. On reaching the coast, the camels where left behind without a blink and the author went off to a new life … Let’s face it, the author choose camels because she couldn’t afford a 4-wheel drive.
    Still a great read though!

  10. Neither of my dogs would be up for a strenuous adventure like that. I think if I had a smaller dog I would consider taking him/her bike touring with me, but I don’t think I’d ever put myself in the situation that would be life threatening anyway! I thought all Australians were well aware of the problems with baits – they are pretty much everywhere. Station owners bait, the Dept of Environmental Protection baits, if you aint watching a dog it needs to be tethered.


  1. […] Read more about his book and the animals in it at Something Wagging This Way Comes. […]