The narrator, a young Australian woman named Robyn Davidson, arrives in the small outback town of Alice Springs with her dog Diggity, a small suitcase, and six dollars. Although she has none of the necessary skills or experience, Davidson plans to find and train a group of camels that she can take with her on a trek across the desert. Davidson finds that anti-Aboriginal racism is rampant in Alice Springs, though she herself doesn’t believe that the Aboriginal people are menacing and unintelligent as everyone says.
Davidson takes a job at the local pub and begins living there. She quickly gets some information about the local men who might be able to help her get camels, but the first one she meets, Sallay Mahomet, turns her away when he sees how inexperienced she is. The third man, Kurt, keeps a meticulous ranch and agrees to let Davidson train with him in exchange for selling her a camel cheaply. Davidson accepts the deal and, although Kurt’s abusive and cruel nature quickly becomes clear, she learns a great deal about handling and training camels under his guidance. She also becomes friends with Kurt’s kind wife Gladdy. Soon thereafter, however, Davidson realizes that she can’t stand Kurt’s domineering treatment and quits, returning to her job at the pub.
Davidson gets more familiar with the abhorrent racism and sexism of Alice Springs. Kurt tries to convince Davidson to return to his ranch and, after she finds feces on her pillow, she agrees to go back. This time, Kurt and Davidson get along somewhat better, and she loves getting to know each of the camels and their individual personalities. As time goes on, Davidson becomes friends with a group of people who live nearby in an old house. She relies on her new friends for support as Kurt continues treat her cruelly. One day, Davidson again snaps at Kurt and quits her job. Although she is initially horrified at how much time she has lost without making progress toward getting camels, she is happily surprised when Sallay Mahomet offers her a job and promises to give her two camels in exchange for a few months’ work. With Sallay, she learns much more about camels and gains hope for her trip’s success. However, as the one-year anniversary of her move to Alice Springs approaches, Davidson feels unsure of whether she should continue with such a difficult mission. She goes back to Queensland to visit an old friend, who convinces her that the trip is worthwhile.
Back in Alice Springs, Davidson chooses her two camels from Sallay, selecting a young female named Zeleika and an older female named Kate. Her friends move away and leave her the house to live in until they’re able to sell it, so she settles happily into the routines of living alone. Davidson also meets a neighbor named Ada Baxter, a kind Aboriginal woman with whom Davidson develops a close bond. Davidson also meets two young people, Jenny and Toly, who are involved with Aboriginal rights and become her close friends. Though she is happy to have supportive friends, Davidson begins to feel despondent again, in part because she still has to work with Kurt sometimes. Through Gladdy, she also gets to know some local Aboriginal children and is depressed by the racist oppression they face. One child, Clivie, ends up getting sent to a reform school despite being smart and capable, and Davidson reflects that the schools and other local systems are totally unequipped to support the Aboriginal communities.
Meanwhile, Davidson worries that she may never actually leave for her trip. Kate has a large wound that has become infected, and though Davidson works with the local vets to treat it, it gets worse. One day, Sallay comes to visit and tells Davidson that Zeleika looks pregnant. Even as she looks forward to the baby camel’s birth, Davidson also sees that Kate will not be able to recover. She shoots Kate to put her out of her misery. Davidson grows more and more depressed, both because of Kate’s death and because of her ongoing fear of Kurt. One night, she even contemplates suicide, but snaps out of it with Gladdy’s help. Gladdy soon leaves Kurt and moves away. Davidson is then even more afraid of Kurt, who now seems completely insane. Suddenly, Kurt leaves, having sold the ranch to some strangers who expect Davidson to help with the camels. As she is showing them how to take care of the camels, a normally sweet young bull named Dookie attacks Davidson and she is barely able to subdue him. Frightened, the new owners sell her Dookie and another bull, Bub, for a cheap price. Davidson is delighted to finally have the three camels she needs for her trip.
Davidson continues to prepare while enjoying her friends. She gets to know her camels better and practices tracking them when they wander away. Then one morning, the camels wander so far that Davidson can’t find them. When she finally does, she takes it as a sign that the trip really is meant to happen. Soon thereafter, Davidson meets a young photographer named Rick who convinces her to ask National Geographic magazine for funding for her trip. She drunkenly writes them a letter and then forgets all about it. When Zeleika’s baby is born, Davidson names him Goliath and begins training him right away. To prepare for the journey, Davidson arranges to take a practice trek to the town of Utopia several days’ walk away. Along with Jenny and Toly, she makes the journey in terrible heat, discovering along the way how much improvement her packs and supplies need. Davidson spends several weeks in Utopia, completing the final adjustments for the real trip. She starts to worry if it’s right to want to be completely independent on her journey, noticing how much everyone else seems to be invested in it.
Meanwhile, Davidson receives word that National Geographic has accepted her proposal and flies to Sydney with Rick to finalize the contract. Though she is initially delighted, she quickly realizes that being accountable to the magazine and having Rick take pictures will corrupt the purely individual experience she had planned on. Though she feels like a sell-out, she continues with the final preparations back in Alice Springs. Davidson’s father and sister come to visit, and she sets out on the trip at last. She is overcome by the beauty of the desert and her complete solitude, only to find Rick taking pictures with his camera around the next corner.
Once Rick is gone, Davidson relishes being alone and settles into a daily routine focused on caring for the camels, managing the packs, and staying on the schedule she has set for herself. Davidson soon arrives in an Aboriginal settlement, reflecting as she does on the horrors of white colonization. She enjoys getting to know the people there and feels fortified before continuing on toward Ayers Rock, where she will meet up with Rick again. Along the way, she begins to worry about her own courage and fortitude, especially after losing her temper with Bub and beating him at one point. To cope, Davidson relies on rigid routines and schedules, treating the trip “like a nine-to-five job” and checking her clock frequently.
As she gets closer to Ayers Rock, she notices the tourists and bemoans how out of touch they are with the natural splendor of the stunning desert. She enjoys seeing the Rock, and when she meets up with Rick, is surprised to see that he’s brought Jenny along. Though she is glad of the friendly faces, she also resents their intrusion into her solitude. Seeing Rick’s photos from the start of the trip, she’s also stunned at how different they are from her own lived experience. Davidson continues onward with Rick, continuing to come into conflict with him and feeling like his pictures make her trip less authentic. The two try to work out their differences and manage to become friends. Over time, their relationship becomes sexual as well, although Davidson regrets giving him the chance to become emotionally invested in a trip that she intended to be for her alone.
As Rick and Davidson approach the town of Docker, Dookie falls and injures his leg. Davidson stays in Docker for six weeks while he heals, even flying back to Alice Springs to get veterinary advice at one point. While in Docker, Davidson also has her first experience with wild, aggressive bull camels, which she shoots and kills with help from some Aboriginal men. She’s devastated, but doesn’t know how else to protect herself. Toward the end of her stay in Docker, she attends a traditional Aboriginal dance and is delighted to feel accepted by the women there, but her happiness disappears when she’s asked to pay for participating. Davidson feels that she’ll always be on the outside of Aboriginal culture looking in. Soon after leaving, Davidson encounters another group of wild bull camels and is again forced to kill them. She continues onward in complete exhaustion, beginning to feel detached from reality. After several days of near-madness, Davidson reaches an old settlement and gets water from the mill there, feeling revived. She sees a herd of wild camels and manages to scare them away without hurting any, feeling inspired by their freedom and beauty.
As Davidson continues, she meets a group of friendly older Aboriginal men and one of them, Eddie, decides to accompany her on the two days’ walk to her next destination, Pipalyatyara. Davidson and Eddie enjoy each other’s company immensely and Davidson reflects that he seems much wiser and more stable than most white people, even though Aboriginal culture is commonly considered primitive. They soon arrive in the settlement of Pipalyatyara and meet Glendle, the white community advisor of the Aboriginal people there. Through Glendle, Davidson learns more about the immense challenges and institutionalized oppression facing Aboriginal communities. At one point, Eddie’s wife comes to visit, and Davidson is struck by how warmly and respectfully he treats her, reflecting on how women actually have a lot of authority in Aboriginal communities. Eddie decides to continue with Davidson to Warburton, 200 miles away.
As they walk, Davidson begins to let go over her previous fixation on schedules and efficiency and instead give in to Eddie’s more relaxed, intuitive relationship with time and progress. He also teaches her to notice the land around her and she feels that she gains a much deeper understanding of the order and balance of nature. Having Eddie around also makes the other Aboriginal people they meet much more open to getting to know Davidson. Throughout, Davidson is impressed by how happy and fun-loving Eddie is, even after having lived a long and difficult life. When they arrive in Warburton, they meet up with Rick, which causes tension when Eddie doesn’t want to be photographed. Glendle arrives to drive Eddie back home, and the group spends a week in Warburton, with Davidson feeling happier than she has for most of the trip.
Davidson sets off on the last major leg of her journey, during which she will spend about a month completely alone. She revels in her new understanding of the land and spends many days appreciating the landscape, which culminates in a joyful roll in a dustbowl with Diggity and the camels. Afterward, she leaves her clock behind, giving up her wish to impose order on every aspect of the trip. Davidson feels grateful for the lessons she has learned in the desert and hopes she won’t forget them when she returns to so-called civilization. She even manages to fight off a wild bull camel without hurting it. Davidson also shares some of the letters she wrote to friends during this time alone, though she never actually mailed them. The letters express boundless delight and love for the desert, despite its many hardships and dangers.
By now, Davidson feels that she has become completely uncivilized, no longer caring at all about her appearance or how to interact politely with others. She heads for a station called Glenayle, beginning to notice how some parts of the land are overgrazed or otherwise impacted by human interference. She rests for a while at Glenayle with a friendly family, then sets off for a three-week journey to the town of Wiluna, which will mark the end of the solo portion of her trip. Davidson continues to be awed by the landscapes she encounters. She realizes that she has grown immensely as a person since she set out, and feels overcome with joy at the privilege of all she’s learned.
However, just as Davidson feels that she understands her place in the world, her idyll is shattered when Diggity eats a poisoned dingo bait and Davidson is forced to shoot her. After that, Davidson continues walking in a daze. The trip becomes surreal, and she barely notices anything until she stumbles upon a peaceful oasis that she calls “an outback ampitheatre.” Davidson dances wildly there to deal with her grief, working herself into a fatigue that leaves her feeling cleansed. Almost immediately thereafter, she gets close enough to some stations that she encounters cars full of members of the press, who rush around her asking questions and taking pictures. Davidson is horrified by the attention and by the simplistic, sexist idea of her as a quirky “camel lady.”
Rick arrives and helps Davidson deal with the press and introduces her to a local man named Peter Muir who lets them stay in his house outside Wiluna. Jenny and Toly also arrive to hide out with Davidson. She also gets countless letters from strangers who heard about her journey, some strange and others encouraging. After several days in Wiluna and some time spent driving through the country to appreciate what she missed while mourning Diggity, Davidson continues on with Rick toward the town by the sea where her journey will end. The last leg goes mostly smoothly, with the two laughing at the camels’ antics and getting along well. Rick departs for a time and Davidson at last reaches the farm where some acquaintances have agreed to adopt the camels.
With help from the camels’ new owners, Davidson and the camels reach the sea at last, where Rick meets up with them again. Davidson cannot believe that the trip is really coming to an end as she watches the camels play on the beach. She spends a week at the beach with Rick, feeling blissfully contended with the results of her trip, even as she fears returning to the outside world. Finally, the camels’ new owners arrive to take them back to the farm and Davidson says emotional goodbyes to them. With Rick, Davidson goes to the town of Carnarvon, where she encounters another wave of press waiting for her. At a welcome dinner, Davidson is overcome by despair, wishing to return to the desert and feeling unable to acclimate back into day-to-day life. Thinking back, Davidson reflects that the trip was ultimately easy; the only hard part was simply learning to trust herself and take the first step.