Throughout Robyn Davidson’s story of her trek across the Australian desert, she grapples with the idea of chaos and its role in her journey. At first, Davidson views chaos as a frightening threat—an indication that she is losing control over herself and her story. However, as her journey continues, Davidson begins to see that her fixation on structure and organization is a function of societal conditioning. Through her time in the desert, she learns that seemingly chaotic events and environments are not actually threats to order; rather, they are their own kind of order, one that can be more joyful and comforting than she had ever guessed. The overwhelming natural order of the desert shows Davidson the inherent weakness of man-made social order, demonstrating how apparent chaos may actually disguise true peace.
When she first arrives in Alice Springs to begin preparing for her journey, Davidson devotes herself to creating some kind of order out of the chaotic civilization she finds there. Though she is largely unprepared for her trip, she knows that she will have to organize her skills, knowledge, and resources in order to undertake it. However, this process of making order out of chaos turns out to be an agonizing one. Through the trial and error of making friends and finding ways to learn about camels, Davidson goes through a painful process of finding a sense of belonging in Alice Springs. Davidson writes that this period is “infinitely harder” than she expected, and she often becomes depressed as she attempts to organize her elaborate, drawn-out preparations for the trip. Davidson’s experiences learning about and training camels underscore how wrenching it can be to impose order on something essentially wild. Kurt—Davidson’s cruel employer—demonstrates that training camels requires beating them frequently, and he subjects even Davidson herself to rigid, sometimes arbitrary rules. Even when Davidson moves on to work with the more reasonable Sallay Mahomet, she still lives “in an almost permanent state of fear” while learning to control camels. Yet despite the pain along the way, Davidson’s rigorous preparations and training do eventually help her get ready for her trek. Nonetheless, she notes before departing for the first leg that all of her carefully prepared gear still looks ridiculous, and she finds that much of it quickly begins to break and lose the order she so rigorously imposed on it. While Davidson’s tenacity in marshalling her resources does pay off, the trip itself almost immediately begins to demonstrate the limitations of all her planning and organization.
During the first phases of Davidson’s journey, she remains anxiously devoted to schedules, timetables, and rigid ideas of how the trip should go. However, as the trip progresses, she begins to see that her tendency to cling to structure is limiting her ability to truly immerse herself in the unpredictability of her journey. Davidson notes that she remains reliant on her clock and ideas about time even when doing so has no real purpose and causes her only stress. She notes that she will often “steal furtive glances” at the clock and calls the schedules she invents “absurd arbitrary structures,” but nonetheless is “afraid of something like chaos.” Similarly, she relies heavily on maps at first, only to find that many of them are inaccurate or out-of-date. Seeing landscapes that differ from what her map tells her to expect makes Davidson doubt her own senses and even her sanity at times, again showing how clinging to external ideas of order can make even the perfectly normal natural world seem nonsensical. Later in the trip, Davidson relies more and more on her understanding of the world around her, until one day she impulsively takes off her clothes and rolls joyfully in the desert dust with her camels and dog. Immediately afterward, she leaves her clock behind on a stump, calling it an “insidious little instrument” and noting that “the desert refused to structure itself.” By this point, the desert offers Davidson a kind of sanity that all her structures and schedules do not.
By the time her trip concludes, outward disorder has come to seem more comfortable and harmonious to Davidson than the typical structures of civilized life, which she now views as oppressive and unsettling. Though the desert is still dangerous, Davidson comes to understand its nuances and see that its seeming chaos hides peace and stability. After exploring a particularly varied and surprising stretch of desert, she writes that she has finally succeeded in setting aside a fixation on safety in which “life is, after all, just ‘getting by,’ and where we survive, half asleep.” Even after the death of her beloved dog Diggity underscores how perilous the desert is, Davidson nonetheless embraces wildness, using a chaotic dance as a way to process her pain and move on with life. Notably, Diggity’s death is due to a poison bait set by humans to kill dingoes, which hints at how even the dangers of the desert are often indirectly due to human attempts at control. Whereas similarly distressing circumstances earlier in the book caused Davidson to sink into depression, her new ability to surrender control of her circumstances now gives her the power to rise above them.
When Davidson finally does complete her trip and leave the desert, she is overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and people of the city. To her, the nonsensical rules of so-called civilization feel unbearable, while she longs for what she perceives as the simplicity and peace of the desert. Upon this conclusion, the roles of chaos and order have fully reversed, with the seemingly chaotic desert signifying peace and the seemingly ordered city signifying misery.
Chaos vs. Order ThemeTracker
Chaos vs. Order Quotes in Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback
To enter that country is to be choked with dust, suffocated by waves of thrumming heat, and driven to distraction by the ubiquitous Australian fly; it is to be amazed by space and humbled by the most ancient, bony, awesome landscape on the face of the earth. It is to discover the continent’s mythical crucible, the great outback, the never-never, that decrepit desert land of infinite blue air and limitless power. It seems ridiculous now, to talk of my growing sense of freedom given the feudal situation I was living in, but anything could be mended, anything forgotten, any doubt withstood during a walk through those timeless boulders, or down that glittering river-bed in the moonlight.
I wandered and roamed through my domain, my private space, smelling its essence, accepting its claim on me and incorporating every dust mote, every spider’s web into an orgy of possessive bliss. This sprawling, tattered old stone ruin…this was my first home, where I felt such a sense of relief and belonging that I needed nothing and no one.
So it was little wonder that children did not want to experience this totally alien and threatening environment. It taught them nothing they needed to know since the only job they were likely to get was itinerant station work, which did not require the ability to read or write. Little wonder that they were termed hopeless, unable to learn, sow’s ears. “Ah yes,” the whites shook their heads in sadness, “it’s in the blood. They’ll never be assimilated.”
I was basically a dreadful coward, I knew that about myself. The only possible way I could overcome this was to trick myself with that other self, who lived in dream and fantasy and who was annoyingly lackadaisical and unpractical. All passion, no sense, no order, no instinct for self-preservation. That’s what I had done, and now that cowardly self had discovered an unburnt bridge by which to return to the past.
I made lists of lists of lists, then started all over again. And if I did something that wasn’t on a list, I would promptly write it on one and cross it out, with the feeling of having at least accomplished something. I walked in my sleep into Jenny and Toly’s room one night and asked them if they thought everything was going to be all right.
I began right then and there to split into two over Rick. On the one hand I saw him as a blood-sucking little creep who had inveigled his way into my life by being nice and by tempting me with material things. On the other hand I was confronted with a very warm, gentle human being who genuinely wanted to help me and who was excited by the prospect of an adventure, who wanted to do a good job, and who cared.
Sometimes you can see where a track is by the tell-tale blossoms of wildflowers. Those along the track will either be growing more thickly or be of a different type. Sometimes, you may be able to follow the trail by searching for the ridge left aeons ago by a bulldozer. The track may wind around or over hills and ridges and rocky outcroppings, straight into sand dunes, get swallowed up by sandy creek-beds, get totally lost in stony creek-beds, or fray into a maze of animal pads. Following tracks is most often easy; sometimes frustrating, and occasionally downright terrifying.
I had a clock which I told myself was for navigation purposes only, but at which I stole furtive glances from time to time. It played tricks on me. In the heat of the afternoon, when I was tired, aching, and miserable, the clock would not move, hours elapsed between ticks and tocks. I recognized the need for absurd arbitrary structures at that stage. I did not know why, but I knew I was afraid of something like chaos. It was as if it were waiting for me to let down my guard and then it would pounce.
Some camps on those nights were so desolate they stole into my soul, and I longed for a safe nook out of that chill empty wind. I felt vulnerable. Moonlight turned the shadows into inimical forms and I was so glad of Diggity’s warmth as we snuggled beneath the blankets that I could have squeezed her to death. The rituals I performed provided another necessary structure. Everything was done correctly and obsessionally. Before I went to bed, everything was placed exactly where I wanted it for the morning.
The fire flickered on white moonstruck sand, the sky was black onyx. The rumbling sound of bulls circled the camp very close until I fell asleep. In the moonlight, I woke up and maybe twenty yards away was a beast standing in full profile. I loved it and didn't want to harm it. It was beautiful, proud. Not interested in me at all. I slept again, drifting off to the sound of bells on camels, peacefully chewing their cud.
I was being torn by two different time concepts. I knew which one made sense, but the other one was fighting hard for survival. Structure, regimentation, orderedness. Which had absolutely nothing to do with anything. I kept thinking wryly to myself, “Christ, if this keeps up it will take us months to get there. So what? Is this a marathon or what? This is going to be the best part of your trip, having Eddie with you, so stretch it out, idiot, stretch it out. But but…what about routine?” and so on. The turmoil lasted all that day, but gradually faded as I relaxed into Eddie’s time. He was teaching me something about flow, about choosing the right moment for everything, about enjoying the present. I let him take over.
And as I walked through that country, I was becoming involved with it in a most intense and yet not fully conscious way. The motions and patterns and connections of things became apparent on a gut level. I didn’t just see the animal tracks, I knew them. I didn’t just see the bird, I knew it in relationship to its actions and effects. My environment began to teach me about itself without my full awareness of the process. It became an animate being of which I was a part.
And I thought I had done it. I believed I had generated a magic for myself that had nothing to do with coincidence, believed I was part of a strange and powerful sequence of events called fate and I was beyond the need for anything or anyone. And that night I received the most profound and cruel lesson of all. That death is sudden and final and comes from nowhere. It had waited for my moment of supreme complacency and then it had struck. Late that night, Diggity took a poison bait.
I danced until I could dance no more—I danced out everything. Diggity, the trip, Rick, the article, the whole lot. I shouted and howled and wept and I leapt and contorted my body until it refused to respond anymore. I crawled back to the camels, covered in grime and sweat, shaking with fatigue, dust in my ears and nose and mouth, and slept for about an hour. When I woke, I felt healed, and weightless, and prepared for anything.
I had pared my possessions down to almost nothing—a survival kit, that’s all. I had a filthy sarong for hot weather and a jumper and woolly socks for cold weather and I had something to sleep on and something to eat and drink out of and that was all I needed. I felt free and untrammeled and light and I wanted to stay that way. If I could only just hold on to it. I didn’t want to get caught up in the madness out there. Poor fool, I really believed all that crap. I was forgetting that what’s true in one place is not necessarily true in another.