That’s the ultimate difficulty don’t you think? Between living your life and narrating your life?
How can you avoid making it into a story?
Exactly. And really, I didn’t have a clue about anything. I just went along with things. I got by on instinct. But we did look after each other. People lived on the edge a lot but you could always go and crash somewhere. There was a sense of generosity and openness. There was an extraordinary closeness. We sort of psychologically looked after each other.
Were there lots of drugs?
Yeah, quite a lot. Dope and acid mainly.
Acid’s good isn’t it?
Oh yes! Do you know I still get flashes? Suddenly I’ll look at a wall and it would look sort of marshmallowy and I’ll think, ‘Uh oh.’ A sort of sudden unease that I recognise from when acid starts to happen and everything goes most strange.
I don’t think that door ever closes once you’ve opened it.
I think drugs are potentially very harmful to people, the truth is drugs do make some people terribly paranoid but for myself, I think they simply helped me understand that there are other ways of thinking and being. I often think is there a link between depression and what I’ve done to my brain—and it may be but it seems to me a too deterministic way of looking at things and ultimately it’s what you do with it and make of it.
You’re often referred to as ‘the camel lady’.
Yes. It’s very tedious. I hate being associated with them all the time. But I have to say I do think they are extraordinary animals. They’re so intelligent, and affectionate, and funny. But, you have to be on top of them. You can’t let them get away with too much.
I guess Tracks is it a bit like a band’s hit song, in the sense that their fans will hound them to play it for the rest of their lives?
That’s exactly what it’s like. I’m still the desert lady, but I’m so urban you wouldn’t believe. I can’t live without my coffee.
But it was extraordinary what you did… Twenty-seven years old, four camels and a dog, setting off across the desert. I’m sorry. I want you to play that song! How did you prepare? How do you train a camel?
I arrived in Alice Springs with no money. I got a job in a local pub, and Alice in those days was pretty rough. In those days, it was pretty blatant, clear where the lines were. There were two pubs, one mixed-grill shop and 14,000 people. Land rights had just come in. I remember the first night, a white bloke had been found dead in a caravan park with a huge lump of mulga shoved up his arse! And a black guy was found dead in the street with white paint all over him—
You mean ceremonial paint?
No, no. House paint. White house paint. I worked in this pub. I was too nice to these poor blokes who came in, and I’d pat their hands across the bar.
I know! Stu-pid. And again, I had that sense of being invisible. Just not realising what’s one’s affect is. I went back to my hideous little room one night and there was a huge turd on my pillow.
What kind of message is that?
I don’t know! It makes you think they don’t like us. Anyway, I resigned and went to work for this mad Austrian bloke [Kurt] who was trying to set up camel tours. He was profoundly eccentric. Mad, actually. He had these big pale blue Austrian eyes, a beard, and a big white turban, all this Arabian gear. And he built this Austrian chalet about five, three, miles out of Alice Springs.
A chalet in the desert? An Austrian Arabian?!
Yes! He had about 5 camels and he said, ‘Ja, you will work for me, for one year and then you will take the pick of the camels and off you will go, but I will pay you nothing.’
So I said, ‘Oh alright.’ I started from bottom up. The first job he had me doing was pick up all their shit in a dustpan and if it wasn’t done to the last skerrick he’d have a fit, and he’d follow me around, yelling ‘There’s still a piece here!’ I suppose it was a kind of apprenticeship and it did me a lot of good. I was pushed into the deep end, there was no time to be afraid of the animals, I learnt a lot. It was incredible really. He trained me, in the same way he trained the camels. I ended up racing the young camels, bareback, down the creek bed. Just holding on to the hump, behind the hump like this—and your legs just holding on to nothing. Then you go ‘hey!’ and off we’d go. Imagine how strong I was!
You were wild!
I was. But I was more afraid of Kurt. Of course, he dipped out on the deal and ripped me off terribly. He didn’t pay me and he didn’t give me any camels at the end.
Have you ever found out what happened to him?
No one knows. He vanished. He disappeared. In a puff of smoke. Nobody knows what happened to him. But I managed to get my four camels and after a lot of preparation, I set off.