desert

Photo Of The Day

Rick Smolan’s photo of Robyn Davidson was featured on the cover of the May 1978 issue of National Geographic.

Rick Smolan’s photo of Robyn Davidson was featured on the cover of the May 1978 issue of National Geographic.

One Woman, Four Camels and a Dog

Amazing Vintage images from 1970s of woman who walked 1,700 miles across Australia

Photographer Rick Smolan was travelling in Australia on assignment for Time magazine when he encountered an angry woman in the small town of Alice Springs.

“I was sent to do a story on Aborigines,” Smolan says. “I walked out of my hotel, and I looked up and saw Robyn washing the windows. I took some pictures and she got really pissed off and started yelling at me: ‘Put your damn cameras down!’ I went to explain what I was doing, and she said, ‘Oh, you’re American…What are you, some kind of journalistic parasite here photographing the Aborigines?’”

The woman was Robyn Davidson—the so-called “camel-lady” who undertook a 1,700-mile trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean on foot with four camels and a dog as her companions.

When Davidson embarked on her ambitious walk across the Australian Outback she didn’t think it was that big of a deal. She didn’t tell anybody why she was going, and she mostly wanted to be left alone. But she also needed money, so Smolan helped introduce her to editors at National Geographic who offered funding in exchange for her story. In turn, 28-year-old Smolan was assigned to photograph her trip for the magazine. Davidson just wished he would go away.

“She told me ‘I only want you to come out once,’ and I said ‘No, I have to come a number of times,’” says Smolan. The problem was, although Davidson had been training her camels and preparing for the trip for years, Smolan had no experience in the outback.

“I went to Alice Springs and bought way too much stuff. I was such a rube. I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t even a boy scout,” Smolan cheerfully recounted. “My friends in New York thought it was really funny that I was assigned to the outback. I was so completely clueless.”

Over Davidson’s nine-month trek, Smolan visited her five times. While she initially resisted his presence, eventually they became friends, then started a brief romance. Smolan didn’t tell his editors about the affair—the relationship would have been frowned upon. But as he continued to document Davidson’s journey he became an inextricable part of her story.

“I had to decide whether my allegiances were with her or the Geographic,” says Smolan. “Even with her fierceness there was something about her that was very vulnerable. I felt very protective of her, even though she didn’t want to be protected. Every time I left her, I wondered if it was the last time I would ever see her again. She could have died out there.”

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Photo Of The Day

Photograph by Harry Burton, Griffith Institute, Oxford.

Photograph by Harry Burton, Griffith Institute, Oxford.

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