Sophie Matterson was barely 30 when she felt the path of her future had been laid firmly before her.

“I was at that point where kids and settling down was imminent,” she said. 

“I wanted to go on a big adventure before any of that happened. I felt like I hadn’t tested myself.”

Drawn home to the Australian outback after travelling abroad, Sophie drastically changed the direction of her life.

While the world was locking down in 2020, Sophie prepared to set out on the biggest adventure of her life: trekking 4,750 kilometres from Western Australia’s Shark Bay to NSW’s Byron Bay with a caravan of wild camels bought and trained from a station near Uluru.

In the company of camels Jude, Delilah, Charlie, Clayton and Mac, Sophie set out for a 13-month crossing. 

Time slowed. The fences guarding her thoughts and memories were stripped down. Step by step. 

“All of a sudden all these deep memories come up from who knows where. The ones that you just haven’t had time to think about,” she said.  

There were often no roads. No fences. No people. 

Just thoughts under a blue canvas sky draped over the morphing warm tones of the vast desert landscape. 

But Sophie never felt lonely.

“I walked with five camels across Australia,” she said. “I wasn’t alone.”

Sophie’s camel caravan in the Flinders Ranges. (ABC: Erin Somerville)
Sophie’s camels Delilah and Clayton(ABC: Erin Somerville)
Clayton and the rest of the caravan ensured Sophie was never alone on her walk across Australia.(ABC: Erin Somerville)

Sophie’s story echoes that of Robyn Davidson, beloved for decades by Australians and adventurers around the world. 

In 1977, Robyn travelled alone on foot from central Australia to the Indian Ocean with her dog Diggity and four camels Dookie, Bub, Zeleika and Goliath. 

Robyn’s journey was famously documented in a National Geographic article published in 1978, and her own book, Tracks. 

Later, Robyn spent more than two decades living between London and India where she lived with Rajasthani politician and prince Narendra Singh Bhati, and travelled with Rabari nomads. 

Robyn Davidson in Ghanerao, Rajastan, in the 1990s.(Contact Press Images: Dilip Mehta)

Robyn and her initial journey were always an inspiration to Sophie. 

Now their tracks are finally set to cross. 

A journey across generations

A smattering of saltbush appears on the rusty South Australian landscape. 

It sparks an awakening in Robyn.

“I’m coming home. I’m coming home,” she chirps warmly, rolling down the car window to catch the fresh sunset-stained air.

Rich red hues seep into the earth sandwiching the black tar road. The giant shadows of the Flinders Ranges jut intimidatingly ahead.   

Robyn is on her way to a remote station down a dusty track from sleepy Leigh Creek where Sophie keeps her beloved camels.

The women plan to spend two days together. Time to share knowledge and love of camels, learn about each other’s unique journeys and find themselves at home in the outback.

Robyn acknowledges her very personal journey has become a kind of nomadic legend, inspiring women decades on.

Yet, there’s a sadness when she meets today’s adventurers. 

Robyn mourns the loss of a time when it was possible to truly get lost. 

“When I went across, there were no satellite phones. It wasn’t a digital universe,” she said.

“I wanted to disappear. That was the point. I wanted to be underneath any radar. 

“Now, it’s almost that you’ll be thought badly of if you don’t share every second of your life with everyone on the planet. 

“One day it’s going to be illegal to get lost.”

Too many tracks

Technology isn’t the only outsider encroaching on this land.  

Robyn notices feral goat tracks now cut the tops of hills around the northern Flinders Ranges, invasive plants have edged in, and the tread of four-wheel-drive vehicles tattoo the delicate earth. 

Feral camel numbers are exploding with serious impact on native vegetation.

It’s painful for Robyn, who thinks of the desert as delicate rather than desolate. 

“One of the reasons I find it difficult to go back there is that it’s pretty much blanketed in an introduced grass,” she said of returning to central Australia. 

“Buffel grass was brought in as drought tucker for cattle, and it has just suffocated that landscape. 

“It’s so symbolic of what settlement has done.”

Carving new tracks

Sophie was careful to ensure her path diverged from Robyn’s.

Her story became one of unexpected love when she met Jimmy, a sparky baker in the tiny South Australian town of Copley. 

Jimmy became one of Sophie’s biggest cheerleaders and drove  hundreds of kilometres to support her with goods and encouragement.

While Jimmy also fell for the camels, Sophie ensured it was a journey that remained hers. 

“I didn’t do my journey to emulate your journey,” she tells Robyn, after spending a night camping in a dry creek bed under the sparkling South Australian sky sharing stories. 

“I think we both did our journeys for our own reasons. They were personal journeys.”

Robyn and Sophie saddled up Sophie’s camels for a reunion in the Flinders Ranges, pictured here with Delilah. Clayton waits in the background.(ABC: Erin Somerville)
Sophie and her camels. (ABC: Erin Somerville)
Robyn and Sophie enjoy a morning cup of tea at their campsite.(ABC: Erin Somerville)
Sophie’s camel Delilah and Robyn.(ABC: Erin Somerville)

“It’s also very brave of Robyn to do it back then because if things went wrong, there was less likelihood of getting help out there. 

“I so hoped to do a trip in the way Robyn had done it without the modern world encroaching.”

A keen photographer, Sophie decided to lean into social media. 

Sophie relished snapping photos in the magical desert light, capturing deserted landscapes and documenting her camels’ antics.

But her growing social media identity was sometimes an intrusion. 

“The ironic thing is you spend all your time sitting behind a phone,” she said.

The messages of kindness would flood in, with women telling her how her journey had inspired them. 

“You want to be nice and reply to them, but in doing so much of that, you’re not present on the adventure itself.

“It takes away from the very thing they are admiring.”

Sophie also worries the idea of adventure is becoming toxic.

“Almost everyone’s trying to outdo each other,” she said. 

“Right when I walked across Australia, there was a guy who ran across Australia. 

“There are always people out there doing bigger and bigger things.” 

Changing tracks

More than 40 years after Tracks was written, Robyn Davidson has now published her long-awaited memoir.

Unfinished Woman tackles the difficult terrain of family tragedy and suicide. The memoir is a chance for people to know Robyn beyond the ‘camel lady’ persona.

“I felt slightly suffocated by it, I suppose, or misunderstood, misread, misrepresented. 

“But now I think there’s worse things to be known for.” 

Still walking

Robyn still loves walking. The rhythm of connecting with the landscape, even far from the desert, never fails to work a little magic. 

“If I go for a walk, sometimes it just seems to ease the thinking,” she said. 

Robyn is relieved to have now finally written her life story, but says her journey is far from over. 

“My idea of home is being at home in oneself,” she said. 

“That’s really the only home any of us can have.”

Stream this ABC Compass episode, Modern Day Nomad with Robyn Davidson on ABC iview.


  • Story: Erin Somerville
  • Digital Producer: Julia O’Shea 
  • Videos and images: Justine Kerrigan and Erin Somerville
  • Edit Assist: Thomas Roberts