In The Last Wild Men of Borneo, author Carl Hoffman tells the stories of two Westerners who spent their lives in Borneo during the 1970s and 1980s, when it was still largely wild and unexplored. Their personal journies are very different, but they both become embroiled in the changing nature of this beautiful land where orangutans roamed the jungles and tribes of native Borneans lived their lives as the had done for hundreds of years, unexposed to the outside world.
In the early 1970s, Robyn Davidson decided that she wanted to get some camels and make a huge trek across the great Australian desert. She makes her way to Alice Springs, then a rough frontier town in the Aussie Outback, in 1975 with her dog Diggity and no money or knowledge about camels.
The first night she arrived in Alice Springs in 1975, an Aboriginal man was found in a gutter painted white. The Ku Klux Klan was making its presence felt, and — against the backdrop of the battle for land rights — the town was seething with racial tensions and resentments that were never far from the surface. She soon becomes acutely aware of the racism and sexism that abounds in the community. These experiences set her on a lifelong mission of defending the rights of aboriginal peoples around the world.
Davidson got a job as a barmaid at the local pub, where she was labelled the town’s “next rape case”. Soon thereafter, Davidson goes to meet the first camel-man, Sallay Mahomet. Sallay is confident working with the animals, but he sees how unprepared Davidson is for her trek and refuses to work with her.
Davidson meets Gladdy, who runs a camel ranch with her husband, Kurt. Davidson is impressed by the property and quickly takes a liking to Gladdy, but does not meet Kurt at first. Gladdy says that she doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the “blacks” in town, which pleases Davidson. The next day, Davidson meets Kurt, who turns out to be a harsh, domineering German man with perfect control of his camels. He agrees to allow her to work as an apprentice for eight months in exchange for a one-eyed camel to take on her trip. Although she suspects that Kurt is ripping her off, Davidson works for him for some time, cleaning up after the camels and keeping the farm organized. Kurt proves to be volatile, but Davidson stays because she admires his work with the camels, who, she quickly learns, are very intelligent and affectionate when trained correctly. Not surprisingly things go horribly wrong and Kurt and Davidson part ways – but she has acquired her first two camels. To her surprise, she is offered work by Sallay in exchange for two camels.
After nearly two years of gruelling work, Davidson has her four camels and enough knowledge of these amazing beasts to contemplate her dream of travelling 1700 miles across the deserts of Australia …
I enjoyed this book immensely. Robyn Davidson is a wonderful storyteller; her writing is full of passion, boundless compassion, inciteful vision and no end of humour. She has you willing her on right from the outset. You also end up getting to know the characters of the camels so they become your friends too.
Her journey is hard, walking almost the entire way, the camels being used primarily as pack carriers, across some of the most inhospitable lands on the planet. Along the way, she has numerous challenges with snakes and wild camels – but the things that almost bring her to her knees are uncertainties that come with being alone for such a long time and other people (of the non-aboriginal kind). Eventually, she comes to cherish her time alone and it becomes a strength.
There are many interesting insights I took from this book and I know that her adventures have been a catalyst and inspiration for several women adventurers