Robyn Davidson (young, female, coast-bred) turns up in Alice Springs, two-bit hub of the Australian outback, with a dog, six dollars, the wrong clothes, and ""a maniac idea""--to get hold of three wild camels, train them, and cross the western desert. A compulsion to test herself, really. And be with the Aborigines. Racist, misogynist, tourist-fleecing Alice Springs sees her as a threat. Robyn, working in a pub, living in ""a draughty cement pigeon-hole"" in back, is warned by ""one of the kinder regulars"" that she's been nominated ""as the town's next rape case."" Dour camel-trainer Kurt, with whom she thinks she's struck a bargain--eight months labor for three beasts--keeps her in feudal bondage, steps up the pressure with ""countless little cruelties,"" never intends to make good. When two camels do come her way through an act of charity, one gets blood poisoning--from ""a simple cuff""--and Robyn has to shoot her. ""All that time and all that money and all that energy, devotion and care, for nothing."" But she learns, meanwhile, how to handle the camels (much more difficult--given their intelligence!--than you might imagine) and how to handle Alice Springs--with like ""meanness"" (the outpost mentality, easily acquired). Then, the camels finally in hand, finally trained and outfitted, she needs money for supplies; and for four thousand dollars from the National Geographic, ""I. . . sold a great swatch of my independence and most of the trip's integrity."" In a sense, of course, this book is an attempt, through candor, to make amends. Still, its second half runs largely on the tensions generated by the sellout (not, however, without some help from the camels, the scenery, the mishaps, and Robyn's writerly capacity to talk--believably--to herself). She acquires the intermittent, encroaching company of world-class photographer Rick Smolan; they quarrel, make up, quarrel, have sex, become more tolerant of one another, become better persons. . . and, as a twosome, become (inescapably, perhaps) a bore. More important, Rick's picture-taking antagonizes the Aborigines, and costs Robyn their confidence, while her own ""camel lady"" celebrity brings them other unwanted, demeaning attention. But Robyn is there to see it--and her observations have a keenness that any sincere attempt to ""enter into their reality"" would inevitably lack. The condition of the Aborigines, many met as individuals, is the book's strong, unsentimental subtext. An unusual work--not as travel or adventure but for the total, personal experience, met head on.