Wednesday 1 October 2014

Lone crusader: Robyn Davidson's epic desert trek

Her epic desert trek inspired articles, songs and film. Stephen Milton talks to Robyn Davidson about life after the great escape

Rick Smolan and Robyn Davidson today
Rick Smolan and Robyn Davidson today
Robyn Davidson.
Robyn Davidson.
Rick and Robyn as played by Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver.
Rick and Robyn as played by Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver.

As Robyn Davidson immersed herself in the warm blue of the Indian Ocean, ecstatic stupor was matched — and then quickly consumed — by a sense of crippling fear.

While soothing waters cleansed away the grime and dogged clay of a nine-month, lone camel trek across the deserts of Western Australia, she realised the adventure was over — and that the real world beckoned.

“I remember feeling real joy about being there,” Robyn recalls of her incredible odyssey in 1977 — 2,700km from the edges of Alice Springs to the coast of Shark Bay.

“But at that moment, floating and splashing, with the camels delightedly suspicious of the water trickling at their feet, I had a sense of what was approaching me: this threatening tidal wave.

“Anxiety for the future. Terrible anxiety about saying goodbye to the animals. The big world. I was quite raw.

“And part of me just thought, ‘I’ll ignore all that, just turn around and head straight back'. I realised then that if it’s difficult going into the desert, it’s even more difficult leaving it.”

Captivation endures over the reasoning behind her extraordinary journey. Why did a 26-year-old from a cattle station in Queensland traverse, on foot, from the edge of brittle civilisation, past the splendour of Uluru, and halfway across the continent through the unforgiving expanse of the Gibson Desert?

And all this alone, with just four camels, Dookie, Bub, Zeleika and Goliath, and her black dog, Diggity, for companionship.

Inspiration surely came from her father, who explored the Kalahari as a young man, killing crocodiles and prospecting for gold and diamonds in the inter-war years. He would later describe the experience as “the happiest time of his life”.

As the big screen version of Robyn’s story hits cinemas this weekend, has she found a way to express her motive beyond a simple “Why not?”

She stares at me with wide eyes, blinking quizzically and smiling warmly. “I don’t want to be obstructive or mysterious about it,” she says. “I truly don’t think there’s a simple ‘why’.

“The answer to why is so enormous, it’s pointless to even go there. That trip formed my life. It was such a good thing to do in so many ways, and I actually wonder what stops people doing something extraordinary with their lives.

“You learn so much about yourself. You learn that you have capabilities and strength you never knew were there.”

The makers of the film, which stars Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, felt it necessary to offer their own interpretation on the why, punctuating it with shattered memories of the moments leading up to and proceeding the suicide of Davidson’s mother, Gwen, when she was only 11.

This was the only bone of contention between the otherwise contented author and director John Curran.

“I adamantly didn’t want him to keep referring to that death,” Robyn explains without rancour.

In the 18 months prior to her journey, living in the then misogynised environs of the rural township Alice Springs, where she learned to handle and care for the camels before using them, Robyn realised sponsorship was necessary.

Reluctantly, she sold the trip to ‘National Geographic' for $4,000, writing it up as an article to accompany the stunning photography of Rick Smolan, who interrupted her voyage on several occasions.

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