Thursday 23 November 2017

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 arrives at Hamelin Pool, Shark Bay, in late 1977. Picture: Rick Smolan.
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.

“My argument was, it was much too deterministic. I don’t think the trip had anything to do with my mother’s death, except in the largest, grandest sense, as in my whole life has had to do with that death.

“It also indicates that for a woman to do anything extraordinary, she has to be a bit crazy and working something out. Had I been a bloke, that question wouldn’t have been asked. Or it would have been asked in a different way.”

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.

The disturbance enraged Davidson, but a tenuous, tempestuous understanding was forged among the reeds of a fleeting romance during the journey.

Both the book and film largely eschew the relentless desert environment and the flora and fauna not conducive to human contact, focusing instead on the effects of devout solitude and isolation.

Robyn, 63, explains why. “I think the Australian landscapes are extremely benign,” she says. “The animals, the snakes and spiders — if you know what they are and you know what they can do, you just brush them aside.

“Now, being in the Himalayas, that |is a dangerous landscape. There are leopards that come out at night, and if you come across a bear, that’s when you’re in deep s***.”

From the deserts to the snow-capped peaks, Robyn has led a nomadic existence for the past four decades. Her accidental career as a travel author produced books such as ‘Travelling Light' and ‘Desert Places: Pastoral Nomads in India'. They came after the unprecedented success of the ‘National Geographic’ article.

Following syndication to more than 90 magazines around the world, Robyn became a hunted celebrity — the internationally renowned ‘Camel Lady’.

Writing a book, she felt, would silence the masses. “I thought it would throw the dogs a bone,” she says, “[and that] they would focus on the bone and leave me alone. That didn’t work.”

Two years after crossing the dunes towards the Indian Ocean, she found |herself in London, writing her account in the granny flat of the now late author Doris Lessing, who became a friend and confidante shortly after her journey.

The first sentence of the epigraph in ‘Tracks', chosen from Lessing’s ‘The Golden Notebook', reads: “Anna knew she had to cross the desert.” It points to Lessing's influence on Davidson, both before the journey and while writing the book.

“I read ‘The Golden Notebook' before heading into the desert,” Robyn says. “And it’s a terrible thing to admit, but even though I was a feminist, I hadn’t read Doris because she was a woman.

“I already knew how women thought. I needed to know how men think because they run the world.

“And then I started reading her books and was just blown away by them. And we subsequently became great friends.”

While the essence of her journey was a longing for solitude and a disconnection from the whirr of societal interaction, there have been several significant relationships throughout Robyn’s life.

They include a three-year union with Salman Rushdie (many claiming her muse-like presence among the pages of ‘The Satanic Verses') and with Rajasthan politician and statesman Narendra Singh Bhati, who died in 2010 and with whom she shared a home in the foothills of the Himalayas.

An enduring close friendship with the actress Julie Christie came shortly after her journey, and the pair travelled around Northern Ireland 20 years ago while the Oscar-winner was shooting ‘The Secret Life of Words', in the region.

“We enjoyed the charm of the people and the lovely wild quality to it (Northern Ireland),” Robyn says. “It was wonderful.”

What did the shy and low-key author make of musician and lyricist Mick Hanly’s eulogising ode, ‘Crusader', recorded by Mary Black in the early 1980s?

She says: “I’d completely forgotten about it until just now. I remember hearing that happening and was blown away by it. What a true honour.”

After recently purchasing a home in Melbourne, Davidson is looking forward to putting down roots after so many |years on the move.

“It’s pretty much my first home, so I’m anticipating with glee the prospect of being still,” she says. “I haven’t stopped moving for the last 40 years.”

While remaining in one place, what advice would she give to those inspired |by her remarkable experiences and yearning to follow in her footsteps?

“It’s getting more difficult to unplug,” she offers. “For any young person to do what I did, in the way that I did it, would be thought bizarre.

“But in your mind and your spirit, if that’s what they are looking for, everyone can experience the same as I did.

“And I believe there are times when people must go off on their own. It’s to the detriment of society that most of us won’t see what happens in solitude.

“In every culture, there has always been this testing time, when a person is alone, in some way or other.

“We don’t do that anymore and I think that’s a great loss. I think it’s sort of fundamental to us as a species.”

  • 'Tracks' is in cinemas this weekend

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