Angel and beast
Anna knew she had to cross the desert. Over it, on the far side, were mountains - purple and orange and grey. The colours of the dream were extraordinarily beautiful and vivid ... The dream marked a change in Anna, in her knowledge of herself. In the desert she was alone, and there was no water and she was a long way from the springs. She woke knowing that if she was to cross the desert she must shed burdens.
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
IN the early hours of a morning in 1975, Robyn Davidson disembarked at a desolate Alice Springs railway station with her dog Diggity, $6, and a suitcase, as she later put it, "full of inappropriate clothes".
During the next two years, she would undergo a brutal training process in preparation for a personal mission to walk 2700km from the central Australian desert to the Indian Ocean. In early 1977, she set out with only four camels and her dog as company. Nine months later, ragged, blistered and burned black by the sun, she made it to the water's edge - and in doing so, became an international celebrity.
More than 30 years on, Davidson, 62, is riding a resurgent wave of her "queen of the desert" fame. The widely read 1980 book of her journey, Tracks, which she wrote in a dingy flat under her friend Doris Lessing's London home, was reissued a few months ago, and a $12 million film adaptation, directed by John Curran, is set to open later this year. Back then, naive and shy, she struggled with public representations of her as the quintessential romantic desert heroine. This time around she's dealing with the attention with far more equanimity. "Well, there are worse things than being called the camel lady, I suppose," she says languidly as we inch our way in a taxi through thick Sydney traffic.
It's been a busy time for the writer. She flew up early today from Melbourne for our interview; in the past month, she's flown out to film sets in South Australia's Eyre Peninsula and the Northern Territory to teach actress Mia Wasikowska, who plays her in the movie, to "smooch camels", and to shoot a cameo of herself as a crazy, Kombi-driving tourist. As our taxi slows, we pass a Persian carpet store. In one of life's little coincidences, it's guarded by a huge, haughty, stuffed camel. She stares at it, blinks, and there's a tiny, near imperceptible shake of her head. In Tracks, she wrote about a vision she had of three ghostly camels in Bedouin gear regarding her from some lemon trees; for some months afterwards, she saw camels everywhere, in swaying branches and dust patterns and drifting clouds. It's hard to know what she's thinking as she considers this shopfront fake. Her face gives nothing away.
Davidson is an enigma. With her patrician air, prim frock and cut-glass English accent (she's spent most of her life in London), it's difficult to envisage her as the young woman who killed rampaging bull camels in the Australian desert, fought off rats nestling in her hair during a hellish journey with the Rabari nomads of northwest India, became a crack shot with a Savage .222 rifle, and crossed glaciers near her home in the Himalayas. She's worked as an artist's model and dealt blackjack in an illegal gambling den, squatted in houses and taken LSD, once having an "exquisite trip where I was Titania from A Midsummer Night's Dream". Despite this big, adventurous life, she has described herself as "basically a dreadful coward".
She's whip-smart, can quote Montaigne, Levi-Strauss, Nietzsche and Novalis with the best of them, and slips easily, during our chat, from the plight of nomadic people and the slippery nature of time in a desert, to metaphysics and madness.
There's an other-wordly, ascetic air about her: she's described herself as a kungka rama-rama ("crazy woman" in Pitjantjatjara) and a "sausage of angel and beast", as Chilean poet Nicanor Parra puts it. She loves a motley collection of things - silence, deserts, crows, dogs, stars (she can roll the latter off her tongue: Aldebaran, Sirius, Corvus ... ). I'm struck by her face, all serene planes and curves and wide Slavic cheekbones; at 62, it remains a miracle of excellent natural design. "It helps to have good scaffolding," she concedes later during a photo shoot at Bondi, where she poses reluctantly for the camera, framed by a big blue sky and a quietly heaving sea.
She wears her beauty carelessly, like an old shawl; in Tracks she wrote of her joy in liberating herself from the tyranny of image, of walking naked and sunburnt and filthy, covered in camel shit and millions of flies, with a safety pin through one ear.
With each step, she says, she sloughed off, like snakeskin, layers of civilisation. In the end, she thought nothing of walking naked next to her camels, drinking from muddy water holes, going for weeks without baths, eating dog biscuits and raw chunks of kangaroo.
Born on a western Queensland cattle station on September 6, 1950, Davidson inherited a love of exploration from her father, a keen bushman descended from a long line of Queensland squattocracy, who had spent the 1920s and 30s exploring Africa (his exploits there are immortalised in family photos of him harpooning crocodiles). When she was 11, her mother committed suicide, hanging herself with the cord of an electric kettle; she described this moment flatly as "the end of my childhood". She was sent to live with her father's twin sister in Brisbane; in 1968, aged 18, she hitched a ride to Sydney and there fell in with the fringe of the old Sydney Push. She relished the bohemian communal spirit, the camaraderie and, well, the drugs (LSD, in particular, was prized for revealing the "malleability of the mind"). In the early 70s, she returned to Queensland; there, adrift and restless, she hit on what she calls her great lunatic idea - this quixotic camel trek across the desert.
The culture shock of landing in a flyblown, violent, 14,000-strong Alice Springs, circa 1975, was immense. She was completely unprepared for what lay ahead, not having even changed a tyre or a lightbulb at that point. She quickly toughened up, working for an eccentric Austrian camel owner and learning to ride and track camels, fix saddles, whittle nose pegs, and use hobbles and sidelines. To fund her trip, reluctantly she sold her story to National Geographic for $4000; in return, the magazine's photographer Rick Smolan joined her from time to time to take photos.
In March 1977, she finally set out with four camels and her dog from Glen Helen, more than 100km west of Alice Springs. Her route to the sea took her through some of the most inhospitable, remote desert country possible; during nine long, hard months she battled searing temperatures, charging bull camels, rancid food, thirst, navigation errors and injured camels. But far more challenging were the psychological aspects. The desert has sent many mad; at one point Davidson, who had struggled with depression in the past and once contemplated putting a "nice, clean" bullet in her brain, found herself being swallowed whole by its vastness, losing all sense of self, space and time. Asked what happened, she replies simply, "The desert was just so f . . king big and I was so tiny." She eventually makes it back to sanity (though she was blindsided by another surge of crippling depression at 46, the age at which her mother committed suicide).
She says the journey made her whole, knitting together a fragmented persona; like Lessing's Anna, she shed all sorts of burdens. It also sparked her passionate environmentalism and her interest in social justice and indigenous politics. In Tracks, she wrote angrily about the "extraordinary contempt" of her countrymen towards Aborigines; about the destitution, disease and alcoholism ravaging Aboriginal camps. It's profoundly demoralising that we're still battling the same issues 30 years on, she says with a sigh (though, interestingly, unlike many of her left-wing peers, she doesn't see the Northern Territory intervention as necessarily unjust, believing it has been good for women and children).
Madmen and monks, as Davidson puts it, have long been drawn to the desert. There is something about it that speaks to the lost and searching; it is a loaded space, a canvas to project our desires for clarity, revelation and purity. Though she has been an atheist since childhood, "a God-shaped hole" somewhere in her yearned for a sense of meaning that a pilgrimage can provide. Her camel trek became one of sorts; the mere act of walking proved revelatory. She's written in the past of how "in every religion I can think of, there exists some variation on the theme of abandoning the settled life and walking one's way to godliness. The Hindu sadhu, the pilgrims of Compostela walking past their sins, the circumambulators of the Buddhist kora, the haj. What could this ritual journeying be but symbolic, idealised versions of the foraging life? By taking to the road, we free ourselves of baggage, both physical and psychological. We walk back to our original condition, to our best selves."
Walking as therapy? Why not, she says. "As we've lost this idea of pilgrimage, we've lost this idea of human beings walking for a very, very long time. It does change you."
The desert has proved alluring for a long line of intrepid female travellers, from Lilias Trotter and Hester Stanhope to Amelia Edwards and the great Arabist Gertrude Bell. The Arabic-speaking Freya Stark's first sight of the desert convinced her "the whole of my future must be rearranged". Isabelle Eberhardt, on her first visit to North Africa, blessed "God and my destiny for having brought me to this desert". For these women, their desert journeys were about escaping the coils of convention. Davidson understands this impulse. "For me, while I think there was unconsciously a sort of self-testing and self-proving, the desert was a place of potential joy and freedom and openness and bigness."
Do women experience the desert differently from men? Davidson thinks so. Because they're not as acculturated as men are to conquering landscapes, they're able to not see the desert as threatening, she says.
A journey of millions of steps wrought a profound change in her internal landscape; thus it has been for generations of explorers navigating Australia's vastness, she says. The country's harsh physical landscape forged a correspondingly tough national identity; as she writes in Tracks, "the self in the desert becomes like the desert". In 1902, explorer and geologist John Gregory coined the phrase "the dead heart of Australia" after a trip to Lake Eyre. Early explorers found the vast, seemingly empty space at the core of the continent forbidding, unknowable and fearsome; our artists viewed the landscape as barren (Hans Heysen, on his first trip to the Flinders Ranges in 1922, reportedly found it so overwhelmingly alien he could not paint it).
This year, Australia will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt. Against this backdrop, I ask her what she thinks the influence has been of having this great, hot vastness at our backs. The landscape artist John Olsen has described Australians as "saucer dwellers" clustered around the edge of the continent; increasingly, however, Davidson thinks we've moved from being fearful of the dead heart to stampeding all over it with our four-wheel-drives and cameras.
She loathes tourism, once describing it as "that commerce of the inauthentic whose medium is kitsch". She grimaces. "It just seems so inauthentic. I've just been to Ayers Rock, at Yulara, and there's this rather awful resort, and all along the the road there are signs - do not drive off the road, do not slow down, do not touch anything ... it's like being in a ghastly virtual world. It's bizarre. It seems so fake and pointless to me - all that tourist tat you can buy, and the didgeridoo crap and mugs with dot-dots on them ... " she makes a gagging noise. "But you know, I'm old, so of course I'm going to mourn for something that was not ... mediated. And it seems to me that everything now is."
No wonder she is uneasy about being described as a travel writer, is loath to be seen as having opened the doors to these rampaging hordes in their Toyotas. The desert used to represent freedom to her; nowadays it depresses her: "It's been utterly, heartbreakingly trashed." She's been described as an elegiac traveller in the tradition of Norman Lewis and Wilfred Thesiger; there's certainly a keen nostalgia for the past when she says she couldn't do the same trip now. The world has become too busy, too noisy, too crowded.
Over lunch at a Thai cafe, she picks at her green papaya salad and points a fork at our surrounds, at the blaring red wallpaper with its graphic prints, the clatter of cutlery, the passing hum of traffic. It's a sensory overload that we don't even notice anymore, she says. True silence is rare, true darkness is rarer still in a world of high-octane lighting and a million small, flickering screens. The romance of being "this tiny speck in a huge vastness" has disappeared. It's next to impossible to get lost now, what with satellite navigation and smart phones. Beachcombers, hermits and eccentrics are increasingly rare because solitude itself is in danger of extinction.
"It's a profound shift in just 30 years. It's all about being connected, being on Facebook or whatever, and if you're not, it's as if there's something wrong with you. It's such a false connection anyway. An empty connection. We're never really present. Back then, in the desert, I had a feeling of being profoundly connected, part of this phenomenon of life we're all in. And yet I was totally on my own."
Post-trip, she continued to travel extensively; in 1996, she published her second book, Desert Places, about her journey with the Rabari nomads. Lovers have come and gone. Her partner Narendra Bhati, of Rajasthan's aristocracy, died two years ago. She had a self-described "volcanic", three-year relationship with Salman Rushdie, whom she met in Adelaide in the mid-1980s; many have speculated that she was the model for the character of the beautiful mountain-climber Alleluia Cone in The Satanic Verses. She winces at the mention. "To tell you the honest truth, I couldn't get through the book. I read the first draft. He was writing it while I was living with him, so I know quite a bit about what went on behind the scenes. But then, when it was published, obviously I didn't want to go there, so I don't know really ... "
At 62, camels and desert places remain her passion; she is passionate, too, about the environment, writing widely on everything from the endangered Burrup rock art collection in Western Australia to the trashing of the Australian desert. Her eyes flash angrily as she talks about the toxic state of public discourse on global warming: "It frightens us, and as a species, I think we're not good with long-term nervousness."
She's now working on a memoir of her mother (an introductory chapter won the $15,000 Peter Blazey Fellowship for biography, autobiography or life-writing in 2011) but is struggling with a monumental writer's block (she's been trying to finish it for more than 10 years). There are various, seemingly intractable technical as well as moral challenges, it seems. She sighs. "It's been a project of infinite extension."
She'd rather talk about the film, and says she's thrilled Wasikowska is playing her. There's a note of wistfulness, however, when she mentions that, regrettably, Judy Davis turned down the role years ago because "she was worried about the sun".
In 2006, Davidson wrote a long piece for the Quarterly Essay titled No Fixed Address: Nomads and the Fate of the Planet, in which she bemoaned the loss of these ancient ways of living. We lost a lot when "we gave up cultures of movement for cultures of accumulation", she argued.
If nomadism disappears, we lose not just alternative ways of describing the world and our place in it, but an important symbol - the possibility of independence. The unruly of any society - outsiders, marginals, lone wolves, vagrants, recusants, refuseniks - can be trouble for that society. They are also essential to it.
The notion of modern-day nomads intrigues her because she counts herself as one. "There are people like me, who live in several countries, have complex identities and feel allied to more than one culture ... we live in what Edward Said called a 'generalised condition of homelessness'." She has written that she remains entranced by nomadism but is aware that life without roots and anchors can be exhausting, physically as well as on a psychic level: the wanderer, she has said, "becomes a repository for the wishes of the sedentary ... you are a ghost hovering outside the closed circuit of the living". In recent years, thus, she's been tentatively putting down roots. Melbourne, it seems, has become a safe harbour.
She once wrote about needing to protect "that high, clear place" inside her from the world, but now, as we leave the serene blue of Bondi to drop her at her hotel, she says that as she ages, "people fascinate me. I can't imagine not ever wanting to be alive, even if I'm just an eyeball on a pillow." She and I grin at the image. "Being sentient, being conscious, is just so extraordinary, isn't it?" With that, Davidson - camel lady, refusenik and star-lover - smiles, shakes my hand and vanishes soundlessly into a Sydney summer evening.
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