Desert trip | Australia

“Not a sound, except for the wind”

As a young woman, Robyn Davidson travelled alone through the Australian desert. Over the decades, she's returned again and again. A conversation about the fascination of extreme places
A slightly older lady sits on an opulent, carpeted sofa and rests her arm on the side rest. She looks friendly at the camera, her blonde mid-length hair is slightly wavy. She is wearing a black blazer with an insect-shaped brooch and many bangles.

Interview by Gundula Haage

Robyn Davidson, in 1977, you embarked on a trip from Alice Springs to the West Coast, 2,700 Kilometres through the deserts of Western Australia with four camels and a dog as your sole companions. Were you familiar with deserts, to feel confident enough to face its perils all by yourself for months?

To be honest, I didn’t know the desert at all. I was 25 years old and just took a train to Alice Springs in 1975. I had 6$ in my pocket and all I knew was that I wanted to be in the desert, alone. I wanted to learn something about Aboriginal culture and that was it. I knew there were wild camels out there. So I thought, well, I’ll just somehow find myself some and I’ll use them to carry my stuff. So that’s how it happened.

But of course, it was not that simple. I had to learn the desert. That took two years of preparation really. During that time, I was living just outside Alice Springs, working at a camel farm to learn about these animals, eventually find my camels and train them. These two years were absolutely essential to the success of what came of the eight-month journey.

How did you prepare yourself for the journey?

The most important thing was learning my animals, training my animals and understanding them and them understanding me. For me personally, it was very difficult to teach myself to build equipment. I hate having to fuss around with rivets and screws and hammers and things. I’m just no good at it.

“I was going into the desert to learn the desert, to become part of the desert”

So I had to learn to be patient. I had to learn to follow things through, and I ended up being quite a good handy person in the sense of building the saddles, learning to weld, learning to do leather work, all of those things. And of course I had to acquire the necessary knowledge to survive in the desert.

I also learned quite a lot from local Aborigines. What bush plants to eat, where to find water, how to track. Tracking was very important: You have to be able to follow animal tracks to find water. And once I knew those signs and that environment, it was no longer threatening.

Many perceive the desert as a dangerous space, with the possibility to die of thirst just around the next dune. How did your family and friends react to the fact that you wanted to make the journey all by yourself?

There was a lot of antagonism. “Why would you do such a crazy thing?! There are snakes everywhere, why would you go all by yourself?” I used to get all these responses. But I didn’t perceive it as something scary. It was joyous.

I was going into the desert to learn the desert, to become part of the desert. It wasn't ever about conquering or overcoming, being brave or anything like that. It was about learning that environment well enough to survive in it, to be comfortable in it, and therefore to enjoy it, really.

That’s what I wanted to prove to myself. About halfway through my journey, I met an old Aboriginal man, which was the luckiest thing for me. His name was Mr. Eddie. And on a whim, he just decided to join me for a month.

What do you remember most vividly from travelling together with Mr. Eddie?

Being with him allowed me to see what it was like to truly be at home in the world, be existentially placed. We walked through his dreaming on the trip. For Aborigines, the songlines form an invisible, mythical map of Australia that is passed on from generation to generation through song.

I consider the so-called dreaming as one of the greatest, most wonderful philosophical systems ever. It’s really about the unification of it all into one kind of universal, poetic, linked up being.

“Travelling with Mr. Eddie allowed me to see what it was like to truly be at home in the world, be existentially placed”

This may sound bit mystical, but I’m not the least bit mystical. I’m a materialist through and through. But I don’t think that goes against the idea of feeling this profound connection to everything there is.

In your recent book “Unfinished Woman”, in which you recount your life and the impact of your famous journey in the 1970s, you wrote that Aborigines are the environmental scientists par excellence. Could you explain that a bit?

I don’t want to make huge generalizations, because obviously there is great variability amongst Aborigines in Australia. And I’m also not romanticizing, they have their problems too. But generally speaking, I got the impression that many nomadic cultures such as Aborigines value knowledge above the accumulation of goods.

That understanding one’s environment is what you need to survive. Gold won’t get you anywhere in the middle of the bush. Whether we like it or not, we are embedded in nature. That’s why it is better to treat it with respect – because if you don’t, you die. The world would certainly be a better place if everyone felt equally connected to their environment.

Unfortunately, the current prevailing ideologies stand in the way of this, not to mention the climate crisis. The heartbreak of what we're doing to the world is almost unendurable.

Has this feeling of connection with the world stayed with you beyond your journey?

After spending eight months in the desert mostly by myself, I was highly attuned to that environment. My brain had changed. And it’s still like that today. It was crazy: a week after I reached the West Coast of Australia, I flew to New York for the first time in my life. And I remember walking through the streets and seeing them as geological structures, the skyscrapers appeared as mountain ranges with wind blowing through its canyons.

It was as if I was still in the middle of a landscape, but suddenly it was full of these mad, mad primates. It seemed to me that I was the last sane person on earth! (laughs)

“The name tag ‘camel lady’ used to bother me. I moved all the way to Europe to escape its limitations”

When you reached the Indian Ocean, you were famous. Newspapers all over the world wrote about the “camel lady”, because the “National Geographic” photographer Rick Smolan visited you during the trip and took iconic pictures of you. How long did it take you to escape that name tag?

Becoming famous out of nowhere is very, very weird and disorienting. And it’s dangerous too, because you sort of loose yourself to a public myth, in a narrative that is no longer your own. The name tag “camel lady” used to bother me. I even moved all the way to Europe, to London, to escape its limitations. I thought that I write a book about the trip and will be left alone afterwards. But that didn’t really work.

Your book “Tracks” became an international bestseller and years later was made into a major Hollywood film starring Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver. Do you have the feeling that, despite everything, you still have your very own images of your journey in your head today?

Photos are cannibalistic. They overshadow your own experiences. But I try very hard to keep some of my own images. I remember exactly how I wake up and the sand stretches out to the horizon, how I feel the rocks beneath me, my dog and the four camels close to me. And I know, yes, that’s my own memory.

At times, I was terribly annoyed by Rick and his pictures. The whole point of my journey was to be the subject of my own life. The iconic pictures turned me into an object, even though I benefitted financially from them. That’s why I always felt ambivalent about them.

Today, however, I don’t care anymore. I am now over seventy years old. I can simply enjoy the beauty of these pictures. They’re fine.

“The iconic pictures turned me into an object, even though I benefitted financially from them”

What appears in your mind’s eye today when you think back to your desert crossing?

The texture of the Australian desert lives in my memory very strongly, even when I’m not there. The desert is infinitely variable, delicate and unthinkably old and exquisite. In one area that I find particularly powerful – the MacDonnell Range – there are these old mountains that have been eroded down to just stubs over thousands of years.

It smells of dry grass and dust, it’s the smell of a dry, dry country. The deeper you go into the desert, the quieter it becomes. When surface water is no longer available, the animals fall silent. Suddenly you can’t hear anything except the wind blowing over the rocks.

Today, there is a huge tourism industry around camel safaris. They sell packaged adventures with endless opportunities for tourists to create the picture-perfect desert experience on Instagram. How do you perceive this type of travelling?

I’m in two minds about it. As long as no harm is done, people can take as many photos of themselves on a camel as they want for all I care. But I have the impression that tourism today, generally speaking, is never about transformation of the person doing it.

It’s about packaging elsewhere so you don’t have to change anything. I doubt that you can learn much new about yourself or the world around you in the process.

On the other hand, I have lived in India for many, many years. I know that some regions are dependent on the income from tourism. So I can’t just be anti-tourism because it’s a huge part of the world economy and many struggling countries depend on it.

Therefore, if someone  carves some time out of their life and they go and see some sand and pay money for a romantic experience in the desert, then that’s perfectly fine – as long as the local people benefit from it.

You kept travelling to different deserts in the world later in life and wrote multiple books about it. What fascinates you with these types of landscape?

Deserts are emptier than most other places. They leave space to dream and think about who you really are without being distracted by all the nonsense around you. I am also very interested in nomadic people. I have travelled with Rabari nomads in Rajasthan and accompanied shepherds in Tibet to the high plateaus of the Himalayas.

I met extraordinary people and learnt a lot about their view of the world. Nomads often live in perfect harmony with nature. But wherever you look, governments are trying to control them and force them to settle down. Deserts are usually the last places where nomadic people are allowed to exist.

You wrote a book called “Travelling light”. What is the one item that you should definitely carry with when you set off into the desert?

During my own journeys, I learned to discard anything that wasn’t absolutely essential to me. When I travelled through Australia, all I ended up with was one old crappy Sarong, a jumper, one pair of sandals that I kept mending. So it was more a process of getting rid of mental junk and getting rid of things in the physical world that weren’t necessary to me.

But what I would advise anyone undertaking a long journey is to take one exquisite, unnecessary thing with you. Like a crystal glass. Something fragile, delicate, beautiful, that you’d have to really take care of.