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PETER THOMPSON: Robyn Davidson's book, Tracks, took readers on a camel trek across Australia's Red
Centre, capturing imaginations and hearts around the world. In the decade since, her journeys have
tested her in quite different ways, bringing her ever closer to understanding herself. She's still
the nomad, but her writing is now directed at questions much closer to home. Her journeys both at
home and abroad have inspired many others to follow the road less travelled. But it's never been
the easy way. Robyn Davidson, welcome to Talking Heads.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Thank you, Peter. Good to be here.

PETER THOMPSON: Lovely to meet you.


PETER THOMPSON: Now you've had more than 40 addresses down through time.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: And counting.

PETER THOMPSON: What do you feel is home? What's the idea of home mean to you?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Gosh, well. It's a very complex thing, home, isn't it? I think I've lived in too
many places to feel that there's one place that covers all the bases. I travel in this triangle
from London to India to Sydney. But Sydney's the base now.

PETER THOMPSON: As a young child, you fantasised about the idea of going on the road with no

ROBYN DAVIDSON: (LAUGHS) Yes. Yes, I did. That was a huge fantasy, actually, because I'd dream of
what clothes I would take and it was always this monk's habit.

PETER THOMPSON: A brown shawl.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: A sort of brown shawl. Exactly. And I would simply go into the world as this
completely free person.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, the fact that all of us have something inside us, wanting to do the same


PETER THOMPSON: Is that part of your, really, widespread appeal to people?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Possibly, I don't know. I mean, if you're referring to treks that trip across the
desert, it has mythical elements in it. And people respond to that.

PETER THOMPSON: Mythical places for Australians.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes, exactly.

PETER THOMPSON: Uluru and the desert.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes, the desert.

PETER THOMPSON: Like the coast. As the ultimate.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes, the place to reach.

PETER THOMPSON: End of the journey.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes, exactly. And indeed, I suppose, somebody opting for freedom, rather than
convention. Yes, I think that probably appeals to a lot of people.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, your relationship with camels. You are a most... of camel ladies in the globe,
you would be the most unlikely.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: (LAUGHS) Yeah. Yes. I mean, camels were incidental, you see. This is the thing that
people don't understand. I went to the desert with $6, you know, fat chance of buying a 4WD.

PETER THOMPSON: So this was a cost-effective measure?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes, exactly. And very pragmatic.

PETER THOMPSON: Does that part of your life seem like a long time back and seem like it belongs to
a different person?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yeah, well, yes. Not just a long time back. But I hardly recognise that young
woman. I mean, who was she?

PETER THOMPSON: Well, Robyn, every long journey starts with the first steps. And yours were in

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Mm hm. That's where I was born. Western Queensland, on a cattle station. Sometimes
I think my whole life has been a research project - trying to find out what a normal person is so I
could copy it. I was born on a cattle station, small by Australian standards, called Stanley Park.
Very intensely, I remember the smell and the sensation of dust and dry heat. And I'm sure that's
why I respond to desert. It's a very early memory.

My sister is six years older than me. We were quite an isolated family, so my sister was my
absolute heroine. And the family was its own entertainment. My father was an adventurer. He never
stopped talking about Africa, how wonderful Africa was. There's photos of him harpooning
crocodiles. And what my father told me when I was a kid was that just a second after this picture
was taken, the croc thrashed around and opened this man's leg from hip to ankle. And the only
medicine they had was whisky, so they chucked a bottle of whisky on it and walked in two days, back
to civilisation.

All that history in Africa was very much part of his youth. And in old age, he became an extreme
conservationist. My parents met during the second World War and my father was 17 years older. My
mother was in her late 20s and she was vivacious, tiny, beautiful, talented. My mother was very
concerned that we two children be accomplished and have access to the cultured life. When we moved,
he sent us each week to study music with the nuns.

That post-Second World War effort to get women back into the home plus the literal isolation of the
sort of the life that she led worked very much against my mother. Possibly in another time, she
would have been treated for depression. I think she would have pulled through. She didn't pull
through. She suicided when she was 46. When I was 11. Of course, after that, the whole family
structure just completely disintegrated. When my mother died, it was absolutely the end of
childhood in every possible sense.

PETER THOMPSON: After your mother died, you actually for some years lost most touch with your dad,
didn't you?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes. Well, again, he was of an era, in which it wasn't even considered that he
should look after his two young daughters. My sister was already OK, she was working as a nurse. So
I was pushed off pretty much immediately to live with a spinster aunt, my father's twin sister, who
was a marvellous woman, but absolutely hopeless with a young girl.

PETER THOMPSON: What were you like at school?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Up in the mountain, Tambourine Mountain, with my aunt, I became an absolute
tearaway. But I had a lot of fun. At boarding school, I did quite well academically but I didn't
know how I did. Because first of all, you know, the teaching was pretty basic. And second of all, I
seem to remember hardly going to classes and spending it all in the piano rooms, playing passionate
purple music.

PETER THOMPSON: And your dad had this idea for you, that you would leave school, get a job, get
married, have kids.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: He felt that he had given me this very expensive education in this dreadful
boarding school, I shouldn't say that. Well, it's not dreadful now, but I'm sure it was then.

PETER THOMPSON: (LAUGHS) That's got you.


PETER THOMPSON: Did anyone see the potential in you?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: No, I don't think so. Nor me. Because of the difficulty of that childhood, I had a
tremendous amount to catch up on. And that's what I started doing. I just started putting bits
together, to make this entity called Robyn Davidson. I hopped on a truck and came to Sydney. And I
lived, really, as a feral. And these days, I would be seen as a street urchin. But then, I thought
of myself as an adventurer, an aristocrat. I learned how to look after myself and it was a very
rich time. I ended up working in a gambling club, which was very thrilling and I found out that I
was a great poker player. But after a while, it got a little bit heavy. It was run by criminals. I
was quite close with one of them. It wasn't an easy situation.

During all that time since I'd left school, I'd virtually not seen my dad. I wrote to him and I
said, "I need you to come and get me." And he did. And he put on his stockman's hat and drove all
the way to Sydney and picked me up. We drove back to Brisbane together and we decided to go out
bush, looking for opals. It was just the most wonderful time with him. In '73, I decided that I
wanted to go to the Australian desert. So I thought I'd go to Alice Springs and I'll find myself
some feral camels and I'll use them to go through the desert. One of the reasons I told myself that
I wanted to go the desert was to try to understand some aspects of Aboriginal culture. I arrived in
the Alice with $6 and a dog. And a suitcase. I think the first thing was the awesomeness of that
desert, with this puny, ugly, architecturally plain, dusty little town in the middle of it. The
second thing was getting a job in the pub, which I did within the first couple of days and meeting
the lads.

PETER THOMPSON: What were they like?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Tough. Fairly brutal. Big boozers. The idea of getting sponsorship for it felt most
unnatural to me. And I simply had to have money for equipment. So I wrote to National Geographic
and they said, "Yes, we'll give you $4,000 and off you go." I headed off at the beginning of '77. I
really only chose the route because of National Geographic, because they needed a beginning, middle
and end. They certainly wanted Ayers Rock, I remember that.

PETER THOMPSON: So why didn't you just get a tent and go to the Blue Mountains and camp there for a

ROBYN DAVIDSON: (LAUGHS) That's a good question. Well, it wouldn't have been as long.

PETER THOMPSON: Fascinating aspect of this is your contract with fame. That to finance this
project, you sign up with National Geographic.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: I signed my life away.

PETER THOMPSON: About which you've never been really comfortable.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: No. I wasn't then and I am ambivalent, let's say that. I gave the photographer a
terribly hard time. You know, it wasn't his fault, but I was quite hard on him. And I was
completely gobsmacked, because he'd made me look like a Vogue model. And that made it even worse
somehow. You know, not only was he eating up my trip, but he was turning me into this fantasy
figure. Now you have to understand I had no idea that I was beautiful. I look back at her now and
see that she was beautiful. Then about three-quarters of the way through the journey, the story
broke. It became front page news in a lot of countries. It was totally unbelievable.

PETER THOMPSON: It's got a cult following, this book.


PETER THOMPSON: And there have been attempts to think about making a film of it. Why do you think
this... It's still in many travel guides to Australia, for example. Suggested reading. Why do you
think that's so?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Well, again, it has these mythical qualities, I think, elements. I think you also
have to place the book into context. It happened in the '70s, after all, when I think young people
had a much broader... They had, or at least they thought they had, more opportunities to act in the
world and be unconventional, let's say. And I think young people today have much greater burdens,
in the sense of, you know, are they going to make enough money to survive, and that sort of thing.
So we're living in a culture in which risk isn't really thought very highly of, anymore. Risk and

PETER THOMPSON: In fact, it's always ensured against or buffered against or outlawed.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes, yes, yes. And I think it's a great shame.

PETER THOMPSON: Can we do the sliding doors thing for a moment?


PETER THOMPSON: If you'd not contracted with National Geographic, if you'd made your journey
without that publicity, what would have happened?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Well, there you go. That's the ambivalence. I've had opportunities and doors
opened, that I couldn't possibly have had without that fame.

PETER THOMPSON: Fame, yes. You became celebrated and fated. And you also met a circle of
fascinating people, who have really been your circle of friends ever since.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes, I was quite innocent or naive and I thought, "Oh, well, I'll just write to
Doris Lessing." My one and only fan letter in my entire life.

PETER THOMPSON: Of course, Doris Lessing's just won the Nobel Prize for literature.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes. And she became not just a great friend, but a very important person in my
life, in the sense that she gave me someone to admire. I think that's terribly important for young

PETER THOMPSON: Well, Robyn, your love of deserts, travel and camels didn't end with the Australian
trek. And you were to take a path that certainly not many people would want to follow.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: I think what I most like about India is that it's not Australia. That it's not the
West. I went to India quite by mistake. I'd been invited to the Pushkar Camel Fair. So I fetched up
in India and of course, was completely gobsmacked by it. I met a family there, with whom I
subsequently became very close. And I also saw these nomads, who had come into Pushkar to buy and
sell their animals. Sort of at the back of my mind was the idea that one day, I would like to find
out about them, travel with them. By '88, I didn't have a project and I didn't know what I wanted
to do. And quite by chance, I met Narendra, one of this Indian family whom I'd got to know. And he
said, "It's obvious what you should do. You come to India, you live with me and my family and you
do your nomads project there." So I did.

I'd originally thought that I would just go to Rajasthan. It would be very easy to join a migration
of camel herders, called the Rika. But I was having absolutely no luck in locating a group, who
would be willing to take me on migration. So I crossed the border into Gujarat and within a month,
found a group, who were delighted to take me along. The women, particularly, were extremely kind to
me. I think they thought it was a hoot that they had me on board for migration. It was an
extremely, extremely difficult journey. The worst thing was not being able to communicate. By the
end of that journey, I was so run down physically, but also emotionally. And the book that came out
of that experience is therefore a bit of a downer of a book. It wasn't a light experience. It was

PETER THOMPSON: In reading the book, it's clear that the nomadic life is not something to aspire
to. It's extremely uncomfortable and extremely off-putting in every century.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Well, that particular part, yes. I think for those people, it is. But not for all
the nomads, by any means.

PETER THOMPSON: But you are clear that there are things that are admirable about their lifestyle.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes, I think generally speaking. Now these are huge generalisations I'm making. But
the mere fact of moving around means that it's very hard to accumulate stuff. And also, what they
seemed able to do in this very, very demanding life is use humour as a way of getting rid of all
the angst. So our camp fires at night at the camps... You have to imagine we're camping in the
middle of 5,000 sheep. And all the camps are shouting out to each other and cracking jokes and
there's this sort of laughter going on all the time. And I was tremendously admiring of that. When
I compare it with my culture, where everyone's moaning and whingeing all the time and here we are,
living in paradise. So I think that taught me quite a lot too.

PETER THOMPSON: Going back to that childhood fantasy or dream you had about being...

ROBYN DAVIDSON: A free monk?

PETER THOMPSON: ..without possessions.


PETER THOMPSON: There is a price, obviously, that you pay for the choices you've made.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: I've chosen, I guess, freedom over comfort, which means that I've often been
uncomfortable. And, of course, certain very important things I've simply had to give up the idea
of, like having a family, et cetera, et cetera. I think my sense of family is something that I
construct. It's not to do with blood. My friends are my family. I have very intense, close
friendships. They've always been very important to me. It's public knowledge. People are always
asking me about the relationship I had with Salman. He was writing The Satanic Verses during the
time we were together. I think he was certainly aware that it would create a big furore. Obviously,
he didn't think there was going to be a fatwa. Things had been written about the relationship that
it was extremely stormy - volcanic I think was one... was one word. But, you know, lots of
relationships are like that. It's not a relationship I regret at all. And, you know, when I think
of him now, I think of him with great affection.

My mother died when she was 46. As I started approaching the age at which she died, you could say
she started coming out of my subconscious. So this woman who I hadn't thought about, who I hadn't
really cared about, started to return. She suddenly became present in my life, so to speak. I
remember at one point thinking, "I owe her this." I'm a writer. What do writers do? They write
about what happens. So I suppose it was then that I thought, "Oh, well, that's the next project." I
feel I've got to know her quite well in the last ten years. I didn't know her then, but I know her
now. In a funny sort of way, that event gave me tremendous fuel for the rest of my life. All of
these things that happen in life can be very enriching... perhaps even just by getting over them.

PETER THOMPSON: As you get older, do you fear being alone?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: About once every two months.


ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes, sometimes, of course I do. But I think I would fear more being alone within a
marriage. And I've seen a bit of that.

PETER THOMPSON: If you're entering a meaningful relationship with someone, what do you promise
them? What do they get with Robyn?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Absolutely nothing! Um... what do I promise them? I think... one thing my... my
lovers, partners, whatever you call them these days, have said is, "You're not like the other
girls." So I guess it's something like that, maybe. I don't know.

PETER THOMPSON: I'm not going to let you off the hook that easily.



ROBYN DAVIDSON: Look, I think it depends so much on the man or the friend. I need a lot of
solitude. I know that about myself. I love intimacy, I love being close to the people I love. I
enjoy togetherness. You know, it's not any of that, but I also know that I need a hell of a lot of

PETER THOMPSON: Well, Robyn, you're still travelling. But now life has been contained a bit to two
countries - India and Australia.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Sydney is now my base and I'm loving it. I can't imagine why I stayed away so long.
I think you can travel so much that you end up not having a sense of home. I think that happened to
me for quite a long time. My life is completely busy. I mean, this is modern life, isn't it? You
never seem to - in the West - anymore have time to just... (EXHALES) and think about who you are
and where you are and what you're doing and what it's all about. Which is another reason why I like
to keep India in my life, cos I go up to my house in the Himalayas there. Things are much more
normal, in that sense. Less fraught.

I share the house with Narendra, my... dear friend of the last 20 years. I go to India every year
for about three to four months. And that incorporates the trips I take through Rajasthan. It
started off taking friends. Then I thought, "Well, I may as well turn it into a little business."
My journey through Rajasthan is extremely posh and extremely protected, because people say they
want to experience village life and all that, but they really don't want the rats running over them
at night. I recently met a charming young camel man who's taking scientists into the Simpson Desert
by camel on research trips and I'm going to join them next July. I did a trip with him last year,
which was great. It gets scientists into areas that are difficult to get into any other way. It's a
very hectic life. I mean, it's very demanding. You kind of get a bit of everything and I love my
life more and more as I get on and, yes, I think it gets better.

PETER THOMPSON: You could have lived a much easier life, couldn't you?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: I suppose I could. But, you know, you are what you are. One is what one is.

PETER THOMPSON: A work in progress.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: A work in progress. Absolutely.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, Robyn, it's been great sharing these few steps on the long journey.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Thank you, Peter.

PETER THOMPSON: Thank you very much for coming on Talking Heads.