AS A CHILD GROW­ING UP on a sheep prop­erty at Mooloolah in the lush Sun­shine Coast hin­ter­land, Robyn David­son nur­tured some big dreams. “I had a lot of free­dom and I would be down at the pad­docks pre­tend­ing to be a botanist, pick­ing leaves offff plants and putting them in a scrap­book,” re­calls the writer, fi­film­maker and ex­plorer. “My fa­ther had all these won­der­ful nat­u­ral his­tory books and I had read some­thing by Hum­boldt who had gone to the Ama­zon, and that was what I wanted to be when I grew up — an ex­plorer and a botanist record­ing new plants around the world.” Through­out her career, the 66-year-old has em­barked on desert camel treks, re­searched no­madic tribes and con­trib­uted to sci­en­tifific jour­nals. Robyn’s solo desert trek in 1977, which took her more than 2700 kilo­me­tres from Alice Springs to the In­dian Ocean with four camels and her beloved dog Dig­gity, was cov­ered by Na­tional Ge­o­graphic mag­a­zine and cap­tured in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est. Two years later, she wrote her mem­oir of the trip, Tracks, in Lon­don, in a “poky lit­tle flflat, as far from cen­tral Aus­tralia as you can imag­ine,” she says. “The trip came back to me so vividly; I re­mem­bered pretty much ev­ery camp­site of that eight-month jour­ney.” Tracks be­came an in­ter­na­tional best­seller and won the in­au­gu­ral Thomas Cook Travel Book award in 1980, and, three decades later, a fi­film adap­ta­tion star­ring Mia Wasikowska was re­leased. Robyn has since writ­ten var­i­ous books in­clud­ing Desert Places, which chron­i­cled her year-long pil­grim­age with the Rabari pas­toral no­mads of north-west In­dia. After years liv­ing and work­ing over­seas, she’s now set­tled in Aus­tralia and is restor­ing an old stone build­ing in Castle­maine, Vic­to­ria. She also has var­i­ous projects on the go, in­clud­ing a mem­oir that is “loosely based” around her mother, Gwen, who trag­i­cally took her own life when Robyn was 11 years old. Robyn in­her­ited much of her cre­ativ­ity from her mother, and her won­der of na­ture and sci­ence from her fa­ther, Mark, who had trav­elled through Africa be­fore set­tling back in Aus­tralia as a gra­zier. “My fa­ther was a won­der­ful nat­u­ral­ist and bush­man and was most com­fort­able when he was on his own in the bush,” she says. Born in 1950, Robyn spent her fi­first four years at Stan­ley Park, a cat­tle station near Miles in west Queens­land, with her sis­ter, Mar­garet, who is fi­five years older. By the mid 1950s, drought had forced the fam­ily to move east to the prop­erty at Mooloolah, where they grazed sheep. After her mother’s death, Robyn was sent to live with her aunt. Later, after turn­ing down a mu­sic schol­ar­ship, she trav­elled to Syd­ney at age 18. “I lived on the streets like a run­away, but I was ex­plor­ing a whole new world,” Robyn says. “I never think of my­self as a vic­tim in terms of my his­tory — there were things that went ter­ri­bly wrong, but all of it con­trib­utes to the great mess that makes an in­di­vid­ual.” Her early years re­main an in­spi­ra­tion. “It was such a rich child­hood in so many ways. I think what it gave me was a very big reper­toire — a love of na­ture and a love of the arts, hav­ing to deal with ter­ri­ble, huge things and at the same time know­ing that I was loved. When I think back to Mooloolah I just re­mem­ber be­ing in par­adise.” For more in­for­ma­tion, visit robyn­david­

“My mother was al­ways try­ing to keep me in the house to do pi­ano prac­tice.”

I re­mem­ber the smell of the lovely dry, crisp air, be­ing on the swing and com­pos­ing a sym­phony, then try­ing to climb up the back steps to hum it to my mother. She was very mu­si­cal; she played pi­ano and vi­o­lin and would get peo­ple in­volved and play singsongs around the pi­ano. My par­ents would read to us, we played dress-ups and there was al­ways mu­sic. We left Stan­ley Park be­cause of the drought and moved to a 120-hectare prop­erty in the sub­trop­i­cal hin­ter­land be­hind Noosa. Ev­ery­thing was so green! We had English sheep and, of course, it wasn’t the right coun­try for them. It was a lot of hard work and my dad did all the shear­ing and drench­ing by hand. Both my par­ents were very hard-work­ing peo­ple. My mother was al­ways try­ing to keep me in the house to do pi­ano prac­tice. I was di­vided be­tween the out­doors life that was headed by my fa­ther and the in­doors life headed by my mother. I would go down to the pad­docks with Dad and I loved that. My par­ents were so difff­fer­ent, but they gave me a broad range of in­ter­ests and skills. Dad had in­her­ited the snob­bish­ness of the squat­toc­racy, but he couldn’t quite live up to it — he was too egal­i­tar­ian in spirit. My mother was very am­bi­tious for us girls; she wanted us to study mu­sic, have all of the ac­com­plish­ments and be prop­erly cul­tured. I hated mu­sic prac­tice, but I am very glad she forced me to do it as I had mi­nor tal­ent and I al­most fol­lowed that as a career. My sis­ter and I played a lot; she would be the leader of our games and there we were in 40-de­gree trop­i­cal heat in Mum’s old ball gowns pre­tend­ing we were lost in the snow and had wicked sol­diers chas­ing us. It was fan­tas­tic and we had this in­cred­i­bly rich imag­i­nary world to­gether. I never played mums and dads with dolls; it was dolls that were lost on a desert is­land. I had such a strong imag­i­na­tion; I never felt lonely and I had this rich in­ner life to go to and I still do — I ab­so­lutely need it. Mooloolah Pri­mary School was a small, one-and-a-half teacher school, and most of the peo­ple in that area were re­ally poor, hard­work­ing dairy farm­ers. My sis­ter rode her horse to school. What I fifind ex­tra­or­di­nary is that we had no re­sources what­so­ever — only grey plas­ticine and slate pen­cils and boards, but our teacher sent ev­ery kid out of there lit­er­ate and nu­mer­ate. Mum was tiny, quite highly strung, very stylish and tal­ented. She sewed all our dresses and she made our gar­den beau­ti­ful with flflow­ers. She be­came very ill and we moved to the out­skirts of Bris­bane as she needed to be near doc­tors. I think that was the un­rav­el­ling of the fam­ily; we all hated be­ing closed in. I was sud­denly in a new school with as many kids in my class as there had been in the en­tire school at Mooloolah. My mother even­tu­ally sui­cided and I was sent away to live with my aunt on Tam­bourine Moun­tain. I skipped school and was a bit of a hand­ful. All of us in our difff­fer­ent ways were strug­gling. I learnt I had to look after my­self and I was on my own. I’m quite an in­tro­verted per­son, but I must have had some deep con­fi­fi­dence that I’d sur­vive any­thing. This world is so in­ter­est­ing; there’s this tug out­wards into the ex­traor­di­nar­i­ness of life — the mar­vel­lous strange­ness of be­ing alive.

FROM LEFT Hol­i­day­ing at Caloun­dra Beach; a three-year-old Robyn at Stan­ley Park; Robyn joined by her cousins at the beach.

FROM LEFT Robyn in her Red Cross uni­form at Red­cliffffe, near Bris­bane; and with her par­ents at their prop­erty, ‘Mal­abah’, near Caloun­dra.

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