“Living together creates pressure”
On the 40th anniversary of her landmark journey across the Outback, Robyn Davidson still marches to her own distinct beat
On the 40th anniversary of her legendary journey across the Outback, Robyn Davidson talks of her nomadic life and why going it alone works for her.
For author Robyn Davidson, time spent completely apart from other people is not just essential – it’s a right. She simply takes a gutsier approach to achieving it than most. “Yes, I have a phone,” the elegant 67-year- old tells Stellar. “But I am a pain. I never answer it.
“Once or twice a week I go into the messages. What I think needs answering, I will answer. What I don’t, I don’t. It drives my friends mad – people get cross. But if I keep answering the phone, I will not be able to live. It will just overwhelm me.”
Davidson wrote the landmark bestseller Tracks, which documented her epic 2700-kilometre solo journey through the Australian desert. She rarely does interviews, but has invited Stellar to join her in the kitchen of her home in Victoria’s central highlands. She wants to talk about the book’s 40th anniversary – less so about her personal life. As she admits, “I don’t particularly enjoy going there.”
At 17, Davidson left the cattle station in Queensland where she was raised, and hitched to Sydney; by 26, she was headed to Alice Springs, resolving to learn camel-craft, acquire a few of the scatty beasts and walk from there to the Indian Ocean across the desert.
She became quite at home living alone in a roofless shack, essentially in the middle of nowhere, and was unfazed to wake up with one or another of the world’s most poisonous snakes taking a doze on her bed.
Davidson is not one for trivia or excess company. She knows exactly what she needs to survive and also how to get it. Even her most enduring romantic relationship was run without compromise. The man that she calls “my companion of first resort”, Indian politician Narendra Singh Bhati, remained in his home country while Davidson stayed in London during their two-decade partnership, which only ended when he died in 2011. “It was a very loose arrangement; you know, I might not see him for six
months, but he rang me every day. He was a great support and friend.”
She is still surprised conventional couples are expected to always share a roof. “Living together,” she ventures, “it puts such pressure on people.”
Davidson first went to London at the invitation of an English publishing house; once there, she ran with literary greats like Doris Lessing, under whose home she rented her first paltry flat.
A three-year relationship with fellow author Salman Rushdie was a romance Davidson has described as “a clap of thunder” and “volcanic”. She has never married, was not fussed one way or the other about having children (she didn’t) and cannot understand why people “pity” single women. “Of course there are times when I’m lonely,” she tells Stellar, “but I also know that shifts. And I would rather experience loneliness on my own than in a relationship. I would find it very hard to trade my solitude for a partnership that didn’t allow me that solitude, so it’s complicated.
“I think people are highly strung around these issues – they are not willing to sit with that anxiety and work it out. They’d much rather just leap to the nearest thing. It’s really better that you sort your own life out. That makes you much more honest with whoever else is in your life, because you’re not needy.”
In light of having led a mobile, artistic existence, she reckons settling down is overrated. “But,” she continues, “I would like to say that it’s been quite important for me in my 60s to make a home, [which] has taken 40 years – or whatever it is, 50 years – to do.
“It’s quite difficult being nomadic, for the simple reason that the ordinary world is not structured to deal with it. You have bits of paper spread all over the world, bills that can’t be collated and your filing systems are completely disturbed. The nature of our society is to control us, tax us, know where we are, know everything about us. Trying to live beneath that radar is becoming more and more and more impossible.”
It was London’s “meanness” that Davidson says prompted her to depart for good. Sydney was no longer the right fit, so she went to Melbourne “on a whim. Instantly, it was just where I wanted to be.” She could not afford city property and sought somewhere not far away “with good coffee, a garden and a guestroom within one minute of kangaroos”.
Davidson has created a beautiful, tranquil nest in what was a small miners’ pub on the main thoroughfare near the arts-rich hub of Castlemaine. She is devoted to the arduous task of making a surrounding garden from scratch and also to the unwelcome one of managing a fixed address. She enjoys the former, the latter drives her nuts.
“Part of wanting to settle was because my life was becoming so complicated; the world isn’t structured to allow us to move between countries. I was starting to spend so much time trying to keep life functioning, I just got exhausted. So the idea of buying a home was it would take care of that and I would slowly start to simplify – but it just seems busier and busier.
“New technologies were introduced to give us more time, and look what’s happened,” she adds. “At least two hours a day of my time is taken up with dealing with emails, bits of paper and phone calls – and the phone calls that arise out of the phone calls. For example, I was trying to get a gas man to come to my house and I was on the phone for an hour and a half and it was still not happening.”
Other parts of her day are spent writing a book which investigates the life and death of her mother, who suffered depression and committed suicide when Davidson was just 11. It is painstakingly slow for many reasons – “not all of them emotional” – and Davidson wants to bring to the page the same trenchant self-reflection that compelled readers of Tracks.
She is also seeking funding for a documentary about the desert she encountered on her trek all those years ago, and how it has changed.
“I find it extremely painful going back,” she says. “When I did my trip, some of that country was so utterly exquisite. I’d sit up on a sand dune and there’d be all these native animal tracks: lizard tracks and bird tracks. Now, you sit on that same hill and it’s all rabbit and cat tracks, camel [dung] and foxes. Things are being done, but [the damage] is exponential.”
The Herculean task of staving off introduced grasses and culling pests goes on. So does the deep love that Davidson has for the rugged country where she tested her limits, exceeded them and went on to tell the tale. How, though, will she face the exhausting mountain of paperwork involved with getting her new project off the ground? With just the hint of a smile, she replies: “Thinking about it… ” The 40th Anniversary edition of Tracks (Bloomsbury, $19.99) is out now.
“I would rather experience loneliness on my own than in a relationship”
TRUE NOMAD (from top) Having created a home in country Victoria, adventurer Robyn Davidson still feels deeply connected to the Australian desert she crossed 40 years ago; she made her solo journey in 1977 with four camels and a dog for company; her three-year love affair with author Salman Rushdie was “volcanic”.