“Liv­ing to­gether cre­ates pres­sure”

On the 40th an­niver­sary of her land­mark jour­ney across the Out­back, Robyn David­son still marches to her own dis­tinct beat

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy DAMIEN PLEMING In­ter­view WENDY TUOHY

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...

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