It’s nearly 40 years since “The Camel Lady” Robyn Davidson amazed us all by charging across the rugged Australian desert on foot with four camels and a dog.
She survived heat, venomous snakes and lecherous men.
In 1977, Robyn, then 27, spent nine months trekking with the four lumpy bumpy creatures, plus pooch, from Alice Springs, to Carnarvon.
It was a lonely hike, but Robyn, whose mother committed suicide when she was a child, had felt a need to break away from everything and everyone.
“Plenty of people were caring and maternal towards me, but I needed time on my own,” Robyn, 63, tells The Starfish.
Besides, the camels weren’t bad company: Robyn claims these stubborn beasties possess the intelligence of eight-year-old kids.
The 2735 kilometre trek changed her life, giving her new self-belief and forging her career as a writer.
“The whole adventure gave me the confidence to become an author,” says Robyn, who penned best-selling memoir, Tracks, two years after the adventure.
“The journey gave me something to write about – I probably wouldn’t have become a writer if I hadn’t done it.”
Robyn, who has spent much of her life in the UK and India , admits she’s “a bit of a loner at times.”
But this year she was reluctantly thrust back in the limelight when the movie version of Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska, hit the big screen.
(It’s now available on DVD.)
“I was really happy with the film, though there are things I wouldn’t have included, that I disagreed with,“ says Robyn.
“But that’s normal, to have disagreements with the film-makers – no matter how wonderful the film is, it’s always going to be someone else’s depiction of events. It’s you – but it’s not you!”
As for Mia’s depiction of her in the movie: “I think she did a fantastic job playing me; Mia managed to represent some truth in me I find quite remarkable!”
“Mia’s got a very strong will, “ adds Robyn. “ She appears frail, and she’s quiet but she has this inner strength which in some ways reminds me of me and I think she’s managed to convey that very well.”
“Physically, we’re not so similar, though back in the 70s I was a slip of a thing too, like her. And we also have a sort of middle-European width to the face or something.”
The two, now firm friends, spent time in the Australian desert together when Mia was preparing for her role, learning how to relate to her new co-stars, some feisty camels.
“I showed how to touch a camel’s nose and a couple of tricks, but Mia worked most things out fairly quickly herself. She was a natural!”
As well as covering Robyn’s trek, the film touches on a fling Robyn had with Rick Smolan, a photographer (played by Adam Driver). And though in the movie, Robyn comes across as a little cold towards poor Rick, she insists she wasn’t quite so hard on him in real life.
“If you read my book you’ll see there was a bit more to it all than that!” chuckles Robyn.
Speaking of lovers, in the 80s, she famously had a relationship with author Salmon Rushdie, but she has no interest in re-living that either .
“That was a long time ago. I’ve had much more interesting and famous lovers since then!” she scoffs.
Currently single, she has recently returned from a spell in India to settle in a new home in Castlemaine in Victoria.
“My partner, who lived in the Himalayas, died three years ago,” Robyn, says softly, “and for now, I’m happy being alone.”
As for Australian men, Robyn’s book, still in bookshops after all these years, is scathing about the “racism and sexism” of many of the males she met during her trek.
“I think Australian men have had to evolve to some degree since the 70s,” Robyn reflects, “which is a good thing, for Australian women, and men too! They really needed to!”
But ask her about camels, and the compliments flow.
“They’re clever and funny,” Robyn enthuses.
“Camels have vast intelligence, tremendous indolence, and a really, really good sense of humour!”
And no, she’d never consider another desert trek with camels, “I’ve been there and done that!”
Though, oddly enough, in the decades since her inspirational desert walk, camels have remained a constant in her life.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in India with nomads, who use camels, so I’ve continued to encounter camels over the years.”
Robyn admits she has been “something of a nomad,” for much of her life, “but at last I’m settling,” she reflects.
And she still keeps in contact with many of the “wonderful” friends she made in Alice Springs, all those years ago. I made some very important friendships that have sustained me for a long time. I’m very lucky.”
She’s currently working on a memoir about her mother, who she lost when she was just 11. Her tragic, childhood loss clearly continues to have impact, despite the resilience and bravery she’s displayed for so long, as personified in that immortalized trek with her camels.
“I don’t remember her very well, the woman is this book is a kind of imaginary mother, a somewhat fictitious mother,” says Robyn.
The movie Tracks is available on DVD now. Robyn will be a guest speaker at the Ubud Writers Festival in Bali in October.