In Holidays, Travel & Adventure, Inspiration

Robyn Davidson Small

Last night we went to watch the (very good) movie ‘Tracks’, which is the film about Robyn Davidson’s epic 2,700 kilometre trek from Alice Springs across the Australian outback to the Indian Ocean in 1977.

Have you seen it yet? You should definitely go if you enjoy stories about intrepid women.


Robyn Davidson The Camel Lady

I wasn’t sure a film about a young woman, a dog called Diggity, and four cranky camels walking across vast tracts of the most inhospitable land in Australia would really capture my attention for 2 hours, especially as I had read (and loved) the book shortly after it came out in the early ’80’s, when I was a young backpacker living and working in Alice Springs.

Yes, I knew all about Robyn Davidson, a young woman who had earned the nickname of “The Camel Lady”. Her name was firmly embedded in Alice Springs. So too were Diggity, and her lovable camels, Bub, Dookie, Goliath, and Zeleika.

Isolation and the cliches of our time

In fact so impressed was I with the book that I can remember quoting vast tracts of it in long-hand airmail letters to my then absent boyfriend, because it seemed to me that Robyn connected with my achey-breaky heart at the time. Having recently uprooted myself from a destructive emotional scene at home in England I just ‘got’ her need for isolation, and the need to feel apart from the capitalist empire, and the delicious need to look deep inside at who I really was and live outside the cliches of the time.

Robyn was, and is a symbol of strength, beauty and feminist ideals. She chose to live sparingly and chose adventure over convention at a time when it was in vogue to amass wealth and possessions and when women’s roles were predominantly wife and mother.

So she was, and still is a kind of heroine to me … and I was lucky to meet and chat with her at the recent Perth Writer’s Festival held at the University of Western Australia on the very lovely banks of the Swan River, below.

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Did I quake? Oh yes, despite my advanced years, I did … a little! I thought she might dismiss me as a whittering fool.

Robyn Davidson 1

But she didn’t. She had a dreadful cold, poor thing, and though feeling awful she was friendly and warm, with a quiet searching manner.

After Robyn’s interview session in the Octagon Theatre, there was a queu of people dying to speak to her and have their books signed.


So I quickly explained how much her words had meant to me when I first arrived in Australia, just after I’d backpacked from Sydney to Alice Springs where I found work with a chap who ran tours to Ayers Rock – I might also have moonlighted in a Pizza restaurant, and on occasion sung (badly) in a pub with a Maori guitarist called Doc too.

Anyway, in amidst her hectic schedule of promoting her soon-to-be-released memoir and the film, Robyn who is now 62, very kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

 On getting older

“As you get older your idealism gets tempered somewhat – I’m not quite so cranky. I make sure I have time for myself and have time for solitude and to think deeply about life, and why we are doing it.”

What are you passionate about?

“I am curious about everything and I want to know everything,  especially science.  How could one ever get bored?   I have educated myself to Ph.D. level by listening to every neuro-scientist lecture I can find.  Podcasts are wonderful for that sort of thing.”


So why as a young girl did you do the trek across the desert?

“At the crux of it all was that I wanted to see what I was capable of and it’s extraordinary that you are so much more capable than you imagine. “


You have traveled with nomads in India and made a life in India. Why do you love India?

“I don’t love living in India, I find it incredibly difficult and demanding.  But being there gives me a healthy perspective on the ease and privilege of my life.  Outrageous privilege, outrageous ease.  We should all wake in the morning with a feeling of gratitude for our luck.  Even the bad luck, sometimes.”


Robyn at the Writers’ Fest

During the session at the Writer’s Festival, Robyn was interviewed by Victoria Laurie about her memoir which she said centres around her mother. She was only 11 when her mother committed suicide, “So it’s my story, but my mother in me,” she said. “I’m plagued with the question of ‘why did I do the trek’, and the memoir is to reclaim the notion of the complexity of things that makes anyone do anything.”


The book was written in a cold London flat

Robyn wrote Tracks two years after completing the trek and admits to having no notes written down when she began. “But I remembered everything and I think this was because I was so present at the time (of the trek). I wrote the book in a cold, dingy flat in London reliving desert sunsets by memory. Memory is so slippery and in fact an imaginative act -when you revisit a memory your mind has done something to that memory.”


Country girl

Raised in the country (Queensland) Robyn says she had access to the world around her but in a different way. “I’m always aware of east south, north and west, and I get fazed in a city. I was raised as a girl, but I learnt about the outdoors from just hanging around my dad, although it was assumed I would be an indoors ‘feminise’d’ creature. But then my Mother was undone by expectations of what it was to be a woman in those days.”


Clearing out her mind

The 9 month trek allowed Robyn to do some clearing out of her mind. “That sort of thing changes you, it’s like chucking out the garbage. I think I was fundamentally changed – the wiring in my mind was changed.”


Nomadism, Aboriginal culture and destruction of desert

Having lived close to the earth and spent time with Aboriginal elders Robyn is acutely aware of the destruction of desert and nomadic cultures. “We are beginning to understand how valuable Aboriginal knowledge of our country is and it’s ironic that it comes at a time when there’s so little left. The desert is so changed, radically. The introduction of non native fauna and flora … the destruction of desert.”


So what intrigues her about nomadism?

“I’m curious about nomadism and the fact  that you can’t accumulate goods. It makes for a different reality, and how you are in the world. Nomadic cultures hold onto human values, they look after each other, they don’t accumulate wealth necessarily, they are tolerant of other people, and they are good diplomats. I’m not saying we can return to that kind of life but there’s much to be learnt from the value systems – but that way of life is being obliterated.”


On shedding burdens

“During the trek, it was the shedding of goods as I went along … which was a metaphor for the shedding of other things, and when you’re alone and contemplating, you do just get rid of a lot of rubbish. It’s part of growing up or growing, and we all have a duty to get rid of our narcissism. The trip forged an individual out of me – it forged together the bits and pieces of me.”


On 21st Century life

“It’s becoming more and more difficult to think about deeper things – it’s as if we are being tormented by these demands so that we become tame and don’t ask deep questions – such as answering 200 emails a day.”


On her family

“My dad was an old dad, he was born in 1900. He was an Edwardian type, from aristocracy, a man’s man, very charming, lovable but hopeless, like men were then!! Emotionally, masculinity had to be acted out with a lot of derring do. My mother was half Jewish, very talented, rather flighty, a little neurotic, he adored her but just didn’t get it. You can see how damaging that point of view was for women, particularly after the Second World War when their lives were circumscribed in a very particular way.”


And today?

“My idea of nomadism these days is going between extremely nice hotels!!! I can do the desert and I can do discomfort, but you know Eeeeeugh!”

What would you say to empty nest women who might have lost their Mojo?

“It’s the best time of your life.  You can start a career, go to school, wander, eat what you want, and you have time to read.  Curiosity is the only thing you need.”


Curious Fast Facts

  • Her new memoir will most likely be called: “Self Portrait with imaginary mother.”
  • She lived in a flat beneath author, Doris Lessing’s residence, for two years when she was in London, and although Doris wasn’t a mentor they talked writing. “I went to London to write the book because it was so difficult then to get out of Australia, and you had to get out and see the world, but we were so far away, and in those days no one was interested in us ‘down under’.”
  • Tracks was acclaimed by Doris Lessing as one of the best travel books in the world.
  •  Advice from Doris Lessing: “Don’t read what people write about you or your work.  It will teach you pretty much, nothing.”
  • Since her desert experience Robyn has has had more than a hundred addresses.
  • After writing Tracks Robyn headed to India migrating with the nomadic Rabari tribe – she wrote about this in Desert Places.  Later, she lived in a simple village home in the foothills of The Himalayas with a member of the Rajasthan aristocracy.
  • Robyn once had an affair with writer Salman Rushdie.
  • Robyn lives in Melbourne but spends some months each year in The Himalayas.

Buy the Book!

If you’d like to buy Tracks, here’s a link to Amazon: Tracks by Robyn Davidson via Amazon It’s definitely one of my favourite books. It’ll give you an inside view of the Australian outback and instill in you the notion that we are all capable of achieving so much more than we think we can. Here’s a review on Dear Author  I found during my research that might tempt you to buy.

Anyway it’s my Birthday today! So if you do buy the book from the Amazon link above, thank you, because I’m an Amazon affiliate. I promise to spend any earnings on a glass of champagne!

Over to you … did you enjoy this post? Will you buy the book? Have you seen the movie? Please do tell us!


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Showing 28 comments
  • Patti Richards

    I just stumbled on your interview with Robyn Davidson which, amongst other things, brought up happy memories of my recent trip to Perth, this past September. I thought your readers might like to know that there’s a new book out about Robyn’s trek, called INSIDE TRACKS, authored by Rick Smolan, the photographer who chronicled Robyn’s journey for National Geographic magazine. It’s got beautifully reproduced photos from the trek, and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie, for starters. If your readers are interested, they can definitely find it at Amazon or probably in local bookstores as well (such as any are left, sadly).

    • Johanna

      Thanks Patti – I’m so glad the post brought back happy memories for you. Thanks for the heads up on Rick’s book – it would make a fantastic Christmas present wouldn’t it.

  • Ingrid Wilson

    hi I used to work for Robyn in 2000.
    she is a lovely lady and I’m so proud of her book making it into a movie.
    i wish her all the best 🙁

    • Johanna

      Oh how interesting Ingrid! It was brilliant that the book was made into a movie, hey!

      • Ingrid

        Yes we used to talk about her book and I have a copy she gave me.
        I lost touch with her in 2004 and hope I can get in touch again.

        • Johanna

          Ohh, that’s great you have a personal copy of the book but shame you lost touch Ingrid. I’m sure you’ll catch up with her one way or another 🙂

  • Leigh

    What a great interview. I have great admiration for people like Robyn and I love her outlook on life today. I also like her recommendation not to get caught up or even read reviews of a book if your write it. She’r probably learned from her mistakes along the way.

    I’d definitely like to read Tracks.

    • Johanna

      Thanks Leigh, and yes I reckon Robyn’s learned quite a few tricks of the writing trade in her time. Definitely read the book 🙂

  • Reply

    I will be searching for the movie and book after your great questions that explained her life. I agree that as you get older, you want to learn everything and perhaps in more of a hurry to question all that I took for granted.

    • Johanna

      Yes, Neva … same! In such a hurry to learn things now, and can’t believe I was so tardy in my youth! Do hope you find Tracks – the book or the movie and enjoy it 🙂

  • [email protected]

    Hi Jo
    Great post and love the serendipity of it all.

    I was invited to see Tracks a few weeks ago here in Dublin and didn’t know what it was about. I went with the Oz Ambassador to Ireland and we loved the film.

    I soon realised that Tracks was MY BOOK that I loved and read in the 80’s and I thought the film was very true to the book.

    The film was like a meditation and it’s pace really echoed Robyns journey.

    Happy birthday Jo


    • Johanna

      I love that Liz! Yes, it was like a meditation and, for me too, it took me right back to my younger days when the book completely captured my attention. Now just whose book was it MINE or YOURS! Dual at dawn me thinks!! Thanks for your insightful comments and birthday wishes.

  • budget jan

    You managed to get a lot of questions in Jo. I read the book a long time ago and will probably read it again. It is very much the sort of book I like. I have heard of course that the book didn’t make the transition to a movie very well but I am fairly sure I will like it. Good Post. Good Read.

    • Johanna

      Thank you Jan. I think the movie translated very well,so it will be interesting to know how you feel especially as you enjoyed the book. Give it a go, and will be interested to know what you think. Oh, and not all the questions were mine … some were via the interviewer at the Writers’ Festival.

  • Jess @UsedYorkCity

    I love the advice she gives to women over 50 (which can really be applied at any age, so true!), and also her tip on educating yourself through podcasts…I’m going to give this a try!

    • Johanna

      It is advice applicable t any age isn’t it Jess! I’ve also been charging my ipod for walking to learn more as I age … We are so lucky to have so much available these days. Thanks for popping by!

  • Catherine

    How Exciting, having the opportunity to interview such an inspiring and incredible woman! I must add her book to my seemingly endless list of “must read” books!

    • Johanna

      Ohh Catherine, I know what you mean! My bedside table groans with books 🙂 But yes, I think you’d love this book.

  • Reply

    Very interesting read. I can’t wait to see the film!

    • Johanna

      Michela, you must must must see the film! It’s captivating.

  • Life Images by Jill

    I absolutely LOVED the movie. And I was given the book as a Christmas present, but I haven’t read it yet. It is next in my pile. In the last few weeks I have heard a few interviews with Robyn – the best being on ABC Classic FM with Margaret Throssby. What an inspirational woman Robyn is. And how fantastic for you Jo to meet her. I wish I had been there. Anyone who loves the Australian outback should see this movie or read this book, or both. They will be inspired.
    Thanks Jo for a fabulous post and insight.

    • Johanna

      Thanks Jill, and yes I agree that the movie is brilliant, and I’m sure you’re going to love the book too. I am going to listen to the ABC interview when I have time over the weekend – I love hearing about Robyn’s ideas and life too – so inspiring. Thanks for the mention of that 🙂

  • Linda ~ Journey Jottings

    Robyn lived and prepared for the trip in Alice Springs staying with close friends of mine so I’ve always felt quite connected to her story – particularly when I ended up out on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert camping for 3 month stints as part of my work!
    Robyn’s tale is similar to Jessica Watson in a way – We can all do anything we want if we set our mind resolutely on it –
    I love that philosophy 😉

    • Johanna

      Wow, Linda – circles within circles and how we all connect via different ways always amazes me! I love that you have connections with Robyn’s story. I think we need to hear about some of your stories on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert too 🙂 Yes, Jessica Watson is of course another inspiring Aussie with a fabulous story and great philosophy.

  • Kathy Marris

    What an interesting lady Robyn is. I particularly liked her reply to your question about getting older – I could totally relate to this. I think I would now love to see the movie and possibly download the book too. Thanks for introducing me to yet another inspirational woman over 50.

    • Johanna

      I’m so glad to have introduced you to Robyn, Kathy. As a traveller yourself I think you’ll love both the movie and the book.

  • Carol

    What a great interview and what an interesting person. Although I never read this book, my mother owned a laser disc (do you remember these? pre-CD) of From Alice to Ocean. She also has hanging in her house the big Alice to Ocean poster. Her whole life is an incredible journey.

    • Johanna

      Thanks Carol – yes, Robyn is so interesting – from her life, her values, her words, and her journey through life. Always vicarious, never predictable 🙂 I do remember those laser disks!! How amazing that your Mum has the Alice to Ocean poster.

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