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Robyn Davidson on nomadic cultures, journeys and coming home
Conversation between Robyn Davidson and Dr Mike Smith
Recorded at the National Museum of Australia, 16 September 2007
ISA MENZIES: I am a coordinator of Audience Development and Public Programs here at the National Museum of Australia. I would like to thank you all for coming this afternoon. We would like to welcome our speakers Robyn Davidson and Mike Smith. As part of our Centre for Historical Research all our fellows have an obligation to deliver a public program to people. We think that is fantastic because it gives our academic aspect of the Museum a chance to connect with the general public and to connect with audiences. Please join me in welcoming Robyn Davidson and Mike Smith.
MIKE SMITH: Let me add my thanks to everyone for coming on this Sunday afternoon. I am a senior research fellow in our Centre for Historical Research, and we are very pleased to have Robyn Davidson as a visiting fellow in our centre. The format of this afternoon is one you are probably very familiar with. It is a conversation where a Museum staff member or a fellow enthusiast talks to one of our guests about a subject that is close to their heart. In this case it is Robyn’s interest in nomads in the deserts and in travelling with camels.
There will be time for you to ask questions of Robyn or me at the end. I am assuming that most of you have come to see Robyn and are fascinated by her book Tracks, which was a landmark publication, on a trip that took place 30 years ago. In many ways we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of that trip.
Let me just set the scene a bit and then I will let Robyn talk. It is 30 years since this camel trip - quite a remarkable trip even today - of some 2700 kilometres across the Western Desert by a young woman then 27 years old. It took place in a context when there was increasing interest in the Australian deserts. Warren Bonython in 1973 had crossed the Simpson Desert on foot - he should have taken camels but he was on foot. The land rights movement was just gathering steam in the mid-1970s with the passage of the Land Rights Act in 1976. Papunya Tula paintings, that wonderful desert art movement, was just gathering speed and didn’t get up a head of steam until the early 1980s. The homelands movement was just about to start with a push to establish little desert communities out west of Haasts Bluff, parts of Papunya, west of Docker River and west of Areyonga. They were all beginnings.
But the camel trip that Robyn is famous for also came at the end of a lot of things. By 1975 when Robyn was preparing for the trip, camels had not been used as mainstream transportation in the desert for perhaps 30 years - not since the Second World War. Aboriginal people had used them for travelling in the 1950s, but by the late 1960s even they were moving on to clapped-out Holdens and other motor vehicles. There was quite a notable trip with camels by Dick Kimber and Sam Miles with an Aboriginal cameleer called Mickanie Tjupurrula in 1971. That was probably one of the last big trips before we had the recent revival of commercial camel trips - except for Robyn’s trip in 1977.
We will start to talk about the journey now, and Tracks really hit the mark. It is interesting to ask why. Robyn, I want to read a little passage from Tracks just to pose a question. We often see deserts as a place for an inner journey, and this trip had all the hallmarks: a woman alone in the desert, camels, encounters with Aboriginal people. It picked up on perhaps the idea that two-thirds of the continent is reserved for mystical experiences. This is a book that had the legs, quite apart from just the magic of the real journey.
Anna knew she had to cross the desert. Over it, on the far side, were mountains – purple and orange and grey. The colours of the dream were extraordinarily beautiful and vivid … The dream marked a change in Anna, in her knowledge of herself. In the desert she was alone, and there was no water, and she was a long way from the springs. She woke knowing that if she was to cross the desert she must shed burdens.
That is from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook but it clearly positions this as an inner journey.
ROBYN DAVIDSON: All of that is very interesting, because it puts me into a context for me as well. I have always thought that the journey came at a very particular time in the development of the Australian psyche, and it has to be seen in that light, I think. The economy was still quite healthy so there was the sense that you could do remarkable things: I could land up in Alice Springs and know I could get a job at the pub. In other words, there wasn’t the anxiety around one’s future that I think young people have today - whether they are right in having that anxiety is another matter. But the atmosphere of that time in the 1970s allowed us to have these rather big dreams.
I was talking to a friend about this the other day: another thing that characterised that time of the 1970s and onwards - and the 1980s sort of killed it - was the idea of freedom. For a lot of us the idea of freedom was the prime driving force in what we did, and particularly for women for obvious reasons. Adventure was like a life based on the principle of freedom. So there was that as well.
There was also the sense that the 1960s and all of that political hope or fervour had disappeared. People were sitting around talking about what they were going to do, what was going to happen - there was a sort of a listlessness, and I reacted against that listlessness by deciding to do this journey. Of course, there were all sorts of other reasons why I decided to do it but I did it.
As for that quote about ‘shedding burdens’, in fact I found that quote after the book was written. But it was so perfect because that journey was about shedding burdens - metaphorically shedding mental burdens, walking away a lot of crap. But it was also quite literal in the sense that, as I went along, I learnt to do without pretty much everything. There was something so liberating and freeing about getting down to being so competent that I was confident enough to know that the few things I had, I could use them properly and keep going and so I wasn’t afraid. I felt I knew my environment; I knew what I was doing; I knew my camels as I had trained my camels - so I had that kind of confidence that comes from knowing your environment.
The gradual chucking away of everything that was extraneous was both a good thing to do in terms of cutting down the loading-up time every morning but also a very freeing thing to do in realising how little you actually need. I would go so far as to say that if you understand the Central Australian desert, you could walk through it with minimal equipment. You don’t need all the GPSs, radio wires, et cetera - but that is another matter.
MIKE SMITH: We will explore the journey. But it would be very interesting to hear why camels and why Central Australia. You could have found yourself, spread your wings, developed your confidence as a capable person in Kathmandu. Why Central Australia and why camels?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: I certainly didn’t want to go to Kathmandu. I wasn’t interested in the whole hippy trail thing at all. I love the desert. I was raised on a cattle station until I was four, so I respond to the lovely, dry country very well. I wanted to go deeper into that landscape.
I was also very interested in Aboriginal culture from the point of view of absolute ignorance. I had never met an Aboriginal person, which was pretty common at that time. I had read about Aboriginal culture like I might read about the Greeks. So that was another layer of interest.
As for why the camels, well, I had no money. I arrived in Alice Springs with $6. I knew there were wild camels out there so I just thought, ‘Oh well, I will get on the train and go out there with my $6. I will get a job and just round up a few camels or I will find someone who was rounding them up and I’ll get some and I will train them and I will go.’ And actually that is what I did.
This is one of the things I noticed on that trip because, as you said, the tourist boom was just beginning. It was right at the beginning of people having enough money to buy a four-wheel drive vehicle and go out. On the way to Ayers Rock I would come across these people. What I found extraordinary was that here was this vehicle with all the windows rolled up, air-conditioning and two-way radios bristling everywhere; and I thought that vehicle is keeping them from the environment that they want to explore. I felt that having animals was the pace I wanted to go at. Something very different happens when you walk a country and also I felt much more confident as an animal trainer than as a mechanic.
MIKE SMITH: I have to say that I came to camels relatively late and I found them charismatic animals, a revelation, and a wonderful way to travel the desert. When did you start working with camels; was it in Alice Springs?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: It was absolutely. I had never seen one before. You have to remember that this was right at the beginning of the land rights movement. Alice Springs in those days was a very conservative town - not to say redneck and right wing - a pretty heavy duty place. There was an extremely masculine ethic in the way people did things. There was one shop and one terrible pub - a nightmare place. It still is, but for other reasons. Poor old Alice Springs. Where was I?
MIKE SMITH: Meeting your first camels.
ROBYN DAVIDSON: It was also a place that had completely lunatic people in it, one of whom was Kurt Posel, this Austrian ex-horse trainer who had built a kind of Austrian folly on the outskirts of Alice Springs where he was training camels to take tourists around on rides. He just didn’t have the right personality as a tourism person, because the tourists would come out and he would shout at them and say things like, ‘What do you think you are doing? You bloody idiot! Get off my fence.’ But anyway he was really wonderful with camels. I worked with him for about a year and learnt the finesse of it - and ultimately got done over by him financially but that is all in the book. I took two camels in the end from him and got two wild ones that an old Afghan chap had brought in, so then I had my four.
MIKE SMITH: What would you give to the audience as Robyn’s three tips on how to work camels?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Watch the camel day and night, watch its behaviour and learn how it works. The first thing is just watch them endlessly. Adore them, but never let them take an inch or they will take a mile. And don’t be afraid to beat the hell out of them.
MIKE SMITH: You spent a couple of years preparing yourself for the trip: learning the ropes, learning how to handle camels, learning how to repair the gear, make the saddles, stitch them. You are about to embark on a journey; what is the shape of it at the very beginning? Is it going to be the full journey; are you heading for the west coast; or don’t you know how long the journey is going to be? How much food? How do you organise your food? How do you set yourself up? How do you choose your route? How does this trip take shape in your mind?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Ad hoc is really how it happened. I did a dry run, a practice run from Alice Springs to Utopia Station, north of Alice Springs about 300 kilometres, with a couple of friends from Alice Springs. It was in mid-summer, in February, and I will never forget it. It was just hell but it sorted out basic problems such as: did the saddles rub and all those sorts of things. Then I had three months at Utopia itself to sit down and refine it all. So that was good. By then I had learnt pretty good bush skills and I could handle most things, I think.
As for choosing the route, I knew I wanted to go through Pitjinjarra country. I am not quite sure why I made that decision but I knew that I wanted to go out that way. What I wanted to do was just go out that way and wander, go wherever I wanted and wherever the spirit took me. But at the last minute I got National Geographic involved because I just needed $2000. I know $2000 doesn’t sound like much now, but then it was an unreachable figure. So rather against my better judgment I wrote to them and they said, ‘Yes, we will give you $4000 and off you go.’ Then because it was National Geographic I had to give the journey more of a shape from A to B. So that is what made me do that little loop and then head across to the west coast.
MIKE SMITH: Was the ability to call in at some of the settlements like Warburton or Docker River part of your consideration?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes. I had hoped to pick up an old Aboriginal person, woman or man, who would take me off track and just go out to country. At Docker River the photographer, this young New York boy, came out. I had been very definite about how to approach Aboriginal people, respect their privacy and so on, but he just couldn’t resist. He went and took pictures of people in ceremony, and they were justifiably very pissed off. So that spelt the end of asking someone to come with me. It was quite a low point of the trip, because I felt quite depressed about that. It seemed like the end of something.
Then I was heading down to Wingelinna, which is just below where the Northern Territory and South Australia border meets, and quite by chance a car load of old Aboriginal blokes pulled up and stayed the night at my camp. Then in the morning this little fellow said that he wanted to take me into the settlement and from then on he would walk me to Warburton. And that was Mr Eddie, who is dead now. But talk about luck: that was an extraordinary stroke of luck in all sorts of ways. It has allowed me to keep a relationship with that family through time.
MIKE SMITH: Had Mr Eddie worked with camels himself?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: I don’t think so. If he had, he certainly didn’t seem - I was very affectionate with my camels, and he didn’t get that at all. We would be going along and he would say, ‘Put the camel down’ - and all this in Pitjinjarra which I hardly spoke. So I would kneel the camel down. It is hard for camels to get up and down with a pack on their back. The camel would get down and he would hop up on the camel for a ride. We would go for about two miles and he would say, ‘Put the camel down,’ and that went on. I don’t think he’d worked with camels. He certainly didn’t say he had. I suspect that he would have seen his first white fella in his 40s or 50s.
MIKE SMITH: I remember from Dick Kimber’s account of travelling with Aboriginal cameleer Mickanie Tjupurrula in 1970-71 and Mickanie had only one piece of rope. You weren’t allowed to cut it when you tied the loads on the camel, which made the rope work very complicated. Just from my own travels with the camels I am struck by how complicated the camel loads are. The saddles are wood, string and hessian pads. The load is tied on in all sorts of ways but it has to be evenly balanced. The saddles themselves are quite heavy to lift on and off the camels.
ROBYN DAVIDSON: You are telling me.
MIKE SMITH: You have to hobble and unhobble the camels. There is a lot of physically hard work. For a large part of the trip you were travelling alone and you had four camels. How did you manage the work? Can you describe your routine? What is the day in the life of Robyn Davidson?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: I was on my own 99 per cent of the trip. The first was the process of getting faster at loading up. I think the first time I loaded up was two hours and by then you want to toss everything away anyway. Without throwing anything away I got that down to about an hour, and then slowly even faster than that. It is a matter of routine. The second was being absolutely meticulous. You cannot afford to do one thing wrong or be lazy. You tie one rope wrong and the saddle is off or the camels are pissed off. You have to be on the ball about that sort of thing and constantly watchful. When I said that about getting to know what an animal does, it is about watching them all the time to see how they think.
My day would begin before dawn. I would wake up probably about 4 o’clock and I would listen for where the bells were. I would stay awake until I heard a chink so that at least I would know what direction they had gone off in and that they wouldn’t be too far beyond that, probably. Then I would go back to sleep and get up pre-dawn when it was light. I would build up the fire, put on the billy and pack up a little bit. I wanted the camels to have as much feeding time in that early morning as they could. Just before it was time to go I would go out and look for them. That would either mean tracking them up - I was a pretty good tracker then - or sometimes they had circled around and would be coming back to camp. In fact, sometimes they would sleep right next to me. Every now and then I would wake up with Bubby’s head on my swag - usually because he was after something to eat, but still ...
Then the loading up, once I was practised, would take about an hour and off we would go. We would walk 20 miles. I generally did not have much of a drink during the walk and would then swig down three billy cans at night. Then it was unloading, making camp and letting the camels go.
MIKE SMITH: Letting them go hobbled?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes.
MIKE SMITH: What sort of food did you have with you?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: I started off with all that terrible fancy stuff - freeze dried food. But In the end I lived on rice, flour, oats, tonnes of pulses, lots of curried things, the occasional tin of sardines and, for a real treat, a Fray Bentos tinned pie. I was as healthy as could be - no problems. If there was tucker around, like I would come across solanum - a nice little yellow solanum that contains heaps of vitamin C - I would spend the afternoon gathering that. If I came into a cattle station there might be oranges or lemons and I would take something like that. It was pretty basic food and I was as healthy as anything.
MIKE SMITH: On these journeys you start off travelling with camels but within a short period of time you become part of a herd where the camels know you. They know your weaknesses. You know the camels as individuals. There is a real sense of your life revolving around the camels and the camels keeping a bit of an eye on where you are as well. Can you tell us something about your camels as personalities, as individuals?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Animals are highly individualistic, and the more intelligent the animal, the differences in personality seem quite extreme - and that was certainly true of my camels. The gorgeous one that I loved the most was a bull who unfortunately I had to castrate because he had come into season the season before and he nearly killed me. Then there was a younger bull who I had also castrated. He was sort of in love with the other male bull and was kind of nervous all the time.
And then the cow, she had never been seduced by humans. She knew that humans were essentially the enemy and if she could get away from them that would be just great. But since she had to put up with them, she would do what she had to do. She was very gentle natured, but you got the sense that you couldn’t really bribe her the way you could bribe the other two. Then she had a calf, which was very good for me because I would tie the calf up at night and be pretty sure that at least she would come back even if the boys didn’t.
Who knows what they think, but they certainly had a sense of humour and they certainly stuck up for each other. Once I laid into Zeleika - actually I didn’t, it was because her nose peg was infected and she was roaring with pain; I had to change the nose peg and it was horrible. Bubby came up and pushed me out of the way, telling me to not hurt her. Another time when I had let them all go, because we were on a cattle station so they didn’t need their hobbles, Dookie came up to me and took my whole head in his mouth. So it was like a helmet around my head. I could feel him slobbering in the top of my head, and then he very gently took his mouth away and looked at me. They are extraordinary animals. They were fabulous.
MIKE SMITH: Are they very different to work from horses?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes. Horses are more nervous and highly strung. Camels are harder to work in a way because they are more intelligent and they are not domesticated. It is easy enough to use camels in a group but it is very hard work to try and take one away from the group and train them to do that. I had trained them to do that and I did have to use that sometimes. At one point I had to go back and look for my rifle and Eddie had to stay with the other camels. I rode Bubby at night about five miles back on his own. That was pretty good.
MIKE SMITH: Did you ever lose your camels at nights?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Twice, but once quite seriously when wild camels had come in, so my fellows’ tracks were all messed up with the herd’s tracks. They had taken off because they had been spooked by the herd. But it only took a day to find them – and I found them.
MIKE SMITH: I want to stay with Tracks for the moment but just a small diversion -
ROBYN DAVIDSON: It is so long ago. I have to scratch my head to remember.
MIKE SMITH: You have met lots of other camels since then, including camels in Rajasthan. I don’t know whether you have had anything to do with Bactrian camels?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: No. I had a bit to do with the yak but not the camel.
MIKE SMITH: Staying with the camels: do Rajasthani camels differ in personality and outlook?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Completely.
MIKE SMITH: How do you compare them? What is the sort of transnational perspective on camels?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: No-one has ever asked me that before but I am going to tell you. Australian camels are charming, down to earth and witty. They have a dry Australian wit. The two Indian camels I had were spoilt princesses - snooty, turning their nose up at things and awful to deal with - but much more elegant. It was like riding a cloud. They were beautiful to ride. Also they are trained: you see them in those lovely Persian miniatures where the camel head is pulled right back, and you can’t understand how this animal can see the ground but it is wonderful. So you have the camel’s head right here in front of you; they are going along at this beautiful pace; and you are floating along. They are very beautiful and elegant. The difference is that the animals that were imported here were like draft horses, so they haven’t got that lovely gait - but they are much nicer.
MIKE SMITH: I notice in the photographs in Tracks you ride your camels mounted fairly far forward on the front of the hump whereas a lot of the Australian way of riding camels has really been behind the hump.
ROBYN DAVIDSON: It is the different style of saddle. It is actually more comfortable at the front. I had three sorts of saddles: an old traditional saddle with the big, heavy, wooden, mulga slats and lots of stuffing that the old Afghan chap had made for me; and two saddles that I had made, one of which was the long riding saddle that you see in the old pictures with the person sitting behind the hump and with the stirrups and the other which was a cross - it was like an Arabian saddle with a square tree that I could tuck my knees into. If there is trouble you can really hold on quite well, you have a good grip. It is high up because you are at the height of the saddle so it is nice and cool and you can see a long way. Also if the camel is mucking up, you just pull its head up into your lap so you have a lot more control. If I had a choice that would be the best thing to ride on, if not to carry.
MIKE SMITH: Did you routinely use nose pegs?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: I did. I made them out of whitewood so that they were nice and springy. It is not a happy thing putting a nose peg in a camel, I have to tell you. I was taught how to do this by the Austrian chap: you mark it with a leather punch and then you get a metal skewer like a knife sharpening skewer and you thrust it up. It has to be behind a kind of flap in the nostril and then you push it up inside the nostril - it hurts, I should think. But, for control, there is nothing like it and because I was on my own I could not risk not having that.
MIKE SMITH: This journey - 2700 kilometres, six months, four camels, one young woman - is quite an epic journey. Let’s move on a bit to look at the aftermath. At one point in your book you said it was awkward being someone with a label.
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes.
MIKE SMITH: Let’s think to the end of the trip, there’s been a surprising amount of media coverage and perhaps you are thinking, ‘Well, maybe I should put my side of the story, I will write a book.’ You are in London where there’s an expat community: Clive James, Germaine Greer -
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Doris Lessing.
MIKE SMITH: How did you come to write this book Tracks?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: As you said, I was so surprised by the global interest that was just extraordinary. I remember that the New York Times named me as one of the 10 most famous people of 1978, or whenever it was. So for a little girl from the bush this was rather strange. I had written a thing for National Geographic and I didn’t like what they had done with it. They had made it rather geographic-ese. Then I got a letter from a publisher in London, and in it she said, ‘Will you do a book for us?’ I thought, ‘If I write a book, first it will be my story and not all these other distortions of the story; and, second, it will be like chucking a bone at the dogs so that they are not attacking you, they are attacking the book.’
I went to London and I met Doris Lessing. She was wonderful and took me under her wing. In fact, I wrote some of the book staying in her house. It was two years on from the actual journey. Because I was so deeply involved in the writing I swear that I remember every single camp site of that nine months while I was writing the book. But then as soon as I had written the book, it was as if the book swallowed up the journey and I could forget it. Then much to everyone’s surprise the book becomes a bestseller and so the thing keeps rolling on. I am sure at some point there will be a film. That will be a further kind of nutty distortion of whatever happened out there, and so it goes on.
MIKE SMITH: I am intrigued by the connection with Doris Lessing because her book The Golden Notebook which you feature became a feminist classic about bringing together the various aspects of your life into becoming a holistic person, and your book also became an iconic piece of writing for people to strive and to achieve.
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Yes, that they could use hopefully.
MIKE SMITH: Did Doris take you under her wing to the extent of saying, ‘Listen, darling, you write it this way.’
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Oh God no, perish the thought - no, not at all. Who knows why she took me under her wing. It’s a mystery. I had written to her: I was reading one of her books, I can’t remember which one, and in the innocence of youth I wrote my first and only fan letter. I think I had said something like: ‘Thank you for your books. They are so useful.’ I told her what I was doing or had done and whether I should write a book or not. She wrote back - her nose for picking me out of the pile of letters is remarkable. No, she didn’t help me write at all, rather the opposite. But I think she helped me steer through the literary world a bit. For example, she said, ‘My dear, don’t bother reading any reviews of your book. All they will tell you is what the current received ideas are. They will be of no use to you whatsoever in terms of your work.’ And so I didn’t. I didn’t read any reviews of Tracks until about six or seven years ago - and she was right.
MIKE SMITH: Becoming someone with a label can be constraining but it can also open doors. It can also create opportunities. You went on to travel with other nomads and travel with other camels and to develop an interest in pastoral nomads. Can you tell us how you got started in India and Rajasthan and how that panned out?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: I have always been interested in the way human beings move around. Early on I wouldn’t have thought about it very much but I was extremely mobile. I seemed always to have been, and to have wanted to have been, nomadic. Having got to know Aboriginal people a bit and thought a lot about why I admired aspects of their culture, I started thinking about the key things that nomadic cultures do differently to sedentary cultures. I was already interested in that.
Then I was at a loose end. I had done various projects, and publishers are always trying to get me to write Tracks again. I wanted to discover something about other forms of nomadism, and pastoral nomadism in particular. I had already been to India and I knew people there. So it all came together, again in a rather ad hoc way, that I would try to live with and research this group in India. This was both a very good idea and a very bad idea, because India is so very difficult. Anyway it culminated in my being in Rajasthan and Gujarat for two years and going on migration with a group of pastoral nomads in Gujarat. It was the hardest thing I have ever done; much more difficult than crossing the Australian desert.
It confirmed a lot of ideas I had about nomadism, about the effect of mobility on cultures, and why it is such a tragedy that it is disappearing. I have written down these statistics: 10,000 years ago all human beings are foragers; by 1500 AD it is down to one per cent mobile; and in the twentieth century it is one-thousandth of that. All mobile peoples are being forced into a sedentary lifestyle and, once that happens, the cosmologies, the world views and systems of knowledge that are based around mobility disappear. I feel it is quite important that I contribute something towards trying to preserve whatever can be preserved. We need nomads not only because they have systems of knowledge that might be useful to modernity, but also in a world that is becoming more and more bureaucratised they are a wonderful symbol for the possibility of living outside the state. In the modern world it is almost impossible to live outside the modern state.
MIKE SMITH: There is a Russian writer, a fairly ponderous academic called Anatoly Khazanov, who wrote quite a famous book on Nomads and the Outside World. It is a very clunky Soviet-era analysis, but he quite wonderfully said of pastoral nomads, ‘The past is unique. The present is precarious and their future dubious,’ which seems to capture it all. But in true Marxist fashion he also went on to say that for some forms of pastoral nomadism’ - he is talking really about pastoralists not hunter gatherers - their existence depends on an interdependence with the outside world, with the trading for certain sorts of products and that some nomads are a specialised branch of village societies like transhumant nomads in the Mediterranean. Did you get a sense of this when you were travelling in India? Could you say something about the relationships between the -
ROBYN DAVIDSON: The sedentary and the mobile?
MIKE SMITH: That is right, and particularly the people you were with and how they fitted into the broader society; and how that affected you?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: We were travelling with an extended family group of 50 people, about 20 camels and 5000 sheep. Their migration would usually be about 10 months of the year, often following the same route but, if the weather changed or there were other problems, they would be flexible and go some other route, and then they would go back to the home village. But all of them to a person said, ‘The village is not our home.’ The migration is our home. So they thought of themselves as nomads. The way it worked with these 5000 dreadful sheep was that the leader of the migration, the mukki, was constantly going ahead and negotiating with farmers, for example, to let the animals spend the night on a cut field with stubble so the sheep would graze on the stubble and shit into the field. In fact, the nomads would make a little bit of money out of that as well. So they would get feed for their animals, a little bit of cash, and the farmer gets his place fertilised.
However, with modern machinery and with new kinds of fertiliser, that is becoming more and more difficult. So in a country like India that is in such disarray everyone is competing for that last blade of grass. Essentially what is happening is that the migrations are becoming very dangerous for the nomads. They are under constant pressure; they are being attacked; the police go after them; they have to give bribes to government forestry places so they can feed their animals - it’s a really difficult life. Those old ways of connecting with different kinds of people as you go along in a fairly symbiotic way is being disrupted. The nomads are the first ones to lose because governments don’t like nomads, governments like people who are still so they can tax them, so they know where they are and so on.
My fear is that, for those sorts of pastoral nomads, the writing is on the wall absolutely. It is too hard. A lot of the young people are saying, ‘Give me a job.’ I would say, ‘Why do you want a job? Don’t you like what you do?’ They would say, ‘We love what we do, but I just don’t want to be at war every day.’ And also those relationships with sedentary people, which probably always took a lot of diplomacy, are breaking down as well. It’s a bit of a mess. Sedentary people also depend on these people for all sorts of things such as fresh produce coming in and gossip coming in. Someone coming through and telling what the pastures are like and sort of thing, so that constant flow of information between the sedentary and the mobile. That is breaking down as well because now people have radios, televisions and things like that.
MIKE SMITH: What did you find your role was when travelling with these nomads? Were you handling the camels; did you get sent out to be a shepherd with the sheep; or were you just a diversion, a person with a notebook and a camera?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: I was the straight man. I was what made them laugh a great deal. I was the comic butt. What struck me about those people, one of the reasons I liked them such a lot was that they really used laughter and good humour to keep going. It was something that they used in order to just survive. We laughed a lot. There would be these terrible days where they had to give bribes to police and they would lose all their money, someone would come and attack them, the ladies had to throw stones at them with their stone throwers, someone else has got malaria and we had to carry him into a doctor - they lead extraordinarily difficult lives. We would sit there at night and everyone would be in pain with laughter, because someone would be talking about the day’s moments and making a joke of it. They were just great like that. They laughed at me a lot and I let them laugh at me a lot because it seemed quite useful that I should do so.
Otherwise I stayed with the women mainly, and we did some stitching during the day. I loaded and unloaded my own camel, so I was fairly self-sufficient. But the real problem for me was that I couldn’t speak their particular language, so that put a lot of pressure on me. I think that was the worst thing about it all. I was sleeping only two or three hours a night because it is very difficult to sleep in the middle of 5000 sheep, let me tell you. Everyone was sick: they had malaria, and I had ear, nose and throat infections from the dust. So it was pretty grim, but I came out of there with such affection and respect for those people. They were really fabulous.
MIKE SMITH: This seems to have kept you going and on to yet other nomadic groups in China and Tibet. How did this come about?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Also going down the gurgler, I have to say. I had seen that sort of relationship between mobile sheep people and local villagers, so I had got a handle on that one. I hadn’t seen high altitude nomadism and pastoralism, which is again quite different, because the nomads don’t go terrifically long distances. They are quite short migrations but they have amazing skill in knowing how to graze different animals at different altitudes. There will be the yaks right at the top altitude; then there will be the dzo; and down at the bottom will be the sheep and a few goats. Again, they have an extraordinary understanding of their environment, and that is what their survival depends on.
It is not that they are environmentalists in any sort of romantic sense, not at all. My feeling about nomads is that, because their survival depends on understanding the world that they are in with such acute precision and being able to be flexible and adjust, gradually a world view or cosmology is built around that understanding. Even though it is pre-scientific in the sense that that information will be passed on in the form of stories, myths or something else, it is nevertheless extremely scientific in that you observe nature and you make conclusions about it. That is what gets lost once they are sedentary.
MIKE SMITH: Unlike our friend Khazanov whose study was mainly desk bound, you have been living with your nomads and it seems to me you have been propelled to the edges of a number of societies. You went to the edge of Australian society in Alice Springs, travelling into the western desert at a time when it was on the edge of things. You have travelled to the edges or the margins of Indian society and in China and Tibet also. How do you get in to a nomadic society in China or Tibet enough to travel with people?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: I have always used the same method. It is certainly not anthropological. It is just go there and see what happens - that’s the method. See what happens, be prepared to go with things as they develop, and use your instinct a bit. It makes it much harder initially, but the assets of doing it that way are that you are not going in with any preconceived ideas at all - or if you are they are ones that can’t be eradicated anyway - and you are less liable to be fixed in a particular view. But it does make it a lot harder. I think next time I would contact particular scholars who are working in the field and I would go through them and say, ‘Find me a family and let’s go out there.’
I want to go back to China because there is this marvellous old Buddhist monk in Cambridge, England, and he is rebuilding his monastery just outside the Tibet Autonomous Region border in China. A lot of it is being funded by Chinese businessmen by the way - that country is so crazy. His monastery is just near Quxu where there are lots of pastoral nomads around him, so he has offered to let me stay at the monastery. I can then go out and just travel with the nomads. That might be a very good way of doing it.
MIKE SMITH: Before I open this up now for questions from the floor. I have one final question of you, Robyn. Today, looking back to Tracks, it is 30 years since you did the journey, you have developed your interest in nomadic societies and you have lived your interest. Was Tracks a turning point or was it a seed that quietly lay dormant and then flourished later in life, which you then followed as it develops in India and China? Or was it a pre-existing interest that you explored? How does Tracks fit in here in terms of your career?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: It is very hard to say. Obviously it opened lots of doors for me, but I didn’t want a lot of those doors, oddly. I was very suspicious of the kinds of things that can happen to you once you are famous; I was always rather suspicious of how distorting that can be. Anyway, that is a different thing.
I have also had this image about how I live my life, which is I just chuck some seeds into the future and by the time I get there I hope something will be growing. It is not having a specific plan necessarily but just assuming that, if you follow your instinct or pursue things that you are interested in, it will pan out in some way for you. I wouldn’t say that sort of life is terrifically good for the bank balance, but it is interesting.
It is more the pre-existing interest that one thing led off in one direction and then into another, and I suddenly realised that I had spent a lot of time with nomads. I thought about why had I done that and why had I been so nomadic and then trying to put it into a form to think about what it meant that, at the same time as nomadism as a tradition is disappearing, you have the largest sweeps of human movement around the world that has ever happened. What is going on here? I would like to pursue that too, because I think the two things are antithetical.
MIKE SMITH: We have plenty more to talk about, but I would like to give people an opportunity to ask their own questions of you.
QUESTION: This might sound a funny question: can you talk about camels’ feet? I did a four-day trek in Rajasthan which I loved. When you said it was like riding on air, I was fascinated by how the camels placed their feet like ballet dancers, and their toes. I don’t know whether you have anything to say about them.
ROBYN DAVIDSON: They are perfectly designed for sand. If you take them into very rocky country, they don’t do very well, they can rip their feet apart. Also if they do get a bad gash, it is almost impossible for it to heal, because there is a squishy bladder inside that foot and every time they put their foot down it comes out.
QUESTION: I was very interested to hear about the Tracks journey without a discussion of your dog. When I think of all the companions in literature that I have read about, it is your dog that I cried about when you explained that he died. That was just a comment. But you said that I am sure at some point it will be a film and further distort the journey. I wonder when the option for Tracks will be up and who your agent is?
MIKE SMITH: And who will play Robyn Davidson?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: That’s a funny story. It’s been through so many different attempts that I think the film is jinxed. Disney Films have it now, and I think the option has just run out, so probably my agent in London will be scouting around as we speak. I try to stay out of it now. The last script that I read, the one that Julia Roberts was going to play, was truly the most gobsmackingly awful script: where Robyn naked is being carried around a camp fire by Aboriginal men as she goes through dreaming initiation. So it is that sort of thing.
QUESTION: I haven’t yet finished your book but I am interested in what your experience is in coming back to society after such long periods of time spent adjusting to nomadic life? You shed your clothes and you are minimalistic in terms of your food. What is your experience in dealing with that both at the end of the Australian trip and your other trips?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: It is very interesting. After the Australian trip I think literally that I got rewired up here in my brain. I honestly think that something so profound shifted in my consciousness simply from being on my own in that environment for so long and doing something so completely different from what I would be doing in this environment. So there was nothing mystical about it - just different. Then finding myself in New York some two weeks later and having this really deep understanding of how mad we all are – so that was that. In some sense I don’t think I have ever quite recovered, if you know what I mean.
It is very hard to recapture the feeling. Sometimes I go out to the desert and I long for the person who was in that desert before. Coming out of other cultures anyway, the wonderful thing about it is that your own culture comes into very sharp focus. So all the things that you take to be normal, they are not normal. It is very useful to have that. It is not just about travelling and looking at things, it is about attempting to be inside another culture, to what degree you can, to really participate from inside it. Then when you come out it is very clear that your own culture is also very strange.
QUESTION: What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of not travelling with a companion from your own culture?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: I am very glad that I have done it on my own to date. It makes it so much more difficult for all the obvious reasons: you are on your own and you have to try to make sense of things on your own. There was a terrible loneliness – but not on the Australia trip; I never got lonely - with the Indian nomads because I couldn’t speak and my survival depended on them so it was not a comfortable situation really. I would have given anything to have somebody just to talk to. However, if I had had someone to talk to, the whole thing would have had a completely different timbre. So I am quite glad that I had done it on my own.
However, in the last year or two I have been thinking about how I would make a series of documentary films on global nomads. I have been procrastinating about it because I just don’t want to have to go through all that again of being out in some dust trap. I am too old; I want to travel from hotel to hotel. But then this lovely young woman visited me a couple of months ago and said, ‘You really have to make this documentary, and I will help you.’ So suddenly the idea of going around the globe with her carrying the camera is a great idea. I think there are always assets and liabilities.
QUESTION: Would you talk a bit about the difference between the Indian and the Australian desert? You said it was much harder in the Indian one.
ROBYN DAVIDSON: The first and obvious thing is that the Indian desert is highly populated. It’s extraordinary: you will be in sand dune country and you think nothing could survive. There is one tree and just sand dunes. You will think, ‘At last I don’t have to go behind a bush to have a pee,’ but lo and behold there will be a turban coming over that ridge with a bicycle. Also the Indian desert has had livestock on it since whenever - we don’t even know, but for a very long time - so that desert has been sculpted by livestock. There are villages scattered through it. One has a sense that everything in India is humanised and that everything has been used. Every grain of sand has gone through at least one cycle through a human being and into a pot and out into a sand dune and into a human and back again; whereas in Australia the most wonderful feeling and such a privilege is to stand on a sand dune somewhere and know there is not a human being for 500 miles in any direction. The Central Australian landscape also has far more - ‘beautiful’ is a silly word; the Thar desert is very beautiful in a different way - more things going on. It is more biodiverse, I suppose you could say.
QUESTION: The other day I heard a woman aged 20 something saying, ‘I can’t function without my iPod.’ Is there something lost cosmologically or something in the life of the mind that you might be able to say something about that?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: It is hard to know, isn’t it? It is all too easy to say, ‘It was better then,’ and every generation does that. I don’t know what it’s like to be in the new generation of kids who can’t live without their iPods. I don’t know and can’t imagine what it means. It is very interesting, this second virtual world they are all in, the way they relate to each other and to space. Obviously I would have to say there is a great deal lost, but if they don’t know about it ... I can remember in the late 1960s when I lived with radical biologists in Queensland, they were saying that we are already down the tubes. Humans have so screwed it up. I think that compared to now it was nothing. But then ecologists were talking about how terrible the situation was. It has taken this long for it to filter through into common discourse. I remember one friend saying then that the best thing one can hope for is that people of the future won’t know what they have lost. It’s a pretty grim way of looking at it.
MIKE SMITH: I will jump in here and ask one question. Desert people are quite renowned for taking also what they want from the outside world but keeping their own identity and society as intact as they can. Did you see uptake of new technologies like satellite phones amongst any of the people you were travelling with?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Not satellite phones but mobile phones, absolutely, and particularly in Tibet. They organised their work through mobile phones although sometimes they don’t work because of the mountains and so on. The difference is when you have traditional cultures able to see how something improves their lives and are able to use it, that’s great. But when it’s a kind of imposition like this great tidal wave coming over them so that they can’t adjust in time, then they are kind of up the spout.
QUESTION: What was the name of the book you wrote about your time in India?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Desert Places it was called, taken from a Robert Frost poem.
QUESTION: When you did your trip across from Alice, water supplies are obviously critical. How did you organise that?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: My animals carried 500 pounds of water, which was obviously the bulk of the load. There were some functioning wells. For example, along the Canning stock route a couple of those wells were functioning, though most weren’t. At one point between Warburton and whatever that first station was, about 400 miles later, the photographer dropped out a drum for me at about 100 miles, so that was terrific. That is how it happened. Of course through cattle country you have bores and so on. But often the maps were wrong. Never trust a map, because they would say a functioning well and there would be nothing but sand there.
MIKE SMITH: Please join me in thanking Robyn for speaking to us today.
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Thank you all for coming.
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Date published: 12 March 2008