WORD Christchurch 2018: Adventurous Keynote – Robyn Davidson

Just over forty years ago, at the age of 24, Robyn Davidson set off to Alice Springs with $6 in her pocket and the intention to go into the desert. She’d ‘never done anything which required manual dexterity, patience or an understanding of design’. Three years later, she walked 3000km across the Australian desert with four camels and a dog.

This journey, even more extraordinary at the time for having a woman at the centre of it determining her own path, is the subject of her best-selling memoir Tracks, and of the keynote address for WORD’s adventure themed festival. She tells the sold-out theatre that if she could do this – young and starting with no skills – that anyone, with tenacity and preparation, can take on adventure. Succinctly: ‘You are as powerful as you allow yourself to be’.

robyn davidson

Photo provided by WORD, courtesy M Williams 

Robyn takes us from her need to do something ‘big and private and very personal’ to the relief of the desert and, eventually, the ocean. We start in the mid-seventies – and the context of the times is important to this journey and its continuing appeal, not only in terms of its spirit, but in its distance from us now in our social media saturated lives (she quips that someday soon it will be illegal to get lost). For Robyn and her generation this was a time of challenging the status quo and a wide-spread desire for freedom –and ‘being free involves some kind of risk’.

Arriving in Alice Springs, Robyn set her sights on wild camels as the means for crossing the desert. 10-15,000 of them were introduced from Pakistan to help with the building of desert infrastructure. (As an aside, which brought a collective gasp from the audience, there are now 1 million feral camels running around.)

She experienced countless setbacks in the three years at Alice Springs, while acquiring the skills necessary for the environment she was about to enter. Robyn made a deal with an Austrian running camel trips: she would learn the ropes and work for free, and at the end of the year she could select two camels of her choice. He reneged on the deal.

Once she had assembled and trained four camels, the problem then was that she had no money for essential supplies. Enter Rick Smolan, the photographer, who suggested applying to National Geographic for funds. The cost, according to Robyn, was her soul; she exchanged complete solitude for the intrusions inherent in the documentation of the journey.

His images are so powerfully associated with her journey that even Robyn feels they have invaded her memory. At the time, the presence of Rick’s camera invoked disquiet – she felt that she was constantly aware of herself. And through his lens, the public warmed to her; unwanted fame was to follow.

The journey itself, in all its vicissitudes, took nine months. There was the spirit sapping, exemplified by the arrival at a well marked on her map, only to find it dry (the next well was ten days walk away). There was the lift in spirits – three Aboriginal men turned up at her camp and one of them ended up accompanying her for the next month. Eddie lived as his ancestors had for the last 50,000 years, and with him Robyn learnt how to be in the desert. Then there was the complete release of a month by herself. She believes her consciousness permanently changed – she was integrated with the desert, no longer a separate entity, but part of a vast net and so at home in the world.

As Robyn tells us during questions from the audience, ‘this trip cannot be recapitulated’ – it belongs to another time and would be impossible to do now. But carving out time for deep contemplation remains essential and more urgent than ever. And adventure is available to us all. As she asked at the beginning of the session, ‘Why do we stay in our paddocks and behave?’

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Write-up of Adventurous Keynote: Robyn Davidson on Wednesday, 29 August from 7.30pm 

by Robyn Davidson
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408896204

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