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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition.
The ‘Camel Lady’, Robyn Davidson, with her beloved dog, Diggity, and four camels, trekked 2700 kilometres across some of Australia’s most remote and inhospitable deserts, from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, in 1977.
Born in Queensland on 6 September 1950, Davidson enjoyed a free childhood that encouraged a vivid imagination. The creek at the bottom of the paddock quickly became the Amazon to adventurous Robyn and her older sister. Their father was a naturalist, bushman and opal fossicker. Robyn was 11 when her mother died and her spinster aunt, a tough horsewoman, became her carer.
“I could go to school on the back of my friend’s horse, charge around the mountain, skip school and form a gang”, she wrote.
In 1968, declining a music scholarship, Davidson hitched to Sydney to squat in an abandoned house with a piano, an artist’s model, gambling house hostess and member of the Push (a group of bohemian intellectuals and artists).
Although never formally qualified, she learned zoology from students around her and drifted to Alice Springs to serve a one-year apprenticeship with a cameleer.
“Dealing with camels proved to be a lot of trial and error. I was up at five every morning running around barefooted so my feet would toughen up.”
The idea of a long camel trek across inhospitable desert was triggered by her desire to challenge her contrasting traits of vulnerability and steely determination. A chance meeting with photographer Rick Smolan led to National Geographic sponsorship and the now world-famous story.
Setting out in 1977 on the nearly year-long trek, Davidson relied on good maps and knowledge of the constellations to navigate. A Pitjantjatjara man, Eddie, shared her journey from Docker River to Warburton (WA) to guide her to water.
The journey left Davidson with a desire to learn more of nomadic life. In 1990 she documented the disappearing culture of Rajasthani sheep-herders. Since then she has continued her nomadic lifestyle, which she believes causes “less damage to ourselves, the environment and our animal kin”.
Tracks, Davidson’s best-selling book about her Australian journey was made into an internationally-released film. She sees herself now as an inspiration for a new generation of girls. “I try to factor solitude into my life, because more and more that’s becoming a very precious and rare commodity.”
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