One hell of a life, born of claypan and coolabah

When looking back, Robyn Davidson hardly recognises her younger self in that woman who walked 2700 kilometres of the Australian desert with four camels and a dog called Diggity for no more complicated reason than to find herself and understand a little of Aboriginal culture.

''She is an odd mix of things, very vulnerable, very resilient and tough-minded,'' Davidson reflects, pausing as she summons skittish memories of herself in 1977. ''I can picture myself back there, I can feel myself patting a camel or whatever, and yet she is that other person. The whole thing is very strange.''

This other woman came to personify the solo adventurer, a feminist figure and romantic symbol of the desert. Tracks, the memoir she wrote retracing her solo journey from Alice Springs to the lip of the Indian Ocean that became an international bestseller, cemented the myth of the Camel Lady. The true Davidson - introverted, restive, searching - represented anything but.

There are hints of the younger Davidson in the attractive figure with the apple cheekbones and the frosted blonde hair who stands before me dressed in black, her shoulders draped in a tangerine-coloured shawl. She slides into a soft chair, taking off strappy sandals in the same vibrant colour and stretches her feet.

In dust-encrusted baggy trousers with torn feet, dirt-smeared face, wild sunbleached hair, Davidson must have looked Bodicean. The camera lens of Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer who documented Davidson's journey, had adored her even if she despised its attentions. He was an irritant, she had complained in Tracks, and images of her bathing with her camels in the turquoise blue of the Indian Ocean had objectified her.

Those images now sit on her computer, and she views them as a women of 62 with a certain nostalgia.

Recently, Davidson had reason to recall the nine-month journey during long conversations with the Australian film director John Curran. Filming begins next month in Alice Springs on the $12 million production that will feature the ethereal Mia Wasikowska as Davidson, and Adam Driver as Smolan, the brash New Yorker who couldn't change a tyre until he came to the desert.

Few women can live too far outside the cliches of their time but Davidson has spent a lifetime trying. On the fringe of the Sydney push, that libertine intellectual sub-culture of the 1960s and '70s, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music drop-out had stepped off a train in Alice Springs with the dog, $6, a suitcase of inappropriate clothing and the uncomplicated confidence to believe she could train wild camels and walk the dead heart of Australia.

''I met her when I was in Alice Springs to cover a story on the Aborigines and this stunning woman was washing my hotel windows in this tight sarong,'' Smolan recalls. ''I took a couple of photographs and she told me what she thought of me, that I was a parasite preying on the Aborigines. She thought I was a jerk.''

Davidson had come to the desert to live sparingly, to take control of her life, choosing adventure over convention at a time when the predominant roles of a woman were wife and mother. The desert spoke of space, wind, fire and air, purity and delicious freedom. She discovered in herself self-sufficiency and resilience, the lowest ebb coming with the death of her loyal companion. In saltbush country, Diggity took a strychnine bait. ''She was on her side convulsing,'' Davidson recounted in Tracks. ''I blew her brains out.'' When word leaked of her journey, she became headline news. Incorrectly reported missing, she was ''found'' by the paparazzi and went into hiding.

Much to her chagrin, the desert trek typecast her as the enigmatic nomad. Tracks remains a fascinating story, observes Smolan from his native New York, because Davidson wasn't intending to set world records, wasn't in it for fame. ''The desert trip was nothing about ego. She was fierce and determined and focused, unlike anyone I had ever met,'' he recalls. ''She was stunningly beautiful and the most intelligent person. It was hard not to be attracted to a woman like that.'' Smolan was initially an irritant, recalls Davidson, briefly her lover and has been a lifetime friend.

Since the desert experience, Davidson has had a hundred or more addresses. Suppressing an urge to head straight back to Alice Springs, she got on a plane to New York to fulfil her obligations to write for National Geographic, but struggled with her new ill-fitting identity, shrugging off interviewers' questions like: ''What's next, skateboards across the Andes?''

She wrote Tracks two year later, summoning the pale pinks of melting sunsets from memory in a dingy cold flat underneath friend Doris Lessing's London home. Naively she thought the book might shield her from the publicity. It only intensified it. Eventually, Davidson succumbed to pressure to ''trump herself'' and headed for India, migrating with members of the nomadic Rabari tribe whose dying way of life she wrote about in Desert Places (1997).

Raised on a cattle property in Queensland, Davidson was the youngest daughter of a farmer and his wife, Gwen Harrison. An amateur psychologist might attribute all that youthful restlessness to her mother's suicide when Davidson was 11. ''I am what I am, formed, as we all are, by our early experiences, but you know you can make a hell of a life out of broken childhoods,'' Davidson says. In the next breath her voice takes a steely quality: ''People will equate the camel journey with the death of my mother and this seems so grossly simplified and pointless. There's genetics involved, there's chance, there's who knows what.''

As Davidson approached 46, the age at which her mother took her life, she decided to discover who her mother was, to find out if her own bouts of melancholia might be hereditary. Had her mother had access to mental health treatments, Davidson is sure she would have been genially complaining about the care of an aged parent rather than spending a decade wrangling meaning from slippery memories.

''In thinking about the book I've come to understand her much better and myself,'' she says. ''She died before she had made the transition from mother to person, that probably happens in the late teens, so what I remember of her is not a personality but a force. You know centrifugal force? The most powerful point in that configuration is the centre, that's where the power is. She is a powerful absence, I would say.''

The writing of her mother's life, with so much personally vested in its passages, has tied her in emotional and technical knots. The book is due for publication next year. Is it finished? ''I wish!''

Friends are Davidson's family, says Sydney writer Murray Bail, who came to know ''Robbie'' in the aftermath of Davidson's affair with Salman Rushdie. ''If tomorrow she went to New York or Timbuktu, there would be someone there that she would know,'' Bail says. ''Age has wearied all of us, but it hasn't wearied her spirit.''

Before the fatwa and Rushdie's marriage to Marianne Wiggins, Rushdie had come to Australia for the Adelaide film festival, read Tracks and, entranced by the beauty of the writing, was determined to meet the author. They had a passionate and volcanic affair. It didn't last. Davidson partly blames Rushdie's ego for their break-up.

These days Davidson splits her time between a large circle of friends in Melbourne and the solitude of a simple village home in the foothills of the Himalayas, one she shared with Narendra, a charismatic member of the Rajasthan aristocracy who died two years ago. Relations with her late lover's family is, let's say, complicated.

For her 60th birthday, Davidson organised a Babette's Feast of several courses washed down by bottles of fine French champagne. Smolan couldn't make it, ''I always worry about her because I feel she is not very practical in lots of ways. I think she is a dreamer,'' he says.

Davidson rarely answers her phone, which rings unanswered during our interview. ''See how bad I am?'' she laughs.

Comparing her younger self with the older woman, she admits: ''I'm less confident now. That arrogance of youth and that kind of ignorant confidence can get you through a whole lot of things, and then life does its stuff and you get smashed around and beaten up. You get full of doubts and you end up making a person out of those bits and pieces.''

Davidson doesn't think a journey like hers could be made any more; too much red tape, too many fences and no-go areas. There's no way of getting lost and losing yourself with satellite and mobile phones.

To return to the desert would only invite disappointment anyway at the way man has damaged the environment. ''I have very clear flashes of memory,'' she says. ''Every now and then there will be a sensation of a place. I will remember the feel or my visceral response to a landscape; it might be the pink and white or the lovely texture of a clay-pan, the way a coolabah hangs, all these tiny snippets open out into what might be a second or minute of memory. It's almost a physiological thing, it's like a bubble that bursts, a seed of what's left of the trip.''

Tracks, with a new postscript by the author, is published by Bloomsbury, $19.99.

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