Surviving the Desert

Robyn Davidson was born on a cattle property in Queensland, Australia. She was the youngest daughter of a farmer and his wife, Gwen Harrison.

In 1977, then 27-year-old Davidson set out on a solo camel trek across Australia’s harsh and unforgiving interior. She was accompanied by her dog Diggity and four camels. She travelled 2700km in nine months starting from Alice Springs and heading due west to the Indian Ocean.

Davidson undertook her trek with the financial assistance of National Geographic magazine. Davidson needed the cash to pay for equipment, for herself and her animals.

National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan visited Robyn during her trip to capture images of her travels, documenting a journey that became an inspiration to many.

Tracks, the memoir Davidson wrote two years later retracing her solo journey, became an international bestseller.

Davidson, a Sydney Conservatorium of Music drop-out, 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 traverse the dead heart of Australia.

The question you can’t avoid is “WHY?”

Why would a young, attractive, intelligent woman put her life at risk by embarking on such a perilous journey?

Davidson spent several years in Alice Springs preparing for her adventure. She writes of an experience she had which confirmed the rightness of what she hoped to do.

“There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns—small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track. I watched a pale dawn streak the cliffs with Day-glow and realized this was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence—and lasted about ten seconds.”

Davidson denies the trek was motivated by her mother’s suicide which occurred when she was 11 years old. Her mother was 46 when she died. She suffered from bouts of melancholia and didn’t have access to mental health treatments.

Davidson has often reflected on her childhood. She says,

“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.”

However, people who have lost a parent to suicide often question their identity and feel abandoned.

Author Brenè Brown says,

“Not belonging in our families is still one of the most dangerous hurts. It has the power to break our heart, our spirit, and our sense of self-worth.”

Davidson says she chose to take the trip ‘instinctively’ and only later gave it meaning. She couldn’t avoid the conviction that this was something she must do.

The desert is an unforgiving and dangerous place and one few would enter by choice. It is untamed and unpredictable, barren and breathtakingly beautiful.

The desert doesn’t differentiate. It doesn’t care who you are or what you bring to it.

• The desert is a place without distractions

Davidson had an innate desire for solitude. She wanted to experience the desert alone. She wanted to detach herself from the distractions of life.

• The desert is a laboratory for dealing with the self

Davidson wanted to find herself, to discover what she is made of. It required putting herself to the extreme test. It was more than physical endurance; it was mental and emotional toughness. She was entering a ‘new time, space dimension’ that threatened to overwhelm her. She says,

“You can expand the boundaries of your life and do risky things and prove yourself by doing them.”

And remember

“You are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be.”

• The desert is a place of formation

Davidson wanted to prove to herself she could survive. Her mother succumbed to her inner demons and surrendered her life. Davidson knows how we are often tempted to avoid the things that frighten us. She wanted to conquer her fears and finish what she has set out to do. In doing so she discovered she could use her fears as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks. Her words are an encouragement to us all.

“Don’t allow your fears to inhibit your life.”

Davidson met an Indigenous elder called Eddie, who walked with her for a month through his Dreaming country of the Jameson Ranges.

Mr Eddie is a quiet man, economical in both movement and speech. It is his way of conserving himself for the necessities required to thrive in his own country.

It is through Eddie that Davidson develops a growing sense of awe at the deep understanding of place possessed by Aboriginal people.

For someone who hated being too connected, this is a different kind of belonging. It is being in the moment. It is engaging with your environment. It is being attentive. It is seeing the beauty and the mystery.

Davidson also experienced low points, moments of personal pain and loss. Her loyal companion, Diggity, took a strychnine bait intended for dingoes. The dog was lying on her side convulsing. Davidson took her rifle and shot her.

People bereaved by suicide experience their own desert. It is a lonely and barren place, a place of sadness and heartache, despair and defeat. It offers little comfort and no place to hide. There is no respite from your thoughts and fears.

But even in the desert, there is hope and transcendence. It is a place of self-discovery, a place where you can find yourself. It is about overcoming your fears and finding the courage to persevere. It is appreciating your fragility and appropriating your strength. It is engaging with your aloneness and being prepared to admit you can’t make it on your own.

The desert is the only pathway to a future grounded in reality and filled with purpose.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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