The year was 1977. Robyn Davidson was on a nine-month solo journey across the Australian desert. Aged just 27, she was accompanied only by four camels and her dog, Diggity. The only thing tying Davidson to her former life was a small clock that she had carried through deep canyons and sweltering sand dunes. One day, Davidson recalls, she decided to get rid of the clock, realizing she no longer needed to tie herself to old constructs.
“There I was, more remote from other human beings than I’d ever been in my life and I felt this deep connection,” she says over Skype from her apartment in Melbourne, the city’s skyline twinkling in the horizon behind her. “It was the opposite of loneliness.”
Davidson wrote about her 1,700-mile journey across the deserts of Western Australia in her bestselling memoir Tracks, painting an intimate portrait of the experience of solitude and loneliness in a context where life has lost all its previous forms. She went weeks on end without seeing anyone, navigated miles of arid desert without water, slept under the stars and fended off poisonous snakes and aggressive bulls charging towards her.
But her journey, which became the subject of both her 1980 memoir and a 2013 film starring Adam Driver and Mia Wasikowska, is far more than a travel story. Rather, it is a series of reflections about the importance of loneliness and creating an inner world, that offers valuable lessons on how to navigate solitude in the context of lockdown and social distancing measures.
As Davidson marks 40 years since her memoir was published, she spoke about how experiencing solitude in such a dramatic way affected the rest of her life and how, perhaps, it may affect the rest of ours. “Loneliness is a risk you take with yourself but it can be very fruitful,” she says. “First of all, you need to think it’s worthwhile and secondly, you need to get over that anxiety that comes about when all animals have to leave their packs.”
When Davidson set out on her solo journey across the desert, she was already accustomed to being alone. Raised on a cattle station in rural Queensland, Davidson grew up exploring nature by herself. But solitude was a skill she had to cultivate during her nine-month trek. “With the Australia trip, it took me 4 to 5 months to arrive at a kind of psychological space that matched my environment,” she says. “It took that long for the old bit of me to wear off and for the new bit to be there.”
While the trip across the desert was transformative for Davidson, it didn’t always feel that way. The monotony of walking, packing and unpacking her belongings often felt meaningless, she recalls. “There were days and days of boredom and absolute pointlessness,” she says laughing. “A bit like lockdown.” But spending nine months mostly alone changed her. “Knowing that I could be on my own—that I was fine on my own—gave me a very deep sort of confidence,” she says. “Once you’ve had that feeling, even if you can’t access that feeling again necessarily, you know it’s there.”
The confidence she gained on her desert trip propelled Davidson to seek out solitude throughout her life, embarking on long solo retreats and journeys across the world. At her home in the Himalayas, where she lived with her partner for 20 years, Davidson recalls spending months without being able to communicate with anyone else when her partner was away, but marveling at the opportunity to “read deeply like I never have been able to since.”
But for Davidson, solitude has never been about self-discovery. Her memoir—which interrogates social constructs that shape Australian society like consumerism, gender, time and race—makes a case for using solitude and social detachment as an opportunity to interrogate the norms that govern our lives. In her memoir, Davidson writes of walking naked under the blazing Australian sun, as menstrual blood dripped down her leg. “I’m amazed at how quickly and absolutely this sense of the importance of social custom fell away from me,” she writes. “And the awareness of its absurdity has never really left me.”
Now, as social customs become stripped away indefinitely—with people around the world quarantining and social distancing—Davidson hopes this moment will be an opportunity for people to re-examine the norms that govern their lives. “Whether these new perceptions will last against the counter force of having to keep the economy and a consumer society going … I don’t know.” Reflecting on the Black Lives Matter movement, Davidson says that lockdown may have given people the space to interrogate racial injustice in a way they might not have before. “It’s a distracting world we’ve created,” she says. “It’s as if we’re being distracted in order not to have an inner world because if we did, we would start thinking about things deeply, seriously and differently.”
For Davidson, the pandemic has not changed much about her life. “I’m a writer,” she says. “We stay at home and disappear up our navels. Part of our work is learning to tolerate solitude.” Davidson spent lockdown north of Melbourne, at an abandoned hotel in a former gold-mining district she has spent the past ten years converting into her home. Here, Davidson spent time in her garden, listening to the wild birds in the area and rarely answering her phone. “I’m ruthless,” she says about defending her alone time.
Even though she has more experience of solitude than most, she admits she had unrealistic expectations for how productive she would be during the lockdown period – she has been working on a new memoir for over a decade. “I thought I’d get … a lot of work done,” she says, shaking her head: “nothing.”
When I asked Davidson about what she thinks post-lockdown life will look like, she recalled the feeling of finishing her camel trip in 1977. Shortly after reaching the Indian Ocean, Davidson flew to the National Geographic offices in New York City. Overwhelmed by the crowds of people “so frantic and anxious and competitive,” Davidson remembers looking up at the buildings and seeing them as their own kind of geography—canyons and cliffs of cement not dissimilar from those she saw in the desert. It was here, standing in the streets of New York, that Davidson realized she might always see life through the prism of her solo journey.
“Coming back, well it’s taken forever,” she says about reintegrating into ‘normal’ life. “I don’t think you ever come back from that kind of solitude,” she says. “In a way, I never did.”