Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Robyn Davidson & Bruce Chatwin
It was 1980 and Robyn Davidson was 30, unknown and working on the manuscript of her first book. London was cold and wet and a long way from her subject matter, but she'd found congenial digs in Doris Lessing's self-contained flat and exile companionship in two cockatiels she'd ransomed from a street market. The birds were flapping around the flat, pining for far horizons, when Bruce Chatwin knocked on the door.
The celebrated author of In Patagonia had heard about Davidson and her dromedary-propelled outback odyssey, and decided he should meet her. Chatwin was a decade older, "a very beautiful-looking man, I assumed gay, very witty with a questing intellect".
They passed the afternoon in congenial chat. About nomads, mainly. Chatwin wanted to know all about Aborigines, but when Davidson got around to land rights, his curiosity took a dive. Politics bored him and the conversation moved to gossip about notable figures he'd encountered. "He was a marvellous mimic," Davidson recalled. By the afternoon's end, Chatwin had done a ripper impersonation of Indira Gandhi and acquired a list of useful contacts in Alice Springs.
Two years later, Davidson was back in Australia. Her book, Tracks, had catapulted her to unsolicited celebrity as the ‘Camel Lady', and she was doing the famous-author thing at Adelaide Writers' Week. Also on the bill was Bruce Chatwin. He arrived with a friend, Salman Rushdie, and the two chaps promptly lit out for the Territory to climb Uluru and commune with the natives.
Later, while Chatwin was inflating his outback observations into The Songlines, Davidson visited him in Oxford to confer and advise. By that stage, she and Rushdie were a number, their affair the talk of book town. By the time Songlines appeared and The Satanic Verses sent the mad mullahs reaching for their scimitars, Davidson's restless feet had carried her to far Rajasthan, where she found other camels and other nomads and a new book, Desert Places.
Bruce Chatwin died in Nice in 1989, taken by AIDS at 49. After half a lifetime of waking up beside hairy beasts, Davidson has returned to live permanently in Australia. Coming home, she calls it. Of the two cockatiels, nothing further is known. Flighty creatures, they have left no tracks.