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  • Walk My Country
  • Robyn Davidson (bio)

Darwin is coming up somewhere ahead, in the dark. Thirty hours semicircling Earth to get here, in which time the moon has turned the right way up and summer has passed into winter. I check the internal landscape for signs of the physical happiness that, in the past, has accompanied the approach to my homeland, but there is nothing. Good. That is partly what this trip is for—to lay to rest the ghost of Australia and to pay my respects to an old man who died before I could say goodbye.

The porthole cover snaps up, and there, framed to perfection, is the Southern Cross. Happiness punches me right in the sternum.

The coastline creeps towards us, a line of darker darkness. There should be waves thundering on cliffs to overture such a landmass. But the sea is quiet, and the forest slips into it modestly. Did the first arrivals come across a quiet sea at night, not knowing whether that darkness ahead marked an island as small as the one they left behind, or another world? It is now generally agreed that the first human footprint appeared on terra Australis fifty thousand years ago, give or take several millennia. However, in Aboriginal belief, the ancestors were—and are—eternally present, and given that poetic and scientific truths need not be mutually exclusive, I have no trouble accepting both views.

South of Darwin, the forest begins balding. Sand ridges form, like veins under the skin of an old woman's hand. I'm gazing down at ancient skin… or canvas, covered in dots and feathery rhapsodic layers of polymer, an Aboriginal, Western-desert painting of the kind that now fetches big money in international art markets.

Nearly thirty years ago, I experienced a period of intense solitude in that landscape, a time that was to transform my life in ways I could never have predicted. I had arrived in Alice Springs, a frontier town in the dead centre of the continent, with nothing but a peculiar idea and the arrogant stubbornness of youth. The peculiar idea was to get myself some wild camels from the bush, train them to carry my gear, and then wander around the desert with them. I had no particular affection for camels but couldn't afford a four-wheel-drive. Besides, I wanted to walk my country, experience it at the pace that existed before mechanical speed violated our perception of time's relation to space. Most of all, I wanted to learn something [End Page 7] of the people who had translated the Australian landscape so elegantly and so successfully. I had never seen an Aborigine. They were as remote to me as the ancient Greeks.

In 1977, after two years of preparation, I walked from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean across 2700 kilometres of "desert." The emptiness, so vast and frightening at first, turned into the original garden as soon as I learnt how to be in it. But like all grand passions, it demanded I give myself to it completely. That I stay. And that I could not do.

An old Pitjantjatjara man accompanied me for a time. When I first met him, he was wearing a woman's slipper on his right foot and an enormous Adidas running shoe on his left. He was about 130 centimetres high and half blinded by trachoma, but he had what all the older Aboriginal people seem to have: a kind of rootedness, a gravitas, and a sense of humour that comes from being at home in the world. He stared up into my face, laughed, pointed to himself, and said, "Mister Eddy," his only two words of English, and then we headed west together, following, more or less, a segment of his own Dreaming story: the topographical features created by his ancestor, the original dingo man, at the beginning of time.

Some part of me has never returned from that journey, so I often have the disconcerting sensation that an alien version of me, buried and shadowy, haunts my everyday life, mocking any attempt to be "normal." One version of me attends literary events in...