What is it like to live and travel with an alien people - and their animals? Hester Lacey talks to Robyn Davidson, no ordinary traveller

Propped up inside the door of Robyn Davidson's east London studio flat is a narrow leather and wood contraption hung with jingling silver bells - a camel saddle. It doesn't look very comfortable, but that, she says, depends on the camel. And she should know. Her latest book, Desert Places, is the story of her wanderings across the Indian desert with the Rabari - a tribe of Rajasthani nomads, who have traditionally survived by taking their flocks of camels and sheep on long migrations in search of grazing.

Robyn Davidson came across them on her first trip to India, in 1978, at a camel fair in Pushkar, and formed the notion of far-away wanderings across an empty desert, a spiritual and romantic journey. What she found, when she finally went back to India 11 years later, was far from romantic. The Rabari's ancient history is linked to that of the noble Rajputs, whose skilled herdsmen they once were. But they are fast losing their traditions. Many tribes no longer migrate because of new political and land-owning boundaries; others migrate but leave their women behind in the village; an increasing number have sold their herds and dropped their ancient way of life altogether. All are finding life hard.

Those who still travelled were reluctant to take a crazy white woman along for the walk; with a jeep at her disposal, not to mention lakhs and lakhs of rupees, why should she want to travel in poverty and discomfort? She was suspected of being a government official, or a dacoit (bandit). When she finally found a group willing to take her along, the trip was harder than she could have imagined.

The physical distress she endured has not left any external marks: today, beautiful at 44, petite and fragile, she does not look as if she has ever fought her way round anything more arduous than the sales at Harvey Nichols. But the Rabari travel on foot; they barely sleep during the migration; they live on little more than milk and bread; and their water is likely to be infested with Guinea worm, a particularly nasty parasite that burrows through the body and emerges unexpectedly via a festering boil. Yet while her trip left her sick and exhausted, and the difficulties she encountered and the imminent demise of the nomadic way of life left her frustrated and angry, she also found great friendliness and kindness among the people.

And also strength of character, not only among her hosts, but in herself, which certainly came in useful. The first portion of the book is taken up with the frustrations and false starts of getting the trip under way. She recalls "Anger, rage! Little things that go wrong start to build up and for the Western psyche it's excruciating. On the other hand, once you get the trick of it and you learn how to just not care if the plane's six days late, or whatever it is, you enter into this different relationship with time - if you can manage it."

Although she lived with the Rabari for several months, she was never able to blend in completely. Wherever she went, crowds would gather to stare and point and prod. "India is such a hard country to be in. Normally I would be out there looking, looking, looking at what was going on. In India all I wanted to do was disappear inside a dark room," she says ruefully. And a few months was simply not enough to get under the Rabari skin. "I'm sure that if I ever learnt the language properly, and spent five years with the Rabari, I'd gain a huge understanding of how they operate. But I'm not sure that I would ever understand how they think," she says.

The language was one of the worst frustrations. For some reason, she just couldn't pick it up, despite a facility for swift language learning and a smattering of several Aboriginal dialects, French, Japanese and Gujerati. "It was hell. A function of language is it keeps you in a sort of mental balance. It keeps the dialogue between yourself and the world on an even keel, and when you don't have it, even at its most basic, you start to go off to port side a bit. You're suddenly an infant again - utterly dependent. All you can do when something is wrong is give some primitive response like screaming. I was so stressed that I couldn't make my brain wrap around the language. It was a nightmare. There's something perverse in it, because at the end of my stint with the nomads, on the last day, suddenly I had it."

But the characters she describes vault easily over any language barrier, from Phagu the dignified patriarch, Nakki the formidable matriarch (the Rabari are one of the few Indian peoples where women have something approaching equality with men) and the young women of the family, Jaivi and Parma, all of them tough and unsentimental, but who became real friends, to Chutra Ram Raika, camel handler and prize pain in the arse. Even the fat, spoilt, bad-attitude camels, Momal and Sumal, are bursting with personality.

"Not speaking the language forced me to novelise the people I was with, to imagine them, and in some ways that made them much more intense characters and personalities. I was much more open and perceptive to what we pick up about a person besides language. I had to extrapolate who and what they were, and I think in a way that wasn't such a bad thing," she admits.

While India is now a "third home" for her, alongside England and her birthplace, Australia, she is never starry-eyed about the place. "It was never a fantasy of mine - you know how some people have an India fantasy? I never did. And I'm quite glad in a way - even in the early stages I don't think my sight was obscured too much, because I didn't desire India, ever." But what about that rosy Indian spiritual glow that some travel writers love to exude? "Spiritual! P-lease! Now I know India quite well, there are things I love, but it's not a rosy glow. I love it and I hate it."

Her rage at the inequality and hardship that lie just beneath the beauty of the country must have made a prolonged stay a difficult prospect. "It made it excruciatingly uncomfortable. But now when I go back I'm much more cushioned. I know a lot more now, I understand more why certain things happen. It's a perpetual learning curve I'm on. The culture shock is still there, but you develop a sort of muscle for it. It's as if there's a different self already there waiting for you to drop into. I've got an Indian self, an English self, an Australian self and they're hovering there like ghosts - when I go into that culture I drop into it. It means that the readjustment isn't quite so difficult."

One of the things she hates is the sad eventual fate of her Rabari friends, whom she revisits every year, as modern progress forces them to settle down and abandon their wanderings. "The struggle for resources is so enormous that these people will be the first to be pushed out because they are the most precarious. They are also very shrewd, they know what's going on, they certainly are not innocent about their future. For example, a lot of them now are selling their herds and buying trucks, so that they can almost keep their identities. They'll be moving still, and handling livestock, but they'll be truckers! Of course they'll be very different. People are what they do. I think it's tragic. It's not just the Rabari, it's a universal phenomenon. Nomadism cannot survive in the modern world, it just can't. There's no room, and governments don't like people who wander about outside boundaries, both mental and physical."

Which might well include Robyn Davidson: born in Queensland, she calculates that she has never lived more than four years in any one place. Her first travel book, Tracks, was the story of her solo journey across the Australian outback with four dromedaries and a dog. It is being filmed with Julia Roberts in the title role, which makes her laugh and pretend to bang her head on the table, and earned her the soubriquet "The Camel Lady". "I've always been lumbered with my identity being tied up with camels," she complains, not terribly crossly. "But really, the camels were always secondary to the main event."

All this surely makes her a nomad herself. Is this why she found the Rabari attractive? "I'm interested in nomadism because of what movement creates in a society. I like cultures that move. At another level, when I came across the Rabari, I did feel nomadic myself but in a very contemporary sense. If nomads essentially are at home everywhere, I was at home nowhere. I think that's part of the way we move - it's to do with disjunction, it's neurotic."

However, traditional wanderers are different, she believes. "It's their wandering that makes them have particular qualities; such as a broadmindedness and sophistication, because they're constantly having to deal with other people and other ways of thinking. They are constantly having to be diplomats as they move along, having to negotiate. It tends to make them very amusing people, and clever and cunning, not too obsessed with possessions. The women are extremely outspoken, funny, shrewd and full of confidence." Which actually does not sound so unlike this 20th-century nomad.

Though perhaps she is a nomad no longer. Settled in London with a baby grand piano and a handsome silver cat, she may have written her last travel book. "I never want to do that sort of journey again. I'll certainly go back and see my friends, I may indeed write about them again, but I never want to put myself through that again. Also I have a lot of trouble with travel writing; I think perhaps the whole genre needs to close. I have a lot of difficulty and unease about talking about a place that isn't your own, because we all carry a lot of cultural prejudices, and I just don't feel comfortable with it. I'd rather write about cities. Instead of travelling out to see strange places, Jesus, just turn the corner! It's all here."

! 'Desert Places' by Robyn Davidson is published by Viking at pounds 18.

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