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The Independent Culture
The actress Julie Christie, 55, grew up in India. Best known for her parts in films such as Don't Look Now and Shampoo, she recently played Gertrude in Kenneth Branagh's film of Hamlet, and is currently working on a film project to be shot in Canada. She lives in Wales and London.

Born in Queensland, the writer Robyn Davidson, 45, won the 1980 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for Tracks, an account of her solo camel safari across Australia. It is currently being made into a film starring Julia Roberts. Her latest book, Desert Places, tells of her extraordinary journey through India's Thar Desert with Rajasthani nomads. She lives in London

JULIE CHRISTIE: I have absolutely no recollection of the party where we met. We're so emotionally tied up with each other, and I would love to know what my first reaction was to meeting Robyn, but I simply can't remember. I feel that not knowing is a real loss.

Ours is absolutely the best sort of friendship. Both of us are very shy, but we handle it in different ways. She's very warm and friendly and comes up to people. I'm just the opposite: cold and unfriendly. We're both terribly sentimental and weedy, something which we discovered about each other when we went to Yorkshire together one time. One day we found ourselves in a cemetery, reading headstones. From the inscriptions, we realised that this was an area that had been blighted by an epidemic of seemingly enormous proportions for such a small place. Entire families had been wiped out by the disease. Quite independently and without speaking, both of us sat down and howled.

We are both passionately greedy for sensations - flowers, beauty, food - and we go to a lot of trouble to see and experience these things. Travelling with Robyn is something way beyond friendship, because it has given me an opportunity to learn about her extraordinary gifts. I'm awed by her relationship to nature. I can only describe it as a kind of spirituality, though I think we'd both like to find another word for it. In the bush, she becomes someone who doesn't seem to come from the 20th-century, Western world. Robyn has this natural instinct which makes her more at home in the desert than she is here, among computers, faxes and telephones.

Much as I love travelling and nature, there are some aspects which make me feel a little uneasy, but each morning, in the bush, Robyn would wake up, unroll her swag and identify all of the creatures that had visited during the night. By looking at the markings, she would explain that a wallaby had been close by, or describe which snakes had been there.

The main thing that makes me feel uneasy in the wilderness is lack of water. At first, when I travelled with Robyn, I was always concerned that we didn't have enough. I'd have bottles, but Robyn never seemed to carry any. Amazingly, she seemed always to be able to find water when she needed it - even if it was just drops which had settled in a hollow on a stone. It was a revelation to me.

Something happens to Robyn when confronted by dangerous situations in which most people would give up. Her physical courage is extraordinary. We were once horse-riding in Spain when one of the stallions became very excited and started raping the mare Robyn was riding. There she was, holding on to the mare with the stallion's hooves virtually clasped around her neck. Most people would have been gripped by sheer terror and panic, but not Robyn. Her memory of the incident is of looking at me and seeing my expression of absolute horror, mouthing "Oh God, no! Oh no!" and bursting out laughing.

Robyn has a tremendous empathy with animals. In Australia, she would invariably be feeding and nurturing back to health a crow who might have a broken a wing. For her, it was perfectly normal to walk about with a crow perched on top of her head. At my house in Wales, we rear lambs and ducks, which is much more fun than just keeping animals. Everything becomes an adventure. In my experience, most people, when faced with a herd of cows in a field, would skirt it and find another path. That would never occur to Robyn. She goes right in, blows in their noses and talks to the cows. We live in such a risk-conscious society, where everyone is so frightened and children are made fearful of trying things out - being with Robyn counteracts all that fear.

I would never try and discourage her from doing anything and I don't get fearful for her. What I would worry about was what it was doing to her head if she wasn't doing those things.

Robyn isn't someone who lets things happen to her: she's a person who makes things happen. When she's away, I look forward to her letters, but I never just read them as soon as they're delivered. The moment has to be right - lighted candles and a glass of wine by the fire.

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Both of us have appalling memories. Julie has no recollection of our first meeting. It was at a friend's party, but I couldn't tell you if it was 1979 or 1980. I only know it was around the time when I came to England after travelling in the Australian desert.

Naturally, I'd heard of Julie Christie the actress, but coming as I did from Australia, she wasn't some kind of icon, which is how I think many English people perceive her. That definitely made a difference to our relationship. To me, Julie was just this very gorgeous woman sitting quietly with Duncan, her partner. We started a conversation, and immediately I liked her a lot. There was something about her which made me realise that this was a remarkable woman of great personal integrity. Next thing I remember - and it could have been months later - I was staying with her in Wales. It was late afternoon and we were sitting by the fire, talking. The friendship has just grown deeper ever since.

Now she's so much part of my life. She's family - in many ways even closer to me than a sister. The interesting thing is that there are some situations when I take on the role of older sister, and some when that is naturally Julie's role. Perhaps one of the reasons why our friendship is so close is that, as women who don't have children, we have space and time in our lives for each other.

Julie and I understand each other's fragilities, but, politically, we have a different attitude. She's incredibly passionate but I'm much more cynical. There are areas where we know we have to be gentle with each other. We both had quite difficult childhoods, so there's an empathy between us about the individual rather than the shared baggage that we each carry with us.

About 10 years ago I took her to Australia. Julie loves nature and showing her "my place" was something I really wanted to do. She was bowled over by the desert. Both of us are immensely comfortable out of cities. I remember when we were out in the bush during incredible rain. It was so bad we had to spend a night in something that was laughingly called a motel. We were in the crudest, most vulgar, most back-of-beyond part of Australia, sitting in the bar of the motel which was actually more like a portable broken shack. Hanging over the bar were strings of bras and panties which, presumably, had been left there by people on their way to Ayers Rock. Standing around among the bras and panties were beefy blokes in singlets - cattle men, truck drivers and a few tourists. It was such an unprobable scene to walk into with Julie Christie - one of those women who looks beautiful even when she first wakes up in the morning.

The bedroom was really grim. There was a broken air-conditioner, but we did have two beds and a little bathroom. We just giggled at the awfulness and eventually fell asleep. In the middle of the night a huge, drunken bloke came in to our bedroom and Julie, dumbfounded, said in her plummy English voice, "I say, I'm sorry but will you please get out of here." I think he must have been so surprised, he just stumbled back out of the door.

We went to India together, too, which also had its moments of fun, but apart from the laughter, travelling with Julie is wonderful because she's also one of the few people who really enjoys landscapes and the natural world. Travelling together is always an adventure, but there are also great gaps of time when we're very busy with our lives and keep in touch with letters. Julie writes wonderful letters. In India I had a Jeep which came out to me every few weeks to deliver my mail, the New York Review of Books and other stuff to read. Julie's letters were always what I wanted to read first. She doesn't think she can write, but her words are so evocative.

Both of us have a great lack of confidence in what we do, and have real trouble enjoying our talents and abilities. To me, as an actress, Julie is tremendously courageous. I was once with her on location in Ireland - she was filming The Railway Man - and I saw, close up, what a huge effort acting is for her. Julie simply doesn't believe that she has what other actors naturally have. Each time she takes on a part, she puts herself on the line to such an extent that she is required to give everything. All that is quite similar to the kind of writer I am. Both of us do it because, for us, if there's no challenge, then there's no life. !