Robyn Davidson was born at Stanley Park, a cattle station in Miles, Queensland, the second of two girls. Her mother died by suicide when Davidson was 11, and she was largely raised by her father's unmarried sister, Gillian. She went to a girls' boarding school in Brisbane. She received a music scholarship but did not take it up. In Brisbane, Davidson shared a house with biologists and studied zoology. Later, she went to Sydney and lived a bohemian life as a member of the Push.
In 1975, Davidson moved to Alice Springs in an effort to work with camels for a desert trek she was planning. For two years she trained camels and learned how to survive in the harsh desert. She was peripherally involved in the Aboriginal Land Rights movement.
For some years in the 1980s she was in a relationship with Salman Rushdie, to whom she was introduced by their mutual friend Bruce Chatwin.
Davidson has moved frequently, and had homes in Sydney, London, and India. She currently resides in Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia.
In 1977, Davidson set off from Alice Springs for the west coast, with a dog and four camels, Dookie (a large male), Bub (a smaller male), Zeleika (a wild female), and Goliath (Zeleika's son). She had no intention of writing about the journey, but eventually agreed to write an article for National Geographic Magazine. Having met the photographer Rick Smolan in Alice Springs, she insisted that he be the photographer for the journey. Smolan, with whom she had an "on-again off-again" romantic relationship during the trip, drove out to meet her three times during the nine-month journey. The National Geographic article was published in 1978 and attracted so much interest that Davidson decided to write a book about the experience. She travelled to London and lived with Doris Lessing while writing Tracks. Tracks won the inaugural Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980 and the Blind Society Award. In the early nineties, Smolan published his pictures of the trip in From Alice to Ocean. It included the first interactive story-and-photo CDs made for the general public.
It has been suggested that one of the reasons Tracks was so popular, particularly with women, is that Davidson "places herself in the wilderness of her own accord, rather than as an adjunct to a man".
Davidson’s desert journey is remembered by indigenous Australians she encountered along the way. Artist Jean Burke remembers Davidson in a painting called The Camel Lady which was produced for a Warakurna Artists' exhibition in Darwin in 2011. Burke’s father, Mr Eddie, had trekked through Ngaanyatjarra lands with Davidson, guiding her to water sources along the way. Davidson mentions Mr Eddie in Tracks.
In 2013, a film adaptation directed by John Curran and starring Mia Wasikowska was completed. The film Tracks screened at the Venice Film Festival.
The majority of Davidson's work has been travelling with and studying nomadic peoples. Jane Sullivan in The Age writes that 'while she is often called a social anthropologist', she has no academic qualifications and claims to be "completely self-taught". Davidson's experiences with nomads include traveling on migration with nomads in India from 1990 to 1992. These experiences were published in Desert Places.
She has studied different forms of the nomad lifestyle—including those in Australia, India, and Tibet—for a book and a documentary series. Her writing on nomads is based mainly on personal experience, and she brings many of her thoughts together in No Fixed Address, her contribution to the Quarterly Essay series. Sullivan writes about this work:
One of the questions we need to ask, if we are to have a future, she says, is "Where did we cause less damage to ourselves, to our environment, and to our animal kin?" One answer is: when we were nomadic. "It is when we settled that we became strangers in a strange land, and wandering took on the quality of banishment," she writes, and then later adds: "I shall probably be accused of romanticism."Davidson, Robyn (30 May 1995). Tracks. Vintage. ISBN 0-679-76287-6.
Davidson, Robyn; Thomas Keneally; Patsy Adam-Smith (1987). Australia: Beyond the Dreamtime. Facts on File. ISBN 0-8160-1922-3.
Davidson, Robyn (September 1993). Travelling Light, a collection of essays. Harpercollins; Paperback Original edition. ISBN 0-207-18034-2.
Writer, Mail Order Bride (1987 feature film for Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Davidson, Robyn (1990). Ancestors. Australian Large Print. ISBN 1-86340-292-6.
Davidson, Robyn (1 November 1997). Desert Places, Pastoral Nomads in India (the Rabari). Penguin. ISBN 0-14-026797-2.
Davidson, Robyn (5 July 2002). The Picador Book of Journeys. Picador; New Ed edition. ISBN 0-330-36863-X.
Davidson, Robyn (2006). "No Fixed Address: Nomads and the Fate of the Planet". Quarterly Essay (24).
Davidson, Robyn Self Portrait with Imaginary Mother (a work-in-progress which won the Peter Blazey Fellowship in 2011)
Lodderhose, Diana (23 May 2012). "Mia Wasikowska heads Down Under for 'Tracks'". Variety. Retrieved 23 May 2012.