Born Josephine Scarr in Yorkshire, she attended the University of Cambridge and climbed several mountains over 20,000 feet high in the Himalayas with Barbara Stark. She immigrated to Australia in 1963 and became a lecturer at the Australian National University, where she earned her MA and PhD. She was Director of the Aboriginal Environment Section of the Australian Heritage Commission from 1978 to 1991, when she retired to full-time research and writing. She has two sons and a daughter. Her main hobby is mountaineering.