Dervla Murphy has been travelling extensively the world over and writing about it for over 50 years. A true believer in travelling the road less travelled, she even took her daughter Rachel with her from the age of five. Sarah Campbell introduces us to a
She once described herself as being starstruck on meeting the great Freya Stark, yet it is clear that amongst her fellow travel writers, journalists and fans, Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy is regarded in the same high esteem as Stark herself. Still writing and travelling today at the age of 84 (her most recent journey was to a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan), cyclist, traveller, and activist urphy has been a prominent figure in the travel writing world for over fifty years, since the publication of the seminal
Full Tilt in 1963. Still perhaps her best known work, Full Tilt documents Dervla’s solo cycle journey from her much beloved County Waterford to India’s capital Delhi during the century’s coldest winter, a trip widely documented as being the long awaited fulfilment of a childhood dream. In the half century which followed Full
Tilt, Dervla has travelled extensively the world over, and published books detailing her journeys on foot, cycle or with a pack animal to destinations as diverse as Peru, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Laos, Madagascar, Tibet, Nepal, Baltistan, Romania, South Africa, Israel, Palestine and Cuba. With her fleabag’ bedding roll permanently at the ready, urphy finds shelter in the homes of the people she meets along the way, preferring a space on the floor and good conversation to the stark anonymity of a hotel room, if indeed there are hotels to be found in her destinations of choice.
Despite a self-confessed complete lack of foreign language, map reading or even cycle repair skills, Dervla achieved the remarkable feat of successfully and repeatedly communicating her accommodation, food and equipment needs in some of the most remote communities on the planet at a time when many of the people she met had never encountered foreigners. By openly placing her trust in the people through whose communities she travelled, she met hostility only on the rarest occasions, finding far more fre uently than not that her unsuspecting hosts welcomed her warmly and generously (although Murphy made it a point of honour never to take advantage of the hospitality offered to her, paying her hosts in cash ‘for the children’ when appropriate, or with small gifts or simply reciprocal camaraderie when she sensed that to pay would offend .
Like Freya Stark, Dervla Murphy found her publishing home with John Murray, forming from the outset a close professional and personal bond with the Murray family. When the publishing house was taken over in 2002 by Hodder Headline, Murphy moved to travel writing specialists Eland Books, with whom she remains today as she continues to expand her catalogue of titles, currently running to over 25 titles. Intriguingly, Dervla has talked of the existence of two early unpublished travel books, on Spain and Turkey. Neither of these reached publication, and an enquiry at a speaking engagement from a fan as to whether she might consider retrospectively publishing these now was met with a no, with Dervla adjudging that if John Murray had considered them unfit for publication then, then his views ought to continue to be trusted now, so they remain tantalizingly out of the public eye.
In Full Tilt the reader is introduced not only to Dervla’s loyal companion, bicycle Roz (one might speculate that her full name, Rozinante, was too long to record repeatedly as Dervla completed her nightly diarising, a task she talks of having attended to without fail, no matter how taxing the day behind her had been), but also to what might be described as the trademark characteristics of a Dervla Murphy trip. Broadly speaking, these include a meticulously researched and planned journey, (yet one which is executed day to day with pragmatic adaptability), an almost astonishing ability to ‘travel light’, remarkable physical strength and agility, matched by a no less remarkable mental stamina, and the uncanny ability to endear herself to the locals which has seen her successfully find sustenance, shelter and friendship the world over.
Murphy’s need for solitude has usually influenced her choice of destination
heavily, with her fre uently finding herself taking the notion of off the beaten track’ quite literally. When The
Guardian published her ten tips for travelling Murphy style, top of the list was the advice to ‘ Choose your country, use guidebooks to identify the areas most frequented by foreigners - and then go
in the opposite direction.’, although she has conceded elsewhere that it would be far more di cult for today’s travellers to achieve the type of true escapism she herself experienced, not least due to the arrival of motor roads to some of the more remote areas she trekked through.
The much cherished concept of solitude and isolation has also tended to apply to her approach to communication with friends and family back home whilst she is travelling (namely that she prefers to be uncontactable), and indeed when she is returned from travelling and is writing up, during which time she goes into what she describes as her ‘purdah’ period, locking her gates, ignoring her mail and taking her phone off the hook to enable her to write completely undisturbed for as long as she needs. She has expressed her dismay at modern backpackers’ tendency to spend their evenings communicating digitally with friends and relatives back home rather than conversing with those in their immediate vicinity, describing them in
The Guardian as seeming only ‘partially abroad’ and blaming an over-reliance on staying in touch for a decline in selfreliance amongst young travellers. Yet even the famously technophobic Dervla found that an email address and mobile phone became a necessary addition to her kit when it came to the complexities of negotiating the logistics of daily life in modern Palestine, although it is clear from the resulting book that these did not hinder Dervla’s ability to connect on a human level with the people she met.
Despite these recent forays into digital life, Dervla Murphy’s way of life is proudly reminiscent of a less complex age – indeed, she lives to this day in her childhood home, surrounded by as few mod-cons as possible. Murphy’s childhood, adolescence and young adulthood is described frankly in the autobiographical Wheels within Wheels, a work originally written as a family document for Dervla’s then toddler daughter Rachel, but enthusiastically published in 1979 after John Murray learned of its existence.
Born in 1931 of Dublin parents, Dervla Murphy grew up an only child in Lismore, County Waterford, where her father had been appointed County Librarian, and where she still has her permanent home today. A bright child and voracious reader, the young Dervla began broadening her mind’s horizons long before she had the opportunity to venture far from her rural hometown. Indeed, literature, international penfriends and an interest in maps provided somewhat of a release for Dervla, who left school at age 14 to help her father keep house and to become a carer to her invalid mother, who first developed what would become crippling rheumatoid arthritis when Dervla was still an infant. When her father also became seriously unwell, Dervla assumed caring duties for both her parents, a role she admits took its toll on her mental health, but which she did not abandon, continuing to nurse them until her father’s death in 1961 and her mother’s in 1962.
Whilst Dervla had been able to take some short European cycle tours during the 1950s, it was not until 1963 that she was able to embark on her first ma or expedition, and such was her long suppressed wanderlust that even the threat of one of the century’s harshest winters did not deter Murphy from making real the journey she had dreamed of since childhood, when she received a bicycle and an atlas for her tenth birthday. Years later in her autobiography, Dervla would recall that on trying out the former of those two gifts, she realised that if she, with the help of the latter, ‘went on doing this long enough’ she would get to India – a thought she did not share with the adults around her, however, for fear that her plan might be indulgently dismissed as childish or naïve. Yet whilst it is quite understandable that the young Dervla may not have wished to disclose her plans for this reason, it can be speculated that it may well be the naivety, in its most positive sense, of her travel plans which has driven their success; the simple notion, frequently conveyed in Dervla’s books, that one’s own body and inquisitive determination can take one where one wishes to go, is infinitely appealing.
Of course, to those not naturally gifted with Dervla’s apparently congenital ‘cando’ attitude, it might appear, especially in the light of the more perilous tales she recounts, that it is bravery which lies behind Dervla’s success. Yet whenever she has been described as brave, Dervla has been quick to assert that she is nothing of the sort, explaining instead that she feels fearless, choosing to feel fear only in the face of actual danger, rather than in anticipation of what could potentially befall her along the way.
Travelling in earnest
Full Tilt was followed by the publication of Murphy’s accounts of her travels in Tibet, Nepal and Ethiopia, trips which saw her continue in her trademark self su cient style and encounter such
notables as The Dalai Lama, Sir Edmund Hillary and the family of Haile Selassie.
Dervla travelled to Tibet from Delhi, following her arrival there in the summer of 1963. Quickly realising that the intense Delhi heat was unconducive to further cycling in India (something Dervla describes as ‘gross mismanagement of an itinerary’), she turned her attention to the possibility of some voluntary work. Judging herself to be useless in most practical areas, but with an infinite capacity for roughing it’, a new friend proposed working with Tibetan refugees.
Conditions in the camp were such, her friend explained, that there was much which could be achieved by a willing volunteer, even one without special skills. It transpired that these ‘Tiblets’ were indeed living in dire squalor, despite the very best efforts of those caring for them, meaning that Dervla’s unusually finely honed ability to endure physical hardship gave her a sticking power which would have eluded many others, and the children with whom she worked benefited enormously as a result, as did those she subsequently cared for her in the Nepalese refugee camps a year later.
In Ethiopia, Murphy experienced one of the few events she would look back on and describe as frightening – being robbed in a remote location by bandits, known locally as ‘shifta’. Although acutely aware of her vulnerability during the ambush, Dervla describes being overtaken by an extraordinary calm and pragmatism in the face of the very real danger, and even managed to find humour in the situation when the shifta added a packet of her tampons to their haul.
A travelling companion
Dervla’s only child, her daughter Rachel, was born in 1968 following Murphy’s relationship with the married newspaper editor Terence de Vere White. Murphy raised Rachel alone, and characteristically ignored any criticism encountered in the light of her decision to become a single parent in 1960s Ireland, preferring to remain confident that, as a financially secure homeowner with a solid career, she was plenty able to bring up her child on her own.
Naturally, parenthood brought with it a change in the regularity and nature of Dervla’s travels, temporarily at least, and during Rachel’s early years, she earned a living mainly from book reviewing. udging that the five-to-seven-yearold stage is ideal for travelling rough with small children’, Dervla refrained from what she has described as serious travelling with Rachel until she was turning five, when the pair embarked on a journey to South India , described as Rachel’s ‘Asian initiation’, and recorded in the highly endearing book On a
When the Guardian published her ten tips for travelling Murphy style, top of the list was the advice to ‘Choose your country, use guide books to identify the areas most frequented by foreigners-and then goin the opposite direction
Shoestring to Coorg. Travelling got yet more serious for the young Rachel when she and her mother spent the winter of 1974 - 1975 trekking through Baltistan, a remote, exceptionally mountainous area bordering India and Pakistan, with a polo pony named Hallam. Frequently enduring bitter temperatures and extreme, precipitous paths, and existing on a limited diet of questionable tinned supplies, eggs and apricots, the pair successfully completed a journey that would constitute a staggering achievement for two adults, let alone an adult and a small child, and despite her ‘foal at foot’ being, at times, a rather more talkative companion than Dervla would have liked, Murphy writes fondly of her pride towards her young daughter.
Mother and daughter’s travels featured again in Murphy’s subsequent books on Peru, Madagascar and Cameroon.
Eight Feet in the Andes, in which Dervla and Rachel trek in exhaustingly tough conditions along the length of Peru with their beloved mule Juana, remains one of Dervla’s best known and best loved books. Well known for being an animal loving family (Dervla is rarely photographed or filmed at home without one of her dogs in attendance) the book highlights both the pair’s dependence on and devotion to their animal travelling companions, and when Juana goes missing (presumed and indeed found to have been stolen) en route, the pair sense the temporary loss deeply.
As Rachel entered adolescence and adulthood, the combination of a mother and grown up daughter travelling together (as opposed to a mother and child) brought with it its own challenges, and not even an exotic destination could stop altogether the parent-teen arguments familiar to many families. Additionally, Dervla’s self-confessed masculine haircut and style of dress resulted in the pair being frequently mistaken for husband and wife, and Dervla would later note in The Guardian that whilst the mere presence of a child arriving unexpectedly in a remote location with their parent acted as a clear signal that the parent trusted the residents, two adults travelling together could have the opposite effect and eopardise the e tent to which a traveller would be accepted into a rural location. Later, Dervla would become doting grandmother (known as Nyanya) to Rachel’s own three daughters, and their arrival on the scene added yet another dimension to her travels, and their tri-generational journey round Cuba, part holiday, part classic Murphy experience, as Rachel would later describe it, was fuelled by frequent ice creams from the state run ice cream parlour chain oppelia, and is described in the first part of 2008’s charming The Island that Dared.
A change of perspective
Despite Murphy’s evident passion for far flung places, destinations a little closer to home have also been the subject of her books. A Place Apart, published in 1978 takes up the complex issue of life in 1970s Ireland and Northern Ireland, and in 1987, Murphy published the fascinating Tales from Two Cities: Travels which saw her stray far outside her remote and rural comfort zone to become a temporary resident of inner city Birmingham and Bradford. Indeed, the late 1980s saw a shift in the
Whilst Murphy’s writing during that period remained broadly observational, she has described herself having become increasingly activist as the years went on, increasingly interested in social problems
nature of Dervla Murphy’s travel writing, from the publication of her more purely diary-style travelogues, towards works of a more international political nature. This shift is evident not only in the content of Murphy’s books, but also in her choice of destination, finding herself increasingly drawn during the 1990s and 2000s to regions affected by war, disease, social or political conflict. hilst urphy’s writing during that period remained broadly observational, she has described herself having become increasingly activist as the years went on, increasingly interested in social problems, and as a result increasingly angry about the lasting damage such problems can do.
So whilst activism and advocacy had been mainly unplanned or spontaneously occurring elements to her earlier travels (for example when Dervla found herself falling into the role of AIDS awareness educator as she travelled from Kenya to Zimbabwe, as recounted in her book The
Ukimwi Road), they became the journeys’ raisons d’étre when Dervla travelled to Israel and Palestine as research for her two most recent books, A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza and Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine. fierce supporter of the Palestinian people, in a 2015 interview with The Telegraph’s Michael Kerr, Dervla said of her time there that of all the countries she had visited ‘ that is the only one where I felt it was my actual duty as a writer not to be neutral’, calling the treatment of the Palestinian people ‘utterly outrageous’. She has acknowledged (albeit in her typically modest style) that by using her voice and reputation within the travel writing world, she can bring the plight of the Palestinian people to a wider audience of readers who might not otherwise have read a book on the subject, something a Palestinian friend pointed out to her when she questioned whether any book of hers could in fact add anything new or different to the already large body of work on the region’s issues.
And as her books reach an ever wider audience, interest in Murphy herself remains high, and a new feature length documentary on her life was released in April 2016 by Mixed Bag Media. Previously shown in a shorter version on Irish television, this special edition of the documentary, directed and produced by Garret Daly and Martina McGlynn, has been received to great acclaim, winning Best Documentary at the Waterford Film Festival and nominated as an o cial selection at numerous international film festivals, including the anff nternational ilm estival and the Galway Film Fleadh. Featuring extensive footage of and conversation with Dervla, as well as interviews with
her daughter Rachel and tributes from other travel writing greats including Michael Palin (with whom Dervla appeared in conversation in 2012 at the Royal Geographical Society), who called her ‘One of the most honest chroniclers of life on the planet’. In 2015, Murphy’s
Full Tilt was the subject of a fascinating short film by sabelle asters in which she documents the book’s impact over the past fifty years. Re-tilt combines footage of the journey Masters herself made to Pakistan with interview footage of Dervla recorded in her Lismore home, and reflects on how the situation for women, both local and tourists, has changed extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan since Dervla traversed them en route to India in 1963.
Despite being rather interview shy, the octogenarian Dervla has been a more prolific speaker and interviewee in recent years, and is certainly not afraid to use her voice to speak out on the issues which matter to her; in conversation and interview she talks with the kind of frankness which is all too often lacking in modern day sociopolitical discourse, hinting often that her advanced years and abushka’ status have fre uently afforded her somewhat of a free pass when it comes to eccentric behaviour and bold opinions, both on her travels and at home – indeed, when she referred in the Irish Times to politicians as ‘A pile of f **king s**ts’, her comments were hailed and shared widely.
A recent Guardian series on inspiring female adventurers accorded Dervla Murphy a special mention of her own, ad udging that she didn’t fit neatly into either their ‘adventurers of the past’ or ‘contemporary’ features, and instead calling her a ‘travel great who spans the 20th and 21st centuries’. And indeed, the notion of fitting neatly’ might be used to describe the great paradox of ervla urphy she fits nowhere, yet everywhere. Undoubtedly and unashamedly different from the vast majority of society in terms of her lifestyle and the incredible life she has lived in travel, Dervla is one of a kind. Yet far from isolating her, it appears that it is just this sense of detachment from mainstream society which has allowed Dervla to be accepted, sheltered, fed and welcomed the world over. Almost certainly, her belief in a self su cient, non materialistic way of life, and in the value of simple, honest, and just conduct between people, has provided the cornerstone of the hundreds, if not thousands, of bonds and friendships she has formed over the years.
A recent Guardian series on inspiring female adventurers accorded Dervla Murphy a special mention of her own, adjudging that she didn’t fit neatly into either their ‘adventurers of the past’ or ‘contemporary’ features, and instead calling her a ‘travel great who spans the 20th and 21st centuries’
Top: Dervla and trusty rucksack
Left: In Tibet in 1963 Right: Dervla in 2009 taken at the Royal Geographical Society (Image: Hugh Thomson)
Left: A young Dervla in Barcelona Above: A selection of the many books that Dervla has written (many available from Eland Books www.travelbooks. co.uk)
Left: Muddling Through in Madagascar, with Rachel aged 14 Right: Dervla at the Old Market, 2011, (Image: Paddy Barker, The Irish Examiner) Overleaf: Dervla today at 84, still travelling (Image: TomBunning.com)