Around the world on a bike

After a series of accidents foiled her first attempt, silver-haired adventurer and consummate travel writer Dervla Murphy returned to Russia to travel through the Siberian Urals on a bike.  Clover Stroud of The AGE Magazine met a woman undaunted. 

That Dervla Murphy packed a pistol on her first major journey cycling from Ireland to India provides some indication of how lengthy and colourful her career as a travel writer has been.  Now 75, and with a lifetime of travel behind her, she made that first long trip when she was 32, cycling through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and over the Himalayas into Pakistan, writing letters home to four friends as she went, which provided the content for her first book, Full Tilt.  ‘In those days getting hold of a gun was simple.  I went to the local gardai, got a licence and went to a gun shop, where I bought a small .25’, she remembers.  Luckily the pistol was only ever used against wild animals, but came in handy during the bitterly cold winter of 1962-63. ‘There were wolves on the streets in Belgrade that year, hunting together because it was so cold.  But travelling with a pistol seemed very innocent then: it was in the days before terrorism took over the world, although later I did decide that it was probably safer to travel without one, so I sold it in Afghanistan.’

Such statements are characteristic of Murphy, one of the most prolific and best-loved travel writers of the last century, a woman The New York Times described as having ‘an indomitable will … and almost Monty Python-like stiff upper lip’.  Certainly her most recent trip to Siberia by bike reveals all of her extraordinary determination and daring, while her first trip there, in the summer of 2002 when she was 70, was fraught with mishaps.  She had hoped to combine a 2,300 mile journey on the Baikal-Amur Mainline train from Moscow into the Russian Far East with a 1,300 mile trip up the Lena river, as well as a huge amount of bicycling on a paddle steamer through the vast emptiness of Siberia before taking the train back to Moscow from Vladivostok.  But during the early part of her journey through the Urals she damaged the cartilage in her knee when she slipped on the floor of a train.  Nursing a wound that might have sent someone 40 years her junior straight back to Ireland, she was not discouraged, sufficient to get her back on her bike for her travels.  Disaster struck again when she injured her ankle falling through some rotten planks in a latrine, further injuring her knee, and calling a halt to any sort of bike trip.  Still, she finished the trip by train and paddle-boat, and published Through Siberia by Accident.

She later returned to Siberia to complete the original trip and the resulting new offering is Silverland, an account of this winter journey by bike beyond the Urals.  Her writing is characterised by her idiosyncratic voice as she encounters adventures in the lives of the Siberian people.  Murphy is adept at getting under the skin of a nation, rarely happier than when eating local food and drinking beer in the kitchens of the people she meets en route.  She is honest and determined, but never sentimental about the sometimes desperate situations she experiences and the lives she touches.

The circumstances of these two trips to Siberia are also important as they illustrate Murphy’s extraordinary tenacity and resourcefulness as a traveller and writer.  She was born and brought up in Lismore, by parents she describes as ‘Dublin bourgeoisie’.  Her father was the librarian for Waterford library, and her parents encouraged her early ambition to travel.  ‘I could take you to the exact spot on the road in Lismore where, when I was just ten years old, I first decided I wanted to cycle to India,’ she says.

In the deeply conventional Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s, Murphy was lucky to have parents who were essentially unperturbed by their daughter’s notions, as travel was not something that they had grown up with.  ‘Travel writing seemed like a normal career to attempt, but I have no idea where that desire really came from, as my parents had never been outside Europe.  My mother was the first to suggest going off on my bike when I was 18, and in those days there were not many mothers who would encourage that, especially in Ireland.’

But her career as a travel writer was stalled when, at 14, she was called home from the Ursuline Convent where she was educated, to nurse her invalid mother.  She would carry on looking after her until her mother’s death when Murphy was 31.  ‘It was rather difficult, but I was lucky to have a mother who encourage my desire to travel on a bike at all.  I didn’t do any longer trips until I was into my thirties, but when I was looking after my mother I would go off for a month to bike around the continent in the summer.  However, my mother was totally dependent on me, so I could never go away for very long.’

Funding her early trips by writing articles for local Irish journals, she also tried her hand at writing novels, but realised quite quickly that her real talent lay in travel writing.  Certainly, her writing is characterised by an intense and authentic connection with normal people.  She likes to get right into people’s sitting rooms, into their lives and really to understand what drives their emotional and intellectual lives – extraordinary considering that frequently she does not speak the language.  In Siberia, unable to speak Russian, she relied on a small dictionary and a creative use of sign language to communicate with the people she met.  The fact that she was a lone grandmother travelling by bicycle in a part of the world where foreign guests, let along those travelling by such an eccentric form of transport, are almost unheard of, meant that she attracted a great deal of interest from the local people.

‘For me, travelling on foot or by bike is really the only way to get to know a country and its people.  And I like to be close to the elements.  You are able to use all your senses in a way you cannot in a motor vehicle, which I really have no interest in, although I love train travel, especially in a slow train,’ she says laughing as she adds, ‘I went on the Eurostar once, and that was enough.’

After her mother’s death, Murphy struck out around the world on her own, and in her early thirties, travelled through and wrote about India, Tibet and Ethiopia.  But in 1968, at the age of 37, she had a daughter, Rachel, by Terence de Vere White, then literary editor of The Irish Times.  ‘Of course, it was fairly scandalous at the time, and although it was the 1960s and things were on the turn in England, they certainly were not in Ireland,’ she remembers. ‘And if I had been vulnerable to it there would have been a lot of disapproval expressed, I’m sure, but I really did not give a damn about what anyone else thought, so the tremors soon died away.’  She was also fortunate that she was then well-established as a travel writer and owned her own house, so was wholly capable of raising Rachel on her own.

Realising that a young child needs the stability of a home, Murphy temporarily stopped travelling and earned her living as a book reviewer, but when Rachel was five she packed her bags again, and with her young daughter in tow, went to Southern India, the first of many trips they would take together, including journeys through Peru, Mexico, Russia and Cameroon. Now married and with three daughters of her own, Rachel, who lives in Italy, has clearly inherited her mother’s wanderlust.  Last year the two of them took Rachel’s young daughters to Cuba for a month, after which Murphy returned to complete a journey there along.  ‘Rachel and I were talking about the trips we did together when we were camping in a forest with the girls in Cuba,’ says Murphy, ‘the world is changing at such an extraordinary rate now, and Rachel was very lucky indeed to experience the tail end of the proper old-fashioned travel, when you really did feel as if you were walking through undiscovered country.  We trekked in the Andes together when they were practically empty, but it would be very different now because of mass tourism.’

As she has matured, Murphy’s writing has become increasingly political, and she broaches controversial tropics such as the effects of mass tourism on the world and the role of NATO or nuclear power, an approach which has attracted some criticism from those who feel that her role as a travel writer should be to record what she sees rather than judge it.  Her writing moved away from straight travel writing in the early 1980s, when she followed her book on nuclear power, Race to the Finish?, with a book about Northern Ireland and race relations in Bradford and Birmingham, Tales from Two Cities.  

Later she went to Rwanda two years after the mass genocide, publishing Visiting Rwanda, and was in Romania two weeks after Ceausescu fell, when she wrote Transylvania and Beyond, among the 20 titles that she has published over the course of her life. ‘But it’s getting harder and harder to find places to visit where you are not going to bump into flocks of teenagers, travelling in packs and collecting stamps in their passports.’   She admits to a desire to go to North Korea, and is scathing about her critics.  ‘Of course my writing has changed; you do not go on writing in the same vein at 70 as you did at 35.  Your interests and perspective change a great deal, because I really did not just want to go on telling the story of my journeys.  I became more interested in the bigger picture about how people were functioning after a major event, which is where the inspiration for my writing in Rwanda, South Africa and Romania came from.  There are a lot of things to be criticised in my writing, but being too politically involved is not one of them,’ she says firmly.

Living alone in Lismore, planning another daring foreign trip, Murphy is something of an anomaly in the 21st century.  She rarely gives interviews, does not accept advances for her books, washes her clothes by hand and certainly does not subscribe to email. She is a master at travelling light, packing in her panniers the bare essentials of a sleeping bag, tent, sponge bag, maps and, of course, her notebook.  She travels alone, and is not afraid of bedding down in a forest at night.  She has rarely been afraid on her travels, but does admit to the idea that a land and a place can keep an imprint of the suffering that has gone on there before.  In Siberia she felt something of the horrors of the Gulag lingering within the environment, despite the extraordinary hospitality and kindness that she received from the people there.  ‘I am never afraid of travel but I have been a bit creeped by certain landscapes at times.  When I was pregnant I was trekking along in eastern Turkey and camped in a huge valley that gave me terrible goose pimples.  I didn’t feel at all comfortable there, even though I knew nothing about the history, but I later found out that it had been the scene of a major Armenian massacre.’  

Despite the odd hairy moment, she remains, in her seventies, undaunted.  Her only problem as a traveller is that there is very little left of the undiscovered world she has not already discovered. ‘I don’t think that my sort of career is possible for the coming generation,’ she says.  ‘Real travel is so difficult to do now.  So many countries have been ruined by mass tourism or war.  Terrorism too has changed the way that you can travel.  But I think that to a certain extent, we have become hysterical about our own safety.  Perhaps big cities are more dangerous than they used to be, but once you get out into the wide open spaces, I think that you are as safe as you have ever been.’  And it is in those wide spaces, the wind behind her and her panniers strapped onto her bike heading off into the unknown for another adventure, that Murphy feels most at home.  Long may she cycle.

The AGE Magazine, November 2006