Ireland to India on a Bike | The Story of Dervla Murphy

Irish writer and adventurer Dervla Murphy was the original bikepacker – a pioneering lone female traveller who inspired a generation through her ‘full tilt’ approach to life.

13th September 2023 | Words by Dave Hamilton

Real adventurers have something in them which sets them apart from others. Some call it grit. It’s a kind of dogged determination, a desire to succeed no matter what gets thrown at them. During a lifetime of intrepid travel, Dervla Murphy was attacked by wolves in the former Yugoslavia and threatened by soldiers in Ethiopia. She broke her foot and coccyx and suffered countless broken ribs. She contracted everything from malaria and dysentery to hepatitis.

Dervla was a unique woman, but she hated being described as courageous. Why? Because she claimed that courage only came from overcoming fear – and when it came to anything physical, she was totally fearless. This mix of fortitude and fearlessness saw her travel through more than thirty different countries. She visited frozen Siberia, the fractured and war-torn Balkans in the 1990s, the Rocky Mountains, the Amazon and the tiny, land-locked Himalayan nation of Tibet. She chronicled these travels in thirty books, over a career that lasted 50 years.

Her indefatigable wanderlust began at a young age. In 1941 she was given a second-hand bicycle and an atlas for her tenth birthday. The young Dervla realised that just two small stretches of water separated her from the Indian subcontinent. She vowed to ride all the way there from her native Ireland. Unfortunately, her life didn’t run smoothly. Before she could realise her dream of international travel, she had to deal with more than her fair share of difficulties.

Early adversity

Since Dervla was a very small child, her mother had been afflicted with such severe arthritis she was unable to walk. The family lived in what she described in her autobiography as ‘slum-like’ surroundings. What meagre income came into the house from her father’s work as a librarian was meticulously managed by her frugal mother. At 14, when her father’s sciatica had him invalided too, she was forced to leave school and care full-time for her parents. Although this story sounds like one of enforced hardship, Dervla herself never recalled this as a hard time in her life. Instead, she looked back on the years between 14 and 17 as a period of discovery, a blossoming into adulthood where she retreated into the world of books, voraciously devouring novels, plays and poetry. The enforced restriction of servitude meant that by the early 1960s she had only managed a few trips to Europe.

Caring for two parents at such a young age, on a very small budget, would have been a restricting experience for someone with such an insatiable desire to travel. But arguably it simply focused her mind – it certainly seemed to increase her desire to leave home. By the time she reached the age of 32, both parents had passed away and finally, she could set off on the trip she’d been planning since childhood. So, in 1963, during one of the harshest winters on record, Dervla took off on her Armstrong Cadet bicycle (which she affectionately named ‘Roz’, after Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante) with her sights firmly set for India.


Full Tilt

She wrote about her adventures in the book Full Tilt, which launched her literary career – a career than would span more than half a century. One of the most remarkable things about this journey is how little she took with her. She carried a small backpack and rode with just two small panniers, half the size of modern bikepacking setups. Along with the basic requirements, namely, a single change of clothes and a tin cup, she packed a compass, a paper map (with no protective cover) and a small amount of money (not much over £60 in modern terms). Her Armstrong Cadet bike had nothing of the comforts or gadgetry of today’s touring bikes, lacking even basic gears. Yet she managed to climb some of the steepest roads in the world on it, often wheeling it uphill, to zoom down at top speed.

Years later, when in her 70s, she was clocked doing 65 mph on one downhill descent in the Balkans and reprimanded by the local police for not using her brakes. One ‘essential’ that she did bring her, a bit of kit that might not be considered by most modern travellers, was her trusty revolver. Although the gun did pose a problem on various border crossings (including those into Soviet-run Eastern Europe) it did get her out of trouble more times than it caused it. In a remote part of the former Yugoslavia, alone on the road, three hungry wolves set upon her, one sinking its teeth into her leg. She shot one of the wolves dead and frightened off the others before continuing on her way. Later in the trip, the pistol also came in handy, scaring off thieves determined to steal her bike.

Dervla Murphy

Pack lightly, travel seriously

Dervla’s motto was “pack lightly but travel seriously”. She valued the solitude and remoteness of travel, being cut off from the outside world and out of touch with life back home. When her own daughter went travelling to India at the age of 17, she didn’t question that the only form of contact was a single letter in six months. Interviewed in her 80s, she openly admonished the modern youth who brought smartphones and laptops with them, asserting it kept them tied to their home lives, never really immersing themselves in the culture they were exposed to. This was something she valued greatly, and would often rely on the kindness of strangers, staying in houses and Bedouin tents alike.

Her outlook on humanity remained overwhelmingly positive and optimistic throughout her life. She was to say in an interview: “the majority of human beings are helpful and kindly and honest… there is an enduring goodness in people.” Through modern eyes, this is a refreshing statement – a rebuttal to the polarised politics and ‘cancel culture’ of contemporary life. Of course, she was warned against being a solo female traveller in certain parts of the world, often whilst journeying through them. In Afghanistan she expected not only antipathy against westerners but also, given the subjugated female population, anticipated that she would be chastised as a woman travelling on her own. Yet she always found Afghanistan to be a warm and friendly nation, welcoming her with open arms despite this opposing view of womanhood. She remarks in her books that as a westerner, with a polar opposite cultural experience, her views were far more respected than those of an Afghan national would be had they visited Britain or Ireland.

Dervla Murphy

Nations apart

Dervla never married but she did have a child, Rachel, who she brought up alone and who accompanied her on many of her travels. Up until the age of ten Rachel recalls being taken out of school quite often to go travelling with her mother. On one such journey, with Rachel aged just six years old, the pair travelled through Northern Kashmir, along the disputed border between India and Pakistan. The pair journeyed during the heart of winter following the Indus River, relying on the kindness of strangers to take them in. Travelling at altitude in the Western Himalaya, the weather was relentlessly cold, dropping at one point to -20oC. Going from village to village they were only able to travel between blizzards in conditions even the locals didn’t set out in. Her daughter seemed to take things as much in her stride as her mother. Dervla writes in the book Where the Indus is Young: Walking to Baltistan, “Here, Hallam and I waited for Rachel – a tiny red figure toiling gallantly up the steep white slope, with frequent pauses to lean on my dula and regain breath, for the air was exhaustingly thin.”

Living in Ireland during the height of the troubles, Dervla recalls her family harbouring a member of the IRA, who was on the run and wanted for murder. The man stayed with them for two weeks and although she never condones his actions, it is clear that the experience opens her mind up to the realities of a nation at war, a theme which runs throughout her later books. Not only does she journey along the disputed border of Pakistan and India in her Where the Indus is Young but also in the Balkans in Through the Embers of Chaos, the Gaza Strip, Israel and Palestine in A Month By the Sea and Between River and Sea. She also revisits her own country’s struggles in the book A Nation Apart. Travelling to Northern Ireland by bicycle, she interviews those on both sides of the conflict, aiming to understand the struggles for both herself and the reader. The novelist and television producer Carlo Gébler called the book, “the best modern study of Ulster” and it went on to win the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, a competition set up by Biggs’ widow to laud books which promoted peace in the island of Ireland.

When she wasn’t travelling, Dervla would always return to Lismore, she would swim every morning in the local River Blackwater. When interviewed here, it was rare to see her without a beer in her hand. Dervla was a unique individual who inspired boundless curiosity and a desire for travel. She died at home aged 90 on 22nd May 2022 and was survived by her daughter and three grandchildren.

Dervla Murphy

Dave Hamilton is a photographer, forager and explorer of historic sites and natural places. A father of two boys, he writes for BBC Wildlife, Countryfile, and Walk magazines.

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