I had planned a blog post on Dervla Murphy as a whole – the incredible Irish woman who has spent a lifetime travelling independently or with her daughter, mainly on her bike, and even now, in her 80s, is spending time in the Gaza strip viewing Palestinian politics with the same forthright approach as characterises all her books and adventures. Then I read Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle and my notes on that book alone stretched to almost 1,500 words. Clearly this book requires a post all of its own.
Dervla was around 10 years old when she was given her first bike and decided that one day she would cycle from Ireland to India on a bike. She was in her early 30s when she set out to do just that, stating at the start of her book that “this is perhaps the moment to contradict the popular fallacy that a solitary woman who undertakes this sort of journey must be ‘very courageous’”. Two pages in, I was already grinning and shaking my head with admiration at her forthright, determined style. The main focus of the book sees Dervla cycling through the Middle East – it was at this point that she decided to send her notes home at intervals and have these passed around her friends. The book comes, apparently almost word-for-word from these notes. As a result, Dervla’s travels through Europe and what was then Prussia are slightly, and sadly skipped over. She set off in one of the coldest winters Europe had had, battling snow storms and icy winds. Her stoicism shines through as she writes about a fall off her bike and tumble down a mountain due to a blowing gale and icy roads, and a huge wave from floods in Yugoslavia also knocking her off her bike. “By this time worrying about pneumonia seemed fulfils; for days I had been living in a state of permanent saturation from the waist down, so that the only sensible reaction was lots of rum and no fuss”.
The skipping of these parts was slightly annoying as it all sounded wonderful and I wanted to know more, but the beginning of the book really is a whirlwind journey: “I was able to cycle almost all the way from Cuprija to Istanbul, through Bulgaria and Turkey-in-Europe, but the Turkish highlands were still under snow so here again we became dependant on buses and trucks.” It focuses on the main events that happened to her, such as fighting off wolves, awaking to find a “scantily-clad” Kurdish man standing over her bed in the middle of the night, and threatening with her revolver three old Persian men who had attempted to steal her bike.
Dervla describes such horrific incidents completely matter-of-factly, such as an attempted rape by a police officer in Azerbaijan: “having discovered that European women are not as obliging as he had supposed them to be, he lost all control, and the ensuing scene was too sordid for repetition…… It is perhaps understandable that, of all the regions I travelled through, Azerbaijan is the not one I would not wish to revisit alone.”
However, problems with the bike and/or the weather are (unsurprisingly) those that Dervla encounters most. A wheel breaking in the middle of a desert means a chance for an afternoon nap until a truck comes past and she can hitch-hike a lift. Extreme heat in the plains of Afghanistan and Pakistan is alleviated by constant breaks to sit, naked, under waterfalls – some days Dervla cycles all day but for only 15 miles at a time, interspersed with short breaks to lower her body temperature – but she does eventually get heatstroke. And then climbing up mountains covered in snow and glaciers, so steep that she has to carry her bike, which, after banging her shins hundreds of times, she does by hanging it complete with panniers around her neck. You would think this would be enough for one day, but no, Dervla then descends the mountain only to discover the bridge is gone. She manages to ford the icy-cold, glacier-water river by wrapping an arm around a small cow who turned up at just that moment and accompanying the cow through the river!
Aside from the straightforward descriptions of hardship, Dervla’s depictions of the landscape she cycles through are so wonderful – anybody who’s ever been on a bike can appreciate the joy in “cycling day after day beneath a sky of intense blue, through wild mountains whose solitude and beauty surpassed anything I had been able to imagine”. This is especially obvious in her depiction of Afghanistan, a country Dervla develops a great love for; her descriptions make me very jealous that the likelihood is I will never get to cycle through Afghanistan in my life time. Having said that, it was not without its dangers in hers; everybody she meets says she should not be cycling through their country alone, that they would not do it. Twice, an incident in the desert means a road block is thrown up and she has to take a bus several hundred miles instead of cycling – once for over 400 miles in almost 24 hours of driving on a crowded bus, where two Afghan women, burkha-clad, were kept with the “goods and chattel” on the roof of the bus!
It is in Afghanistan that she sustains her worst injury of the trip, in a passage that had me open-mouthed in appreciation of the beauty she describes, and then almost laughing out loud on the train…. It begins with an incredible thunderstorm while Dervla is in a bus going over a pass to Bamian, with continuous lightning, “not flashes as we know them, but glaring sheets of blue illumination, revealing gaunt peaks on one side and sickening ravines on the other; yet it was all so beautiful and awe-inspiring that one simply forgot to be afraid.” A fight breaks out over the amount of the fare. One man brandishes his rifle and scrambles over the others to get to the driver; he is pushed backwards and Dervla gets hit in the ribs with the butt of his rifle. She turns around to see a “terrifying forest of rifle barrels behind me“. The bus stops, the driver gets out and brandishes his gun… “And I hastily produced mine, vaguely hoping to set a good example. But I was completely ignored while the verbal battle raged and everyone fingered his trigger menacingly as though it wouldn’t be verbal much longer; the angry shouts of all concerned almost drowned both the thunder and the hiss of the hail slashing down”. I LOVE the image of Dervla Murphy with her small revolver, surrounded by huge afghan men with huge rifles, crammed in on an overcrowded coach as the lightning flashes outside and the hail pours down.
Eventually a compromise is reached and on the bus goes with no further violence. But the result of the first protestor’s fall backwards is that three of Dervla’s ribs are broken. She continues on for several days, cycling, sightseeing and horseback riding, but eventually the pain forces her to the hospital and she is forbidden from cycling for two weeks.
Despite this, it is impossible to miss Dervla’s love of Afghanistan, the landscape, the culture, the people. She describes Herat as “a city of absolute enchantment in the literal sense of the word. It loosens all bonds binding the traveller to his own age and sets him free to live in a past that is vital and crude but never ugly. Herat is as old as history and as moving as a great epic poem”.
The people she meets are almost without fail generous, helpful and friendly, showing remarkable “tolerance” for Dervla, even when their wives practice purdah – female seclusion involving wearing their burkha, they “so easily accept the fact that my standards differ from theirs, yet give me no feeling of being regarded as inferior on that account”. Indeed, Dervla believes she has the best of both worlds, being treated as an equal by the men but still afforded the level of respect they afford women.
“This is the only country I was ever in where not one single man of any type has made the slightest attempt to ‘get off’ with me, so I feel no qualms about a night at the mercy of my five companions. They all look as though murder was their favourite hobby (and maybe it is – among themselves) yet they’re as gentle as lambs with me.”
The only slightly discordant notes in this book for me were Dervla’s views on arranged marriages and purdah, which followed her dislike of westernisation and globalisation. She suggests that, where there are problems in Afghan families, “perhaps the mistake is to give daughters a glimpse of western freedom by educating them at European-run schools, and then to expect them to revert unprotestingly to their own traditions”, and she expresses great sympathy for a patriarch who wants his daughter to marry a certain man against her will. Dervla’s views on this were perhaps skewed by her general love of the country, and they have developed over time as she has absolutely no sympathy for such behaviour in her most recent book, A Month by the Sea!
In summary, this is a wonderful book, beautifully written and filled with interesting tidbits of opinion and insights on the way people live, together with the necessary hardships and challenge of any cycle journey such as this. I couldn’t recommend it more.