Dervla Murphy – Bicycling Around the World

Dervla Murphy looked back on her life of adventure and travel and said that the key to travel is to “embrace the unpredictable.” Murphy certainly did that. She traveled through five continents, some of them with her daughter (when her daughter was 5!). She wrote 27 travel books, and she lived life as she wanted to, not bowing to the modern world.

Up to her death in May 2022, Dervla lived in the same town she grew up in, Lismore, in Co.Waterford, Ireland, and she had no smartphone or television. She played records (remember those?) and read for entertainment.

From an early age, she knew EXACTLY what she wanted to do. At age 10 she stated:

“I wanted to wander alone, taking each day as it came.”

For her 10th birthday, she received a bicycle as a gift and made a resolution to cycle to England. She later changed that resolution, saying she wanted to bicycle to India.

Wheels Within Wheels: The Making of a Traveler is the story of her life before her first bicycle journey. Dervla grew up an only child with an invalid mother and a father who was a librarian. She was in and out of school because she needed to care for her mother, who grew increasingly difficult and demanding as she grew older. Dervla’s loves were her books and her bicycle. In the home of her paternal grandparents, she found solace in the stacks of books. At 6 1/2 she had already decided

“the world was full of books and I intended to read as many as possible before I died.”

Finally, at 31, after the death of her parents, she was able to begin her first journey,  traveling by bicycle from Ireland to India. (In case you were wondering how that would be possible, she started the cycling part of her journey from Dunkirk, in France.) The journey is recorded in Full Tilt, her first published book.

I loved this book! Dervla’s energy, her love of people, and her resiliency are contagious. She wasn’t afraid to meet people and make friends (although she did carry a pistol with her), staying with provincial governors and wealthy friends, but also the poorest of the poor, in their sometimes flea-ridden hovels, and once in a bed with several dirty children. She would eat the most ghastly, dirty, food with them. She started in January 1963 and traveled through Eastern Europe, Turkey, then Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, and Pakistan, ending up in Delhi, India in November.

Dervla’s bike, called Roz (after Rocinante, Don Quixote’s steed) had many problems. She seemed always to be dealing with punctures, brake problems, and various other issues. She took to leaving spare tires in strategic locations and having to wait hours or days for a ride. At one point a truck she was in broke down and she had to spend the night sleeping on tires waiting for help.

By Ryan Bodenstein [CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
Most of the time, she preferred riding, but she also took buses, and only occasionally a plane (she hated airplanes). She endured searing 110-degree heat and biting cold and snow, dysentery, theft, broken ribs, and many insect bites. I can’t imagine trying to ride a bicycle through the snow.

She did use her pistol twice. The first time she had to fight off some starving wolves in a dark Yugoslavian forest, one hanging off her shoulder and the other with a grip on her ankle. She admitted to being terrified but also thinking that the idea of being devoured by wolves was “faintly comical.” The second time she awoke to find an unwelcome male Kurd on top her. She fired into the air and he quickly left.

She traveled light, saying “the further you travel the less you find you need.” At one point, she was down to two pens, writing-paper, Blake’s poems (!), map, passport, nylon shirt,” with room for food.

Her attitude to everything was “what’s the fuss about?” For example, she said the Afghani people had no concept of time; a bus scheduled to leave at 8 a.m. might leave sometime in the afternoon. She said, “Personally I find all of this most endearing after a lifetime of being tyrannized by the clock.” When she lost some money, she commented that someone else must have needed it more than she did. 

People and Places

Dervla had definite opinions about the people she met, but in general, she loved them – and they loved her too. The word would go out to a town that she was on the way, and she would find the local police waiting for her to help her find a place to stay.

She found most people accepted her, but many thought she was a man. She said

“…the idea of a woman traveling alone is so completely outside the experience and beyond the imagination of everyone that it’s universally assumed I’m a man. This convenient illusion is fostered by a very short haircut and a contour-obliterating shirt.”

She often stopped to admire the sights, after a long bike ride, for example. Here’s what she wrote about the Ghorband Valley in Afghanistan:

It was …” the most wonderful cycle ride of my life. Surely this must have been the Garden of Eden….High hills look down on paddy-fields and vivid patches of young wheat and net vineyards; orchards of apricot, peach, almond, apple and cherry trees smothered in blossom, and on woods of willows, ash, birch and sinjid [like a Russian or Persian olive], their new leaves shivering and glistening in wind and sun. “

“…At intervals there are breaks in the walls of sheer rock on either side and then one sees the more distant peaks of the Hindu Kush rising to 18,000 feet, their snows so brilliant that they are like Light itself, miraculously solidified and immobilized. …If I am murdered en route it will have been well worthwhile!”

More Journeys of Dervla Murphy

Places she traveled: Gaza, the Balkans, the Andes, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nepal, Kenya, Transylvania, Israel and Palestine, Siberia, Bombay, far eastern Russia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Cuba.

One of her last trips was to Russia (Silverland: A Winter Journey Beyond the Urals) in her 70s and her last book was a family trip with her daughter and granddaughters to Cuba in 2009.

She broke away from travel writing to write two books about current events in England and Ireland. In 1975  She wrote Tales From Two Cities: Travel of Another Sort about conditions among immigrants in Bradford and Birmingham, in England. In 1979 she wrote A Place Apart: Ireland in the 1970s.

Reading about Dervla’s Adventures

If you want to read some of Dervla’s books, I suggest this order:

First, read Full Tilt about her famous first adventure. It’s enjoyable and gives you a sense of her exuberant love of life. Then go on to Tibetan Foothold, which continues her adventures working in a Tibetan refugee camp in the foothills of the Himalayas, meeting the Dalai Lama, and bicycling the Himalayas in late 1963. In between, or after, read Wheels within Wheels, her autobiography, to get a sense of who this marvelous woman is and why her story is so gripping.

A few years ago a video called Who is Dervla Murphy was created. You can get it on Vimeo ($6 to rent). I’ll warn you that it’s difficult to understand her and there is no closed caption available, but I enjoyed seeing her and learning more about her life.

You might also enjoy this 2010 interview with Dervla.

Read my Goodreads review of Tibetan Foothold