Dervla Murphy: a complete guide to the queen of solo travelling

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There are many reasons why, in my mind, I have crowned Dervla Murphy (1931) as the queen of solo travelling.

Having started her travel writing career at 34 after her legendary cycling tour from Ireland to India, both her bibliography and her travel experiences have been exceptional ever since.

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Dervla & bike, 1994 by John Minihan

Title after title, she proves her strength as a traveller and storyteller lies at her infinite curiosity and determination to venture into the world without reserve.

Through her books, the reader discovers the world and what it takes to travel it: to step out of what is known and accept and even seek the unknown (plus enjoy yourself!).

Her last published work at the age of 84 bears witness to her non-stop eagerness to understand what is around her and take part in it.

With the help of Dervla Murphy’s titles published by Eland Books, here’s a guide to the books by the world’s most intrepid solo travel writer.

‘Full Tilt’: the book that changed everything

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‘Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle’ was Murphy’s first big adventure and, since its publication in 1965, it has inspired generations of travellers.

Dervla Murphy indulges in this journey after having dreamed about it since she was 10. Now as a 34-year-old, she relentlessly pedals on to fulfill it, advancing through many hardships (heatstrokes, sunburns, breaking three ribs, wolves…).

In ‘Full Tilt’, she provides an honest account of the only way of travelling she finds interesting: one where the kindness of strangers outshines any trouble; one where grit but also stubborness can become your greatest asset; and one where she is incessantly curious about what surrounds her.

The fact that the book consists of her diary entries makes it more immediate, as the reader gets inside her mind: “I am deadbeat now so early to bed” is a common ending to her entries.

Through ‘Full Tilt’, readers meet Dervla Murphy as a young travel writer. It’s a delight to read how she adapts to daunting circumstances and fights to get what she wants, whether this is to go through a mountain pass many people believe it’s uncyclable or to get her visa. Meanwhile, humour never fails to be useful:

“The light here goes out every ten or fifteen minutes, which is very right and proper; it would be too boring to travel all the way to Central Asia and then have an infalible electricity supply.” (from ‘Full Tilt’, on travelling in Afghanistan)

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“There’s nothing like carrying six tubes of sunburn lotion across two continents and then forgetting to use it in time!” (from ‘Full Tilt’, on getting sunburnt)

Ethiopia, India and Nepal: hungry for adventure

During the 1960s and 1970s Dervla Murphy travelled the world as if it was going to end the next day.

In the following two years after ‘Full Tilt’ was published, she immersed herself in the Himalayas and wrote two books. For Tibetan Foothold’ (1966) she spent 6 months working in an orphanage for Tibetan children refugees. The Dalai Lama having fled Tibet only in 1959, Murphy doesn’t shy away from this political issue.

The following year, ‘The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal’ was published. This time, she settles down to live among mountain cultures of the Himalayas and, again, falls in love with them. To round off her journey, she treks the remote Langtang region, on the border with Tibet.

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Dervla in Addis, end of trip, June 1967

‘In Ethiopia with a Mule’ (1968) was her next publication, one that I also chose for my own solo trip reading diary. This time, Murphy went to Ethiopia to walk the country with an unrivaled companion: Jock, a fearless mule who displays his own character and helps the author throughout the book (and named after the traveller’s editor).

From vertiginous cliffs to the always-looming bandits, Murphy keeps walking through what, through her eyes, is portrayed as a really magical country. While some misfortunes occur, she again finds human compassion and warm receptions filled with talla and humour in the most remote of places. Her new found love for Ethiopians emanates out of every single page.

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By the time she wrote ‘On a shoestring to Coorg: An Experience in Southern India’ (1976), Dervla Murphy had added a new companion to her trips: her now 5-year-old daughter.

This time, she goes back to India, travelling from Bombay and falling in love with the hill district of Coorg, in Karnakata. Mother and daughter follow Dervla’s own classic rules for travelling: follow your instinct, embrace the unexpected and unknown can happen any time, and have absolutely no fixed plans.

In ‘Where the Indus Is Young: A Winter in Baltistan’ (1977), mother and daughter trek the Karakoram mountains (in Pakistan’s disputed border with Kashmir) during winter. Dervla returns to this place after visiting it during her first journey and book, ‘Full Tilt’, where she wisely advises readers:

“If anyone ever asks you to drive three donkeys and a foal for twenty-four miles through the Karakoram mountains, be very firm and refuse to do so” (from ‘Full Tilt’ on a day trip in the Himalayas)

Once again, all Dervla Murphy needed was a quick line in a book (this time, by geographer Giotto Dainelli) to spark her inspiration to explore a region, after which she “hastened off to the Pakistani Embassy in London, to seek further information”.

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Just as the 70s were finishing, Dervla Murphy surprised readers with a memoir book. Wheels within wheels’ provides the perfect backdrop to understand where the roots lie for such a relentless no-nonsense traveller.

It’s here that Murphy analyses how her dreams of travelling were born as she grew up in Lismore, County Waterford (Ireland) taking care of her invalid mother.

“The hardships and poverty of my youth had been a good apprenticeship for this form of travel.

I had been brought up to understand that material possessions and physical comfort should never be confused with success, achievement and security”

Ireland, Palestine & Israel: Dervla Murphy and conflict

As the 1980s unfolded, Dervla continued travelling and writing, producing spectacular books about Peru, Madagascar, Cameroon and Transylvania, to name only a few. But her capacity for empathy and curiosity now found a new but not completely unexpected subject: conflict.

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Having been born in an Irish family and her father being jailed for his IRA membership, she was not detached from conflict herself. In 1978, partly in order to examine her own feelings about it, she wrote ‘A Place Apart: Northern Ireland in the 1970s’.

After having cycled up North from her Irish home, Dervla sits down to speak to people on both sides of the divide. As she does this, she also examines her own ideas and emotions on the issue. The book has become a classic and in-depth study of Northern Ireland’s society.

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Conflict would interest her as well for her last two books. ‘A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza’ (2013) and ‘Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine’ (2015) exhaustively explore hostilities in this part of the world.

Dervla Murphy completed both books now travelling as a grandmother in her eighties. Again they are based on conversations with both sides of the conflict, as she does her bit in finding where a solution may lie in this troubled region of the world.

Some Dervla Murphy words to live by:

“This is perhaps the moment to contradict the popular falacy that a solitary woman who undertakes this sort of journey must be very courageous. Epictetus put it in a nutshell when he said: ‘For it is not death or hardship that is a fearful thing, but the fear of death and hardship’.” (from ‘Full Tilt’)

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Dervla murphy – Photographed in Battersea, London. September 2014
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