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Travel Books - Dervla Murphy's Bicycle Odyssey

I was speaking with an old friend recently, and he told me of his plan to ride the full length of Africa—from Cairo to Cape Town—on his bicycle. He mentioned one inspiration for the ride had been the writer, Dervla Murphy.

Full Tilt, Murphy’s account of her bicycle journey from Ireland to India is certainly worth re-reading. According to Murphy, the idea for her epic ride came on her tenth birthday when she was serendipitously given the gifts of a bicycle and an atlas. India was the furthest destination she could plot in her new atlas that didn’t involve crossing large bodies of water–the English Channel excepted. Alas, Murphy’s journey would have to wait. Her schooling would be interrupted by family illness, and she would have to wait twenty-four years before she was free to follow her childhood dream. But, on the 14th of January, 1963, beginning at Dunkirk, Murphy rode her bicycle—a man’s Armstrong Cadet dubbed “Rozinante”—to Delhi, a journey of six months and three thousand miles.

Murphy is the most reliable of narrators. Her account is taken from long letters that she mailed home to friends. Unlike other travel writers we could name, Murphy believes in holding strictly to the facts. She does not embellish or exaggerate to make a better story. She believes that a travel writer owes it to her readers to tell the truth. The problem here is—and Paul Theroux has commented on this—that good vacations make bad books. Murphy, throughout her long career as a writer, made it a policy never to accept an advance on a book until she had made the journey first. She wanted to be sure she had the makings of a good book before she began the laborious process of turning her journals into a book-length narrative.

Perhaps this is why Full Tilt doesn’t really begin until Murphy reaches Yugoslavia. The journey through France and Italy was pleasant and uneventful, so the distance is covered in a few paragraphs, but in Yugoslavia, on a deserted road in a blizzard, she is attacked by wolves and has to defend herself with a small .25 calibre pistol. Later, in Iran, she is threatened by bandits, sexually harassed by a sinister police officer, and stoned by a crowd of zealous Muslim students. Nothing seems to daunt her. Indeed, it is Murphy’s intrepidness that captures the reader’s heart. A single woman on a bicycle, she crosses deserts and mountain ranges, she sleeps in police barracks and simple tea houses, and throughout the whole journey shows incredible pluck and is remarkably open to the new cultures she encounters on her journey. Eventually, after many adventures, she reaches Delhi, and the end of her journey.

Beware: Full Tilt is the sort of book, which, if read when young, provokes wanderlust; and I am sure that generations of cyclists, inspired by Murphy’s example, have packed their panniers, and set off to find their own adventures.

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