When she received a bike and an atlas for her tenth birthday, Dervla Murphy enjoyed cycling around the Irish countryside whilst dreaming of the distant countries she had seen on the map. It was during one of these bike rides that a thought began to crystallise in Murphy’s young mind. "If I went on doing this for long enough I could get to India."
Today, at the venerable age of 86, Dervla Murphy can look back on an adventurous life well lived. Having spent much of her childhood and early adulthood nursing her invalid mother, those long held ambitions to travel had to be put on the back burner. It wasn’t until 1963 that Murphy was able to set off on her bicycle from her home in County Waterford aiming for India. The journey became a brilliant book published in 1965 - Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle.
There followed many more incredible trips, including mule-trekking through Ethiopia, visiting India with her five year old daughter Rachel, and further solo trips to destinations as diverse as Siberia, Romania, Cuba and Laos. Dervla Murphy is an advocate of travelling with the bare minimum which encourages interaction with communities, the best way to a genuine cultural exchange.
Read on to find out more about some of the destinations that Dervla Murphy has written about. Perhaps you will be inspired to follow in her footsteps.
Murphy visited India at the end of her epic journey from Ireland, entering India via Pakistan, cycling through the Punjab and south towards Delhi. She spent considerable time in the mountainous northern state of Himachal Pradesh working as a volunteer in a refugee camp for fleeing Tibetans. Murphy also returned to India with her daughter several years later, when the child was five. They arrived in Mumbai and travelled together through Goa and what was then the state of Coorg, now known as Kodagu district, in southwest Karnataka state, a huge contrast to her previous Himalayan adventure. As Murphy wrote, “because children pay little attention to racial or cultural differences, junior companions rapidly demolish barriers of shyness or apprehension,” and that is still a universal truth today.
Published in 1999, Murphy’s account of her cycling tour of Laos tells the tale of her quest to see the real soul of the country. Her adventure took her to lots of remote and little known corners of this beautiful Southeast Asian country, and recounts her courageous, intriguing and sometimes foolhardy efforts to get to know the nation. The book is more than just a travelogue, however, and shines a light on the secret war which embroiled Laos while the world was focused on Vietnam. Murphy has an incredible ability to achieve a deep understanding of a nation and its culture by getting right into the heart of local life at a community level, and it's this ability that makes her book ‘One Foot in Laos’ so appealing to read.
Against official advice, Murphy travelled more than 1,000 miles across the highlands of Ethiopia on a mule named Jock, a hazardous and difficult journey. She was robbed three times but continued unperturbed and managed to cover a huge stretch of the under-explored nation, from Asmara to Addis Ababa. When you consider that she was a solo female traveller in 1960s Ethiopia, it was a truly remarkable feat. The Highlands of Ethiopia come as a surprise to many even today, as verdant, dramatic scenery is not necessarily what springs to mind when you think of this African destination. But the Highlands are one of Ethiopia’s trump cards, and can be ideal if you are interested in rare wildlife or trekking.
A woman travelling unaccompanied in the 60s was enough to raise a few eyebrows, and Murphy had a challenging time as she cycled through Iran - at one point she was bombarded by stones thrown by a group of youths while she was crossing the Great Salt Desert. Despite this, she persevered. Thankfully, times have changed, and that’s not something you can expect to encounter on your bespoke Iran trip. Instead, enjoy a snowy adventure in the Alborz mountains, a visit to the heavenly palaces of Isfahan, or a tour of historic Yazd. Iran has a wealth of art and architecture which adds a layer of beauty and cultural intrigue to this diverse nation. If you want to explore some areas by bike, as Murphy did, you just need to ask.
Make it happen
Many of TravelLocal’s expert operators can help arrange time with local families or communities to foster deeper understanding of the culture and the destination you choose. Take a look at some of these inspiring destinations by clicking on the links above. To talk to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.