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The Intrepid Dervla Murphy

The Intrepid Dervla Murphy

  +12   In A Book of Travellers' Tales (Picador 1985), travel writer and anthology compiler, Eric Newby, describes Dervla Murphy as: "[An] intrepid Irish traveller, mostly in Asia and Ethiopia, mostly on bicycles or with quadrupeds, or on local transport." Her travel tale is fittingly titled: "A lone female cyclist deals with a randy Kurd on the Turkish-Iranian frontier, 1963."

In 1987, I set off from Australia to travel, work and live overseas for two years. I returned in 1996. During that time I backpacked extensively in Europe, the Middle-East and Africa, and (grandly) thought of myself as a traveller, rather than a tourist.

I kept journals and, as a wannabe-writer, was drawn to intrepid travel writers like Eric Newby and Dervla Murphy, and to books by other authors like Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson, The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, First Overland by Tim Slessor, and many others. I even read The Travels by Marco Polo.

You may have noticed a pattern in my travel books. Yes, they are predominately about male travellers. It wasn't a conscious decision, just that men wrote nearly all the travel books I found at markets and second-hand book shops (which is how I built my library).

But not In Ethiopia with a Mule, my first Dervla Murphy travel book, which I bought for seven pounds in the late 1980s (discounted "due to slight stain"). I was familiar with Dervla from Newby's anthology, but Century Publishing's 1984 book cover of a Henry Salt lithograph of the Ethiopian Highlands also caught my eye.

I travelled through Ethiopia on a truck safari in 1995. How Dervla managed to get about the country with only a mule for support and company in the mid-1960s is a tale well worth reading. But then, she was the intrepid Irish woman who rode her bicycle 3000 miles to India in 1963 -- without support or company!

In Ethiopia with a Mule by Dervla Murphy


My second Dervla, The Ukimwi Road, is the 1992 tale of riding her sixtieth birthday present to herself, a mountain bike, from Kenya to Zimbabwe. I bought the book in the mid-1990s when I was planning an overland journey across the region.

I was in my mid-thirties when I travelled by local transport down through Africa. How fit and resourceful was Dervla doing it by bike in her sixties? It's no surprise Wikipedia lists her occupation as "Cyclist and Travel Writer".

Ukimwi Road - From Kenya to Zimbabwe by Dervla Murphy


My third Dervla was her first book, the 1960's classic Full Tilt. I found it in a market on a trip back to England in 2007, a prized possession for which I paid one pound.

It contains the piece Newby selected for A Book of Travellers' Tales, where Dervla fired a shot to scare off a "six-foot, scantily clad Kurd" in Dogubayzit, a Turkish frontier town I visited in the early-1990s.

Full Tilt - From Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy


In her customary fashion, the intrepid Dervla comments of the incident:

I felt afterwards that my suitor had shown up rather badly; a more ardent admirer, of his physique, could probably have disarmed me without much difficulty.

Tip: Click on a book cover or title link to browse or buy a copy on Amazon.com.au.

As mentioned in other blog posts, I have a #bookcovers and #firstsentences series on Instagram (tallandtrueweb). When I posted Full Tilt, I got a lovely comment:

Oh my goodness that is a wonderful edition! I have over 70 ‘Dervlas’ in my collection but never seen that one! You’re not a bookshop, are you?

No, I'm not a bookshop, just a middle-aged dad and dog owner who enjoyed travelling in my younger backpacker years, was inspired by travel writing, and still loves reading the traveller's tales of the intrepid Dervla Murphy. 

And judging by her Instagram fan, I've got a few more "Dervlas" to collect!

© 2019 Robert Fairhead

NB. You might like to read Three Visits to Dahab, my Tall And True travel writing on visits to Dahab, Egypt, from 1991 to 1995.

Robert Fairhead

Robert Fairhead


Sydney, NSW, Australia.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is the Founding Editor of Tall And True. He also regularly contributes blog posts and other pieces of writing. Robert enjoys reading and writing (fiction, nonfiction and reviews), playing the guitar (though seldom finds the time to practise), and riding his bike and swimming laps (when he can!). Robert has had a varied career, as an electrician, sales and marketing rep, computer programmer, volunteer dog trainer and wanna-be writer. He has also had a one-night stand as a stand-up comic!

 

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