'Don't take your mobile phone, and avoid bandits' - Dervla Murphy's lessons from a lifetime of adventure
'I've had a good run,' says 86-year-old travel writing legend
Few are as well-travelled or as brave as Dervla Murphy.
Now 86, her half-century-long travel writing career is nothing short of legendary. With over 20 books to her name, Murphy’s travelogues leave no stone unturned as she ventures across crevasse and mountain on bike and on foot, transporting the reader to destinations and communities infrequently reached by the Western world.
Each of Murphy’s books are an intercession to a distant tradition of travel writing, pre-air travel, pre-digital, pre-globalisation. She credits female explorers and cartographers, Mary Kingsley, Isabella Bird Bishop and Freya Stark with kindling a Wanderlust that has led her to some of the world’s most esoteric communities, all the while fearlessly paving metaphorical paths of her own.
Murphy’s earliest memory of travel? Aged 6, her father’s car engine bursting into flames while on a family trip from Lismore to Dublin. Some might have perceived this an omen for a life strewn with catastrophe. Not Murphy. ‘I’ve always been a bit eccentric, a bit of a solitary person,’ she reasons.
On further reflection, she says she’d always been a keen cyclist but a repressed globetrotter, tethered to a quaint village existence as the primary carer for her elderly mother.
Murphy was 30 when her mother passed away. Suddenly free of the 24/7 responsibilities of care, she slung a bag over her shoulder, pocketed a 1.25 automatic pistol for protection and set her sights on India. For her, it was a healing process ‘although people thought I was crazy’ she jests. Seven months and £64 later, she arrived in Delhi. Her life is testament to the age-old adage, it’s never too late to start something new.
Murphy is a paradox of sorts. She likes nothing more than exploring the world, but returns each time to the familiarity of her home of Lismore in Co. Waterford (below). She was born there, gave birth there, watched her daughter, then grand-daughters grow up there, and has no plans to move any time soon.
All of her offspring have inherited the love of travel. It’s genetic, she says. ‘People are born with Wanderlust. It’s a pretty strong instinct’. Problematic, too. ‘I don’t think I’d be too happy if one of [my granddaughters] took off now to travel alone around India for a year,’ she says.
Then, before the thought has even been planted, she jumps - ‘and I don’t think it’s just because I’ve got old and nervous and grandmotherly. I do think the world has become more dangerous for women travelling alone’.
‘I may be oversimplifying things,’ she acknowledges, ‘but I think it may be to do with the fact that so many adolescent boys have so much access to pornography online. I think it’s fairly destabilising for them personally and for society as a whole,’ she concludes, citing the rise in reports of sexual attacks across the globe in recent years as evidence.
The digital world has a lot to answer for, according to Murphy. A withdrawn spectator of the digital revolution, she doesn’t believe that digital devices offer any benefit to the modern traveller. Quite the opposite.
‘The one thing I’d advise people to do is never to take a mobile phone or a computer or a gadget with them on their journeys’. Full, unwavering cultural immersion has always been her safety strategy, she explains, but ‘today’s travellers aren’t going out alone so aren’t as dependent on the people amongst whom they are travelling’.
As fans of hers well know, Murphy’s diaries deliver on adrenaline. Within the first 50 pages of the journal from her first trip and now one of the most well-thumbed oeuvres in the canon of modern travel literature, she recounts being attacked by a pack of wolves and almost raped in Kurdistan, dropping in mentions of car crashes and flesh-crawling scrapes with corrupt law enforcers in the interim. When asked, she claims to only have ever felt truly in peril twice.
‘The first time was when I was almost murdered in Ethiopia’. Shifta, notorious bandits - ‘like highwaymen’ - known for their murderous exploits, obstructed her path while trekking through the Simien Mountains (below). ‘Just your standard case, I suppose,’ she says.
And the second time?
‘It was in Laos. The brakes went on a bicycle I borrowed while descending a very rough and narrow mountain track’.
She hastens to add some more uplifting memories. In the 1960s, Murphy helped build a camp for Tibetan refugees fleeing into Nepal, where, faced with the worst circumstances she witnessed humanity at its best. Real equality between the sexes, ‘in the tasks they did, their daily work and attitudes to one another’ - a forerunner to the flexi-hours and gender non-specific corporate cultures that have recently come to bear in offices across the Western world.
‘It was 50 years ago too,’ she importantly adds, ‘so mixing of these roles would not at that time have been very general even in our part of the world’.
Her travelling days are behind her now. A plethora of health issues have gradually put a stop to her gallop - ‘but I’ve had a good run,’ she jests. As someone who has more passport stamps to her name than most, what is the most important skill she’s learnt through her life in travel?
‘Well,‘ she pauses, ‘I suppose just the ability to wait patiently for someone to come along and rescue you’. She may have hung up her cycling helmet for good but her humour remains quick as a whip.
NB: The 2018 everywoman in Travel Awards is now open for nominations and the search is on for the industry’s most remarkable and trail blazing women. Entries are free and can be completed at everywoman.com/travel-awards, before the deadline of 11 June 2018.
Read more:Going Solo: The rise of solo travel and the art of going it alone