Travel Times salutes Ireland’s most intrepid Globetrotter
by Isabel Conway
Travel trail blazer Dervla Murphy has just turned 90 and Travel Times extends warmest congratulations to the world renowned doyenne of travel writing.
The legendary adventurer has seen it all and survived many a scrape in her time, as she revealed in conversations with Travel Times, from shooting the wolf who was about to attack her in the mountains of the former Yugoslavia, to avoiding death at the hands of bandits in Ethiopia.
At her home, tucked away off Lismore Co Waterford’s main street, we discussed truly extraordinary times since the arrival of the Corona virus pandemic in Europe in early 2020. “Who could have imagined a thing like COVID 19 wrecking such havoc on our world, I fear it’s here for a long time” says Murphy ,admitting an aversion to the words lockdown and cocooning.
With well known trenchant opinions on the ill effects of mass tourism, especially the onward march in pre coronavirus times of low cost carriers, staunch environmentalist Dervla Murphy insists “mass tourism created by global travel brands brought neither prosperity nor progress to less developed parts of the world”.
“People are in control of the world and they need to behave responsibly when exercising that control”, she emphasises.
Acclaimed by fans across the world for her considerable oeuvre ,stretching over more than half a century, Dervla Murphy’s many admirers includes Michael Palin and Paul Theroux. Each have marvelled at her fearlessness on the countless arduous, mainly solitary and terrestrial journeys she has taken to numerous countries, her preferred mode of travel, bicycles, buses, ponies and shanks mare – a wanderer in the oldest tradition.
Her 1, 300 mile trek in the Peruvian Andes in 1977 was completed with a pack-mule and her daughter Rachel then aged nine. “ I find her admirable in every way” wrote Paul Theroux “ her advice to travellers to facilitate escapism is full of the wisdom of a life of journeying”.
Michael Palin and Dervla Murphy at the Royal Geographical Society London
Murphy declares that once vaccinated she would not have allowed COVID to stop her planning and going on journeys were it not for her health issues that include emphysema and osteoarthritis – as well as her advanced years. Ever the pragmatist she has grown used to being old, laughing “ I have to, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it”.
Nevertheless in the spring of 2021, during Ireland’s stringent lockdown in which travel off the island was off limits, she bravely made a mercy dash (an essential visit)to the bedside of a dear friend who was terminally ill in the UK, occasioning considerable risk to her own health in doing so.
She is also one of the very few writers who never accepted a commission for a book or took an advance before setting off on her journeys. Instead she paid her own way waiting to discover whether she would have “anything interesting to say”.
The goal: Dervla Murphy’s sheer love of travel, not just for travel’s sake but meeting people from various backgrounds, embracing new cultures,with a resounding belief in the kindness of strangers, seeing the world through the eyes of those she met and honestly delivering colourful impeccably researched accounts of those travels to generations of armchair and active travellers.
Dervla and daughter Rachel travelling through Madagascar by bus
She tells Travel Times: “I always travelled by sea and train until I realised how cheap air travel had become. You see I earned my livelihood from my books and had to carefully budget my journeys. Time was never a consideration, we travellers know the journey can be even more fascinating and eventful than the destination; watching everyday life from the train or bus was more rewarding”.
She has always avoided hotels, chosing one as a last resort if she couldn’t find a hostel or a kind stranger’s floor to doss down up. And aged 84, rather than spend money on a hotel, she spent the night sleeping on the floor inside Gathwick airport before a morning flight back home to Ireland.
The author of 26 books about her travels spanning more than 50 years tells Travel Times that memorable journeys included: Back in 1963 marvelling at the Bamiyan statues of Afghanistan carved out of the rock face; attending a Hindu cremation ceremony in Southern India; A sub zero winter staying in a hut on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia listening to the ice cracking; taking trains through the island of Cuba with daughter Rachel and three young grand daughters and several visits to Gaza, culminating in the widely acclaimed A Month byh the Sea, followed by time spent in Israel and the West Bank.
A role model to generations of world travellers, and a pioneering force for Irish women who enjoy travelling solo, Dervla Murphy has blazed a trail of glory with her bravery, independence, and integrity to her craft.
Eleven of Dervla Murphy’s titles are in print through Eland Publishing, including the classic Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle; her autobiography Wheels within Wheels and her last two books on Palestine and Israel . For a full listing of these titles and more information see travelbooks.co.uk/dervla-murphy