The Best of Bicycling

The Perils of Dervla Murphy

by Clifford L. Graves, M.D.

January 1969

When I wrote in the magazine two years ago that it was no longer possible to go around the world by bicycle because of international tension, I had not counted on a young woman-repeat, woman-who brought off the most difficult part of such a journey, alone and unaided, in 1963. This woman is Dervla Murphy, an Irish nurse, who has written an eloquent and fascinating account of her travels.

Dervla did not come by her idea overnight. On her tenth birthday she got a bike and promptly fell in love with it. She also got an atlas. Between bicycle and atlas, she hatched a plan. Someday she would cycle from Ireland to India. People laughed, and Dervla lay low. Twenty years later, she crossed the Channel and turned her wheels into the teeth of a howling snowstorm at Dunkirk. It was the beginning of a fantastic journey on which she nearly lost her life twice and her honor once. But she made it.

No visionary, she selected her equipment with care and common sense. Her bicycle was an Armstrong with quarter-inch tires and a nearly flat handlebar. Without her baggage,it weighed thirty-six pounds, with it, sixty four. To prevent trouble with the derailleur, she took it off. As an additional precaution, she sent spare tires to the various cities along her route. She bought a gun and learned how to shoot it. She studied her atlas and decided to go through Paris, Milan, Venice, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia, Istanbul, Tehran, Meshed, Kabul, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and Delhi. With several arduous side trips, this 4,500-mile trek took 175 days and cost $175.

Whenever day was done, she looked for a place to sleep. She slept in European youth hostels and factory dorms, in dark bungalows ad Indian pagodas, in Kurdish coffeehouses and Iranian teahouses, in Afghan mud huts and Turkish caravansaries, in police barracks and army caserns, in governor's residences and royal palaces, in Himalayan shelters and nomad tents, and finally on charpoys out in the open. What she learned was that after a day on a bike, you can sleep anywhere, any way, in any company.

Dervla knew that if she wanted to get to India before the heat of summer, she would have to leave in the dead of winter. Unfortunately, the winter of 1963 was one of the worst. Within days, her gay adventure turned into a grim struggle for survival. In Grenoble, she had to give up. The road disappeared under a mountain of snow. She took the train to Turin, beat her way across the Po Valley, and entered Yugoslavia on a day so cold that her hand froze to the handlebar.

Night was falling as she entered Nova Gorizia, the first town on the Yugoslav side. Walking her bike along the dark and deserted streets, she asked a girl for directions. Where to stay? The girl explained that tourists could only stay in official hotels, which were very expensive. Sensing Dervla's alarm, the girl continued without a moment's hesitation: "Come with me. My friends would love to meet you." The farther Dervla penetrated into the undeveloped countries, the more kindness she met.

Of her trip across the interior of Yugoslavia, Dervla remembers only barren mountains, frozen plains, and ice-bound roads. After four days of this, she stumbled into Belgrade, more dead than alive. Here, the weather seemed to take a turn for the better, but she had hardly started again when she was forced to accept a lift because black ice made two-wheeled travel hazardous. The truck ride was a nightmare. When progress on the main road became impossible, the driver switched to a side road where his truck gave up the ghost in a collision with a tree. Thankful that she was still alive, Dervla left the disabled driver and her bicycle in the truck and started walking toward the village in the dead of night.

She had barely gone a mile when she was almost bowled over by a heavy object that came tumbling out of the shadows and fastened itself to her shoulder. Fearful growling told her that her attacker was either a wolf or a dog crazed by hunger. A second animal was trying to sink its teeth into her ankles while a third stood by, ready for the kill. Not for nothing had Dervla practiced her quick draw. Her first shot killed the animal hanging from her shoulder. A second shot wounded the one at her feet. Suddenly she was alone. Her ammunition gone, she ran the rest of the way and collapsed on the steps of the local gendarmerie.

As she approached Istanbul, sudden thaws converted massive snowbanks into raging torrents. Mountains of water came rushing down the Morava, lapping at its banks. Dervla's road was on the levee, only inches above the floodwaters. Suddenly a tremendous wave crashed over the levee and washed Dervla down the embankment, bicycle and all. Soaked to the skin, she could think of nothing but her bicycle. When she picked herself up, she found it hanging in a tree.

Much to her surprise, she crossed the Iron Curtain with nary a flurry or a fanfare. The customs house on the Yugoslav side was deserted. She dragged her bicycle through one of the numerous holes in the fence and presented herself at Bulgarian customs house. This, too, was deserted, but a persistent search led to a room where a policeman was fast asleep with a kitten on his lap.

"Excuse me, sir. Would you mind stamping my passport?"

She showed it to him. Her visa, obtained in London with much difficulty, limited her to a stay of four days. The policeman burst out laughing and gave her a visa with no time limit at all. Then he poured her a brandy and wished her a happy trip.

Her route now lay to Istanbul, across the Bosporus, and into Asiatic Turkey. As the temperatures became milder, the country became wilder. Shortly after crossing into Iran, Dervla had to use her gun again.

She was resting by the side of the road at a hairpin bend when three gnarled and elderly men approached, each one carrying a spade. Just as she made ready to greet them, two of the men seized her bicycle while the third one threatened her with his spade. Dervla backed off, grabbed her gun, fired in the air, and then took aim at her attacker, but before she could shoot again, all three men started running, dropping spades bicycle, and everything.

Some travelers believe it is better not to carry a gun, saying that it causes more trouble than it cures. If Dervla had used her gun in Adabile, she would still be languishing in an Armenian jail. She had just finished lunch on the plaza when a constable came to tell her that she was in a restricted zone and needed clearance at the police station. He told her to follow him. After a long walk through a disreputable part of town they came to a house that did not look at all like a police station. Inside, it looked even less so. It was a private house, completely deserted. The policeman locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and made his intentions unmistakably clear. Dervla was in a precarious position. If she used her gun, she would be arrested for assaulting a policeman. They hang people for that in Armenia. So she used her knees, her nails and her teeth. With her attacker temporarily disabled, she grabbed his trousers, retrieved the key, and darted out the door. It was her closest call. Ironically, it came not from a stealthy foe in a dark alley but from a guardian of the law on the main street in broad daylight.

In Tehran she was told that the road to Afghanistan was closed to women since a Swedish girl who tried it in a car had been killed by bandits. Undismayed, Dervla wheedled a letter out of the American Consul, asking the Afghan government to waive the rule for Dervla. "After all," she pointed out, "if visas had been needed in 1492, America would never have been discovered." Her argument worked, and for the next two weeks, she cycled a thousand miles through the Dash-i-Kavir over roads that would have wrecked a Jeep. Gradually, he bicycle began to develop ailments. In the only bike shop between Tehran and Kabul, tow mechanics administered first aid so enthusiastically that the patient almost died. In Iran, no mechanic uses a screwdriver. He hammers the screw into place.

Although Dervla had been warned repeatedly that Afghanistan was a hazardous and primitive country, she never saw a bandit. On the contrary, the people were kind and considerate. In Tangi Sharo gorge, when she fell asleep by the side of the road in the full glare of the midday sun, a wizened old man built a tent over her so quietly that she never woke up. Yet, an American tourist who traveled this route by car and ran over an Afghan infant by accident was almost killed by irate tribesmen.

Traffic was limited to camel caravans and an occasional overloaded and undernourished bus. In this strangely beautiful country, Dervla saw only one private vehicle. It was a Jeep, driven by an American AID official.

"What the hell are you doing on this damn road?"

"Riding my bike."

"I can see that. But what the hell for?"

"For fun."

"Are you a nut? Gimme that bike and I'll stick it on the back. You get in here and we'll get out of this goddamn frying pan as fast as we can. This track isn't fit for a camel."

"When you are on a bike, it doesn't feel like a frying pan. Just look around and you will have to admit that the landscape makes up for the shocking state of the road. I enjoy cycling through this country. Thanks for your kind offer."

"You are a damn nut."

Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, would have been full of interest but for the presence of thousands of Americans on AID missions. Dervla was not long in evaluating them.

"Today I met a twenty-five-year-old American boy in the museum who was typical of his kind. To them, travel is more a going away from than a going toward, and they seem empty and unhappy and bewildered and pathetically anxious for companionship, yet are afraid to commit themselves to any ideal or cause or person. I find something both terrifying and touching in young people without an aim, however foolish or wrong they may be. This young man was pleasant and intelligent but wasting his time and resentfully conscious of the fact. He did not want to return home, yet, after two years, he is weary of travel, probably because he always holds himself aloof from the people-not through hostility or superiority but through a strange unawareness of his own identity."

Kabul was a disappointment after Herat, but on the other side of the Hindu Kush beckoned an enchanted valley with the legendary village of Bamian. Dervla tackled the 10,380-foot Shibar Pass on her bike, but her tires were ripped to pieces and her brake blocks torn to shreds. She had no choice but continue by bus.

On this bus she suffered her only serious injury. At the start, the driver agreed on a fare of ten Afghanis a head, but on the road he raised it twelve. Pandemonium broke loose. Al the occupants grabbed their weapons, and one man tried to climb over the seats to get his hands on the driver. In the ensuing fight, the irate tribesman fell on Dervla, delivering a hard blow to her chest with the butt of his rifle. The result was several fractured ribs, which plagued he for weeks. But Bamian made up for it. Isolated from the outside world for centuries, it will forever be a fairyland.

At the Pakistan border, Dervla was suddenly back in civilization. The customs house had a fan, the officials were in uniform, and the roads were marked. But the people were no longer proud tribesmen. They were Orientals, living in unbelievable squalor in the oppressive heat of a sadly overcrowded country.

Dervla was now within striking distance of a place she wanted to see above all else: Gilgit. From Rawalpindi to Gilgit is only two hundred miles as the crow files. But crows don't fly to fifteen thousand feet. And that was the height of the Babusar Pass leading to Gilgit. Even though it was now early June with temperatures regularly over 100°, the Babusar Pass was still closed. There was only one way to Gilgit: fly.

The flight was a nightmare. The pilot could not afforded to waste one ounce of gasoline, and he stuck close to the ground. Soon they were flying in the shadow of 26,000-foot Nanga Parbat. Dervla was more puzzled than impressed. Here she was looking out over a fantastic panorama of snow-capped peaks, and yet she was half as excited as when she saw those same peaks from her bicycle. Modern man cheated himself, she reflected, she he removed all physical effort from the act of travel. Today, a person can tour the five continents with less effort than his grandfather used in visiting the next town. Today, we see more. But does it mean more?

In Gilgit, high in the Himalayan mountains, Dervla fell in love with the beauty of the country. It was another world.

For a month, Dervla was prisoner of Gilgit. She could not tear herself away. Finally the calendar told her that the pass should be open. Alternately hiking and cycling, she followed the gorge of the Indus River to the foot of the pass. Temperatures in the gorge reached 120°. The only way she could survive was to start at dawn, travel till noon, find a shady spot, and sleep till four. One day, she ran out of water and nearly died. She observed her symptoms with more interest than alarm. First, she stopped sweating, then she felt cold, finally she fainted. She lay unconscious for hours, then dragged herself the few remaining miles to the village of Chilas. It took several days to recover.

Now came the Babusar Pass in all its glory and vastness. As yet, the pass had not been crossed, but an old man told Dervla as she left that a pony caravan had come through a few hours earlier. The first six miles took four hours over a recognizable track. Then as a blistering sun gave way to snow flurries, Dervla could not see the far side of the glacier, and the surface seemed highly treacherous. The only thing to do was to try to find a way around. Crawling and jumping from one rock to another, she finally reached the top with the bicycle wrapped around her neck. The sun was setting rapidly, and there wasn't a moment to waste. She had to get on or freeze to death.

She started the descent, only to come to a ravine where a bridge had been washed out. Her path was blocked! Searching desperately for a clue, she picked up the tracks of the ponies just as she came to the end of her strength. She climbed back toward the glacier, followed its edge, and spotted the caravan a mile below. There was not time to follow the trail. Instead, Dervla slid down the glacier, sending her bike down first. The men greeted her with shouts of glee and astonishment. The Babusar Pass had been crossed by bike.

The rest of her journey back to Rawalpindi was a 120-mile coast. As she approached the city, the heat once more struck at her savagely. Yet, she persisted. Three weeks after leaving Gilgit, she reached Delhi, but the price was hight: dysentery. It ended her travels more effectively than floods, heat, snow or ice.

What to make of this feat? Dervla Murphy was a young woman with a vision. Her vision was clear. She wanted to see the world. She could have gone by train and by bus, but she chose the bicycle because of its unique advantages. The bicycle opened uncharted ground. It brought her close to the people. It made her see more clearly, feel more keenly, think more critically. In short it helped her to understand herself.

Wikipedia (Includes book list)
Trailblazer: Dervla Murphy from the archives of the Irish newspaper The Sunday Business Post 2002
My bike pages.

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