The Best of Bicycling
The Perils of Dervla Murphy
by Clifford L. Graves, M.D.
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
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
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
"What the hell are you doing on this damn road?"
"Riding my bike."
"I can see that. But what the hell for?"
"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
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
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.