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Still Peddling the Back Roads of the World at 73

 

For her tenth birthday, Dervla Murphy received a bicycle from her parents, and an atlas from her grandfather, and decided, there and then, she would, one day, cycle to India. Twenty-one years later, she climbed onto her bicycle and started peddling. The diary she wrote along the way became her first book, aptly entitled Full Tilt.

Murphy was born in Lismore, County Waterford in 1931. Now, forty years after that first trip, and twenty books later, this intrepid granny is still traipsing around the world.

She has travelled by bicycle or on foot to the far-flung corners of four continents. In the late 70s, she made the gruelling journey through the Andes with her nine-year-old daughter Rachel, and Juana, their beloved mule. Battling stifling heat, and with only the basics to sustain them, the formidable duo trekked from Cajamarca on the border with Ecuador, to Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital, over 1300 miles to the south.

At age sixty, she embarked on a three-thousand mile solo cycle ride across sub-Saharan Africa, peddling from Kenya through Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia to Zimbabwe.

A decade later, she took a three-month-long bicycle ride through Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo–on a route, notorious for some of the worst mountain roads in Europe.

Recently, she headed for one of the Earth’s uttermost parts, Siberia. Her plan was to bicycle from Vladivostok to remotest Ussuriland, but a painful leg injury on the train from Moscow forced her to abandon her bike and settle for the slow Baikal-Amur Mainline train to Lake Baikal, a riverboat up the Lena to Yakutsk, and a 30-hour bus trip from Yakutsk to Tynda.

Despite her ignorance of the Russian language, Murphy hit it off with a colourful palette of Siberians who welcomed the maimed babushka (granny) into their homes. And as the bewildered Siberians, tried to understand what this privileged old woman dressed “like a pensioner” was doing in their backyard, she pulled out photo albums of grandchildren, terriers and cats and passed them round.

Like all her books, Siberia by Accident (John Murray) is the story of a land, its people and culture. In this seemingly bleak place, Murphy discovered breathtaking scenery, a culture rooted in an intriguing Siberian/Russian story, and a resourceful and hospitable people.

Forty years and many hair-raising adventures have not dimmed the dream of the ten-year-old girl. Still listening closely, and with an eye for detail, she reports meticulously on a world that she finds hauntingly beautiful and sadly bedevilled by rampant militarism and uncontrolled capitalism. Through it all, Dervla Murphy’s sense of humour, stout heart, and irrepressible zest for life shines through.