Clodagh Finn: Let’s take a leaf from Dervla Murphy’s book and travel in a lower gear

Should we ask the question if zipping off to sun ourselves in a hot country is the right thing to do now?
Clodagh Finn: Let’s take a leaf from Dervla Murphy’s book and travel in a lower gear

Travel writer Dervla Murphy relaxing at home with a can of beer as she prepared for a trip to Vladivostok. 

The world might be a better place if we all travelled as the late, great Dervla Murphy did — by bicycle, on foot, on public transport or, if you’re valiant enough, by pack mule.

She never learned to drive, as many of the tributes to the travel writer, adventurer and author, who died on Monday, have noted. And yet she went further than most of us will in a lifetime, writing about her far-flung adventures in more than 26 books that will hopefully continue to find new readers.

Her first book, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, broke new ground when it was published in 1965. Her account of her six-month solo journey through a frozen Europe into Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and over the Himalayas into Pakistan and India established her as a travel writer.

Her voice was new and, in the words of a fellow practitioner Colin Thubron, it was “unpretentious, shiningly honest and accessible”.

But it was also something else — inspirational.

Dervla Murphy opened the way for others, prompting a new generation of women to believe it was possible to travel widely, and to do so alone. Irish-Canadian writer Anakana Schofield put it rather beautifully in 2015 when she wrote: “As a very young woman I first read Murphy’s In Ethiopia With a Mule (1966) and credit it with dispelling the idea at 18 that if I was to travel alone as a woman, everyone would instantly want to kill me. Strange as it may sound: she put me in my body. I did travel alone and lived.”

Incidentally, Dervla Murphy never thought she was brave or courageous. “If you’re fearless, you don’t need courage,” she told Ethel Crowley in this paper when she turned 90 last year. “It’s only if you’re fearful that you need courage to overcome your fears.”

Travel writer Dervla Murphy taking out her trusty bicycle in preparation for one of her many trips.
Travel writer Dervla Murphy taking out her trusty bicycle in preparation for one of her many trips.

Her own fearlessness, she explained, was thanks to her mother: “At the age of 16, in 1947, it was my mother who suggested that I cycle through the continent alone — not many mothers did that!”

In turn, she inspired many more, as is evident in the tributes from women who were spurred on to undertake a series of freeing journeys alone — and on two wheels. In the words of one: “Because of her, I cycled from Galway to Glasgow and then the Highlands back in the ’80s and still remember it as one of the most liberating things.”

Dervla Murphy can also teach us a thing or two about the art of travelling light. Her list of kit for her trip to India includes just three items under ‘change of clothes’: One woollen vest; one pair of woollen ankle-length underpants and one Viyella shirt.’

A model of restraint, although when you consider she had to put it all on the back of a bicycle along with the other essentials: 100 aspirin, a .25 automatic pistol, Jawaharlal Nehru’s History of India and William Blake’s Poems (Penguin edition), a map and a compass, to mention a few — it seems less so.

While we might only cycle through Afghanistan in the pages of a book these days, there is much in Dervla Murphy’s work that resonates widely. Not least, the mode of transport.

Travelling on two wheels is not for everyone, but is there a better way of paying tribute to this singular woman than starting a real conversation about slow travel? It is striking to see the lack of discussion on the rights and wrongs of holiday air travel in a time of climate emergency. Should we not at least ask the question if zipping off to sun ourselves in a hot country is the right thing to do now?

The irony in all of it is that the hot countries we long to visit are getting even hotter, partly because we continue to fly to them.

Climate change has led to extreme weather events, including rising temperatures in some of our favoured holiday destinations.

India and Pakistan have recorded record highs recently while closer to home, holiday favourites Spain and France are experiencing the hottest May since records began.

And, as the World Weather Attribution consortium repeated last week, “all heatwaves today bear the unmistakable and measurable fingerprint of global warming”.

One holiday flight might not make that much difference, you could argue. After all, aviation contributes about 2% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to the International Air Transport Association. That might not sound like a lot but, mile for mile, flying is the least environmentally friendly way of travelling.

To give one concrete example: flying from London to Berlin and back emits an estimated .6 tonnes in carbon emissions, which is about three times what you might save from a year of recycling.

Then, as often happens when we arrive, we hire a car to see the sights. There’s an irony in that too as travelling by car is probably the worst way to see anything, as another cycling travel writer Eric Newby noted after he and his wife Wanda cycled around Ireland when they were in their 60s.

“We both rejected the idea of using a car on the grounds that whoever is driving sees hardly anything except the road ahead; if not, they shouldn’t be driving — and the one who isn’t is either permanently map-reading or looking things up in guide books to entertain the driver, and getting ticked off if he fails to do so.”

I’m not suggesting that you pack your panniers and cycle to Berlin — though, there’s a good challenge — but it is really time to look again at what we think of as acceptable tourism. Should we, for example, say goodbye to the long weekend away in Paris, or some other European capital rendered local by air travel, and think instead in terms of longer, slower holidays?

As well as helping the planet, you’ll see more and arrive free of the awful disorientation that comes with travelling through myriad time zones. There is definitely something to the Arabic idiom that says the soul travels at the pace of a camel. You might have touched down on the other side of the world, but the rest of you — your soul, if you will — is still trailing after you in lost luggage.

You might actually get to meet some of the real locals too. There isn’t a better way to get to know a country than taking its public transport system. Anyone visiting Ireland this summer trying to hire a car will come away with a tale of exasperating shortages and eye-popping prices.

If they take the bus, on the other hand, they will return home with warm memories of cheaper fares and the polite Irish who never get off without thanking the driver.

If they stay a little longer, we’ll tell them about one of our best travel writers Dervla Murphy, a woman who cycled around the world with a map, a hunting knife and a book of poetry.

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