Monday, February 29, 2016

Full Tilt

Ireland to India with a Bicycle

Dervla Murphy's first book describes a journey undertaken in 1963. It took her six months to travel 3000 miles with an "average cycling day" of 70-80 miles.

The subtitle, however, is somewhat misleading, as the portion between Ireland and Teheran is covered in an 18-page introduction. The rest of the story is told in diary format with the first two chapters covering Iran and the final one India.

Thus the bulk of the book is devoted to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is full of praise for the wild beauty of the mountains and the instinctive honesty and generosity of the people she met. It is refreshing to read such a positive view of these two countries, but one cannot help wondering how well those characteristics have survived over the last 50 years. 

The book has three maps but no photos. The cover shows a pass in the mountains between Kabul and Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

Personal Safety

She carried a .25 calibre pistol with her and had to use it three times, the first when she was attacked by wolves in what is now Croatia, the second just before she reached Iran, when she used it to scare off a would-be rapist.

In Iran she used the gun for the final time to chase off three elderly men with shovels when they tried to seize her bicycle. Shortly afterwards she foiled another rape attempt (a police officer this time) with a kick to the balls. Occasionally she had stones thrown at her by kids, also in Iran.

Her only serious injury happened on a crowded bus in Afghanistan -- a rifle butt to the ribs delivered accidentally by an angry tribesman trying to get at the driver because of a sudden increase in fare. A week later she was stung by a scorpion the size of a mouse.

Due to the extreme differences in temperature, travel through Pakistan was physically the most challenging portion of the journey. It was there that she suffered heat stroke as well as dysentery.

The only thefts she experienced were minor ones and occurred in Iran and India.


She travelled from Herat to Kandahar, Kabul, and Jalalabad, with side trips to the Hindu Kush. She praises the splendour of the mountains and compares the Ghorband Valley (with its "neat vineyards," and orchards of "apricot, peach, almond, apple, and cherry") to the Garden of Eden. 

In Bamiyan she saw a 180-foot statue of Buddha carved into a cliff face (since destroyed by the Taliban), as well as the ruins of the "city of sighs" sacked by Genghis Khan in 1222.

Afghanistan was the only country "where not one single man of any type has made the slightest attempt 'to get off' with me." Men may be "hot-tempered and uncontrollably ferocious when roused, but once a dispute is settled without loss of honour on either side" they embrace each other and "sing a duet."

"The other day in a tea-house I made a casual remark to a total stranger about the postal rates here and he immediately offered to pay all my stamp bills -- a man with no shoes to his feet! This is typical."


She travelled the famed Khyber Pass to Pakistan, and continued on through Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and Lahore, with excursions into the Himalayas and the Karakoram Mountains.

She visited the Swat, Indus, and Kaghan Valleys, and saw ibex, the pugmarks of leopards, and butterflies the size of British robins. When travelling by horseback along precipices she became "so trustful that I positively enjoyed looking down to see nothing whatever between me and the torrent, 1500 feet below." 

She dined on goat meat and stewed clover, and drank salted tea and a local wine called Punial Water. Afterwards she cleaned her teeth with walnut bark, which she found better than ordinary toothpaste.

She saw a thrilling polo match where "blood was soon streaming from over half the twelve players' heads and hands and backs" yet "no tempers were lost." Meanwhile a band "played non-stop."

She was repeatedly "astonished by the hospitality and kindness of everyone in this part of the world." Starving peasants were willing to share their last egg with her yet reluctant to accept money.

Wheels within Wheels

Full Tilt ends abruptly in India, but -- as mentioned in her 1979 autobiography, Wheels within Wheels -- she then worked for six months without pay at a Tibetan refugee camp. She also describes how Full Tilt came to be published and felt it "less a personal triumph than the fulfilment of an obligation to my parents."

She began secretly planning her trip to India at the age of ten when she received an atlas and a bicycle as birthday presents. When her father died, she felt smothered by the task of caring for her demanding invalid mother. It was not until 1962 when her mother died that Dervla was free to make the trip that she had been planning for more than half her life.