By the time I was introduced to Dervla Murphy through her book, One Foot in Laos, she was already an established dame of adventure cycle touring. Here was an Irish woman who had spent the best part of 40 years writing about her journeys — often by bicycle or by foot, and frequently as a solo traveller — across remote parts of the world which less wise people might consider to be dangerous places for women.
It was no mere travelogue I’d checked out of the library — in capturing Laos in the 1990s, Dervla also provided political commentary on the problems of a country still recovering from the scars of the Vietnam War and on the brink of unprecedented change. She wasn’t just a female traveller; she always researched her subject matter meticulously and drew her readers into the social and political climate of troubled countries.
After finishing One Foot in Laos, I felt drawn to this tiny country in Southeast Asia and vowed to visit. A few years later I read Silverland which details Dervla’s travels by train and bicycle across Siberia in winter and was similarly bewitched by the Russia that she portrayed.
Almost 50 years after Dervla packed a .25 automatic pistol into one of her panniers and set off on her first bike trip to India, I stared at packing lists and maps while I planned my own epic bicycle trip from London to New Zealand. I brought along a good humoured young man instead of a gun and we caught a train through Siberian Russia and cycled the length of Laos during two amazing years of overland travel.
It was Dervla Murphy who opened my eyes to the possibility of real, adventurous travel. And I couldn’t imagine a better guide than this highly opinionated and unshakeable heroine.