Hilary Bradt talks to Dervla Murphy about their 40-year friendship, and Dervla’s daughter, Rachel, about the perils of family travel when your mother is a famous travel writer.
I vividly remember my first meeting with Dervla Murphy in 1979. My husband George and I had just arrived at a hostal in Otavalo, Ecuador, in 1979 while researching Backpacking in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. I emerged from our room to find George chatting to a tough-looking woman with an Irish accent. She was telling him where to buy good yoghurt. As she returned to one of the basic rooms which faced the central courtyard, we held a whispered conversation. ‘Do you think that’s Dervla Murphy?’ George asked (we had heard that she was in Peru with her daughter).’Oh no,’ I said, ’she’s a proper writer; she wouldn’t stay in a place like this!’ But later that day George asked her anyway. Her face conveyed a mixture of surprise and dismay. ‘I’ll get some rum.’ she said. Ten-year-old Rachel appeared on the scene and we talked for hours about travel and politics. And we have continued talking for the intervening 40 years.
In August I travelled to Lismore, the town where Dervla was born, and still lives, to interview her for the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the British Guild of Travel Writers. Now 88, her health may be so-so but her passion for life – and politics – is undiminished. Modern travel, with its emphasis on safety and comfort, is not for her. To quote a reviewer of Muddling through in Madagascar, published in the 1980s (a journey I was proud to have inspired), ‘Dervla Murphy’s appetite for discomfort verges on the Gothic.’ One can only concur, as one reads with appalled fascination her descriptions of sleeping in a pool of rainwater under the leaking roof of a £15 tent, or walking 20 miles or so on a foot punctured by a strategically-placed nail in a cheap Mexican hiking boot. This disregard for comfort – not only for herself but for her then six-year-old daughter – is highlighted in the extracts from Where the Indus is Young in our latest anthology Kidding Around: Tales of Travel with Children.
‘I had just begun this entry [in my diary] when a pathetic small voice said, “Mummy, what’s biting me doesn’t feel like fleas.” ...I lit a candle and found Rachel’s clothes literally crawling with tiny grey body lice.’
How many small children, even 40 years ago, were familiar with fleabites, let alone body lice? Rachel was visiting her mother at Lismore when I arrived, so I had the opportunity to ask this elegant middle-aged woman what she remembered of those tough times in Baltistan. ‘I remember how dirty our clothes were (removing them for the first time for three months), but I don’t remember the lice.’ So what horrifies us as pampered modern readers was not even significant enough to stay in Rachel’s memory.
In fact, she seems remarkably unruffled by the adventures forced upon her as a child. She missed a lot of school, but believes she gained her education in other ways. ‘Well, not much maths,’ she admitted to me, ‘but I wrote a diary every day when travelling. Anyway, she didn’t take me out of school after the age of ten and I quickly caught up.’ And Rachel learned the most important lesson of all while travelling as a child: that you can trust almost everyone. She told the story of when she and Dervla both got brucellosis in Nepal when Rachel was just five. ‘I was less badly hit than my mother and I remember her asking me to go out and find a doctor. And I did!’
Later, I asked Dervla about her memories of travelling with Rachel. Kidding Around, after all, is all about treasured memories of travelling with children. ‘I think it would be the one when she was five and we were in India,’ she said. ‘I had tried to answer her question about the Hindu religion. She listened carefully and then said: “The Hindu religion seems very complicated. Please explain it again when I’m eight!”’
Dervla remains concerned about how protective parents are these days. In fact, she’s ‘almost incoherent about the subject. Children aren’t allowed to climb trees in case they fall, and playgrounds have soft surfaces. It worries me too – it must inhibit their physical and mental development.’ She hates being asked about her courage, but I asked her anyway – potential danger lurking around every corner being the uppermost concern of parents travelling with children. ‘People just don’t seem to be able to get hold of it! I’ve nothing to be brave about!’
‘But has there been a time when you really were frightened?’ I pressed her.
‘Well, of course. In Ethiopia when I thought these people were going to murder me, and they were discussing whether they would or not, obviously I was afraid then. It’s being afraid when something actually happens but not being afraid that something might happen. That’s the difference.’
And with that, she gave me one of her twinkly smiles and took another sip of her beer.
Dervla has been extraordinarily generous to me and to Bradt over the years. In 1980 she wrote the foreword to the third edition of our first, pioneering book Backpacking and Trekking in Peru and Bolivia. Her kind words of support (’I just wish my daughter and I had had it with us when we were trekking in the Andes; it would have added immensely to our enjoyment’) gave me the self confidence to continue publishing. Extracts from her books have appeared in our previous anthologies, To Oldly Go (where she again wrote the foreword), and Beastly Journeys. And so, it is fitting that she should lead the line-up of our newest collection, Kidding Around, which was partly inspired by the knowledge that Dervla held strong views on the mollycoddling of children and would write the foreword. She has done us proud. ‘One of the few advantages of being eighty-seven,’ she writes with relish, ‘is that you can at least let your crankiness off the leash.’
To read more from Dervla on travelling with children, check out our anthology: