cycle touring

Full Tilt: Dunkirk to Delhi by bicycle

On her tenth Birthday Dervla Murphy was given a bicycle and an atlas. A few days later she decided to cycle to India. Twenty years later she set off from Dunkirk towards Delhi. The epic journey took her through Europe, Persia, Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan and into India. Written as a travel journal, Murphy chose not to edit it for publication and this adds to its immediacy and spontaneity.
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Riding the Desert Trail

Excerpt: I came to the banks of the Nile at the dilapidated bridge of Pakwatch, where the river, having rushed and tumbled its way headlong down the 250 miles of falls and rapids from Lake Victoria to join the waters of Lake Albert, has turned a ninety-degree corner and taken up its northward direction again. It is only a few miles below Lake Albert and the quantities of moisture ascending invisibly from the vast expanse of water had changed the look of the land entirely. In fact land had ceased to have any significance. It was a scene of air and water only, of limitless space and a marvellous light with the bloom on it of something primeval and eternally fresh. The sky was like an opalescent shell casting a pink glow into the sparkling blueness of the upper air, and was reflected back onto the dancing silvery surface of the mile-wide infant river. Far away to the west, so faintly etched as to make them seem of the same elements, was the soft grey outline of a range of towering mountains. I would probably have remained at this vantage point for a long time had it not been for a line of soldiers who squatted watchfully on their heels along the rotten planking of the bridge. In their stiff heavy uniforms, trailing their clumsy weapons in the dust, they seemed as alien as the bridge itself in that primitive, ethereal place. They did not need to remind me that people who linger on bridges are regarded with the deepest suspicion. Once across the bridge and rolling down the shallow incline on the other side, I felt no such inhibitions about gazing my fill, whach was how I came to pass the rusty upturned wheelbarrow which constituted an army road block, and at which I was meant to stop. The first intimation that I had committed a grave error was the look of fear on an old woman's face as she gestured at me with flapping movements of her hands to go back. In the same moment I realised that the grunts behind me, which had been rising in pitch and volume, might have something to do with me. As I turned round I saw a soldier bearing down fast towards me, his rifle aimed at my middle and his finger trembling on the trigger. His face was contorted with anger and his shouts had by now become screams and bellows of rage; it was clear that he was preventing himself from firing only with great difficulty. Realising what I had done I hurried back towards him and even as I was taking in the situation, it came to me that here at last was the other side of things - the root of the fear I had felt in crossing the border. It was my first encounter with the terrifying violence that had ruined this land. I think I realised straight away that the soldier was, in a curious way, as helpless as I was, and was possibly just as frightened by his own anger. He knew he shouldn't shoot me and would be in grave trouble if he did, but he clearly had an enormous urge to pull the trigger because I had so greatly offended his sense of self-importance by ignoring the barrier. He tried to dissipate his anger by humiliating me instead, and screamed at me to pick up my bicycle and put it on my head and carry it back to the wheelbarrow. "You have to be punished." he kept shouting. The mind is a curious thing and many layered, and probably one is never more conscious of this than in situations of acute danger. I was aware of how close I was to being killed and was deeply frightened and could hear myself apologising over and over again, doing my best to placate the man and calm him down. At the same time a part of my brain was debating the absurdity of his order to carry my bicycle on my head - an impossible feat, I decided, quite apart which I could barely lift one wheel off the ground as it was so heavily laden. I almost laughed aloud at the picture it conjured up, and even to save my life I knew I wouldn't dream of even pretending to attempt it. Fortunately there was another, more sensible layer in overall control that was intent upon getting us both back to the barrier and the comparitive safety of the other soldiers whom I could see waiting there. Once I could lean the cycle against the rusty wheelbarrow and fish out my papers and the magic letter, I knew all would be well. But I had no idea of just how terrified I had been until the other soldiers told me to calm down and be quiet and I realised I was still apologising over and over again, the words tumbling over themselves in their eagerness to get out. I told the soldiers that it was their fault because they had frightened me so much and they said they were sorry for that, and suddenly the incident was over and we were all friends, except for the first soldier whose chest was still heaving and shuddering with suppressed emotion. It was here that the famous Murchison Game Park began. I had doubted whether I would be allowed through it on a bicycle, and at first the soldiers were all for forbidding my passage: "Too dangerous. Lions, big animals, chomp chomp. They eat you up." Then they decided that I must have a gun with me, which explained why I wanted to go through a game park, and they concentrated on trying to get me to declare it, telling me (untruthfully) that I was allowed to travel with a gun, only I must show it to them. Then, quite suddenly, they simply lost interest in me as a Suzuki pick-up drove up, and they waved me on through. "It is not dangerous." said one "you go." I went in haste, before they could change their minds again. At first there was a lot of military movement on the road; I saw at least twelve large army lorries, each with a perfectly dressed miniature soldier of seven or so, preserving a stern unsmiling demeanor as he posed on the steps of the cab. They were all going off to the east towards Gulu, where fresh outbreaks of fighting had been reported, and once I had turned onto the narrow sandy path which ran south through the park towards the Victoria Nile, I had the place to myself - except for whatever might be lurking in the undergrowth. After the recent confrontation I was only too glad to be alone and could not worry over-much about being attacked by wild animals. Every mile seemed an extra bonus now that I had had my first thrilling glimpse of one of the Nile's great sources. I felt I was in a momentous place, the centre of things, and to have got this far gave me a tremendous sense of achievment. All that planning and those long dusty miles had finally led to the point where I was riding alone on a bicycle through this almost legendary game reserve, part of the rumoured paradise that had remained hidden from the rest of world until barely a century ago. It felt like the height of good fortune just to be here, even if the stories were true of Amin's troops having shot most of the game. The only animals I saw were large water buck bounding away with long extended leaps over the open ground, and gazelle which seemed to hover in the air as they made off. There were also a few African storks and one very large pacing bird with a long pointed beak. I was very lucky to see anything because a short way into the reserve I heard firing and came across a large army truck stationary in the middle of the path with the soldiers fanned out all over the place shooting for the pot. I made sure they knew I was there before I approached them; I wanted no more near encounters with a heavy calibre bullet. After that I saw no one and I pressed on hard in order to make the shelter of Paraa before nightfall. I often had to walk because of soft sand, and the sweat poured down my face past the headband that was meant to stop it, but even so the feeling of a deep joy and contentment kept growing. The landscape had changed again dramatically from the lucent watery scene of a few miles back. Here it was like being on the roof of the world - another limitless expanse, but this time of hot dry brown plains that went on and on into far blue distances. An heroic landscape, charged with energy and with a slight undercurrent of menace. It was a landscape that threw out a challenge. 'This is Africa.' it seemed to say 'this is what you travelled so far to find.'
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