Monday, 2 April 2012
Peddler’s tales for the low-gear reader
Dauntless Dervla Murphy has cycled what were, at her various times of writing, the undiscovered corners of the world – when she could, that is, because from the harshest winter on record which dogs the quickly-told early stages of her first journey, Full Tilt, to the incapacities and robbery which cut short her bike rides in a much later, train-dominated jaunt around Siberia, circumstances have not always allowed. She’s also trekked with daughter Rachel – when aged five, to southern India, when six, to Baltistan – as well as enlisted several mules or donkeys for company and baggage, treated with love but subject to the same erratic diet as well as the perilous ascents and descents la Murphy herself favours.
These are the only books I’ve found easy to read during my several sojourns in the underworld* – and to re-read with pleasure this time round, in most cases; new to the trusty library this year were Cameroon with Egbert, Transylvania and Beyond and Through the Embers of Chaos (a tough, singular take on the post-fractured Balkans) . It doesn’t worry me that our Dervla has become ever more wild with her punches at What The West Calls Progress. Unscientific she may be; language is often a barrier; but her unique ability to rough it on hard floors among bedbugs and rats wherever she goes opens her to other ways of life, and endears her to local people. She follows her instincts, which are usually right; shrugs off robberies and broken bones; and, in the later books, simply talks to the casualties of war and AIDS.
Though the personal tone is always companionable, the books are often as good – I suspect – as the editor and proofreader have made them. Which doesn’t stop me loving the rougher-hewn tomes, like Six Feet in the Andes. But the little masterpiece is surely Where the Indus is Young – for the pith of its encounters, unsentimentally recorded, with the Balts and others, for the guileless observations of young Rachel and above all for the sheer bloody-mindedness of a mother taking her daughter trekking with a mule from the dead of winter up to avalanche time as the spring thaw begins.
Something of the descriptions of the river and mountain landscape both here and especially in the later stages of Full Tilt, when Dervla heads out of Gilgit in several directions, brings back strong memories of our much less doughty Karakoram journey from Chitral to Gilgit by jeep (majestic Tirich Mir in the distance above); all we can claim in common is dossing down on local floors with mountain folk en route, waking to scenes like this.
When Dervla waxes lyrical, as she often does, about the beauty of high solitude, I can understand at least a little of what she means. And I guess the places we visited on the earlier stages of our trip, which took us up several valleys inhabited by different tribes under the aegis of the Kalash Environmental Protection Agency, aka another extraordinary woman, Maureen Lines, will now have slipped back post-insurgency into untouristed obscurity. Anyway, all hail to the great Murphy for providing an invalid’s solace.
And in another all too recent reminder that other places in the world once accessible to the tourist can so quickly become out of bounds, I’ve been following with alarm our dear Sophie’s narrative from her Hotel Djenne Djenno in Mali. When we were there it wasn’t exactly easy to get to Timbuktu
and back down the river Niger. Now not only is it impossible, as I hazarded before Christmas, to head north to what seems likely to become known as Azawad, but the trouble is very much on Djenne’s doorstep. With only the sketchiest of outlines to be gleaned from the international press, Sophie is perhaps the best port of call for a woefully under-reported crisis that’s worsening by the day.
*normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.