Is Dervla Murphy most admired for her writing or her travelling style?

I’ve recently been reading In Ethiopia With a Mule, about a trek across – you guessed it – Ethiopia, in the company of a mule, by the famously brave travel writer Dervla Murphy.

Dervla undertook her journey in the 1960s, crossing 1,024 miles of Ethiopia’s mountainous interior on foot from Adwa in the far north, to Sali Dingai, a short distance north-east of Addis Ababa. For the most part she travelled alone (apart from the eponymous mule, whom she named Jock), carrying little more than food supplies, a hidden supply of cash, a sleeping bag, cooking utensils, a few books, and her notebooks for documenting her experience.

In Ethiopia With a Mule is a book about - you guessed it - trekking across Ethiopia in the company of a mule
In Ethiopia With a Mule is a book about – you guessed it – trekking across Ethiopia in the company of a mule

She didn’t carry a tent, and avoided hotels wherever possible, preferring to beg room on the flea-ridden floor of a villager’s hut (known as a tukul), sharing their meal with them in the evening. She carried no detailed map, and spoke only a few words of the local Amharic language. She often had to communicate using sign language.

It’s a form of travel that most of us would never dream of using. If I wanted to trek across the mountains of Ethiopia, I would contact a local trekking agency to arrange logistics and a guide. Not Dervla, as she made clear in no uncertain terms.

There was some nostalgia for me as I read the book. Among the most beautiful areas she travelled through were the Simien Mountains, a green paradise rising to over 4,000m and brimming with unusual wildlife.

I trekked there myself in 2004 on an organised camping trek. For many days we walked along an escarpment edge above dramatic cliffs, with views across hundred of miles of ‘lowlands’ to our north. I used the word ‘lowlands’ in inverted commas because they were a tumbling mass of impossible rock towers and precipitous gorges, which were themselves around 2,000m in altitude. We climbed the highest mountain in Ethiopia, Ras Dashen, an easy trek that at 4,533m is still the tenth-highest mountain in Africa.

After weeks of travel accompanied only by locals, Dervla was astounded to come across four British school teachers, who were teaching in Addis and had decided to visit the Simien Mountains for a two-week holiday.

She described their trip thus:

This is a high-powered expedition, equipped with an enormous tent, a Primus stove, cooking utensils, crockery and cutlery, boxes of faranj [foreign] food, a riding mule, a muleteer, and three pack-horses.

This wouldn’t be everyone’s definition of ‘high-powered’. Dervla went on to lament that ‘the business of camping makes life very complicated’. She could just wake up in her sleeping bag and be on the trail within half an hour. But by the time her new companions had taken their time over a hot breakfast, cleaned and packed their kitchen equipment, washed themselves in the river, dismantled the tent and loaded their pack horses, three hours had passed.

Dervla climbed Ras Dashen with them, but only one of the four reached the summit. Two turned back with altitude sickness, one of whom was spotted wandering aimlessly in a daze. They had to descend early to rescue him.

She remarked that:

I would have thought one treks in the Simiens partly to get away from complications, and it seems rather peculiar deliberately to bring them with one.

Later, they had a light-hearted discussion about travelling style. Dervla argued that by ‘living in a strange little tent-world of portable mod. cons’ they are isolating themselves from the people around them, and missing out on a vital part of the travelling experience.

At this point, some of you may be nodding your heads in agreement with Dervla. But for me, my emotions were more admiration than agreement.

You see, there are many risks of this travelling style too, ones that are obvious to most of us. These are risks that Dervla may be willing to take, but she will have to forgive us if most of us aren’t.

During the course of her trek across Ethiopia, she was robbed three times. The most memorable of these occurred on the shores of Lake Tana. Here she was approached by four men, one of whom was a priest, demanding that she return to their village to stay the night. She didn’t trust them, and declined their offer.

An argument ensued, during which she heard the Ethiopian words for mule, money, medicine and clothes discussed repeatedly. Dervla believed that the ruffians were arguing about whether to murder her and take her possessions, or just take her possessions. Two of them, including the priest, were in the former group.

Luckily, the other two won the argument, and her life was spared, but they took her sleeping bag, torch, spare pens, matches, camera, medicine, books and money, and left her to spend a cold night in the open beside a damp black bog.

The Simien Mountains are a green paradise rising to over 4,000m
The Simien Mountains are a green paradise rising to over 4,000m

A few days later, she went into the police station at the nearest town, Gondar, to report the crime. Here, the local police were so ashamed that this should happen to a foreigner and guest in their country, that they launched an immediate mission to find the criminals and recover Dervla’s property. When she described the priest to them, he was immediately identified as a notorious shifta, or bandit, called Kas Makonnen.

The follow morning Dervla accompanied 24 armed police officers on a boat trip across Lake Tana until she identified the shoreline where the robbery had taken place. Here, they jumped out, rushed into the village and spotted Kas Makonnen sitting outside his front door. He was seized as he rose to his feet. The other three bandits were quickly rounded up. It had been so absurdly one-sided that Dervla became overcome by a fit of giggles.

She soon lost her sense of humour, however, as she witnessed the treatment of the villagers by the police officers. One of the robbers was taken around a corner and beaten until he confessed to the location of Dervla’s possession. Most of these were recovered after further beatings, including the sleeping bag and camera.

And herein lies the contradiction of Dervla Murphy’s travelling style, which most people, including herself, would regard as thoroughly independent. In truth, there is no such thing. Wherever she went, local people felt responsible for her wellbeing, often reluctantly, but always with a sense of accountability.

Upon hearing of her travel plans, locals would attempt to dissuade her. They lived in constant fear of shifta, who they believed were everywhere in the highlands. Dervla poo-pooed this idea:

Obviously if I believed these ideas I wouldn’t be such a fool; but the risk of being shot at by shifta while walking through Ethiopia was probably no greater than the risk of being strangled by a maniac while hitch-hiking through Britain.

Interestingly, even after she was robbed by shifta (and relieved not to have been murdered) she maintained that her journey was relatively safe.

On one occasion she returned from a school visit to the place where she was staying the night, to find the chief of police, the village headman and a crowd of onlookers sitting by her bed discussing the problem of how to deal with her. None of them wanted to be held responsible for a foreigner being robbed and murdered on their patch. On that occasion she won her argument and managed to convince them to allow her to proceed with only a single guide, but often she was forced to travel with an escort of several men, something she described as a ‘loss of freedom’.

I discussed this dilemma with Edita, who is also a big fan of Dervla Murphy’s writing. Often Dervla is admired as much for her intrepid travelling style as her actual writing, but I found myself thinking, is she being independent and adventurous or is she not a little selfish?

This particular adventure – a foreign woman, walking alone in a remote land untouched by tourism – was so unusual, that she became a burden on the people she had come to learn about. Everywhere she went, people were flustered. They didn’t know what to do with her, but they felt they ought to do something.

But Edita had a very different take. Would it have been any easier if Dervla had been a man? Dervla was minding her own business, travelling alone. Wasn’t she entitled to do that? Would they have been more inclined to let her travel alone, less concerned for her safety, less inclined to crowd round her like a circus performer, had she been male?

I don’t have the answer to this question. I suspect they would still have done so, as they did to Bill Tilman when he cycled through the Congo in the 1930s. But I could see Edita’s point.

Whatever the answer, if you’ve not read any of Dervla Murphy’s books then you should. I’ll leave you with this little gem about her arrival in Asmara, now the capital of Eritrea. Her first priority was to find the nearest bar and order a drink.

At 1.30 I found one, pushed aside a curtain of bottle-tops on strings and in a single breath ordered three beers.

Three beers? Respect.

I would like to dedicate this post to the 157 people who lost their lives on Ethiopian Airlines flight ET-302, which crashed south of Addis Ababa last week. Among them were no fewer than seven of Edita’s colleagues from the UN World Food Programme, humanitarians all, working hard to save the lives of those less well off. May their work be remembered.

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7 thoughts on “Is Dervla Murphy most admired for her writing or her travelling style?

  • March 20, 2019 at 6:29 pm
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    Another interesting adventurer is Wilfred Thesiger. Post WW2, he camel-trekked the Rub-al-Khali in the Arabian Peninsula. He paid teenage boys to accompany him, possibly because grown men weren’t stupid or adventurous enough to risk their lives in such a foolish pursuit. He documented these adventures in “Arabian Sands”, a fascinating read. I personally consider him to be a selfish man, risking boys lives so he could indulge himself as “The last true explorer”. His biography by Michael Asher is enlightening, and well worth a read too.

  • March 20, 2019 at 6:35 pm
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    PS, would the shifta have been more inclined to murder a man? Did Murphy have an advantage, wittingly or unwittingly, dealing with the locals, due to her gender?

  • March 21, 2019 at 2:50 am
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    My condolences to Edita regarding her colleagues’ deaths. May their memories be a blessing.

  • March 21, 2019 at 9:15 am
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    Like almost everything in life, adventure isn’t exempt from philosophical dilemmas. From environmental consequences of climbing mountains of 8000 meters to jeopardizing rescuers’ lives when things go wrong, adventurers are usually stepping into the realm of ethics. That’s life.

  • March 21, 2019 at 10:09 am
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    Another great explorer’s great exploration book has all the above-mentioned qualities of courage, vision, insight and sympathy AND it concludes with a great Thesiger anecdote. Read Eric Newby’s “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush” today and everything else he’s written tomorrow.

  • March 21, 2019 at 10:16 am
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    And we’ve all read “Seven Steps from Croydon to Wallington”, of course. Subtitled “Magnificent View, Gary, Got Any More Beer?”

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