Full Tilt

Imagine travelling from Dublin to India in the 1960s.

That’s a thought that is exciting enough.

OK – then imagine doing it by land, crossing through Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Pakistan. Take out the campervan or car that you had in your mind, and swap it with a bike.

In 1963, that’s exactly the adventure that Irish writer Dervla Murphy embarked upon and Full Tilt captures the joy and challenges of her epic.

I must admit, I didn’t really know what to expect when I picked up this book. In my inner-city bubble I had an image of a bohemian strolling through cities here and there, travelling comfortably and writing whimsical reflections along the way. How wrong I was!

Murphy’s six-month path from Dublin to Dehli was an unhinged epic. Over the course of 4,800km of riding – Murphy and her trusty steed ‘Roz’ cycled through the mountains of Afghanistan, Pakistani deserts and a freezing Eastern European Winter.

It’s a wonder that a book like ‘Full Tilt’ even exists. The account was the ‘virtually unchanged’ diaries sent back from places ranging from Tehran to Kabul and Jalaabad. I’m lucky these days if my postcards make it back from Germany to Australia.

As I read through ‘Full Tilt’, I felt the rhythm of the journey really crystallise in the writing. There is a shift in style from writing with pointed etchings: “I became fully aware of light as something positive, rather than as a taken-for-granted aid to perceiving objects”, to a far more free-flowing account

I liked the spontaneity that came through in her travels and how this was matched in her openness. What is especially great is how she captures ‘the firsts’. The first impressions of a city, a new host, fellow traveller or the politics of a city.

Sometimes this means that we’re treated to sweeping generalisations and stereotypes but it also means we get a much more authentic insight into how Murphy experienced her adventure. I suspect some of this change in style was also a result of limited opportunities to write. We often join Dervla at the end of a 150km ride or writing until the end of a candle in a remote Afghan village. Not necessarily ideal!

Afghanistan definitely plays a central part of the book – it is an incredible time capsule of a certain type of travelling unique to the 1960s and its captured in her description of the landscape:

“The downward gradient is much less severe and at one point the road goes through a glorious narrow gorge of red-brown cliffs; these are so close, so high and so sheer that standing between them, looking up, one has the sensation of being a midget dropped into some ruggedly built edifice with a slight crack in the roof”.

In addition to the deep love for the environment, a real affection for Afghan culture is expressed in terms of “its simplicity, its courtesy and its leisureliness”, and the directness of the people.  It’s easy to see the appeal of the country on the old Silk Road hippy trail.

At times I felt a sense of poignancy as Murphy described the now destroyed Bamiyan Budhas’s or the innocence expressed in describing cultural dynamics “the underlying sanity of an area fortunate enough to have remained very backward indeed…”

But – it’s a contrasting feeling to the book’s frequent humour.

I particularly liked how we’re treated to the odd collection of expats that have found themselves in remote parts of the world, the sheer disbelief about her exploits and Murphy’s sense of self-awareness. This helps a lot in in keeping the story roll along.

As the recollections draw to a close in Delhi, the sense of incredulity lingers well after finishing the book. Even after looking past ‘the no go’ nature of some many of the areas where she travelled – it’s quite miraculous that Murphy made it half-way across the world in one piece and ‘relatively’ unscarred.

It’s not an idea which goes unaddressed – with the inherent ‘good’ within people attributed to the safe passage.

Regardless of whether it was luck or humanity that took Dervla and Roz to the finish line, it was madness that put them on the road to begin. And this adventure stemming from a few loose screws is one of immense proportions.

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