No 322 Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy

Throughout her career, Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy wrote 26 books about her adventures, despite not even travelling seriously until she was in her early thirties. When she died at the age of 90 in 2022, she was perhaps best known for Full Tilt, an account of her solo bicycle ride from Ireland to India, which she undertook in 1963. Full Tilt was named as one of the ten best cycling books in history by The Guardian and one of the twenty best travel books of the 20th Century by The Times.

For her tenth birthday, Murphy received a bicycle and an atlas as gifts and decided there and then that she would cycle from Dublin to Delhi. Twenty-two years later, she set off, during one of the coldest winters on record to pursue that dream. Riding a three-speed Armstrong Cadet ‘Rozinante’ she affectionately nicknamed ‘Roz’, she packed lightly with a sleeping bag, clothes, a notebook and presciently, a revolver.  

Based mainly on her diaries and the letters she managed to send home throughout the six-month trip, Full Tilt showcases Murphy’s glorious dry wit, innate love of travel and people and her straightforward dislike of snobbery. Her journey across a wintry Europe is alluded to in the introductory chapter, but her diaries don’t start in earnest until her odyssey through Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally India.

What is most striking about these bracing diaries is Murphy’s bravery. To be a woman, travelling solo through the Middle East at that time was no mean feat and quite often the many people she met assumed her a man – the idea that a woman would be travelling on her own being too ridiculous to contemplate. Murphy, however, held no truck with being called brave. Quoting Epictetus, Murphy said that ‘fear itself, is the only thing to fear’ and her actions- in some truly hair-raising situations – suggest a self-assurance that is remarkable. Early on in her trip, she is set upon by starving wolves in Siberia, surviving the attack only by shooting one of them in the head. She wards off two would-be rapists, one of whom was a police officer in Azerbaijan and she suffers severe concussion after being accidentally hit in the head with a rifle butt on an Afghan bus.

It is on occasions such as these that I thank God for my sanguine temperament, which refuses to allow me to believe in disaster until it, is finally manifest.

This straightforward attitude to danger, gives her text an enjoyable immediacy, particularly as she is writing of her escapades within days of them happening. Her writing is also given added depth by the open-mindedness of her approach to travel. She is a woman for whom any experience holds value and she rarely feels sorry for herself, whether she is suffering extreme weather while travelling or struggling to get enough to eat and drink. She has little time for fellow Westerners who have no interest in life at a local level and she is more likely to be found sleeping in a small hut in the midst of a village as she is dining with the president of Pakistan (which she does).

Her love for Afghanistan is joyous to behold, thanks to the community-focused contentment of life she witnessed there. She views what she sees as a disconnect in the West between the drive for progress and a more natural way of life.

I feel I’ve been privileged to see Man at his best – still in possession of the sort of liberty and dignity that we have exchanged for what it pleases us to call ‘progress’. Even a brief glimpse of what we were is valuable to help to understand what we are. Living in the West, it’s now impossible for most of us to envisage our own past by a mere exercise of the imagination, so we’re rather like adults who have forgotten the childhood that shaped them. And that increases the unnaturalness of our lives.

While she has a point about the problems that Western progress might bring to somewhere like Afghanistan, her attitude towards feminism hasn’t aged well and the women that she encountered on her travels – particularly those young girls married off at the age of twelve and thirteen – may not have been just as content as she imagined.

It’s a small quibble in what is an incredibly enjoyable book. Murphy has a fantastic knack for capturing the essence of people, the beauty of the landscape and the absurdity of life on two wheels. Her dry wit is a wonderful thing and it leaps off page after page. Staying in a Grade ‘A’ hotel in Afghanistan, the toilet flush detaches from the ceiling on first use, drenching her in rusty water and she notes that,

…there is a holder for lavatory paper on the wall which makes one feel that if one stayed here long enough it might have paper too some day.

A passage about the way in which buses are boarded in Afghanistan – a process taking upwards of six hours and featuring the inclusion of as many passengers as is physically possible – is worth the price of the book alone.

“I regard this sort of life,” she wrote of her time spent travelling, “with just Roz and me and the sky and the earth as sheer bliss.” Over fifty years since it was first written, Full Tilt captures that sense of bliss and brings her travels to vivid life. Dervla Murphy, for all her down-to-earth unassuming nature, cannot be denied as a pioneer of travel writing and an inspiration for generations.  

Read On: E-book

The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

23 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I really enjoyed the Backlisted episode about this book and have been tempted by it ever since – I think your review has decided me! I definitely want to give this ago – she sounds like a remarkable person.


  2. Great review. I read this a while ago and just adored it. As you say, she is so straightforward and just does what she wants to without fear. Her respect for the people she encounters (would be rapists aside) is profound. Such a wonderful woman.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! After reading her obituary in the Economist last year I made a plan to read Full Tilt aloud with my kids, we’re now just about halfway through it but we’ve enjoyed it so much, it’s been a fascinating journey!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

The Book Decoder

Book Reviews By A Geek

Look Into Our Life

Our adventure through life and homeschooling in the UK

My Book Joy

Joy in reading and life


Books reviews with the occasional interview thrown in for good measure

Anne Is Reading

Books, books and more books

Lady Book Dragon

Books, reviews and more...

%d bloggers like this: