South From the Limpopo

Dervla Murphy is a fine and accomplished Irish writer who has penned 16 books, and has both a detail-catching eye and great personal ambition. Between 1993 and 1995, when she was in her early 60s, she rode her bike 6,000 miles across South Africa–alone–when the Republic was engulfed by racial strife. The question is, Why?

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Dervla Murphy is a fine and accomplished Irish writer who has penned 16 books, and has both a detail-catching eye and great personal ambition. Between 1993 and 1995, when she was in her early 60s, she rode her bike 6,000 miles across South Africa–alone–when the Republic was engulfed by racial strife. The question is, Why? As Murphy herself admits, it wasn’t for pleasure. Was it then to personally document a country that she herself likens to a mental asylum, where disease and danger followed her like a stalker? Was it to show that she cared or illustrate that she could make such a trek despite her age and the tumultuous social environment? Whatever her motivation, there are numerous problems to conquer: She gets tick fever, her bike is stolen, she is continually warned that her path is not safe–yet on she bikes through gales and parched desert, into impoverished villages and the occasional wealthy town. Struggles abound, and Murphy documents them all, like a martyrish “Little Caboose,” with nearly every page darkened by some hardship or sketch of sadness. She uncovers some of the complexity of post-apartheid society–where fears rage like an airborne epidemic–and she skillfully records scenery. But this dense and detailed book is like the subject of apartheid, ultimately depressing. When Murphy confesses that she has “come to love the place,” it’s hard to believe her, or to understand why.

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