At a bookshop, in the ’90s, I picked up a curious tome – The Virago Book of Women Travellers, its pages filled with the most daring adventurers, spanning 300 years of history from the 1600s to the 1900s. Telling their stories in their own words, these women call down through the generations to inspire the modern-day traveller. If ever you feel obstacles are insurmountable or travel is out of the question, take heart from the women who have gone before. Here are my favourites.
Mary Kingsley (1862-1900)
This English scientific writer and explorer travelled alone throughout West Africa in Victorian times, when such adventures were not considered appropriate for women. She set out on her travels in 1892 at the age of 30, after the death of her parents. Living with local people in Sierra Leone, Angola, Gabon and French Congo, Kingsley learned how to survive in the African jungle, venturing alone up rivers to collect fish specimens (she discovered three new species), and religious fetishes.
She once found herself trapped in a tidal pool in a mangrove swamp as a crocodile closed in: “...a mighty Silurian, as The Daily Telegraph would call him, chose to get his front paws over the stern of my canoe, and endeavoured to improve our acquaintance,” she wrote. “I had to retire to the bows, to keep the balance right, and fetch him a clip on the snout with a paddle, when he withdrew, and I paddled into the very middle of the lagoon, hoping the water there was too deep for him, or any of his friends, to repeat the performance.”
Isabella Bird (1831-1904)
As Mary Kingsley was making her way to Africa, another English explorer, photographer and naturalist was becoming the first woman to address the Royal Geographical Society – Isabella Bird. Suffering from illness from a young age, it was recommended Bird lead an ‘open-air life’. She took the doctors’ advice with gusto, travelling to the US, Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaya, India, Ladakh, Tibet, Persia, Kurdistan, Turkey, Iraq and Morocco.
Bird is perhaps best known for her writings titled A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, where she travelled nearly 1,300 kilometres in the US Rockies in 1873, scandalously riding frontwards like a man instead of side-saddle. Her guide was a one-eyed outlaw named Jim Nugent. At one point she accomplished a 600-metre descent over boulders, followed by an ascent of The Notch – a gate of rock. “I had various falls, and once hung by my frock, which caught on a rock, and Jim severed it with his hunting knife, upon which I fell into a crevice full of soft snow,” she wrote.
Anna Leonowens (1834-1914)
Travel writer, educator and social activist Anna Leonowens was born in British India in 1831. She is known for serving as governess to the 39 wives and concubines and 82 children of the Siamese King Mongkut in 1862, the tale of which inspired the movie The King and I.
She served at the Siamese Court (now Thailand) for six years, and wrote of the king’s rages and harsh justice. And she found the palace – the Grand Palace in Bangkok – something of a gloomy, gilded prison for his wives and children.
“In the long galleries and corridors, bewildering with their everlasting twilight of the eye and of the mind, one is forever coming upon shocks of sudden sunshine or shocks of sudden shadow – the smile yet dimpling in a baby’s face, a sister bearing a brother’s scourging; a mother singing to her sacred infant, a slave sobbing before a deaf idol,” she wrote.
Freya Stark (1893-1993)
Freya Stark lived to be 100, in spite of her daring adventures in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. She made three dangerous treks into western Iran in the late 1920s, through areas no Westerner had been before, and in the ’30s, visited Hadhramaut in modern-day Yemen, also blazing a trail for Western explorers.
She also travelled through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Persia, Kurdistan, Egypt and India, stepping into Druze territory, talking with Bedouins, and travelling exclusively with Iraqi nationals, which went against the colonial moral code of the time. She spoke several Arabic dialects, was a skilled cartographer and worked for the British Ministry of Information during the Second World War.
Of one journey through southern Arabia, she wrote: “Our camels lumbered by, their quarters gigantic in the shadows: a few hundred yards on, an hour from the bottom, we broke by a chasm into the white sunlight of the jol (plateau). Into the thin and clean reviving air. Over the edge, far down, Wadi Sobale pursued uninhabited windings between gnarled cliffs.”
Stark never stopped travelling. At the age of 76, she visited Persia again; and at 86 she travelled in the Himalayas.
Emily Carr (1871-1945)
Eccentric Canadian artist Emily Carr was something of a late bloomer, holding her first exhibition at 56, and publishing her first book at 70. Her beautiful paintings of totem poles in coastal communities in British Columbia can be seen in the Vancouver Art Gallery, and you can visit her house in Victoria.
She ventured into the First Nations village of Gitanyow (then Kitwancool) in British Columbia, home to the Gitxsan people, in 1912 to seek permission to paint their totem poles. Her welcome was far from warm, but her fierce little dog won them over and she was allowed to paint.
She wrote: “The sun enriched the old poles grandly. They were carved elaborately and with great sincerity. Several times the figure of a woman that held a child was represented. The babies had faces like wise little old men. The mothers expressed all womanhood – the big wooden hands holding the child were so full of tenderness they had to be distorted enormously to in order to contain it all. Womanhood was strong in Kitwancool.”