We all know about Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, Neil Armstrong’s steps on the Moon and James Cook’s adventures. But have you ever heard of Emily Hahn’s life in the Belgian Congo, Ella Maillart's journey from Switzerland to Afghanistan on a Ford, or Alexandra David-Néel’s clandestine visit to the Tibet when it was closed to foreigners?
These women, who were often cross-dressers and rebels, followed their adventure-filled hearts and free-spiritedness into pioneering journeys that have mapped out the world we know today. In short, they are my heroes and I felt it was about time I wrote an article in dedication to them.
Named “a forgotten American literary treasure” by The New Yorker, Emily Hahn was a prolific novelist and journalist. She drove across the USA in 1924 dressed as a man. During the 30s, she joined the Red Cross in the Belgian Congo, where she lived for two years before walking through the jungle towards Tanzania. Afterward, she moved to China to teach English, where she got involved with prominent figures in Shanghai, immersing in elite parties, where her plus one was always her pet gibbon.
“Chances are, your grandmother didn’t smoke cigars and let you hold wild role-playing parties in her apartment. Chances are that she didn’t teach you Swahili obscenities. Chances are that when she took you to the zoo, she didn’t start whooping passionately at the top her lungs as you passed the gibbon cage. Sadly for you… your grandmother was not Emily Hahn.”, wrote her granddaughter Alfia on her eulogy about her grandmother.
Alexandra David-Néel was French-Belgian explorer and writer. She set out on adventurous trips, namely in Asia. However, her name is most well known due to her visit to Tibet when it was forbidden to foreigners. Alexandra set out to Tibet disguised as a beggar and a monk and reached Lhasa in 1924, merging in with a crowd of pilgrims and remained there for two months. She was later discovered, but by then, she and her companion had already left Tibet.
Schwarzenbach was a Swiss traveler, photographer, writer, and journalist. Her androgynous style captivated – and often confused – the Bohemian setting that was Berlin, a place she called home and where she befriended important figures in her life. She produced more than three hundred articles and over five thousand photographs of her journeys in Europe, the United States, Africa, and the Middle East. Her most famous (and my favorite) book is All the Roads Are Open: The Afghan Journey, where she describes the journey she undertook from Geneva to Afghanistan on a Ford cabriolet.
Born in 1779 in Vienna, Pfeiffer was, since a young age, what we would now describe as a tomboy. Dolls aside, she dreamed of traveling the world when she was a child and later on undertook multiple worldwide journeys with barely any money and as a solo traveler – a brave thing to do during that time. She spent 18 months in the Sunda Islands, where she paid a visit to the Dyaks of Borneo and later on became one of the first persons to report about the behavior of the Bataks in Sumatra.
During the late 1850s, she explored Madagascar, where she got involved in a plot to overthrow the government and was later on expelled from the country. However, Ida contracted a disease and never fully recovered, which lead to her death in Vienna in 1858.
Pfeiffer is the author of several autobiographic novels, including Eine Frau fährt um die Welt (A Woman Traveling the World), Meine zweite Weltreise (My Second Trip Around the World) and Reise nach Madagaskar (A Trip to Madagascar).
Born in the Netherlands, Alexandrine was the first female to attempt to cross the Sahara. At the age of 22, together with her mother, they set out on a small steamboat to explore the Nile. Their trip was cut short due to it being halted by a waterfall. Later on, Alexandrine, her mother, and her aunt set out once again to attempt to find the source of the Nile. The conditions proved arduous, and her aunt and mother died from tropical diseases along the way.
In 1869, she set out again on a caravan journey across the Sahara to find the source of the Congo River, an expedition as such was considered impossible at the time. Her death remains a mystery – a theory is that she was the victim of a greedy plot as her water tanks were believed to be filled with gold, while another theory is that it was a part of an internal political conflict between the Tuareg chiefs.
Ella Maillart was a Swiss travel writer and photographer. Today, her books and photographs are considered valuable historical testimonies. She set out on her first adventure during her early twenties, where she sailed to Greece and followed Ulysses paths. A trip in 1932 to Russian Turkestan initiated her desire to travel Asia. From then on, she set out to explore the world’s most remote regions and forbidden territories in the East, often enduring hardships and later on writing books about it.
Her most famous was Forbidden Journey: From Peking to Kashmir, where she describes her trek to the closed city of Sinkiang in Chinese Turkestan as well as The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford where she wrote about her adventure traveling from Genova to Kabul on a Ford alongside Annemarie Schwarzenbach.
Harriet Chalmers Adams
Harriet Chalmers Adams was an explorer, writer, and photographer who traveled South America, Asia, and the South Pacific. The accounts of her journeys were published 21 times in the National Geographic Magazine, amongst them were on her travels in Trinidad, Bolivia, Peru and more. It was written in the New York Times that she “reached twenty frontiers previously unknown to white women.”
Do you know of any other women who I missed in this post? Let me know in the comments section below. Bonus points if they wrote a book or two about their adventures!
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