The ability to explore the world and to have the courage to face the unknown is one of the skills that decreed the Homo sapiens’ success on the other species, because it allowed him to survive adverse environmental conditions, escape predators, find more welcoming lands.
Over the centuries there have been many pioneers who discovered regions or realities until then unknown but, if today this possibility is infinitely more remote because everything seems already discovered, there is still who manages to reveal new aspects of things already known, offering a new point of view, investigating new ideas or deciphering the changes that are taking place.
However, in the past, an explorer, to be defined as such, had to have done something that no human being had done before and be able to tell his story in order to make a contribution of some kind to the scientific community or to the anthropological culture, pushing the knowledge even further.
Compared to men, women began later to explore the world because only recently they managed to break free from the cultural, social and economic constraints that had confined them at home for centuries.
Their way of exploring, however, was different. Less interested in planting flags or breaking records, the women were able to better penetrate the social fabric, to understand more deeply the essence of the places and to experience local cultures and traditions: basically women were much more conscious travelers.
Some of the most interesting names:
ISABELLA BIRD (1831-1904)
As a child, Isabella suffered from insomnia, unbearable headaches and severe spinal problems that tormented her throughout her life. Aged 23, encouraged also by the doctors, she decided to embark on a journey from Yorkshire to the United States, and her life suddenly changed: she began to sleep well, the headaches disappeared and she found relief to her back pain. She wrote the book "The Englishwoman in America" and began to make a living writing.
Travelling improved so much her quality of life that, a few years later, she left for Australia and New Zealand, and reaching the Sandwich islands (Hawaii) she discovered her great love for volcanoes. After traveling on foot and horseback in Sierra Nevada, the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, in Japan and China, Tibet and India (not bad for a person with spinal problems), she was invited to join a geographical-military expedition in Central Asia, and in 1892 became the first woman admitted to the Royal Geographical Society.
ELLA MAILLART (1903-1997)
Born in Geneva, Ella Maillart was an outstanding sportswoman and represented Switzerland in skiing, sailing and hockey until her early thirties. When she was only 16, she founded the first women's ice hockey club in French-speaking Switzerland, but then she discovered her passion for maps, adventures, travels to distant lands.
In 1932 she crossed alone the Russian Turkestan, living with local nomadic tribes and writing the book "Turkestan Solo". In 1939, with her partner Annemarie, she traveled from Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, writing the book "The cruel way".
She did an eight-month trek from Peking along the Silk Road, she stayed in India during World War II taking spiritual lessons from the great masters, and aged 91 she undertook the last journey of her life to Goa.
She said that the correct balance of life could be found mainly living in contact with the simple and primitive peoples: the nomads, the mountain dwellers, the sailors.
KATE MARSDEN (1859-1931)
British nurse and missionary, she devoted her life to the lepers, firstly in Bulgaria and then in Siberia, with the support of both the Queen Victoria and the Tsarina Maria Fedorovna. She travelled 18,000 Km by trains, horses, boats and finally on a dog sled, from Moscow to the Siberian tundra, where she stayed for 11 months, unfortunately without finding the healing herb she was looking for. However, she reported such useful information about the area and the local communities that she was appointed member of the Royal Geographic Society. Impressive the stories she wrote about the outcasts’ conditions in that remote region, and the Siberian communities were so grateful that they still remember her with affection, so much so that in 2014 they erected a statue in her name in the Sosnovka village.
Her alleged homosexuality caused several problems to her and her accusers almost managed to put her in prison, as happened to Oscar Wilde in those same years.
JOSEPHINE DIEBITSCH PEARY (1863-1955)
Born in Washington from a Saxon mother and a Prussian father, she married Robert Peary in 1856. He became the first white man to explore the Arctic and, also to avoid the omnipresent mother-in-law (who accompanied them even on their honeymoon), she often decided to follow him in his travels through the great north.
She wrote "My Arctic Journal" and "The Snow Baby", dedicated to her daughter, born at less than 13 degrees from the North Pole and to which she gave the middle name of Ahnighito to honor the innuit woman who made her first fur suit.
Josephine travelled with her husband, but her domestic and intimate stories about the daily life of the Arctic communities gave a valuable point of view that was totally absent in the stories of the men reported until then.
MARY KINGSLEY (1862-1900)
Daughter of George Henry Kingsley's, doctor and traveler, Mary inherited the passions of his father and studied on the books found in the family library, becoming a self-taught, expert ethnologist. She spent her twenties tied to the house, nursing her sick parents, but when they died within six weeks of each other, she was free to join a cargo ship bound for West Africa, in years in which women traveling alone almost did not exist.
Fascinated by primitive societies and especially by the sacrificial rites, she traveled to Sierra Leone, Congo, South Africa, opposing the white culture that missionaries were imposing, interested in and respectful of the traditions and ancient rites of the local populations. Mary Kingsley was a freethinker who looked at the world with love and without bias.