Female Explorers We Didn't Know About

By Akshata Mishra on Feb 04, 2016
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You know the feeling of having fresh breeze caressing your face on a windy day at the terrace? That tingling feeling in your palms when you brush it in a stream of gushing water. That unmatchable burst of energy when you have walked a few miles amidst a dense boulevard of trees. If you relate to any of the above, it’s safe to say that at some level you have been bitten by the travel bug too. The most unsettling feeling for anyone who is restless and wishes to explore is to bind them to a place.

Over the course of history we have come across numerous travellers and let me take the liberty to clarify, female travellers, who have gone out in the wild, swam in deep oceans, scaled high peaks and even explored the world outside our blue dot. It’s high time we acknowledge these magnificent and brave woman, who went ahead in spite and despite of the  binding cultural norms to explore the world like never before.

Here are few of those valiant women who set the cords of history to their own tunes:

1. Woman who helped establish modern Iraq- Gertrude Bell

Born in 1868, Gertrude Bell was an English writer, archaeologist, political officer and spy. She travelled all around Middle East, Asia and Europe. An Oxford graduate, she was the first woman to get a degree in History from this premiere institute. She was also the first woman to write a paper for the British Government. Though she was raised in England and travelled around the world twice, her true place was in the Middle East. She made two around-the-world journeys within 10 years, and even survived a blizzard while climbing the Alps in 1902. She is buried in Baghdad, the capital of the country she helped to create.

2. English Missionary & Explorer- Isabella Bird

A prolific author and fearless traveller, Isabella Bird thwarted social convention and her own sickly nature by travelling about the world, at her own will and often alone. Avidly called as "The English Bird”, she wrote her first book after coming to the United States in 1854. From there, she travelled to Australia and then Hawaii, where she trekked up an active volcano. She stayed there for six months and explored the place on horseback. She also explored the Rocky Mountains in Colorado before travelling to Japan, China, Indonesia, Morocco and the Middle East. Later in life Bird rode elephants through the Malaysian jungle, visited Armenian and Nestorian communities in Kurdistan, explored China's Yangtze Valley and travelled among the Berbers in Morocco, riding a black stallion given to her by the Sultan. Then in isolated Korea, she visited Buddhist monasteries and met the Korean king and his soon to be assassinated queen.

3. Woman who went on a bicycle tour over the Atlas to the Sahara- Fanny Bullock Workman

This American mountaineer broke a string of women’s altitude records while becoming a noted geographer, cartographer, and travel writer. The Workmans both came from wealth, enabling them to go on extravagant and arduous trips, like bicycle rides through Spain and India and treks up the Himalayas. She was highly dedicated to detailing her accomplishments with precise measurements and thorough documentation, which rightly earned her a glowing reputation amongst her rivals.

Also Read: Safe Destinations For Solo Female Travellers

4. First Woman to circumnavigate the World- Jeanne Baré

A French sailor and botanist in the 1700s, Jeanne Baré was the first woman to circumnavigate the world. However, she did it disguised as a man, a ruse that kept her close to her love, Philibert de Commerson. The two met over a shared passion for botany.

5. First Female Pilot to ever fly across the Atlantic- Amelia Earhart

American aviatrix Amelia Earhart is best known for becoming the first female pilot to ever fly across the Atlantic Ocean. She took her first flying lesson on January 3, 1921, and brought her own plane six months later. The following year she'd break the woman's world altitude record, reaching 14,000 feet. A slew of other accomplishments followed, including speed records and solo flights. Earhart urged other women to fly by writing pieces about aviation for Cosmopolitan magazine and helped found The Ninety Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots.

6. First woman to go around the globe on a bicycle- Annie Londonderry

Annie Londonderry, mother of three, was an ambitious woman with an iron clad will. She ventured forth to explore her life as an athlete, entrepreneur, and explorer. She was the first woman to go around the globe on a bicycle. Once her ride was complete, The New York World called her adventure "the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”

Also Read: Moksha Jetley on bike ride from kanyakumari to leh

7. First woman to travel into Space- Valentina Tereshkova

Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to travel into space. She flew the Vostok 6 Mission, which launched on June 16, 1963. Though she had no piloting experience, Tereshkova was accepted into the Soviet space program because she'd done 126 parachute jumps, an essential skill in a cosmonaut's descent to Earth. After much training, she was chosen to pilot Vostok 6, and logged 70 hours in space, making 48 orbits around Earth. Her work here earned her the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, as well as the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star Medal.

8. Around the world in 72 days- Nellie Bly

A writer for the New York World newspaper, Bly decided to challenge Jules Verne's book "Around the World in 80 Days," claiming she could do it in 75 days. So, on November 14, 1889 she set off on her adventure, going from New Jersey to London and from there to France (where incidentally she met Jules Verne). Next Italy, Egypt, Singapore, Hong Kong and San Francisco. In the process passing through the Suez Canal, experiencing the cities of Colombo and Aden, visiting a Chinese leper colony and somehow adopting a monkey along the way. In the end she made it home to Hoboken in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes and 14 seconds to be precise, beating even her own proposed time and making history along the way.

Also Read: Solo Woman Trip to Oman

9. Mountaineer & one of the first female professors in North America- Annie Smith Peck

One of the first female professors in North America, Peck was also the first woman to attend the American School of Classical Studies, in Greece. It wasn't until her mid forties that she took up mountain climbing. Once she did she was hooked and became the third woman to scale the Matterhorn. She continued to climb well into her 60's, including a first ascent of one of the peaks of Mount Coropuna in Peru at the top of which she infamously placed a "Women’s Vote” banner.

10. Woman of firsts- Helen Thayer

Helen Thayer is a woman of firsts. She climbed her first mountain at the age of 9. New Zealand's Mount Taranaki, a 8,200 foot dormant volcano. She was the first woman to travel alone to the North Pole, trekking to the Magnetic North Pole without dog sled or snowmobile (at the age of 50). First non-Indian woman to kayak 2,200 miles of the Amazon River and the first woman to walk across the Sahara, from Morocco to the Nile. She even walked 1,600 miles across the Gobi Desert (at age 63) and lived in an arctic wolf den for an year with her husband.

11. Painter and Traveller- Marianne North

An incredibly detailed painter, North began her travels in 1871 when she went to Canada, the US and Jamaica before spending a full year in Brazil painting out of a jungle hut. In 1875 she began an extended trip that began in the Canary Islands and ended in India, with California, Japan, Borneo and Java in between. Her flora and fauna paintings are so scientifically accurate that several plant species are named in her honour. It was Darwin who suggested she visit Australia and New Zealand, which she did in 1880.

Also Read: Cailin O'Neil travelogue

12. First woman to cross the ice to the North Pole- Ann Bancroft

Ann Bancroft had difficulty in learning initially. Instead of becoming frustrated with her studies, she turned her attention to the natural world, where she felt comfortable and safe. As an adult, she has made the connection with nature her life’s calling. In 1986, she became the first woman to cross the ice to the North Pole, traveling 1,000 miles from Canada by dogsled. In 1992-93, she led an all-woman team to the South Pole, becoming the first woman to cross the ice on both poles. In 2001, she teamed up with Norwegian explorer Liv Arnesen to become the first women to ski across Antarctica. In lieu of her fame, she drew attention to various issues like same gender marriages, climate change and early learning disabilities.

13. Modern Oceanographer and Deep Sea Explorer- Cindy Lee Van Dover

Cindy Lee Van Dover is a modern oceanographer and deep-sea explorer. She’s spent her career studying hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. In 1990, she became the first and only female pilot of submersible. On her dozens of deep-sea dives, Van Dover has uncovered new species of mussels, shrimp, tube worms and bacteria. She has led almost 50 deep-sea expeditions.

Also Read: Transylvania Bran Castle Journey

14. Explorer, writer and photographer- Harriet Chalmers Adams

Adams gained her love of the outdoors from her father who took Harriet riding and walking in the mountains. Aged fourteen she accompanied her father on a yearlong trip by horse through the Mexican border-lands. Even after marriage, Harriet visited all of the ruins of the Aztecs and Mayans, many only recently discovered in the forests in Mexico. Wanting to document their travels, Harriet learned to take photographs. It would be her stunning photos and ability to enthral audiences with her experiences which would turn Adams into one of the foremost explorers of her day. She is best known for her South American explorations, but she also visited Asia and, on the outbreak of the First World War, became a war correspondent. Since the Geographical Society did not allow women to be full members, she helped found, and served as first president of, The Society of Woman Geographers.

15. Romantic Traveller- Freya Star

In her obituary, Freya Stark was called ‘the last of the Romantic travelers.’ This reputation has cemented her position as one of the best loved travel writers in English, and her long life held plenty of adventure. Her early life was spent in Italy. Her travelling life began in the late 1920s, and she was a restless soul from then on. She became the first European woman to enter Luristan, in Iran. In the mountains, she mapped out the area for westerners for the first time and saw the ruined castles of the Assassins.

16. Professional Adventurer and Writer- Kira Salak


Here is a new age story of a woman who, though not born in the golden age of travel for woman, but made the most of the resources. Kira Salak is a writer and professional adventurer. After graduating with a PhD in literature and travel writing, she traversed Papua New Guinea. This experience she turned into the book "Four Corners". Since then, she has written numerous articles and visited Peru, Iran, Bhutan, Mali, Libya and Burma, amongst others. Her most daring exploit was in the Congo on the trail of mountain gorillas. Salak was smuggled into the country by Ukrainian gun runners.

17. Dinosaur Hunter, Marine Archaeologist and Adventurer- Sue Hendrickson

Sue Hendrickson is best known for discovering the world’s most complete T. Rex skeleton, which lives in the Field Museum and bears her name. But she was an explorer long before that. She dropped ourt of high school at the age of 17, went on to become a professional diver, where she collected tropical fish to sell to pet stores in Florida. From there she got into salvage diving, retrieving materials from capsized cargo freighters and exploring shipwrecks in the Dominican Republic. That led her up to the Dominican mountains, where she discovered half of the world’s total collection of perfectly amber-preserved 23-million year old butterflies.

Also Read: Student Exchange Plan Turned Out to be a Fully Sponsored Vacation to England

18. Botanist and Traveller- Ynes Mexia

Ynes Mexia got into the explorer game late. At the ripe age of 51, she enrolled in Botany classes at UC Berkeley in 1921. Only four years later she had begun accompanying professors and curators on collecting trips around the world, and soon she was organizing her own expeditions. She travelled alone to Mexico, Alaska, South America and sent specimens back to UC Berkeley and the United States Department of Agriculture. Over the course of her thirteen-year career, she collected 145,000 plant specimens, more than any other female botanist. Five hundred of these turned out to be new species, which just goes to show that it’s never too late to start trying to get on this list.

19. First African American Aviator- Bessie Coleman


Bessie Coleman, hailing from an impoverished family, fought and defied all the social norms with a little aid and help from World War I pilots, went on to become an aviator. She took night classes in French as she was turned down by all American Aviation Schools. Her dedication led her to become the first African-American female pilot in history, and the first African-American of either gender to earn an international pilot’s license. After another stint in France to learn stunts, Coleman returned to the United States, where she gained renown and respect through her barnstorming air shows.

As we see, history is replete with examples of ordinary woman carrying out extraordinary explorations. If they can, so can you!

What are you waiting for?

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