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 with pygmies in the Belgian Congo, Osa Johnson’s prolific filmmaking career around the world or Alexandra David-Néel’s clandestine visit to the Tibet when it was closed to foreigners? These women, who were (are) rebels, often cross-dressers and feminists, followed their adventure-filled hearts and free-spiritedness into pioneering journeys that have mapped out the world we know today.
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 proceeded to live with a tribe of pygmies for two years before hiking solo across central Africa. Afterwards, 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.
An explorer, adventurer, filmmaker, director, lecturer, producer, writer, film actress and even clothes designer – there is little that Osa Johnson didn’t do during her lifetime. Together with her husband, they collaborated on fourteen feature films, thirty seven short films and seven books on their expeditions to Borneo, South Pacific and Africa. For a long time, she was known as “Mrs. Martin Johnson”, but after her husband’s death, she continued her adventures, leading expeditions on her own and producing films. She almost didn’t make it into this list, as she was an avid hunter. However, despite that, her journeys were remarkable and worth a mention.
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 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 work on the Depression-ridden United States, the Belgian Congo and one of her most iconic journeys with Ella Maillart from Geneva to Kabul on a Ford cabriolet were some of the best. Often misunderstood, especially by her mother, Annemarie was a drug addict, which often caused problems in her personal life and lead her mother to destroy much of her work after her death at age 34. Annemarie’s legacy wasn’t rediscovered until the late 80s and her extraordinary tales, which often beat fiction, have captivated thousands ever since.
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 behaviour 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 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.
Jessica Watson became the youngest person to complete a southern hemisphere circumnavigation. On her on. She set out on October 2009, at the age of 16, and returned to Sydney on May of the following year. She was named the Young Australian of the Year in 2011.
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.”
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. She was the author of multiple publications, one of the the most famous being ”Forbidden Journey,” where she describes her trek to the closed city of Sinkiang in Chinese Turkestan.