You’ve probably heard of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, Ernest Shackleton and Lawrence of Arabia. But what about female adventurers like Alexandra David-Néel, Isabelle Eberhardt, Marianne North, Beryl Markham, and Emily Hahn?
This list of history’s female explorers includes cross-dressers and disgraced aristocrats, religious seekers and world record-breaking pilots. But what binds them beyond their sex is that they traveled with a purpose, ignoring the dictums set for women of their time to march to their own beat.
1. Alexandra David-Néel — Audacious adventurer and dedicated seeker
(24 October 1868 – 8 September 1969)
The first Western woman to gain an audience with the Dalai Lama, the Belgian-French Buddhist scholar Alexandra David-Néel is best known for her forbidden journey to Lhasa, when, aged 55, she ascended the Tibetan steppes on a trek that saw her so starving she had to eat the leather from her boots to stay alive.
2. Isabelle Eberhardt — Cross-dresser, Islamic convert, sensualist, desert nomad
(17 February 1877 – 21 October 1904)
Isabelle Eberhardt left a difficult early life in Geneva to roam Algeria penniless, have sex and smoke kief, become Muslim, join a mystical Sufi sect, and dress as the male Arab she saw herself as. Following an assassination attempt against her, Isabelle died in a flash flood in the Sahara at the age of 27. A testament to the esteem held for in Algeria; you can still visit Rue Isabelle Eberhardt in Algiers today.
3. Marianne North — Victorian botanist painter, naturalist, and kick ass spinster
(24 October 1830 – 30 August 1890)
Born into wealth as the eldest daughter of an MP, like many upper class women of the time, Marianne North devoted herself to painting flowers. Unlike other Victorian women, Marianne could not be satiated by roses. Aged 40, she set off alone to travel the world, bearing brutal ship and living conditions to document over 900 plant species in just 14 years. She has 4 plant species named after her.
“Marriage? A terrible experiment.” Marianne North
4. Beryl Markham — World record-breaking pilot, socialite, and a ‘high-grade bitch’
(26 October 1902 – 3 August 1986)
Growing up in British East Africa (Kenya), the life of British aviator Beryl Markham was one of firsts — aged 18, she was the first female in Africa to get a racehorse trainer’s licence. At 29, she became Africa’s first professional woman pilot, and 5 years later, on September 4 1936, she broke the world record as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.
“I learned what every dreaming child needs to know — that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.” Beryl Markham on flying a helicopter for the first time.
“A life has to move or it stagnates.” Markham
5. Emily Hahn — Engineer, early feminist, opium addict, and literary darling
(January 14, 1905 – February 18, 1997)
Described as “a forgotten American literary treasure” by The New Yorker, Emily Hahn was an engineer until it bored her, a Red Cross worker in the Belgian Congo until she decided to walk across East Africa on foot, an opium addict and mistress of a Chinese poet in Shanghai until Hong Kong came calling, and a truly prolific writer who would become a pioneer in the fields of environmentalism and wildlife preservation.
“I have deliberately chosen the uncertain path whenever I had the choice.” — Emily Hahn