You can’t beat a good travel story. In your mind’s eye, you may be stubbing your toe on an armadillo and getting gangrene after a deadly snake bite but in reality you’re tucked up in bed just as snug as a bug in a rug. On the one hand you get the novelty and the thrill of horror and pity, but on the other hand you skip the boredom and discomfort of actual physical travel. What’s not to like?
It has come to my attention that some excellent travel writing by women has not received its due. So, it being International Women’s Day, here are eight great travel memoirs (that happen to be written by women).
- Susie Kelly
“…I knew most people didn’t believe I could or would do what I had said. And that was the main factor that drove me onwards – that and the fact nobody made any effort to talk me out of it.”
Best Foot Forward: a 500-Mile Walk through France (2003)
One day a woman in her fifties with no experience of hiking suddenly decides to walk across France from La Rochelle to Lake Geneva. She contacts an internet stranger from Texas to come and care for her menagerie of horses, dogs, birds and cats, then sets off to make her dream come true. A large part of the charm of this book is Kelly’s descriptions of the things that go horribly wrong—her tent is inadequate, her feet get woefully blistered, she goes off-course because her maps are out of date. Then there are the moments of joy, when she has the best coffee of her life in a Michelin-star café, or when she has a glorious lie-down in a summery meadow. She describes the moment-by-moment slog of hiking in relatable, funny and matter-of-fact way that downplays the impressiveness of her quest. She includes plenty of detail about the people and places she meets on the way.
She has written a number of other books, my favorite of which is Travels with Tinkerbell: 6000 Miles Around France in a Mechanical Wreck (2012) , the star of which is a half-witted dog named Dobby. I also really enjoy her account of managing a couple of holiday cottages in France Swallows & Robins: The Guests in My Garden (2012).
- Lucy Atkinson
“The Kirghis, their steppes and mountains, are so indelibly engraved on my heart, that fifty years hence, should I live, every scene will be as vivid as at this moment; it will ever be a source of pleasure to look back on the happy days spent amongst them, and their wild but beautiful scenery.”
In the late 1830s, while still in her teens, Lucy Finley sets off from East London for Russia to work as a governess to the daughter of General Mikhail Nikolaevich Muravyev-Vilensky (aka the Hangman of Vilnius). Shortly afterwards, still in Russia she meets and marries Thomas Witlam Atkinson. Between 1948 and 1853 the pair travels through Siberia, to the Kazakh steppes to Irkutsk and the Chinese border and all the while she keeps a journal describing the wonders she sees on the way.
Her account, though Victorian, is direct, chatty and sympathetic. She focuses on the people the steppes, their habits and customs, and clearly feels a strong affinity for them, in spite of the bandits and rogues she meets on the way.
Soon after they set out on their first journey together in 1848, Lucy becomes pregnant but (probably thanks to Victorian mores) she doesn’t mention this until the actual birth, which she deals with apologetically thus:
But you are already asking what excuse I can make for [not writing] the two last weeks. Here I have a little family history to relate. You must understand that I was in expectation of a little stranger, whom I thought might arrive about the end of December or the beginning of January; expecting to return to civilisation, I had not thought of preparing anything for him, when, lo! and behold, on the 4th November, at twenty minutes past four P. M., he made his appearance. The young doctor here said he would not live more than seven days, but, thank Heaven, he is still alive and well. He is small, but very much improved since his birth. I shall let him get a little bigger before I describe him. He is to be called Alatau, as he was born at the foot of this mountain range; and his second name Tamchiboulac, this being a dropping-spring, close to which he was called into existence. The doctor says the premature birth was caused by excessive exercise on horseback.
Alatau thereafter accompanies his parents on horseback over thousands of miles for several years. Incidentally, Alatau became the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Territory of Hawaii. Also incidentally, Mr. Atkinson published his own account of these travels but left out any mention of Lucy or Alatau because his first wife was still alive and not down with bigamy.
- Noo Saro-Wiwa
“Months of travelling cheek-by-jowl in cars had instilled in me a new-found loathing of men’s legs, which, like air, seem constantly to expand to fill the space available. I’m amazed they’re not all buried in Y-shaped coffins.”
Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012)
As a child, Noo Saro-Wiwa grew up in Britain but (rather reluctantly) spent summers in Nigeria. After 1995, when her activist father Ken Saro-Wiwa, was hanged by the Abacha regime, she stopped visiting for a while. Having returned as an adult, she spends four months travelling throughout the whole country describing its diversity, its dysfunctions and delights through the eyes of someone who is not-quite-a-stranger.
I often asked myself, ‘What is distance?’ Then I heard my own answer, saying that distance is what I most desired in life—that is freedom. Freedom to be far, far away, like the air. At that moment, I realized I had slowly released myself from all the things I didn’t need that were binding me to my life. I then thought, ‘I can go to the most remote corners of the earth if that is where my heart wants to go. It was in that moment, that my freedom had finally arrived.’ (translated Manya Koetse)
In 1967, Sao Mao set off to study in Europe and the US and became fluent in Spanish and German. After her German fiancé died, she went to Spain and married a José María Quero (who had fallen in love with her on an earlier visit). She moved with him to the Spanish Sahara, where he was sent on military duty. While there, at a time when the Sahrawi Arabs were ramping up their demand for liberation from Spain, she sent dispatches about her life there to a Taiwanese newspaper. After the Moroccan-Spanish war, the couple moved the Canary Islands, where José died in a diving accident in 1979.
Sanmao’s The Story of the Sahara has been a bestseller in China since 1976. Almost as soon as it was published, the author gained a cult following thanks to her adventurous spirit and romantic life. At a time when few Chinese and Taiwanese women travelled independently, she had the courage to set off on her own. Of course, she was also extremely good looking, which may have added something to her rock-star appeal. Tragically, in 1991, she killed herself.
While still quite young, she nicknamed herself ‘Echo Chan’ after her favorite painting teacher, and it is testament to her popularity that so many Chinese girls now adopt ‘Echo’ as their own nicknames, admiring this author whose life was so full of tragedy, passion and adventure. To this day, her fans bring even flowers to José’s grave.
Incredibly, The Story of the Sahara has only now been translated into English and is due for release in November this year. Spanish speakers are more fortunate—it was published as Diarios de Sáhara (2016). If you read Chinese, you have probably read her already.
- Anees Jung
“My reality no longer has one face. I have stepped out of an enclosed reality into one that is larger, more diverse, and mobile…”
Unveiling India (1987) and Beyond the Courtyard: A Sequel to Unveiling India (2003)
Jung’s Unveiling India (1987) is a kind of travel diary based on interviews with women throughout the country. Beyond the Courtyard (2003) is a follow-up piece in which she interviews the next generation—the daughters of the very same women she spoke to in 1987. When Unveiling India first was published, it was especially noted for women’s accounts of being in purdah—where they must remain secluded and removed from the sight of men. Jung herself grew up in purdah and never married; she has indicated that more than a travelogue, it is an attempt to find herself in her subjects:
“In the macrocosm of a vast land I find the microcosm of my own experience repeated and reaffirmed….Coiled within the lives of these women I find myself transformed.” Quote taken from here.
- Nancy Gardner Prince
“Tuesday, the 20th, we set sail; the storm was not over. The 22d the gale took us; we were dismasted, and to save sinking, sixty casks of molasses were stove in, and holes cut in the bulwarks to let it off. All the fowls, pigs, and fresh provisions were lost. We were carried seventy-five miles up the bay of Mexico.”
Nancy Prince had a remarkable life that involved travelling to Russia, the West Indies, New Orleans and learning several languages along the way. She was born in 1799 to Tobias Wornton (a freed slave) and a native American woman who served as a domestic servant in Nantucket. The event that sealed her travelling fate was marriage to one Nero Prince, founder of the Prince Hall Freemasons in Boston. Shortly after marrying him, they went to St. Petersburg, where he became footman to the czar and she opened a boarding home and made baby clothes. Unfortunately, her husband died while in the czar’s service and she returned to America via the West Indies.
She is a kindly soul and describes in moving terms of the banishment of prisoners to Siberia and of the plight of slaves she sees in the American South. At one point, anchored off New Orleans after her ship is wrecked, white people are allowed ashore whilst “we poor blacks were obliged to remain on that broken, wet vessel.” It is highly satisfactory to see her give some racist hecklers an irreproachably Christian tongue-lashing.
- Fanny Bullock Workman
“I am not a light weight and am a slow climber. Still my powers of endurance on long days of climbing, and in weeks of continued cycle touring, have, for a number of years, been good.”
In the Ice World of Himálaya: Among the Peaks and Passes of Ladakh, Nubra, Suru and Baltistan (c.1900) (by F.B. and W.H. Workman)
Born in 1859, Fanny was an avid mountaineer and cartographer travel writer and women’s-rights advocate. With her husband William Hunter Workman, she cycled thousands of miles around North Africa, Europe and Asia, finding time on the way to climb Mont Blanc, the Jungfrau and the Matterhorn (Fanny being the first woman to do so). At the end of their cycling trip, she and William stopped off in the Western Himalaya and Karakoram for a summer. Already keen climbers, they now attempted high-altitude climbing. In the next 14 years, they would return eight times, exploring and mapping several glaciers and reaching the top of Pinnacle Peak (23,000 feet) in 1906, a women’s altitude record that wouldn’t be broken for 28 years.
To be completely honest, her travel memoirs are a bit heavy-going for the general reader, partly (no doubt) because she always had one eye on the climbing community and science geeks. You won’t find any human-interest stories here, nothing about her finding her inner self by sleeping with a hot Sherpa (ala Eat, Pray, Love) or finding spirituality in a cup of yak butter. She missed her own daughter’s wedding to go climbing.
Note: as impressive as she was, she was also kind of a dickhead and racist AF. If you are put off by the word ‘coolie’ appearing twenty-five times per paragraph, do not read this.
- Helen Thayer
“People said that I was a woman and I would get lost. I thought that was insulting. I was the kind of person that just went out and did whatever. The fact they didn’t like it was their problem.”
National Geographic has named Helen Thayer ‘One of the Great Explorers of the 20th Century’ and yet she is virtually unknown even in her native New Zealand, let alone the wider world. In a phone interview last year, she said “The New Zealand press never expressed interest in my expeditions or my educational programmes. Perhaps it was because I was married and lived overseas.” This seems not only sad but almost incredible considering her resume: She was the first woman to walk solo across the Sahara from Morocco to the Nile, the first woman to trek solo to the North Pole, and the first to walk (with her husband, at the age of 63) 1,600 miles across the Gobi desert. She has also climbed some of the world’s highest peaks, lived among wolves and kayaked 2,200 miles of the Amazon River.
Thayer’s solo North Pole adventure is called Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole. She made this trip at the age of 50 without sponsorship, without sled dogs (she pulled the sled herself) and without stopping to resupply. As the title suggests, the trip was not done completely solo—she relied on her Charlie, for companionship and polar-bear scenting. The book is partly about their growing bond, which makes it an especially rewarding read for animal lovers.
Thayer is now in her eighties and lives in Washington State. Who knows what she’s planning next!