Ever Heard of a Girlish Explorer?
We all know about the Great Explorers.
When I was eight, I learnt about ‘em all in one big Friday arvo whammy. Ernest Shackleton, Captain Cook, Marco Polo. Men who charted unknown oceans, swam down ancient rivers and captured alien stars. It was a poetic and occasionally tragic age of discovery, and these men, with their ships, their mountains and their costumes of old made me yearn for some serious adventuring.
But, I noticed even then that there were no women on the blackboard.
Women have always been bound by a kind of omnipresent “feminine”-ish FEAR. Eve was trapped by the serpent and Adam’s muscular thighs. 16th-century chicks got steel corsets. We millennials are shackled by Skinny Me Tea and The Bachelor.
This FEAR is never more obvious than when it comes to women travelling. Girls who wish to sail the seven seas are often met with concerned shrieks of, “But are you totally, totally sure?” and, “Whatever you do, DO NOT DRINK ANY SPIRITS, I watched a thing on Channel 7 and apparently none of its alcohol over there, just pure roofie!” and, “You do realise that you’re a GIRL right. You better have a boy with you, honey.”
This keeps us two-dimensional and trapped. No matter how well intentioned, it stops us from living out the full lives we long for. It has imprisoned us for aeons. Women who travel as such are an anomaly and are almost completely omitted from our history.
But I am here to tell you that girlish explorers indeed exist.
Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell and Kira Salek are all truly Great Explorers. Their names are probably new to you, as they were to me. As is so often the case, they have been left, floundering and forgotten in the wash of history, overshadowed by Marilyn’s platinum curls and bodacious rack.
Let me introduce you to these bad-ass explorers without a Y chromosome. They could change your life.
Freya Stark was not a Game of Thrones love child. She was even more impressive. She was a combat nurse in WWI. After that cheerful period of history concluded, she decided that the time had come for her to have some adventures.
She was fluent in Arabic, Turkish and Persian and undertook a number of crazy expeditions in the Middle East, often on mule-back, on a shoestring budget. Plus, she was an insane travel writer, documenting all her voyages in 24 books for everyone back in Europe. How kind.
One of her coolest adventures was when she led an expedition into the Valley of Assassins in Western Iran, a region controlled by rebel, hashish smokin’ Shiites. She was the first Westerner to ever venture here. She travelled constantly for the rest of her life, always to far-flung, exotic locations. She even went to isolated Annapurna in the Himalayas when she was 86.
Freya Stark was society’s worst nightmare. A single, childless woman way past her 30s, who point-blank refused to let anything hold her back from what she wanted to do.
She teaches me to revere beauty, and to say nuh-uh to society dictating my own travelling decisions. She also makes me reallyyyyy want to ride a donkey through rural Turkey whilst eating stuffed dates.
Gertrude Bell is the Queen of All Travelling Women. I crown her so.
During WWI, she worked with British Intelligence in Cairo, and teamed up with T.E Lawrence (also known as LAWERENCE OF ARABIA!) to try and create alliances between the British and isolated Arab desert tribes. She was the only woman present at the 1921 Conference of Cairo, convened by Winston Churchill, that aimed to form modern Iraq. She led the whole discussion.
Gertrude Bell had a passionate life. She didn’t let marriage, lack of children or her bold brows define her. She was educated, brave and fearlessly curious, and is someone you should carry in your top pocket, for luck and guidance.
Gertrude teaches me to not be intimidated by the world. To load up on knowledge about everywhere I go. To look catcallers pityingly in the eye. Thanks Gert.
Last, but not least, we have Kira Salak, our own post-modern travel icon. Unlike the ladies of yesteryear, Kira is 45 and lives in Chicago. She has travelled alone to almost all continents, and was the first person to kayak solo down the Niger River in West Africa. She was kidnapped, aged 20, in civil war Mozambique, by a group of marauding soldiers, and had to escape in the dead of night. After that, she purposefully went to as many dangerous zones as she could, showcasing situations that nobody else dared go near.
She said that when she kayaked down the Niger, many a man doubted she could do it, but local women would line the banks and cry, “Femme Forte!” (Strong Woman) as she passed. She has shattered pretty much all the stereotypes that shroud female travel, proving time and time again that girls can do anything they want, and more.
Kira teaches me to be bold and dirty. To jump into ravines, eat fried moths and say yes to things that incite sobbing/possible hospitalisation. She helps me to know, that just because I am a woman, I do not have to be afraid.
These ladies prove that you too can stab the FEAR with a metaphorical basilisk fang. That you too can, if you want, voodoo the patriarchy. That you can conquer the Austrian Alps, sail down the Amazon and salsa in the tropics at midnight. That your shackles are illusory. That you can too be a Great Explorer.
Basically, you can do whatever you fucking want.
Cover by Kalen Emsley