Free spirits: 5 women explorers and travel writers

“In spite of all the hardships, discomforts and sicknesses the lure of exploration still continues to be one of the strongest lode-stars of the human spirit, and will be so while there is the rim of an unknown horizon in this world or the next.”

Freya Stark, ‘The Zodiac Arch’

There are some women travel writers whose work I keep coming back to for the sheer pleasure of it.   I only have to pick up one of their books and my original purpose – the answer to a specific question, for example – goes out of my head.   These women were amazing.  Not only did they tread confidently through dangerous and inhospitable regions, but they also described their experiences in books which are a joy to read.

Without exception, what they enjoyed most was the sensation of freedom:  the liberty to follow their own heart, their own time schedule, their own instincts.   The exhilaration of independence, coupled with the excitement of adventure and discovery, fuelled their urge to travel.

For this post, I’ve chosen five of my favourite women travel writers.  I’m already looking forward to discovering more.  If you have any recommendations, I’d be happy to hear them!


Mary Kingsley set sail for Cameroon in 1893.  Aged 30 and single, she was defying all her friends’ warnings by travelling alone, equipped with little else but a rudimentary medical kit and her irrepressible sense of humour.  Her aim was to make a scientific study of the fish found in the West African rivers; she intended also to record the customs and spiritual beliefs of cannibalistic tribes, none of whom were expecting her company.  Mary, to say the least, was one strong-minded lady.

“When we got into the cool forest beyond it was delightful;  particularly if it happened to be one of those lovely stretches of forest, gloomy down below, but giving hints that far away above us was a world of bloom and scent and beauty which we saw as much of as earth-worms in a flower-bed. Here and there the ground was strewn with great cast blossoms, thick, wax-like glorious cups of orange and crimson and pure white, each one of which was in itself a handful, and which told us that some of the trees around us were showing a glory of colour to heaven alone.”

(‘Travels in West Africa’)

Mary’s writings effervesce with curiosity, the joy of observation, the thrill of human encounters.  Dry wit and acute sensitivity are underpinned by a strong foundation of common sense.  She never lost sight of her scientific role, but her real gift – or so it seems to me – was her ability to forge bonds across the daunting nineteenth-century barriers of race and politics.  In her first ever public lecture, delivered in February 1896 to the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Edinburgh, she described trekking through rainforest and tidal swamps, often up to her chin in “black, batter-like ooze” from which she emerged with an “astrachan collar of leeches”.  But the continent claimed her heart:

“’Why did I come to Africa?’ thought I.  Why!  Who would not come to its twin brother hell itself for all the beauty and the charm of it!”

(‘Travels in West Africa’)


“Why must the heart always desire the inaccessible?  The last flower at the edge of the precipice?”

(‘Stepping Stones from Alaska to Asia‘)

It was the land of the far north that spoke to the soul of Scotswoman Isobel Wylie Hutchison. In 1927 she stepped onto the shore of Greenland and spent a few months journeying on foot and by umiak – traditional skin-covered boat – up into the gloriously tranquil fjords on her mission to collect plant species and study the culture of the Inuit people. A few years later she trekked across Alaska and Arctic Canada, travelling by dog sled and sleeping in igloos as the northern lights danced across the starlit sky.

Isobel’s descriptions of landscape and people are vivid and uplifting, the outpourings of a vagabond heart that greets new discoveries with uninhibited joy. She writes as if for herself alone, but you feel like a privileged companion as she treads reverently into sacred birch groves and gathers wild orchids by fast-flowing mountain streams.

“Away to the eastward a huge rose-coloured moon rises slowly, like another great berg, upon the wilderness of ice. The brightness slowly fades out of the west, leaving the sea a clear azure, turning the veins in the ice-blocks about us to a cold but vivid emerald. Night steals softly upon the breathless wonderland. In its lonely purity, its infinite variety of softest colouring, the scene is one of indescribable beauty – solemn, remote – striking the beholder silent as with some magic spell – the loveliest sight I have ever seen.”

(‘On Greenland’s Closed Shore‘)


After spending weeks in the Pacific on board a storm-tossed ship, it was with a huge sense of relief that Isabella Bird disembarked in Hawaii in 1873.  Her first instinct was to explore, and she was eager to see an erupting volcano.  This entailed a challenging trek over smouldering lava beds, during which she fell several times into sulphurous pits and burned holes in her gloves as she hauled herself back out.  In awe, she gazed down into the fire-pit of Kilauea, and a few weeks later she trekked up to the icy summit of Mauna Loa with a young male companion, a member of the British consulate in Hawaii who was willing to overlook Isabella’s blissful disregard for the rules of female behaviour.  “Travellers,” she wrote, “are privileged to do the most improper things with perfect propriety;  that is one charm of travelling.”

The daughter of a Yorkshire vicar, Isabella’s wanderlust was a force that overcame her physical frailties and eventually propelled her to fame as a writer and early travel photographer.  Many of her observations were contained in letters to her sister Henrietta, back home in Scotland.  She wrote with vibrant appreciation, expressing her opinions fearlessly, and sharing heartache with equal candour.  As a woman of the late Victorian era, Isabella carried a torch for others to follow, beating her own path with uncompromising determination and courage.

“Whenever I look up from my writing, I ask, Was there ever such green? Was there ever such sunshine? Was there ever such an atmosphere? Was there ever such an adventure? And Nature – for I have no other companion, and wish for none – answers, ‘No.’”

(‘The Hawaiian Archipelago’)

You can read more about Isabella’s visit to Hawaii in this blog post on the RSGS website.


“After one such journey the desert has caught you.  If you will, you, the so-called teacher of men, shall be taught yourself things which are never learnt in the hurry, the bustle, the crowd, and the jazz of twentieth century life.”

(‘Something Happened’)

As they jogged and swayed across the empty wastes of the Gobi Desert in the early 1900s, Mildred Cable and her two companions, Eva and Francesca French, had no intention of succumbing to any kind of emotional extremes.  Such weakness would have been alien to their nature and counter-productive to their task, which was to spread the word of the gospels among the villages of western China.  Travelling by mule cart, the three missionaries encountered near-death experiences on an almost daily basis, but the drama is softened by Mildred’s gentle writing.  A missionary who let himself consider fear, she said, would spend his life in a panic.  Even so, when the three women were captured by a notorious despot who could command their execution with a snap of his fingers, Mildred had to dig deep to find the faith that would help them through their plight.

Mildred, Eva and Francesca lived in Western China for over 30 years, and during that time they witnessed some of the desert’s most astonishing wonders, both natural and man-made.  They marvelled at the beauty of the Lake of the Crescent Moon, and they stayed in a hostelry beneath the dunes of the Singing Sands, whose reputation they did not hesitate to put to the test by tobogganing down them on their bottoms, which produced a satisfying shriek.  They gazed up at the painted walls and sculptures in the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, and in the abodes of humble villagers they were shown breathtaking examples of jade and porcelain, priceless heirlooms that had been cherished for centuries by families who were scraping a meagre living from the desert sands.   Not only did they learn the languages of the desert, with all their nuances and idiosyncrasies, but they understood the culture of its inhabitants:  they allowed themselves to be totally absorbed into the desert way of life.   Through sincerity and openness, they dissolved all possibilities of distrust:

“The women were pleased when they were addressed and answered in the local patois, and the word went round among the neighbours: ‘Come and see them. They are just like ourselves. They wear our clothes, they eat our food, and they too have fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. There is no difference at all.’”

(‘The Gobi Desert’)


If there is one female writer who captures the sheer deliciousness of travel, it is Freya Stark.  Beguiled by the lands of the Middle East, Freya was a compulsive wanderer, often travelling with no serious motive other than her insatiable curiosity.  Her many travel books weave a spell, drawing the reader willingly into a landscape of scorching deserts, remote valleys and mountaintop castles.  She shares conversations with unerring accuracy and mischievous wit;  her descriptions are vivid word paintings, glowing with so much beauty that you find yourself re-reading paragraphs just for the pleasure of them.

“And in the dusk we came to fields ploughed and brown, like corduroy velvet, and gardens dyked with walls;  and saw Zahir, our little town, growing towards us, a ridge of houses against the sky. The cliffs in straight lines beyond it shone like a stair on whose last step the sunlight lingered. In the dust of the valley amethyst evening tufts of smoke were rising. Shepherdesses trailed home with the patter of their flocks behind them. This is perhaps the best joy of the journey, to come at evening to your unknown resting-place.”

(‘A Winter in Arabia’)

Freya knew that she had charm, and in dangerous situations she used it shamelessly. She was blessed with extraordinary intelligence, which she kept mostly to herself, like a secret weapon. Other people – especially women – often found her a frustrating companion, but as a solitary explorer she allowed herself free rein and revelled in the adventure.  “I have no reason to go,” she wrote, “except that I have never been, and knowledge is better than ignorance.  What better reason could there be for travelling?”

All these extraordinary women are included in my book ‘The Great Horizon‘, which tells the amazing stories of 50 explorers, both male and female, from the archives of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

Further reading

(NB many of these are unfortunately out of print and may be hard to find):

Mary Kingsley:

‘Travels in West Africa’ (1897)

Isobel Wylie Hutchison: 

‘On Greenland’s Closed Shore’ (1930)
‘North to the Rime-ringed Sun’ (1935)
‘Stepping Stones from Alaska to Asia’ (1937)

Isabella Bird: 

‘The Hawaiian Archipelago’ (1875)
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’ (1879)
‘Among the Tibetans’ (1894)

Mildred Cable, Eva and Francesca French: 

‘Something Happened’ (1934)
‘Through Jade Gate and Central Asia’ (1927)
‘The Gobi Desert’ (1943)

Freya Stark: 

‘In the Valleys of the Assassins’ (1934)
‘The Zodiac Arch’ (1968)
‘A Winter in Arabia’ (1940)


Freya Stark depicted on the cover of ‘Passionate Nomad’ by Jane Fletcher Geniesse
All others in public domain

Writing about history and landscape at The Hazel Tree ( Writer in Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

6 thoughts on “Free spirits: 5 women explorers and travel writers

  1. The Great Horizon…… Jo, I am enjoying reading your book. For me it one of those books you pick up on a lazy day and then choose who to read about. I have been working through either the ones I know or those I am aware of and who at time touched my life in one way or another. I still have all those explorers from time long gone to look forward to getting to know… I guess they will be this summers reading 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A wonderful post full of truly remarkable people, and the fact that they were female and travelled in the way they did is all the more astonishing. They weren’t all exact contemporaries, but do you know if any of them ever met each other? I wonder if such independent souls would have got on well together, or if there might have been any sense of competition between them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Lorna! They certainly were amazing. That’s an interesting question, and to my knowledge I don’t think any of these ladies ever met. It is interesting to ponder how they would have got on, if they did. All were very strongly independent. I know that Freya Stark met another desert traveller, Gertrude Bell, for instance, and I don’t think either liked the other very much! Freya did travel with women companions occasionally, and infuriated them. She was much happier on her own. She was very conscious of the achievements of both Gertrude Bell and an earlier traveller, Lady Hester Stanhope, and I think (consciously or unconsciously) she wanted to visit the same places that they did, but in her own way. Isobel WH did have female companions occasionally e.g. when she stayed in Greenland, but she didn’t like the restrictions that this put on her activities and her freedom to just get up and go. I think the answer is that they might have got on for 10 mins or so, and then gone their separate ways! 😀


      • That was what I was thinking, they probably wouldn’t want to spend too much time in each other’s company. Travelling alone, or being the only female, would certainly be a different experience from being one of a group. I can see the attraction of that, although I wouldn’t have the courage or confidence to do what they did.

        Liked by 1 person

      • No, they were all exceptional women from that point of view, given the era in which they were born. I don’t think it’s because they didn’t feel fear, because they did – it’s that the compulsion to travel was greater.


Comments are closed.