Active and Adventure

Six great travellers you’ve never heard of

Meet some of the most impressive (and obscure) world travellers in history and find out how you can follow in their footsteps.

Often overshadowed by Cook, Livingstone, Columbus and co, a host of intrepid explorers have roamed the most remote reaches of the planet over the past two and a half millennia. Meet some of the most impressive – and discover how you can experience some of the wonders they encountered on their expeditions.

Isabella Bird (1831–1904)

Born in Yorkshire in 1854, Isabella Bird travelled to North America, where her travel-writing career took off. She journeyed to Australia, Hawaii, Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, but she is best remembered for her writing and photography on Asia. From 1894 she spent three years in China, Japan and Korea, and her books on this journey – particularly The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, published in 1899 – provide a unique snapshot of East Asia at a pivotal moment in history. 

A photograph of a pavilion in the Imperial Garden, Shanghai, taken by Bird and featured in The Yangtze Valley and Beyond © G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Wikimedia Commons

Do it yourself: The Yangtze River looks very different since the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, begun in 1994, but cruises along the 160km-long Three River Gorges stretch between Nanjin Pass in the east and White King City in the west are still memorable.

Pytheas (c350–c285 BC)

The expedition of this ancient navigator may not seem so intrepid today, but at the time he sailed from his home town, the Greek colony of Massalia (now Marseille) – around 325 BC – he was a true pioneer. Though his own account of his voyage, called On Oceans, was lost in the distant past, we know of his journeys through the writing of the later Greek geographer Strabo. Pytheas traversed the Strait of Gibraltar to sail past the west coast of France to Britain, where he met the tin miners of Cornwall, before heading north to ‘Thule’ at the edge of the Arctic, where he was confronted by ice and slush. He picked up amber on the Baltic coast and met the fierce Scythian people at the mouth of the Vistula before returning to Marseille.

Bottalack Tin Mines, Cornwall © Chris Combe, Wikimedia Commons

Do it yourself: Unless you’re a seasoned sailor, best to join a cruise – several operators offer round-Britain trips, and many visit the Baltic.

Sacagawea (1788–1812)

The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–5 is famed for the pioneering trek west from St Louis on the Mississippi, along the Missouri River through the then-new Louisiana Purchase lands, and on through Oregon to the Pacific coast. But though those two men gained renown for their efforts, the Lemhi Shoshone woman called Sacagawea played a vital role in the mission, both in suggesting routes and gaining the trust of native peoples. Born in what’s now Idaho, she joined the expedition in North Dakota and travelled thousands of miles with the men.

Signage along Washington State Route 100 within Cape Disappointment State Park, part of the Lewis and Clark Trail Highway © Ryan Stavely, Wikimedia Commons

Do it yourself: Follow the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, a mixed recreational trail stretching some 6,000km from Wood River, Illinois to the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon.

Edward Lear (1812–88) 

Renowned as a nonsense poet, famed for verse including The Owl and the Pussycat, Lear was a talented artist and travelled widely in Italy and southeast Europe with his paintbrushes, paper and sketching gear. Arguably his most memorable trip, recounted in Journal of a Landscape Painter in Albania, &c (1851), took him through the Ottoman lands west of Salonica (now Thessaloniki) via Lake Ohrid and through Albania, where he complained about his accommodation: “Oh khan [inn] of Tirana! Rats, mice, cockroaches, and all lesser vermin were there.” Having reached the Adriatic Sea at Durazzo (Durrës), he turned south through the Acroceraunia Mountains and sailed for Lefkada. 

Historic Gjirokaster © Envi Taraku, Unsplash

Do it yourself: Albania, once again a welcoming prospect since the fall of communism and the end of the unrest of the 1990s, is a great place for a cycling tour – popular loops from capital Tirana visit Lake Ohrid, historic Gjirokaster and ancient Butrint in the south, or the Accursed Mountains in the far north.

Xuanzang (c602–c664)

This Chinese Buddhist monk set out from Chang-an (today’s Xi’an, home to the Terracotta Warriors) to visit the heartland of Buddhism. In AD 629 he cajoled border guards to let him roam west through Gansu and Qinghai into central Asia along the Silk Road, through what’s now Uzbekistan. Veering south through Afghanistan, he admired the huge stone-carved Buddhas at Bamiyan (destroyed by the Taliban in 2001) before traversing Pakistan and completing a vast loop through much of India. He visited Lumbini, birthplace of Buddha (now in southern Nepal) and numerous other Buddhist sites including Bodhgaya, where Siddhartha Gautama found enlightenment, spending two years studying at the great Buddhist monastery at Nalanda before returning to China in AD 645.

Two women walk past the huge cavity where one of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan used to stand. The monumental statues were built in A.D. 507 and 554 and were the largest statues of standing Buddha on Earth until the Taliban dynamited them in 2001 © Sgt. Ken Scar, Wikimedia Commons

Do it yourself: Several overland tour operators run trips along the Silk Road through Uzbekistan to Xi’an. Afghanistan is currently tricky to visit, as are parts of Pakistan; check the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office website for the latest travel advice. You can wander the remains of the great monastery of Nalanda, around 95km southeast of Patna in Bihar state, northern India

Ibn Battuta (1304–c1368)

This scholar and explorer, born in Tangier at the northern tip of Morocco, set out in 1325 on a hajj (pilgrimage) to the Muslim holy city of Mecca – and didn’t return home for 24 years. His first mission took him across North Africa, through the great sites of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, then to Damascus and Jerusalem before reaching Mecca. He explored the Middle East before sailing south to Somalia and the Swahili coast of Kenya and Tanzania. On a subsequent, longer leg starting in 1332, he journeyed through Anatolia and the Black Sea region to reach Central Asia, continuing through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, sailing on to South-east Asia and China before returning to Morocco. He later looped south into west Africa, visiting the powerful Mali Empire and the remote city of Timbuktu.  

Fez medina from above © Selina Bubendorfer, Unsplash

Do it yourself: It would take a lifetime to visit all of the places Ibn Battuta reached, but to get a sense of his homeland in the Middle Ages delve into the walled medina (old city) of Fez or old Cairo.