Here’s to the Fearless Female Explorers

?A Picnic with King Faisal? photograph of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), Traveller, spy and archaeologist on a picnic in Saudi Arabia in 1922.
“A Picnic with King Faisal”. Gertrude Bell in Saudi Arabia, 1922. Vintage Archives/Alamy Stock Photo

 

In honour of International Women’s Day I have decided to write something about the women I most envy: the explorers.

Remember learning about Magellan? Columbus? Sturt? Flinders? Cook? The thing they had most in common wasn’t only that they explored the world, it was that they all had penises. And having penises also gave them the means to embark on their expeditions because they had wives at home to take care of all that meaningless stuff, like raising children, cooking food, and making sure the house wasn’t coated in dust or covered in mould.

Meanwhile, some very fearless women were undertaking their own journeys.

The first female explorer I heard of was Freya Stark, and that was only because she was British and I was in London at the time of her death in 1993 at the age of 100. At the time I was surprised I’d never heard of her before and the thing I remember being most reported about her was not so much her travels, but the fact that she’d been almost completely scalped at the age of 13 when her hair was caught in a machine.

I feel some affinity for Freya because, like me, she was a sickly child and therefore, like me, did a lot of reading. After reading One Thousand and One Nights she became obsessed with the Middle East and spent her life until her retirement in the ’70s travelling in the region on and off.

I have a similar obsession with the Arctic after reading about Iceland as a teenager. But unlike Freya I have not learned Icelandic or any other Scandinavian, Russian, or Inuit language. I can however say sorry in Danish and Swedish (Unskyld and Förlåt) and now automatically reply with Tak and Ja because I watch too much Scandi Noir. (Too much? Not possible!)

Gertrude Stein similarly spent the early part of the 20th Century wandering about in the Middle East. I read on Wikipedia that “History was one of the few subjects women were allowed to study [at Oxford], due to the many restrictions imposed on them at the time” and that “she was the first woman to graduate from Modern History with first class honours”. A terrible movie was made about her, starring Nicole Kidman. Pretty sure Gertrude didn’t emerge from the desert with flawless skin and clean, matching outfits, but I do hope she spent her evenings sitting at a table writing by candle-light with a pen dipped in ink.

My great heroine, though, is the Irish explorer and writer Dervla Murphy. Dervla was pulled out of school at the age of 14 to come home and look after her mother who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. She continued to care for her, drinking a lot of whisky and chain-smoking to cope, until her mother died. By then Dervla was 31. She closed up the house, got herself a gun, and got on her bike and rode. All the way from Dublin to India. For the next 50 years she travelled by bike, on foot, on mule, with and without her daughter, and wrote 26 books. Her last Between River and Sea about her time living in the West Bank in Palestine, was published in 2015. She resigned herself, at the age of 84, to staying put. Since a hip replacement she can no longer ride a bike, she used to love swimming but now her shoulder is no good, and all those cigarettes have given her emphysema. Still, 84!

Many of the places these fearless women travelled are no longer accessible because the inhabitants are all fighting with each other. I want to go to Timbuktu. The official advice says Do Not Travel, the Lonely Planet says Mali is great but not safe to travel there at the moment, and you can’t get travel insurance (as though any of those women ever did). I actually called a guy named Phil Paoletta who runs Postcards from Timbuktu in Mali’s capital, Bamako. He told me you can’t get near Timbuktu; the soldiers will turn you around if you try. He did however suggest stowing away in a boat on the Niger river. Yeah, that’d work.

So for now I must content myself with my previous–rather pale in comparison–expeditions to Lo Manthang and the Arctic Tundra, (Inuvik! You’re welcome kids!) and look toward my next journeys into the somewhat unknown. If only, like Dervla, I could happily sleep in a puddle of freezing water!

Quiet, Late Achievers

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Yesterday, I spoke to a client who casually mentioned she used to be a lawyer. 

“At the age of 70,” she told me proudly, “after completing my eighth degree, I was admitted to the Supreme Court as a solicitor.”

“You must love studying,” I said.

“Well it’s better than housework,” she replied. She had gone on to practice for six years before retiring.

I thought of my own neglected house, and the tumbleweed of dust and fully formed cobwebs clinging to the corners. I, too, have better things to do than housework.

Such people are inspiring to those of us who were too busy working and raising children in our younger years to achieve other things. I marvel at anyone who is able to write and wrangle a family. Raising three children took all of my energy at the time.

A character in a book I’m currently reading—Mallachy Tallack’s The Valley at the Centre of the World—talks about growing older and how looking back starts to take the place of looking forward. I don’t like the thought that you stop having things to look forward to. Perhaps you do, but they just grow smaller.

My mother gave up at the age of about 70. She decided that she’d lived her biblically prescribed “three score and ten years” and said No to every opportunity that came along after that. “My world is finished,” she would say when we suggested she try something new. My father, on the other hand, retired at 80, bought himself a computer and found someone to teach him how to use it. He also took a flight down to Antarctica. Had my mother not been such a wet blanket, they could have had great adventures. They had money and good health, but my mother simply sat down and said No to everything. 

When we were in Bali recently, I found myself thinking often of my father. Like me, he loved seeing and learning new things. He would have loved to come to Bali. If he ever saw someone interesting in the street, he would go up and talk to them. He told me about a time when he and my mother were in Moscow. He saw a queue of people so he stood on the end to see what they were waiting for. Ice cream. So he bought one too.

It was my father who bought the set of beautiful encyclopaedias called The World and Its People that I used to pore over, sitting on the cool linoleum in his office. It was in those I first read about Iceland, leading to an obsession that finally saw me stand on the streets of Reykjavik in 1993, long before the hordes of tourists that now invade. I wonder what my father would have made of my travels in Nepal. Sadly, he had died before I went there. My mother’s only two questions were “What do they drink in Nepal?” and, “When are you going to get over going to these places?”

In May I am travelling to China for the first time. Another adventure. I have many others in mind after that. My hero, good old Dervla Murphy, published her last travel book in 2015 at the tender age of 84. She has finally accepted gracefully that her health is not strong enough for further travels, but having published twenty-six travel books in fifty-three years, I think she’s earned her retirement. 

I’m starting a bit later but I have a good few years left yet.