Gertrude Bell was many things in her life but is best remembered today for her role in shaping the nation of Iraq after the First World War. Bell was to have many firsts to her name; she was the first woman to receive a first class degree in History from Oxford, and the first woman to write a white paper for the British government. She traveled around the world twice. Once, while mountaineering in Switzerland, she was caught in a blizzard and spent two days hanging from a rope. Bell’s true calling came when she traveled to Tehran to visit her uncle. In the Middle East she taught herself the local languages and studied archaeology. Many archaeologists of the Middle East at the time were also serving as scouting intelligence agents, like T. E. Lawrence, whom she met at a dig. In 1915, she worked with Lawrence again in Cairo for the British Arab Bureau. Bell’s knowledge of the Middle East was used to help British army movements. When she went to Basra she made contacts with many important locals. Bell also met the future kings Abdullah and Faisal. At the post-war conference on the British mandate in the Middle East, Bell pushed hard for self-rule and helped to advise King Faisal. She is buried in Baghdad, the capital of a country she helped create.
2. Mary Kingsley 1862-1900
Mary Kingsley was never formally educated, but aided her traveler father in his research. Her father put her to work taking notes for his study of comparative religion, but when he died this was left unfinished. Lacking any direction, but with an inheritance in hand, Kingsley decided to continue her father’s work by studying the religions of West Africa. When she asked experts where she should travel and what she should do, Kingsley was advised not to go at all, but if she did go they asked her to bring back biological samples. So she set off with a small amount of luggage, collecting cases for samples, and a phrase book with such helpful phrases as “Get up, you lazy scamps!” Despite these limitations, Kingsley made two trips to West Africa and described them in her book ‘Travels in Africa.’ She did return some interesting flora and fauna to Britain and three species of fish were named in her honor, but the real importance of her journeys were in spreading a somewhat more enlightened view of Africa than existed at the time. The natives, she said in her lecture tours, we not savages waiting to be brought up to European standards, but had independent minds and cultures of their own. She died in South Africa of typhoid, while treating the wounded in the second Boer war.
3. Kira Salak 1971-
The Golden age of adventure for women may seem to have passed, but there is still a big world out there to document. Kira Salak is a writer and professional adventurer. After graduating with a PhD in literature and travel writing, she traversed Papua New Guinea. This experience she turned into the book Four Corners. Since then, she has written numerous articles and visited Peru, Iran, Bhutan, Mali, Libya and Burma, amongst others. Perhaps her most daring exploit was in the Congo on the trail of mountain gorillas. Salak was smuggled into the country by Ukrainian gun runners. The award-winning article she wrote about this trip gives a clear insight into a country with many human problems, but also the attempts to keep alive the mountain gorillas. In the town of Bunia Salak met with some of the child soldiers of the local militias. There is none of the charm of the British Victorian adventuresses in her writing, but then the things Salak reports often leave little room for such ornament. Salak’s less shocking travels reveal a world which we, living in an age of easy travel, are far more able to explore if we only have the thirst for knowledge and adventure.
4. Louise Boyd 1887-1972
Born into wealth, Louise Boyd would use her large inheritance to explore the Arctic regions she loved so much. Boyd would be the first woman to reach the North Pole, in the relative comfort of an airplane, in 1955. Traveling to Europe after the deaths of her parents, in 1920, she spent some time in Spitsbergen where she found the ice beguiling. Her first Arctic exploration was in 1926 when she spent time filming and photographing the environment of the Arctic. It was her hunting of Polar bears on this trip which earned her the nickname ‘Diana of the Arctic.’ Her most famous exploit was assisting in the hunt for famed Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen, who had disappeared while aiding a downed Italian airship. Her plane covered ten thousand miles in the search, but Amundsen was never found. For her efforts, Boyd became the first non-Norwegian woman to be awarded the Chevalier Cross of the Order of Saint Olav, by King Haakon VII. She returned to the US and led five expeditions in Greenland, for which she was honored by the Geographical Society, and an area of Greenland was named Louise Boyd Land in her honor.
5. Nellie Bly 1864-1922
Nellie Bly may be the most recognized name on this list, but she was born Elizabeth Cochran. Her adventures came about due to her work for the New York World paper. This was the age of ‘stunt’ journalism, and Bly’s first report was to be an exposé of a women’s lunatic asylum. Pretending to be demented, Bly was admitted and experienced the lot of the patients confined on the island. The food was rancid, the nurses brutal, and the asylum hardly fit for humans. The article she wrote was a breakthrough in investigative journalism, and led to reform for mental hospitals. Her next adventure was one that brought her worldwide fame. Bly undertook a challenge to make a trip around the world in a time faster than Phileas Fogg’s eighty days. She set out with a special passport signed by the Secretary of State, on November 14, 1889. Her voyage started in seasickness but would end in triumph. In France, she met Jules Verne, who thought she might manage the trip in 79 days, but never the 75 she hoped. Having steamed across seas, gone through the Suez Canal, seen Colombo and Aden, visited a Chinese leper colony and bought a Monkey, Bly made it back to New York in a time of 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes.