10 Badass Travelers Throughout History

These trailblazers staged epic journeys across new lands, broke cultural barriers, and revealed the radical diversity of the world around us.

THE CLASSICAL TRAVELER: HOMER (EIGHTH CENTURY B.C.)

“Homer was like Shakespeare, [and the Iliad and Odyssey] were regarded like the Bible. Going to Troy was like a pilgrimage to Jerusalem,” says travel historian Tony Perrottet, author of Route 66 A.D. and an expert on the amblings of the ancients.

Greek poet Homer lived an epic life, and the Trojan War stories he put to verse created a vivid classical road map that’s been assiduously followed by travellers for nearly 3,000 years. Imperial Romans were among the world’s first committed tourists, making multiyear trips to the Athenian Acropolis and the Pyramids of Egypt, among other Mediterranean stops. But no tour was complete without a visit to Troy (in present-day Turkey), site of the storied battle that Homer turned into one of the touchstone events of Western civilisation.

REMBRANDT HARMENSZ. VAN RIJN

THE MAPMAKER: STRABO (64 B.C.–A.D. 24)

“The science of Geography … is a concern of the philosopher,” wrote Strabo in his 17-volume work Geographica, a political and physical description of the world as the Romans knew it. By combining theories of the arts, mathematics, natural sciences, history, and myth, Strabo defined the geographer as one who directs his attention “to the useful rather than to what is famous and charming.” But Strabo was a man of the world who travelled from his native Turkey to famous and charming places in Italy, Ethiopia, Armenia, Egypt, and, likely, Greece. His writing reflects his own voyages, as well as those of Homer (whom he credits as the father of geography), Greek polymath Eratosthenes (the first to use the word geography and calculate Earth’s circumference and creator of the first map of the world), and Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchos.

Strabo’s classic map of the world owes a debt to Eratosthenes’ third-century B.C. map; it presents terra firma as a fishlike blob in a global ocean. The general outlines of northern Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia, Libya (and the African continent), Arabia, and India (including the Ganges) are there, begging to be explored. The next great leaps in geography came from Phoenician Marinus of Tyre (70-130), the first to assign latitude and longitude coordinates, and Greek-Roman geographer Ptolemy (90-168), who pioneered map projections based on latitude lines and added coordinates for places and topographic features (though his own calculations of the Earth’s circumference were off the mark set by his predecessors). But it was Strabo who synthesised his travels into a study of geography—“the art of life, that is, of happiness.”

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF CORBIS

THE PASSIONATE PILGRIM: XUANZANG (602-664)

In 629, a Chinese monk with a tall backpack for carrying scrolls left the Tang capital to embark on a 10,000-mile, 16-year journey to India to study and collect sacred texts of Buddhism. An indefatigable traveller and writer, Xuanzang tracked the northern route of the Silk Road, documenting regions that are now Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

He crossed the Hindu Kush to the valley of Bamian, where he described the colossal Gandhara Buddha statues (“brilliant golden colour and resplendent with ornamentation of precious substances”) that received global attention when they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2000. His pilgrimage to India was arduous but intellectually fruitful. He returned to China with a massive collection of significant Sanskrit texts that illuminated the Buddhist faith and produced a definitive travel record of Central and South Asia.

Xuanzang is revered today as a linguist, historian, faithful folk hero, and—above all—a passionate traveller.

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY IVY CLOSE IMAGES/ALAMY

THE GLOBE SPINNER: IBN BATTUTA (1304–1369)

In 14th-century Islamic North Africa, travel—especially in search of wisdom—was nearly a religious dictate. Ibn Battuta, a 21-year-old Muslim scholar from Morocco, took literally the Prophet Muhammad’s charge to “seek knowledge, even as far as China” when he set out from Tangier to perform his first hajj in Mecca. The journey didn’t end there. Over the next three decades, Battuta’s pilgrimage grew into a tour that would cover more than 40 countries on a modern map—from northern Africa to Egypt, the Middle East, East Africa, Anatolia, India, Southeast and East Asia, and China.

Battuta’s journey is one of devotion fueled by wanderlust, and the narrative he left behind, dictated from memory to a writer, is more than a guide to the Islamic world in the Middle Ages; it’s a dizzying oral history of three decades on the road, a tale of geography, natural history, politics, religion, people (some 2,000 are mentioned), and personal reflection. Rihla (or “The Journey”), as his story is known, is better summarised by its original long title: A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling.

“Swayed by an overmastering impulse within me, and a long-cherished desire to visit those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home,” Battuta notes at the start of his adventure. He embarked just a year after the death of Venetian merchant Marco Polo (1254–1324), whose celebrated 24-year Silk Road journey took him beyond Mongolia to China, where he connected with the great Kublai Khan. By the time Polo returned to Venice, he was the protagonist of a timeless tale; Polo’s last words—“I have only told the half of what I saw!”—ring true to travellers today. But Battuta’s journeys were even more extensive, and his adventures reveal the marvels of tourism.

ILLUSTRATION BY BURT SILVERMAN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

THE GLOBAL GASTRONAUT: THOMAS JEFFERSON (1743-1826)

America’s third President was in many ways its premier traveller. His European peregrinations took him to England, France, Holland, Germany, and Italy, destinations he studied for their classical foundations, cultural wealth, and viticultural output.

To Jefferson, wine was a window to the world, and he was a proponent of the vine for reasons that extended far beyond the dinner table. As the nation’s wine consultant, Jefferson transformed his Dionysian curiosities into a transatlantic economic cause by advocating for opening important wine-trade channels from France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. He returned to the United States with vine cuttings that he planted at Monticello and emerged as America’s ultimate oenophile (if not its most successful grower).

Jefferson’s travel missions were hardly limited to the bottle—while abroad, he researched law, government, history, architecture, agriculture, literature, music, and the sciences, among other areas—but one of the Renaissance man’s most spirited legacies is his global passion for the grape.

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY GETTY IMAGES

THE HIGH FLIER: ISABELLA LUCY BIRD (1831–1904)

“The Vale of Kashmir is too well known to require description,” writes 19th-century English adventuress Isabella Lucy Bird in her travel narrative Among the Tibetans. That such a statement could be made in 1894—let alone in the present day—is testament to the long reach of the greatest Victorian lady traveller. While the British Empire swept across continents, Bird migrated to far-flung places, many of which barely register on a traveller’s radar even today. She documented her journeys in detailed books with matter-of-fact titles such as Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1875), A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879), Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880), and Korea and Her Neighbours (1898). In recognition of her round-the-world peregrinations, Bird was inducted as the first woman Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in 1882.

At times, it seems as if Bird were on a one-woman mission to increase global tourism. Born to a worldly Anglican minister, the sharp-witted young writer suffered from depression, insomnia, and a spinal tumour as a child. In 1854, upon a doctor’s recommendation, Bird’s father gave her a hundred pounds and his blessing to travel as long as the money lasted. She spent the next six months in North America, a journey she documented in her first book, The Englishwoman in America (1856). From then on, she was wedded to the road, and her travels included Canada, Scotland, Australia, Hawaii, the Rockies, Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Tibet, Persia, Kurdistan, Turkey, Iran, and Morocco. Bird forded raging rivers on horseback, endured deadly heat and frigid cold, ascended mountains, crossed deserts, slept anywhere she could, engaged with the locals, and recorded geographical, cultural, political, and social details that have added to our knowledge of the world. Bird even ventured into matrimony, at age 49; her husband noted that he had “only one formidable rival in Isabella’s heart, and that is the high Table Land of Central Asia.” Bird lectured, wrote, and travelled nearly to the end of her life, spending six months on horseback riding through Morocco’s Atlas Mountains in 1900. When she died at 73, she was planning a return trip to China.

PHOTOGRAPH BY THE ART GALLERY COLLECTION / ALAMY

THE ULTIMATE NOMAD: FREYA STARK (1893-1993)

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it,” wrote British Arabist Freya Stark in Baghdad Sketches.

When she died at 100 years old, this audacious cultural explorer and polyglot had written 24 books and published eight volumes of letters that detail her achievements as the first Westerner to reach a number of southern Arabian desert regions. Among her dangerous treks was a journey to the heart of Iran’s Valley of the Assassins, a foreboding landscape that reinforced her love for the personal focus that travel can bring.

“Solitude, I reflected, is the one deep necessity of the human spirit to which adequate recognition is never given,” she wrote. Stark’s humorous and authoritative chronicles of her travels to Syria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Lebanon, Turkey, and Afghanistan seem to suggest that within every traveller beats the heart of an explorer—especially when donkeys are involved.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY/ALAMY

THE RUGGED INDIVIDUAL: BRUCE CHATWIN (1940-1989)

Travel is not just about external facts, as anyone who’s spent monotonous days on the road can tell you; travel concerns internal experiences, as well. In many ways, British writer Bruce Chatwin revolutionised the travel narrative by focusing not on original destinations but on original ways of telling his tale. Another travel writer, Robert Macfarlane, notes that what we “learned from Chatwin was that the travelogue could voyage deeply in time rather than widely in space and that the interior it explored need not be the heart of a place but the mind of the traveller.”

While Chatwin’s output was slim, his influence is vast. With In Patagonia (1977), Chatwin created an iconic narrative of geography, history, culture, and personal memoir based on a six-month journey across the extreme southern tip of Argentina and Chile. The idiosyncratic tale is broken into mini-sections that reference Shakespeare, Magellan, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Darwin, Dante, gauchos, and hippies, among other colorful characters woven together in a fact-meets-fiction travelogue tapestry. The Songlines (1986) explores the unique Aboriginal songs of Australia, which stitch together geographical details, mythological elements, and cultural reference points. Like the subject of his book, Chatwin blends fact and fiction to develop an anthropological understanding of the world’s oldest living culture. The book had the immediate effect of highlighting traditions of indigenous Australians and presenting a style of travel writing that echoes the blurry movement and nomadic nature of its subject; Chatwin also introduced many readers to the challenges facing contemporary Aboriginal communities. Above all, Chatwin was a brilliant storyteller who didn’t let facts get in the way of spinning a great yarn, whether in his travel books or novels. He exaggerated everything, as one of his friends noted. But truths were always at the heart of Chatwin’s writings—truths that help explain why we all travel in the first place.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ULF ANDERSEN, GETTY IMAGES

THE NICEST NOMAD: MICHAEL PALIN (1943-PRESENT)

“Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected for the rest of my life,” says Michael Palin, the English comedian (and founding member of Monty Python) who was transformed by travel from “a very silly person” to “a very silly explorer.” After decades on screen and stage, Palin took on the world as a globe-trotting documentarian—racing around the world in 80 days in the footsteps of Jules Verne; voyaging from the North Pole to the South; circumnavigating 50,000 miles around the Pacific Ocean; trekking the Sahara and Himalaya; and trailing Ernest Hemingway from the U.S. to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Brazil is next! In late 2012, Palin will publish his peregrinations to Rio, the Amazon, and beyond. The tireless tripper’s books and TV series are so popular that tourist attractions have kicked up in the wake of his journeys. Insiders call it the “Palin effect.” You can call it the ultimate travel wish list.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BASIL PAO

THE BOLDEST ADVENTURESS: KIRA SALAK (1971-PRESENT)

Madagascar, Iran, Rwanda, Burma, Libya, Borneo, Mozambique, Uganda, and Peru are but a few of the nations stamped on Kira Salak’s dog-eared passport. But the place that put this Midwestern writer on the map is Papua New Guinea, where she spent a year backpacking, eventually becoming the first woman to traverse the Pacific island nation. Since that adventure, the National Geographic emerging explorer has trailed mountain gorillas and warring armies in the Congo, biked across Alaska to the Arctic Ocean, and ascended to Himalayan heights in Bhutan.

“In the beginning, my journeys feel at best ludicrous, at worst insane,” writes Salak in Cruelest Journey, about her 965-kilometre solo kayak paddle on the Niger River from the Malian town of Old Ségou to Timbuktu. “There is something to be said for the challenge of going where most people don’t want to travel. I find that such unfamiliar places fuel my imagination,” writes Salak. “Challenges build character like nothing else. They teach you about yourself and others; they give you a deeper perspective on life.”

PHOTOGRAPH BY BOBBY MODEL

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