It’s 1846. Britain is under the reign of Queen Victoria. The Industrial Revolution is in full swing. Young children are forced to work in mines and in factories. It’ll be a year before Emily Bronte publishes Wuthering Heights and longer still before Charles Darwin publishes some interesting ideas about evolution.
It was in 1846 that Ida Pfeiffer decided she would travel the world.
Ida Pfeiffer was born 14 October 1797, to a wealthy merchant and had six brothers. Her father encouraged her in her love of sports and gave her the education normally only reserved for men. She didn’t like girls’ clothes much either.
Her rebellion went further than just that. After Napoleon conquered Vienna in 1809, French troops were staying in Ida’s home but she hated foreign occupation. She protested by turning her back on Napoleon as he rode past.
She married young, to lawyer Dr. Mark Anton Pfeiffer. It wasn’t until their sons were grown up that Ida could consider travelling. Her first trip took her to Turkey, Palestine, Egypt and Italy. She decided to travel to the ‘Holy Land’ since she felt her family would object to that the least.
In 1846, she set out on a journey that would make her the first woman to travel round the world solo. She visited Brazil, Chile, Tahiti, China, India – where her only belongings were a leather pouch for water, a small pan, salt, bread and rice – Persia (now Iran), Turkey and Greece. The trip took her two years to complete. During this time Ida joined a camel caravan and travelled across Iraqi for 300 miles.
As if one journey round the world wasn’t enough, she did it again in 1851. This time her route took her through England, South Africa, Southeast Asia, Borneo, Sumatra, Australia, America, Peru, Ecuador, the Republic of New Granada (now Colombia and Panama). While in Sumatra, Ida became one of the first outsiders to make contact with the Batak tribe, who were known cannibals.
Ida cemented her status as a rock star after her trip to Madagascar 1857. She was received by Queen Ranavalona I but became caught up in a plot to overthrow the government with some other Europeans. The locals who were discovered were all executed but the Europeans got off lightly – they were expelled from the island.
All of Ida’s adventures were published as novels in Austria and were translated into seven different languages. Despite all of her successes, the Royal Geographical Society of London refused to accept her as a member because she was a woman.
Sadly, it was on the return journey from Madagascar that Ida Pfeiffer caught the disease that would kill her.
Ida’s journey puts to bed some widely spread myths about solo female travellers today, like: “It can’t be done, it’s too dangerous, it’s just stupid.”
There are other myths like women should wear a fake wedding ring wherever they go or that they should cover up their whole body at all times while they travel, otherwise advances they get from men are their own fault, but those ones get me riled up enough that I may revisit them and dedicate a whole post to them alone…
Solo travel can be extremely rewarding and will definitely change who you are. Visiting other cultures can only be a good thing, not to mention all the amazing food and new friends.