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Serpent in Paradise
Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers
Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Explorers
Mary Kingsley: Imperial Adventuress
Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool - A Woman at Sea in a Man's World

Co-edited by Dea Birkett
Amazonian: The Penguin Book of Women’s New Travel Writing

Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers


Off the Beaten Track
WOMEN TRAVELLERS sought to wander freely and for long periods of time in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Being in the open air was invigorating. In August 1892, Gertrude Bell wrote to her mother from an expedition in the Middle East, ‘I shall be sorry to leave this wonderful Freedom and to be back within walls and gardens.’ Abroad, being outdoors was doubly exhilarating for the novelty of the wide open spaces and the rampant foreignness. It was what Vita Sackville-West, when she first saw the Persian landscape in 1926, dubbed ‘this question of horizon.’ The views were, quite simply, ‘enormous’. In Persian Pictures, her first book on the East, her friend Gertrude Bell had shared the adventurer’s attraction to ‘the boundless plain stretching before him, the nights when the dome of the sky was his ceiling, when he was awakened by the cold kisses of the wind’. Twenty years earlier, Isabella Bird had experienced the same feeling of her heart opening up to fill the vast land stretched out in front of her. On 28 September 1873, she wrote to her sister in tiny Tobermory in the Scottish Highlands that the Rocky Mountains meant ‘everything that is rapturous and delightful – grandeur, cheerfulness, health, enjoyment, novelty, freedom, etc, etc. I have just dropped into the very place I have been seeking, but in everything it exceeds all my dreams.’

Gertrude Bell by Flora Russell, 1887 © Estate of Flora Russell   Vita Sackville-West by Gisèle Freund, 1939 © Gisèle Freund/ The John Hillelson Agency   Constance Gordon Cumming by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1893

Gertrude Bell
by Flora Russell, 1887
© Estate of Flora Russell

Vita Sackville-West
by Gisèle Freund, 1939
© Gisèle Freund /
The John Hillelson Agency

Constance Gordon Cumming
by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1893

Isabella Bird was a keen camper, and liked nothing better than to roll out her muslin-lined blanket sleeping-bag in a fresh spot each night. Always precise, even in her speech (Marianne North observed that Isabella talked very slowly and methodically, as if ‘she were reciting from one of her books’), she had a thoroughly tested routine that she observed on her travels. In the morning, she would rise and have a cup of tea accompanied by ‘stir-about’, boiled water thickened with local flour. She then travelled until midday, when she halted for two hours for her carriers, who transported the load of her heavy camera kit and other equipment, to rest and eat. Isabella lunched on chocolate and raisins. She aimed to reach her new camp before six in the evening. Her men would pitch her folding bed, and she would take another cup of tea before sitting down to record the day’s events in her notebook. For supper, she had curry, ‘always appetising’, made with her own curry powder and cayenne pepper.

Even small, everyday activities could be transformed into sensual pleasures. In 1876, Constance Gordon Cumming wrote from ‘The Teacher’s House at Limiti, Isle Ngau’, how a bath was no longer a ‘humdrum tub, filled by a commonplace housemaid’ but was taken in the open air, in an ‘exquisite stream . . . just deep enough to lie down full length’, overarched by great tree ferns and palm fronds ‘through which you see peeps of the bluest skies’. She confessed that, stumbling across such spots when alone, she simply undressed and waded in, her long blonde ringlets, usually so formally and oldfashionedly arranged, becoming damp and unkempt. After she had bathed, she picked ripe oranges from the tree, peeled and ate them. Being alone like this in the Fijian forest was far from frightening. Ten years later, she was boasting in her book, Wanderings in China (1886), ‘physical fear is a sensation which I have never experienced.’

Violet Olivia Cressy-Marcks by Lafayette, 7 August 1926

Violet Olivia Cressy-Marcks
by Lafayette, 7 August 1926

A determined fearlessness when faced with a physical threat was shared by many women travellers. Violet Cressy-Marcks had already trekked the Cape to Cairo route and sleighed across the frozen north to Murmansk before tackling the rivers and swamps of South America in 1929. She was sleeping on the ground in the Amazon when she was woken by a snake slithering over her. She grabbed it just below the head, crawled out from under her mosquito net and walked until she found a rock to smash the snake’s head against. ‘I was afraid I should cause too much commotion if I fired,’ she explained in Up the Amazon and Over the Andes (1932). She had been bitten below the knee. Not knowing whether the snake was poisonous or not, but taking no chances, she used her scalpel and cut across the bite, pushing in two halves of a tablet of permanganate of potash. She examined her face in a mirror (‘I hadn’t used one for months’) to see if she were turning grey or her lips were a strange colour. Apart from being thinner than when she had last looked, ‘nothing seemed to be amiss.’ Anyway, she mused, ‘if I was going to die it was a fine spot for it.’

An edited extract from Off The Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers by Dea Birkett, published in Face to Face (Summer 2004), the National Portrait Gallery's magazine.

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