“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
No matter how much we think we’ve seen or done in our travels or our life, someone has done it before. They’ve probably even written a book about it. And they probably did it during a time when it was a hell of a lot more dangerous and difficult then it is now.
Thankfully, many of these intrepid voyagers survived, and transformed what they saw into important works that have stood the test of time.
Proceeding from most ancient to most current, the booklist you find before you contains the stories of the most daring, original, and insightful travelers that history has seen.
Merchants, scientists, captains, gentlemen, ladies, writers- each a prolific wanderer in their own right, each a thousand memories and voices waiting to be shared.
So get cozy, light a candle, and bust out your Gandalf pipe and brandy snifter (Oh yes, thats right). Here’s a booklist of history’s most epic travelers. Enjoy!
Marco Polo – Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu
The patron saint of travelers, the tale of Marco Polo has, at this point, fallen mostly into myth and archetype. Sure, you could watch the recent Netflix series, and see more fiction than fact. Or you could read Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, and actually learn some truth about the most famous traveler in history. Who knows, it might just inspire you to take up the Silk Road yourself- one of my lifetime goals.
Ibn Battuta – The Travels of Ibn Batutta
“Travel leaves you speechless, and then turns you into a storyteller,” are the words of the legendary Arab adventurer, Ibn Batutta. Setting off from his home in Morocco at the age of 21 to undertake the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Batutta would continue to wander throughout the known world for decades. Visiting medieval Persia (Iran,) the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, the Swahili Coast, Turkey, Central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, China, North Africa, Spain, and Mali, few hold a candle to what this OG wanderer accomplished. What a journey!
Much has been written about Ibn Batutta, but the book to read is The Travels of Ibn Batutta by the man himself, aided by Tim Mackintosh-Smith.
Cpt. James Cook – Farther Than Any Man
Let’s start at the end: Captain Cook met his maker when, after realizing that he was not, in fact, a god, the native Hawaiians decided to kill him and ritually cook his bones as they would their king. A befitting, if not gruesome end for one of the most ambitious and successful explorers ever to sail the high seas. You find his name all over the world, slapped on tropical islands across the Pacific, and smattered over Australia’s eastern coast. As the first European to have set foot on Australia and Hawaii, he is also noted for mapping the New Zealand coastline and crossing untold lengths of the Pacific Ocean.
Farther Than Any Man is the most readable and up-to-date account of this audacious adventurer. Set your sails!
Alexander Von Humboldt – The Invention of Nature
Von Humboldt blazed a trail of scientific fascination through the jungles of Latin America during a time when nature had been uncorrupted by the demands of our modern era. In fact, he connected so deeply to the flora and fauna around him that he presented ideas about geography and biology that we now understand as common sense.
In the book, The Invention of Nature, author Andrea Wulf chronicles the life of this brilliant botanist, and helps us to see how our very concept of the “natural world,” is a result of Von Humboldt’s travels and work.
Lewis & Clark – Undaunted Courage
Imagine, if you will, being tasked with crossing our newborn nation at a time when you were more likely to get scalped and killed then you were of making it even halfway across this yet unfathomed continent. That was the task given to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, two men who, against all odds, braved this land when it was still very much a wild place. Growing up in Oregon, where their journey met its heroic end, Lewis & Clark were household names. But I think these two men were heroic because of the relations they formed with the indigenous people they encountered. Unlike their successors, Lewis & Clark knew they depended on these people for their very survival.
Undaunted Courage is the definitive book on their journey, written by critically-acclaimed historian Stephen E. Ambrose.
Sir Richard Burton – Cpt. Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography
“The Most Interested Man in the World” has got nothing on Burton. One of the earliest Europeans who sought the mythical source of the Nile, Burton also masqueraded as a Muslim and snuck into the city of Mecca, a place no non-Muslim was, or still is, allowed to visit. He brought the famous collection of Arab folk tales, 1001 Arabian Nights, into the Western imagination, and fought in the obscure East African wars of the Victorian age.
Sir Richard Burton’s Biography is the best book I’ve found on this truly epic explorer. A man who could put James Bond to shame, if Burton doesn’t inspire you to live epically, no one will.
Dr. David Livingstone – The White Nile
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” were the famous words uttered to the already mythic explorer when H.R. Stanley sought out his jungle camp in what is today Tanzania. Livingstone is remembered fondly all across East Africa, where one can find his name adorning towns, streets, and busses across the land. He ran the entire Zambezi river, which he described as “God’s highway,” and was the first European to witness the magnificence of Victoria Falls (which he named for the Queen of England). A vehement opponent of slavery, and a foundational figure in the fight against it, one could say that Dr. Livingstone was divinely guided. He, of all people, understood that the most.
The best window into the world Dr. Livingstone and the Victorian age of exploration in which he lived is The White Nile. While not exclusively about Livingstone, this is one of my all-time favorite books about some seriously tough travel and adventure, with that undeniably ridiculous Victorian flair! Brandy snifter, anyone?
Isabella Bird – A Curious Life for a Lady
There are few female travelers in history that can compare to the prolific Isabella Bird. While not as well-known as Freya Stark, Ms. Bird had perhaps an even more far-flung career, exploring the rugged Rocky Mountains during the 1800’s, as well as Hawaii (then called the “Sandwich Islands,) Japan, Tibet, China, Malaysia, Kashmir, Korea, and Iran.
A British elite who threw it all away for the wonders of the world, Isabella Bird is one of the most inspiring female travelers that I’ve come across, and A Curious Life for a Lady is the definitive book about this intrepid heiress. You could also read her own published works, of which there are many.
Freya Stark – Passionate Nomad
One of the most badass female travelers to ever hit the dusty road, Freya Stark made her mark through her books chronicling her unbelievable journeys, mostly through the Middle East. Most famously, she ventured to the infamous “valley of the hashasshin,” a mountain fortress in Iran where an ancient order of assassins were said to call home. She’s noted as one of the first Europeans to explore the deserts of southern Arabia, and wrote more than a dozen books over the course of her life.
Passionate Nomad paints an inspiring picture of this dauntless woman.
Thor Hyerdhal – Kon Tiki
Slap a few pieces of wood together, rummage up a sail, and throw a few pale-skinned Scandinavians on a boat to set adrift in the Pacific for an indefinite length of time, to reach, well, the other side. Sound fun? Thor Hyerdhal thought so. His epic voyage across the ocean is chronicled in his famous novel, Kon Tiki, along with plenty of other interesting books. For the seriously earnest ocean-lover, for those of you who long to see nothing but the vast ocean horizon for days on end, and to be kept company by nothing more than the waves, sun and sky, look no further.
Richard Evans Schultes – One River
Few people could claim such an intimate connection with the Amazon as Dr. Richard Evans Schultes. Perhaps the most significant ethnobotanist who ever lived, Schultes had a life-long fascination with psychoactive plants, and a deep respect for the indigenous cultures that used them traditionally. The man hacked his way through massive swaths of the upper Amazon in the 1940’s and ‘50s- no easy feat even by today’s standards.
Wade Davis’ magnificent book One River is an intimate account of Schultes’ life and work which I read while traveling in the Ecuadorian Amazon this year. The recent film, Embrace of the Serpent, is also loosely based on Schultes. Anyone interested in the Amazon MUST read this book!
Peter Matthiessen – The Snow Leopard
Quite possibly the most prolific travel writer of the 20th century, Matthiessen is very high in the running for the next “Most Interesting Man in the World.” At one time a CIA operative, the man has written and traveled extensively, from Nepal to Papua New Guinea to South America to Africa. Friend of the American Elite and New Guinea tribesman alike, he has done it all. Not only is Mattiessen a prodigious traveler, he is a master of prose, and his writing is regarded as some of the most engrossing and beautiful travel writing that exists.