9 famous explorers whose travels put yours to shame

author photo
Kerry Higgins

You may be well-travelled, but can you call yourself an explorer? From circumnavigating the world along its polar axis to trekking across the Australian outback, these famous explorers really know how to make the most of their time on earth. They’re brave, bold and fearless – the perfect inspiration for the trip of a lifetime.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin is undoubtedly the one of the world’s most influential explorers. In 1831, aged 22 and fresh out of Cambridge University, Darwin joined the crew of the HMS Beagle to survey the coast of South America. Rebellion in Río de la Plata, fossils in Bahía Blanca, observations in the Andes and, of course, finches in the Galápagos turned his mind into “a chaos of delight” and paved the way for one of the greatest theories in history: evolution.

Marco Polo

In the thirteenth century, Venetian Marco Polo was famed for his travels along the Silk Road. One of the first Europeans to visit China, he left Venice in 1271 and crossed the Middle East with his family. Over three years, they traversed Jerusalem, Afghanistan and the Gobi desert on their way to China, where they visited Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor. He stayed in China for 17 years, and only around 1292 – after escorting a Mongol princess to Iran – did he spend three years travelling back to Venice via Istanbul.

Dr David Livingstone

Missionary, abolitionist and explorer, Livingstone was vital in the mapping of the African interior. In 1852 he embarked on a four-year expedition to find a route from the upper Zambezi to the coast, in 1855 he discovered Victoria Falls and in May 1856 he became the first European to cross the width of southern Africa. Ten years later he set out, on what would be his final trip, to locate the source of the Nile. Uncontactable for several months, he was found by Henry Stanley, explorer and journalist, near Lake Tanganyika in 1871. It was here the famous phrase was coined: “Dr Livingstone I presume?”

Ranulph Fiennes

Hailed as the world’s greatest living explorer by the Guinness Book of World Records, Ranulph Fiennes has led over fifteen gruelling expeditions in the past forty years. He is living proof that intrepid exploration still exists: he led the first hovercraft expedition up the Nile and was the first to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis – a feat of 52,000 miles, starting in the Antarctic and ending at the North Pole. In 2003 he completed seven marathons, in seven days, on seven continents, and was the first British pensioner to climb Mount Everest, raising £6.2 million for charity.

Wilfred Thesiger

Wilfred Thesiger is one of the world’s more daring explorers. At just 23 he explored Abyssinia and the Aussa Sultanate (both now part of Ethiopia). Later he visited Kurdistan and Nuristan, fought in Yemen, crossed Kenya and trekked through Iran, living with nomads on the way. He might have been entangled in inter-tribal raids, hunted by hostile raiders and arrested by Saudi authorities, but this didn’t dent his enthusiasm. Looking back on his travels he once said: “I felt in harmony with the past, travelling as men had travelled for untold generations across the deserts, dependent for their survival on the endurance of their camels and their own inherited skills".

Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacagawea

Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea are famous for mapping the American West. Starting from the Missouri River, Lewis and Clark travelled across the midwest to the Pacific Ocean. They spent their first winter with the native-American Mandan tribe, where they met Sacagawea, a native Shoshone who served as an interpreter, peacemaker and guide. She proved an invaluable asset as they journeyed onwards through Montana and the Rocky Mountains, on their way to the west coast. They finally reached the Pacific in late 1805, after a 7000 mile journey which is now a national historic trail.

Robyn Davidson

In 1977, Davidson spent nine months trekking across the Australian desert with four camels, a dog and a National Geographic photographer – a trip which was recently adapted into the movie Tracks. Before setting out, sparsely equipped, Davidson spent two years acquiring survival skills in the Outback, partly from Aboriginal guides who taught her how to hunt, dance, and gather food. According to Davidson, “The trip was easy. It was no more dangerous than crossing the street, or driving to the beach, or eating peanuts.”

Nellie Bly

In 1888, Bly, aged 25, set off to travel the world in 80 days, just like Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg. Her trip took her from New York to London, then onwards from Calais in France to Brindisi in Italy, Port Said in Egypt, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Penang in Malaysia, Hong Kong, San Francisco and finally back to New York City. She actually completed the journey in 72 days, winning a bet struck with Verne himself. Bly casually exclaimed: “It's not so very much for a woman to do who has the pluck, energy and independence, which characterize many women in this day of push and get-there."

Kate Rice

Kate Rice was a feisty prospector of the Canadian “new frontier” in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth century. First Nation indigenous people taught her to trap, hunt, travel with dogs and shoot. She hiked the treacherous terrain of this northern wilderness alone and learned to speak Cree. Intellectually and practically adept, she was also famously tough: a story goes that when a burly Frenchman approached her whilst sleeping in the same cabin, she picked up her axe and rifle, lay the axe down between them and warned: “just don’t touch my axe or I’ll have to shoot you.”

Top image © doleesi/Shutterstock

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Ready to discover
tailor-made travel?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels