Some may agonize over whether it’s a good idea to turn their lives upside down to go on a RTW trip, but if we look at this decision and experience in a historical context, we may want to count our lucky stars.
The internet makes it extremely easy to immediately find out anything we want about a destination or experience. Want to know what it’s like as a single, female traveler in the Middle East? A quick Google search can tell you. Want to find out the best way to get from Bolivia to Argentina overland? Pose the question on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media site, and you’re sure to get an answer within minutes. Not sure if long term, RTW travel is for you? Check out any number of travel websites and blogs out there for your inspiration.
Nearly any type of information we need about travel is at our fingertips. We all know this ease of information sharing has not been around for very long, yet people have always been traveling. Long before the internet, or the phone, or the telegraph for that matter, people have traversed the globe looking for new places, new people, and new adventures. People have always been stepping out of their comfort zones, creating motivating stories and being an inspiration for all travelers today.
Even though many of the following famous travelers finished their journeys a long time ago, and most have long since moved on from this world, we can learn and be inspired by what they accomplished.
Some of the people on this list impacted the travel world around 100 years ago, and even though a century is a long time ago, it’s still possible to try to relate to their situations. But it’s difficult to fathom what it was like for an explorer like Ferdinand Magellan, who explored the world nearly 500 years ago, back when much of the world as we know it today was still untouched.
Magellan is famous for leading the first circumnavigation of the world (he died during the journey in the Phillipines, but his fleet finished). Looking for a shorter, westward route to the East (the Spice Islands, India, and Asia), Magellan was convinced that sailing across the Atlantic and around what is now South America would give him shorter, quicker access to the Spice Islands (what is now Indonesia). We know now that his assumption was wrong, as no one at the time knew the vastness and size of the Pacific Ocean.
Magellan was the first European to reach Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, as he sailed through what is now his namesake, the Strait of Magellan. His journey also established the need for an international date line, and even though Magellan was killed along the way and wasn’t able to see the journey through, in September of 1522, nearly three years after it began, one of the original boats arrived back in Spain, completing the first official Round the World Trip.
Part of the fun of a RTW trip is taking off into the unknown. And while none of us truly ventures out into previously unexplored territory like Magellan did nearly 500 years ago, we can still look at him as inspiration for traveling. Being brave and willing to take chances is all part of planning and going on a long term trip, and Magellan took that idea to the extreme by doing something that no one else had done before.
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Lewis and Clark
While Lewis and Clark’s travels came hundreds of years after Magellan’s, they are similar in that the explorers were discovering new territories that had been largely unexplored by western societies. Much of the New World was already settled by the early 1800’s, and the United States was a country in its infancy. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wanted a group to find a water route across the new territory and to the Pacific Ocean, making trade with Asia easier.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the expedition and became the first Americans to travel and explore the territories west of the Mississippi. Their journey was both scientific and commercial as they traveled their way across the country from what is now St. Louis to the Pacific Coast in present day Oregon. The importance of finding a route to the Pacific Ocean was obvious, but it was the less glamorous parts of the journey that ultimately became just as important. Lewis and Clark produced the first accurate maps of the region, about 140 in total, and they also found nearly 200 new plants and animals that were unknown to anyone but the indigenous people. And while they had their issues with certain natives, over 70 different tribes were discovered along the way.
It took close to a century before Lewis and Clark became part of the American history books. Their travels and journey were largely overlooked throughout most of the 1800’s. But these two were the first true original American explorers and travelers, and how they went about their journey and what they found will be studied forever in American history.
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Most of the people on this list are explorers who found and explored new land or broke down important barriers by their traveling ways. Thomas Cook is in another category all together, though. Even though he died in 1892, Cook still has a major impact on the travel world today.
Thomas Cook is known as the first true travel agent. Before his time, travel was largely confined to the wealthy or governments who paid people to explore untapped regions of the world. The middle class during these times found it tough to get out of their own cities to travel and explore. The means simply weren’t there, and it was difficult to afford. Enter Thomas Cook. Cook became a preacher in the early 1800’s, traveling around England spreading his word. Railways were beginning to extend and encompass more of the country, so Thomas had the idea to take a group of religious campaigners to a nearby rally. Cook worked out a deal with the railway company to charge a certain amount for his large group, and he was paid a share of the profits. Thus a new business was formed; the very first official travel agency, offering excursions to the general public at an affordable rate.
In the years to come, Thomas continued organizing journeys for religious groups and Sunday school children. He ended up starting his own business (a variation of which is still around today), and though he had initial financial problems, he worked through them, ultimately planning international travels as far away as the United States. He also introduced the concept of circular notes, or what we refer to them as, traveler’s checks, thus changing the way people traveled forever.
Thus a new business was formed; the very first official travel agency, offering excursions to the general public at an affordable rate.
Thomas Cook was a preacher turned businessman, seizing an opportunity to make travel into a business. He had the foresight to realize that all people wanted to travel, and he provided that opportunity to the general public. He did what so many of us travel lovers are trying to accomplish today-find a way to mix our love of travel with a career.
>> Read about modern day jobs that allow you to travel
At the turn of the 20th century, women everywhere were starting to demand more respect. Nelly Bly, pen name of American journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochran, was a woman who proven that women can do anything that men can do (and who perhaps paved the way for people like Gertrude Bell, also on this list).
Using Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s character in Around the World in 80 Days, as inspiration, Bly took the ultimate RTW trip. She decided to turn the book into reality, taking off in November of 1889 (after the New York paper she was working for suggested a man travel the globe in eighty days, Nelly demanded that she be the one to go-if not, she swore that she would do it on her own and beat whatever man they chose).
Nelly, who channeled future minimalist travelers, took off on a 25,000 mile adventure with nothing but the dress on her back, a heavy coat, a few pairs of underwear, and a small bag carrying her toiletries.
Nelly, who channeled future minimalist travelers, took off on a 25,000 mile adventure with nothing but the dress on her back, a heavy coat, a few pairs of underwear, and a small bag carrying her toiletries. She completed her journey in seventy-two days, using ships and railroads as her primary modes of transportation. She even used the telegraph to send regular updates (though they were really short), so we may be able to thank Nellie for paving the way for travel bloggers today.
Even though it was broken a few months later, at the time her seventy-two day RTW trip was a record. A woman, in the late 1800’s, was able to traverse the globe nearly unchaperoned, an unheard of accomplishment at the time. While her travels are no doubt impressive, the fact that she was even able to become a journalist in the first place, which afforded her the opportunity to travel the world, might be even more impressive.
During a time when women weren’t supposed to be taking on careers like journalism, Nellie was determined to change the trend. She was initially hired by a Pittsburgh newspaper (at 18 years old) after sending in a letter criticizing a story written about women and their role as domestic housewives. Though she was relegated to the women’s section of the paper, she persevered and became a pioneer for investigative journalism in her early 20’s, setting up her world famous trip around the world. Nellie remains an inspiration to solo women travelers everywhere today.
Martin and Osa Johnson
As part of a traveling couple myself, it’d be difficult to compile a list of famous travelers without including safari film legends Martin and Osa Johnson. This American couple from Kansas traveled the world over, filming and photographing wildlife from all over Africa and Borneo.
Martin Johnson suffered from wanderlust at an early age, taking off to Europe at 14 years of age before coming back to America and joining up with Jack London’s RTW adventure in 1907. Though he worked as a cook on this journey, it was on this trip where Martin first got into photography. After meeting and marrying Osa in 1910, they started saving for years before taking off on their first big adventure to Vanuatu in 1917. They started by filming the indigenous people and created films about many of the cannibal tribes in the region. The public tired of these films after a while, clamoring for more about the animals and wildlife of the regions.
Thus began their travels in Africa, which saw them film an abundance of movies about the wildlife, the people, and the landscape of this beautiful continent. They continued their work throughout the 1930’s before Martin tragically died in a plane crash in 1937. That didn’t stop Osa, though, as she continued her work in Africa, ultimately traveling the US and speaking about her adventures, both at events and on television. She also wrote a book, I Married Adventure, an autobiography about her life as a traveler, adventure seeker, film maker, and explorer.
Martin and Osa Johnson are an inspiration to all travelers, even today. Like Thomas Cook, they took their love of travel, exploring, and film making and turned it into a career. Their lives were filled with adventures in far-away lands, and the film they shot was the basis for TV’s first wildlife series, Osa Johnson’s The Big Game Hunt, which ran in the 50’s. Their films have surely been an inspiration for all the wildlife and travel shows we see on television today. There was even a short-lived clothing line by American Eagle named after the Johnsons, which was sadly discontinued in 2010.
>> Read more about how to travel as a couple
Throughout history, unless you were a wealthy white male, you didn’t have the easiest path to become successful in whatever your passions were. Up until the previous century, women were meant to be in the kitchen and taking care of the house, but luckily for women everywhere, there were people like British writer, diplomat, and traveler Gertrude Bell.
Defying conventional wisdom, Gertrude Bell, also known as Queen of the Desert and Shaper of Nations, was crucial in shaping the Middle East after World War I. Bringing a different, gentle tactic to negotiations, Bell helped establish Hashemite dynasties in what is now Jordan and Iraq. She is almost single-handedly responsible for the founding of what is now Iraq (she is actually buried there). Bell was also the leader in opening the Arabian Desert to the western world, and she did what no man was able to accomplish, drawing the respect and admiration of tribal leaders in the region.
Gertrude Bell is an inspiration to all people – not only travelers, and not only women. Traveling into an area not previously visited by western people, much less women, showed that no country or city is impossible to penetrate. Not every place is as dangerous as reported. Not all local people are unwelcoming. She used her friendly and gentle demeanor to befriend the people of the region – not only the leaders and important decision-makers, but the normal, everyday people. She was welcomed into homes all over the region. Instead of being in the background of these expeditions, as most women were at the time, she led them, proving to everyone that if you have enough determination and drive, then anything is possible. Going on a RTW trip seems much easier to accomplish now, huh?
>> Read more about traveling solo as a woman
Louise Boyd may not have had the same hurdles to overcome as Bly and Bell, but her accomplishments are impressive nonetheless. Using her large inheritance to overcome any resistance she might have met because of her gender, Louise became the first woman to fly over the North Pole in 1955. Her explorations began long before that, though, after her father died in 1920, leaving her close to $3 million in inheritance.
Boyd decided to take advantage of women’s newfound freedoms at the time (thanks to women like Nellie Bly) by traveling the world. She became particularly enamored with the Arctic Circle, beginning a love affair with the region that would last the rest of her life. Boyd was presented to the King and Queen of England in 1925, unheard of for a young American girl, and from there her adventures really took off. She hired an expert in the Arctic to teach her everything he could about the region and then began chartering her own boats to explore the region extensively. She became even more famous for her film and photographs of polar bears and other native animals, and she focused on scientific studies of the region until WWII interrupted her journeys. She continued when possible, and in 1955, she completed her final journey, the first private flight over the North Pole.
Louise Boyd was fortunate to have money and resources to help her realize her dreams. But even though women during this time had more freedom than previous generations, not all were met with open arms. Boyd took advantage of her situation to make her dreams of travel and exploration come true. It would have been much easier for her to buy a huge house, settle down, and live a life of luxury with the inheritance she received. Instead she traded that in for chartered boats, rough seas, and a life of minimalist living on the open waters studying a region she had a passion for. Her journeys lasted well over 30 years, and she became an inspiration for everyone. Not many use their vast resources to help change the world, but Louise Boyd is one woman who took advantage of her fortunate situation to be an inspiration to everyone, men and women alike.
>> Read more about choosing a life of travel over the typical path
There are many travelers all over the world who have created bucket lists revolving around visiting lands they always dreamed of and taking part in famous adventures. Whether we physically write them down in a notebook, type them out on a word doc, write a blog post about them, or just have a mental list stowed away in our heads, most travel lovers have some sort of list. How much we accomplish off that list is different for everyone, but most of the time they are somewhat overly ambitious.
John Goddard took the bucket list to the extreme. (According to Wikipedia) Goddard told Life Magazine, “When I was 15, all the adults I knew seemed to complain, ‘Oh, if only I’d done this or that when I was younger.’ They had let life slip by them. I was sure that if I planned for it, I could have a life of excitement and fun and knowledge.”
When John was 15 years old in 1940, he created the ultimate bucket list – 127 goals he wanted to accomplish in his life. He is still alive today and has completed 109 of his 127 goals, including some doozies. He was the first man to explore the Nile River from start to finish, then did the same on the Congo River. He has summited some of the highest and most famous mountains in the world and studied some of the most primitive cultures on Earth. The list of famous sites he has visited is astounding, and one look at his bucket list will have any adventure seeker motivated to close that computer and get out to start exploring.
John Goddard is an inspiration for all goal-oriented people. So many of us have goals, we even write them down and obsess over them, but many of us don’t follow through. John made it his life goal to live life on his terms, never missing an opportunity to notch another accomplishment on his belt. There aren’t many people like John Goddard, and for those of you not sure about whether to take that leap of faith to do something extraordinary, to make your dreams come true, you may want to read more about this amazing man for inspiration.
>> Get more inspiration to start planning your RTW trip
It’s difficult to become a famous traveler in this day and age. Nearly every corner of the Earth has already been discovered and explored, and race and gender barriers, while still very much a concern, have been broken down over the last century. So how does one do something new these days? How does a traveler set him or herself apart from what others have done throughout history? Taking a RTW trip with absolutely no bags is a start.
In 2010, travel writer Rolf Potts set off with a cameraman and absolutely no luggage during a six week RTW trip that saw him traverse twelve countries across five continents. With ridiculous checked luggage costs and dwindling size requirements of carry-ons, it’s becoming more and more popular to travel as lightly as possible. Rolf Potts took it the extreme, though, by bringing no bags. The few items he did bring, like a few toiletries and a few extra clothing items, were stowed away in his various pockets. This experiment in true minimalist travel shows how truly ridiculous it is to bring 100 pounds of luggage with you on any trip. If someone like Rolf can travel the world for six weeks with no bags, it’s probably unnecessary to bring your entire wardrobe with you on a long weekend getaway as so many are prone to do.
>> Read more about traveling the world like Rolf Potts
No matter what our goals and dreams are in life, there are plenty of people who came before us who can provide inspiration. No matter what era we look at, chances are there were amazing people breaking down barriers, discovering new, unique, and interesting places and ways of doing things, and providing motivation for us to get out there and make our dreams come true. As time goes on and technology advances, it makes it easier and easier to accomplish our goals. By looking to the past at those who have done more with less, we can be encouraged to go outside what society deems normal and live the life we truly want to live.
There are many other famous travelers throughout history who provided inspiration for travel lovers today. What famous travelers have inspired you? Comment below to share your thoughts.