Tuesday 23 April 2019

7 Stories for Rebel Girls: Female adventurers the history books left out

For International Women's Day, travel writer Alisa Ross picks seven super female adventurers...

Nujeen Mustafa. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)
Nujeen Mustafa. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)
Alexandra David-Nel. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)
Sylvia Earle. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)
Lady Sarashina. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)
Isabel Gunn and Sacagawea. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)
Bessie Coleman. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)
Jade Hameister. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)

Ailsa Ross

Travel writer Ailsa Ross has taken a break from her own travels to write a compendium of history’s most adventurous female trailblazers from 231 BC to today.

'The Woman Who Rode a Shark: And 50 More Female Adventurers' (AA Publishing, out April 4) is an illustrated tribute to incredible women the history books left out.

Here, for International Women's Day, she picks seven of her favourite.

The Artist: Lady Sarashina, Japan

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Lady Sarashina. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)

I never thought I’d have much in common with a Japanese lady-in-waiting who lived a thousand years ago, but I changed my mind when I read the diaries of Lady Sarashina.

The young Sarashina was always arguing with her mum and worrying about boys, something I could relate to. As for the older, wiser Sarashina - she realised she wasn’t interested in gossiping with the other ladies-in-waiting at the imperial court. She was happiest outside - among the country’s mountains, temples and forests. Again, I could relate.

While travelling, Sarashina wrote about everything she saw -- beautifully. To her, Mount Fuji’s thick cover of snow appeared like a white jacket over a dress of deep violet. Streams of water bubbled like drops of crystal. By writing in her unique way, Sarashina is said to have been the world’s first travel writer.

The Pioneer: Isobel Gunn, Scotland

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Isabel Gunn and Sacagawea. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)

Isobel Gunn grew up in Orkney. Half my family comes from Orkney. Isobel Gunn emigrated from Scotland to Canada. I emigrated from Scotland to Canada.

The similarities end there.

To get to Canada in the 18th century, Isobel had to disguise herself as a man. It was worth it. As a male labourer with the Hudson’s Bay Company, she could now earn the (relatively princely) sum of eight pounds a year.

For two years Isobel canoed the wildest rivers. She carried backbreaking loads of supplies between trading posts. She was so good at what she did that she even earned a raise for doing her job so “willingly and well.” Yet despite being brilliant at her job, when her bosses found out she was a woman she was sent home to Orkney.

She may not have been respected in the 18th century, but today Isobel is known for her daring -- and for proving that women can be just as brave as any man.

The Scientist: Sylvia Earle, USA

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Sylvia Earle. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)

I love the ocean. But Sylvia Earle? She really, really loves the ocean.

In 1970, she led the first all-women team of aquanauts to live for a fortnight underwater. In 1979, she even set a world diving record off the coast of Hawaii.

These days, Sylvia’s love for the oceans has taken a turn towards activism. There’s a good reason for that. In her words: “No blue, no green. No ocean, no life. Health to the ocean means health for us.”

The Activist: Bessie Coleman, USA

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Bessie Coleman. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)

Aviation schools in the United States refused to give Bessie Coleman pilot lessons because of her race. So Bessie learned French, moved to France, and learned to fly there instead. By 1922, she was the world’s first licensed female African American pilot.

Back in the States, Bessie became a celebrated ‘barnstormer’.

She performed daring loops and tricks in the sky for huge crowds. And she did it all in the coolest flying outfit -- one she’d designed herself. But the coolest thing about Bessie? She was saving her money to open up a flying school for African Americans.

Sadly, Bessie died during a test flight in 1926. Still, "Because of Bessie Coleman,” said Lieutenant William J. Powell in 1934, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream."

The Athlete: Jade Hameister, Australia

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Jade Hameister. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)

Last weekend I went cross-country skiing near my home in the Canadian Rockies. It was

-25C and so cold I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes. To be honest, I wasn’t having much fun. Then I remembered the teenager Jade Hameister. She’s from Melbourne, and when she was 16 years old she skied to the South Pole. Temperatures on that trip dropped as low as

-50C. And there were definitely times when Jade couldn’t feel her fingers or toes. But she kept going. She saw beauty in the entire experience -- in both the pleasure, and the pain.  

Here’s the best bit about her story. In the middle of Antarctica, Jade made a sandwich. But it wasn’t for her or her teammates. It was for online trolls who’d commented on her TEDx Talk with the tired putdown, “make me a sandwich.”

Jade’s comment for those bullies?

"I made you a sandwich (ham & cheese). Now ski 37 days and 600km to the South Pole and you can eat it."

The Seeker: Alexandra David-Néel, France

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Alexandra David-Nel. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)

A Parisian opera singer-turned- Buddhist Lama, I secretly think of Alexandra David-Néel as the ultimate adventurer.

She spent the turn of the 20th century meditating in a Himalayan cave, meeting the Dalai Lama, and translating all kinds of sacred texts. But as much as the scholarly side of Buddhism appealed to her, Alexandra loved to adventure.

In 1923, Alexandra crossed some of the highest mountains on Earth to enter the Forbidden City of Lhasa. She was 55 at the time, and she had to shoot at bandits just to get there. She got so hungry she ate leather strips from her boots. She even had a face-off with a snow leopard.

In spite of all these hardships -- or maybe because of all these hardships -- Alexandra had the time of her life. She felt wide awake. She felt free.

The Inspiration: Nujeen Mustafa, Syria

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Nujeen Mustafa. Illustration by Amy Blackwell for 'The Woman Who Rode A Shark' (AA Publishing)

If anyone shows that adventure is an attitude, it’s the teenager Nujeen Mustafa.

Born with cerebral palsy and confined by her wheelchair, Nujeen spent much of her life in a fifth-floor apartment in Aleppo. She couldn’t go to school, and her main connection to the outside world came through television. It was by watching shows like Days of our Lives that Nujeen learned English.

When fighting in Syria intensified, Nujeen’s family fled the country with millions of others. She and her sister Nasrine began the difficult journey to Europe as refugees.

As their dinghy from Turkey to Greece pulled up to shore, an aid worker called out, “Does anybody speak English?” Nujeen was the only person to shout out “I do!”

For the first time in her life, Nujeen says she didn’t feel like a burden. She could act as an English interpreter for other Syrians making the overland journey across Europe in 2015.

She could feel useful.

I can’t imagine how momentous that must have felt. And I cried when I heard her say these words on CBC Radio: “Nujeen Mustafa is happy with who she is. She loves herself. She loves everyone else as well. Nujeen Mustafa loves life and the whole world.”

The Woman Who Rode a Shark: And Fifty More Wild Female Adventurers, by Ailsa Ross with illustrations by Amy Blackwell, is published April 4 by AA Publishing.

Read more:

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