Humans have summited the highest peaks, sunk to the depths of the ocean, voyaged around the globe, and even gone to space. The greatest travellers and explorers have changed our world in immeasurable ways and encouraged us to dream big. From historic explorers who blazed the trail to modern day adventurers who continue to defy the odds, we look at 21 inspirational figures in travel who made history and inspire us to embark on our own adventures – wherever that may be.
1. BESSIE COLEMAN
Bessie Coleman is undoubtedly one of the most inspirational figures in travel. She flew in the face of discrimination to become the first African American woman, and first Native American, to earn a pilot’s licence. Born in 1892 at a time when Black people and women were barred from almost every part of public life, Coleman’s dream of becoming a pilot was considered a fantasy. When no flight schools in America would accept her, she taught herself French and moved to France to study. She completed her degree in seven months and on 15 June, 1921, earned her international pilot’s licence.
Coleman specialised in parachuting and stunt flying. In 1922, she became the first African American woman to make a public flight in America. She was a fearless pilot and advocate and never performed in an event that did not allow Black people to attend. Her life tragically ended when she died at age 34 during an air show rehearsal.
“The air is the only place free from prejudices.”
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2. RANULPH FIENNES
Sir Ranulph Fiennes is one of the world’s most extraordinary living explorers. As a former smoker who overcame a heart attack, Fiennes has since led over 15 arduous expeditions in the last 40 years, and truly inspires us to believe anything is possible. He was the first person to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis, travelling more than 83,000 kilometres from Antarctica to the North Pole. He led the first hovercraft expedition up the Nile. And in 2003, Fiennes became a global star after completing seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. He was also the first British pensioner to climb Mount Everest, and he raised £6.2 million for charity in the process.
“I am doing this for many reasons, some of which I don’t fully understand. That there is an inner urge is undeniable.”
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3. LHAKPA SHERPA
Born into a family of Mount Everest expedition guides and working as a porter in the Himalayas since age 15, climbing is in Lhakpa Sherpa’s blood. She first achieved her dream in 2000, becoming the first woman to summit Mount Everest. Since then, Sherpa has earned the Guinness World Record for the most ascents of Everest by a woman, summiting ten times. She completed her record 10th ascent in May 2022, further cementing her place as one of history’s most inspirational figures in travel. Sherpa has climbed Mount Everest through blizzards, windstorms and even while two months pregnant. Her mental and physical strength is unparalleled.
“I wanted to show that a woman can do men’s jobs. There is no difference in climbing a mountain. I climb for all women.”
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4. STEVE FOSSETT
Steve Fossett was born an adventurer, achieving his first mountain climb at just 12 years old. Since then, he’s broken 116 different world records in five different sports including balloons, airplanes, airships, gliders, and sailboats. In 2002, he became the first person to fly around the world alone and non-stop in a balloon. He broke the round-the-world sailing record in 2004, after leading a 13-member crew to finish the journey in 59 days and nine hours. He made his first solo, non-stop, non-refuelled flight around the globe in a single-engine plane in 2005, with no refuelling for 67 hours. And in 2006, he broke the record for the longest flight, with 77 hours in the air across more than 40,000 kilometres.
Fossett was also the first person to take a glider light into the stratosphere. He has climbed all the Seven Summits peaks, including Mount Everest, swam across the English Channel, and has completed several cross country ski marathons, ultramarathons, and an Ironman. He’s a legend of adventure and an inspiration for anyone who dreams of exploring the world.
“I pick projects according to how fascinating they are to me, and it has resulted in a broad reach.”
5. AMELIA EARHEART
Born in 1897, Amelia Earheart took her first airplane ride in 1920. From then on, there was no stopping her, as she flew into history as one of the world’s most inspirational figures in travel. She earned her pilot license in December 1921 and became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. She was also the first woman to fly solo across the United States and the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to mainland USA. Earheart was a champion of women’s rights and commercial air travel. While her 1937 disappearance during a flight over the Pacific Ocean has never been solved, her achievements continue to inspire people to this day.
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure. The process is its own reward.”
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6. JACQUES-YVES COUSTEAU
We hear many tales of great adventurers who traverse the land… But what about those who explore the ocean? Jacques-Yves Cousteau, was a remarkable oceanographer, filmmaker and author, who pioneered underwater base camps and filmed the uncharted depths of the ocean. Cousteau was the first person to use the Aqua Lung and improved the Aqua Lung design, allowing people to stay submerged for longer, leading to the modern diving equipment we have today.
He also led several underwater expeditions including the first underwater archaeology operation and mine clearance. He was a champion of conservation and was a key voice in restricting commercial whaling and campaigning against dumping nuclear waste in the Mediterranean Sea. Costeau’s travels uncovered some of the great mysteries of the deep sea and continue to influence and inspire ocean explorers today.
“The Sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
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7. NELLIE BLY
On November 14, 1889, at the age of 25, Nellie Bly embarked on her race around the world in an attempt to beat the fictional record set in Jules Verne’s book, “Around the World in 80 Days.” This was long before the days of TV and social media, yet Bly was the original travel influencer, as people all over the globe watched to see if she could achieve her goal alone. And she certainly achieved it. Bly travelled from New York to London, then through France, Italy, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Hong Kong, San Francisco and back to New York in just 72 days. She was also a trailblazing investigative journalist, with her reports leading to reforms in sweatshops, asylums, orphanages, and prisons. Her reputation as a courageous explorer lives on and has inspired countless women to travel solo.
“It’s not so very much for a woman to do who has the pluck, energy and independence, which characterise many women in this day of push and get-there.”
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8. EDMUND HILLARY & TENZING NORGAY
On 29 May 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first two people known to reach the summit of Mount Everest. They were named in Time’s 100 most most influential people of the 20th century and would go on to ascend all the oher peaks in the Himalayas and reach both the North and South Poles, making them giants of adventure.
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
9. CHARLES LINDBERGH
Intrepid explorer Charles Lindbergh was the first person to complete a a nonstop solo flight across the massive Atlantic Ocean. He endured 33.5 hours to accomplish the flight and was fittingly nicknamed “The Lone Eagle”. He first gained recognition at 25 when he won the Orteig Prize for his nonstop flight from Long Island, New York to Paris, France, becoming one of the most inspirational figures in travel. Lindbergh was also a daredevil stunt pilot and served in the US Army.
“It is the greatest shot of adrenaline to be doing what you have wanted to do so badly. You almost feel like you could fly without the plane.”
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10. KELLEE EDWARDS
As a licensed pilot, advanced open water scuba diver, and accomplished mountaineer, Kellee Edwards really makes us believe that anything is possible. In 2017, Edwards became the first Black woman to host a show on the Travel Channel, with “Mysterious Islands”, a travel series exploring the most remote islands worldwide. She has visited more than 60 countries, from trekking an active volcano in Guatemala to dog sledding in Alaska. Edwards is also an adventure travel journalist and the host of Travel + Leisure’s new podcast, Let’s Go Together. As a philanthropist, trailblazer, and queen of adventure, Edwards is truly remarkable.
“I can’t express enough how travel has the power to change you as a person. It can make you grateful for everything you take for granted one moment, and then have you realize that you aren’t living out your full potential the next. Travel is more than visiting monuments and collecting passport stamps. It’s the unveiling of seeing the human race at its core and soul, which can be a beautiful thing.”
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11. MATTHEW HENSON
Matthew Henson was the first man to stand on top of the world. In 1909, he planted the first US flag at the North Pole after a perilous expedition with Commander Robert E. Peary. After setting off on their journey in 1908, Peary was overcome by frostbite and exhaustion and couldn’t leave his dogseld. Henson battled on with some Inuit explorers and reached the North Pole. However, all the credit went to Peary and it wasn’t until 1937 that Henson began to receive deserved recognition for his remarkable achievement. He was inducted into the New York Explorer’s club, made an honorary member, and was also honoured by three presidents.
“The path is not easy, the climbing is rugged and hard, but the glory at the end is worthwhile.”
12. ANNIE SMITH PECK
Annie Smith Peck was a remarkable mountaineer, who broke mountain climbing records and wrote and lectured about her expeditions to encourage other explorers. But while her male counterparts were glorified for their achievements, Peck also had to overcome the discrimination and outrage caused her clothes – trousers and tunics instead of impractical skirts.
Peck was a strong supporter of the Suffragist movement, and planted a flag in support of women’s voting rights, on top of Mount Coropuna in Peru. She was also the first recorded climber of Cumbre Aña Peck and it was renamed in her honour in 1928. Peck was also a founding member of the American Alpine Club and was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society four years after women were admitted. She climbed her last mountain at the age of 82 – Mount Madison in New Hampshire.
“Climbing is unadulterated hard labor. The only real pleasure is the satisfaction of going where no man has been before and where few can follow.”
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13. MARIO RIGBY
Mario Rigby is one of the most inspirational figures in travel today. In November 2015, Rigby set off an a two-year journey across Africa. He traversed 12,000 kilometres through eight countries from Cape Town to Cairo solely by foot and kayak. He completed his journey in January 2018, not without overcoming everything from malaria to wild dogs. Rigby became an advocate for eco-conscious travel, connecting with local communities along the way, sharing their stories, and giving back through sustainable travel. He also supports several charities including the Rainmaker Enterprise in Sudan, My Stand in Toronto, and the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund.
“Most people thought it was impossible or I was going to die. People were ready to write my obituary, which was pretty funny. But I wasn’t going out there to die, I was going out there to meet and overcome some challenges. Anything is possible with a little research.”
14. BARBARA HILLARY
Born in 1931, Barbara Hillary did not become an explorer until her retirement. After surviving lung cancer, Hillary set a goal to explore the Arctic, raising over $25,000 to fund her expedition. On 23 April 2007, at 75 years of age, Hillary became the first Black woman and oldest person to reach the North Pole. She repeated her remarkable feat five years later when she reached the South Pole on 6 January 2011 at 79 years of age. Hillary’s achievements are an inspiration to travellers everywhere and proves you’re never too old for adventure.
“Wouldn’t it be better to die doing something interesting than to drop dead in an office and the last thing you see is someone you don’t like?”
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15. YURI GAGARIN
Space may be the final frontier, but there are a few great explorers who have ventured into this uncharted mystery. The Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin is one of the icons of space exploration, as the first person to travel into outer space and orbit the Earth. He rocketed into the darkness in a Vostok 1 spacecraft, then had to stay conscious and withstand 8 g’s (g-force) during the deceleration back to Earth. Humans can handle no more than 9 g’s and even that for only a few seconds. Gargarin then had to eject from the plummeting spacecraft 6.5 kilometres above land. His courage paved the way for modern space exploration.
“Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!”
16. FREYA STARK
Dame Freya Stark was a true citizen of the world and one of the most inspirational figures in travel. Born in Paris to a British father and an Italian mother, Stark studied Persian and Arabic in London. At 30, she began her groundbreaking journey into the Middle East. She travelled through Syria in secret, which paved the way for future explorers in the Middle East, then trekked through the wilderness of western Iran, which had never before been seen by Westeners. Stark sailed down the Red Sea, lived in Baghdad and mapped uncharted areas, and traversed the region by foot, donkeys, camels and car. She worked for the British Ministry of Information in Yemen and Cairo during WWII and travelled widely through Turkey.
Stark was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Gold Medal and is the author of more than 24 travel books. She overcame countless obstacles including illness but never stopped travelling, making her last expedition to Afghanistan at the age of 75, and travelling well into her eighties before passing away at the age of 100 in 1993.
“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it.”
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17. VICTOR HUGO GREEN
Victor Hugo Green was a Black American travel witer from Harlem, New York City, who wrote the first travel guide for African Americans in the United States. Known as The Negro Motorist Green Book, Green wrote the guide from 1936 to 1966, publishing the hotels, restaurants and gas stations that served Black people. It was an invaluable tool that helped Black people travel more safely in the Jim Crow era, when racial segregation and discrimination made travelling dangerous.
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States”
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18. ROALD AMUNDSEN
In 1906, Roald Amundsen was the first person to navigate the Northwest Passage. It’s the dangerous sea route along the northern coast of North America between the the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Ocean. After that feat, he skied a cool 640 kilometres to Eagle City to send a telegraph reporting his achievement. Amundsen also led the first expedition to the South Pole in 1911. In 1926, he flew over the North Pole. The explorer sadly disappeared in 1928 during a rescue mission for the Italia airship, however his extraordinary legacy lives on.
“How did I happen to become an explorer? It did not just happen, for my career has been a steady progress toward a definite goal since I was fifteen years of age.”
19. JEANNE BARET
Daring adventurers have been around since the beginning of time. Over 255 years ago, Jeanne Baret became the first known woman to circumnavigate the globe. Born in 1740, this extraordinary woman escaped a life of poverty and set out on a dangerous journey – disguised as a man. She sailed on the world expedition of Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville from 1766 to 1769. However, since the French Navy banned women on its ships, she had to pretend to be a man. She changed her name to Jean Baret and bound her breasts with bandages, before enlisting as an assistant to the naturalist Philibert Commerçon and sailing with 300 men. Jeanne defied authority, saw the world, and cemented her legacy as one of the most inspirational figures in travel.
Admiral Bougainville wrote of Jeanne: “… she well knew when we embarked that we were going round the world, and that such a voyage had raised her curiosity. She will be the first woman that ever made it, and I must do her the justice to affirm that she has always behaved on board with the most scrupulous modesty.”
20. MIKE HORN
Mike Horn holds an endless list of adventurous achievements. The Swiss explorer achieved the longest ever unsupported solo trip from north to south Antartica. He completed the journey in 57 days using just skis and kites. In 2001, he also completed a one-year and six-month solo escapade around the equator without any motorised assistance. A year later, between 2002 and 2004, Horn travelled around the Arctic Circle without motorised transport, in the perilous winter landscapes.
“If you worry, you die. If you don’t worry, you also die. So why worry?”
21. ERNEST SHACKLETON
The legendary polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, lead four expeditions to uncover Antarctica. He was the first person to find a route to the South Pole. His most famous journey was the Trans-Antarctic Endurance Expedition from 1914 to 1916. It was a failed mission to cross the Antarctic on foot. After their ship, Endurance, sank in the Weddell Sea, the crew were stranded on the remote Elephant Island. Their leader, Shackleton, set out to seek help and all 27 crew were rescued four months later. The miraculous survival and extraordinary bravery of Shackleton and the crew became known around the world as an inspiring tale of perseverance. The sunken ship Endurance was recently rediscovered on 5 March 2022 after being lost for 107 years.
“I had a dream when I was 22 that someday I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth”
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