Ambiguous, extended journeys across countries and continents are often considered rites of passage, whether it’s a Jamesian Grand Tour or a post-graduate, last-hurrah backpacking romp through Europe, a post-retirement, bucket-list caravan across America or a journey of self-discovery à la Eat Pray Love. But Ida Pfeiffer, an Austrian who gained international recognition in the 19th century for being the first woman to circumnavigate the globe alone (twice), was no Elizabeth Gilbert.
Left with a paltry inheritance in Vienna after raising two sons, at 44, Pfeiffer finally began the fulfillment of her life-long Wanderlust in 1842, embarking on the first of a series of journeys that often took her to places where no European man, let alone woman, had gone before. In the epigraph to John van Wyhe’s biography of Pfeiffer, Wanderlust: The Amazing Ida Pfeiffer, the First Female Tourist, she states her raison d’être: “I was born with a Wanderlust, this need to travel.”
In her time, traveling as an unaccompanied woman was unheard of, particularly one with neither privileged status nor any significant education or profession. So just setting out was not only in itself remarkable, it was a testament to her singular will and determination. Ever modest, unassuming, and wary of pretense, Pfeiffer nevertheless became a worldwide sensation, her unprecedented achievements gaining respect and acknowledgements in print from the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, and Alexander von Humboldt.
To fund her journeys – made on the strictest budgets – she wrote travelogues while collecting native flora and fauna wherever she went, several of which were named after her (e.g., Lonchodes pfeifferae, a Bornean stick insect) and can still be seen in museums today (including the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna). It was through her contributions to science that historian Van Wyhe (who has also written about Charles Darwin) may have first come across her.
But fame and science were only a means to an end: Pfeiffer’s insatiable quest was to set foot on as much new and exotic terrain as possible, which in the end took her across six continents. Her curiosity was surpassed only by her need to move on, for which she was willing to brave all forms of transport, climate, and dwelling. In fact, the more difficult the excursion, the more determined she was to take it on – all for the promise of experiencing something new or sublime – fending off a knife-wielding bandit in a Brazilian forest, lashing herself to the stern of a storm-stricken ship in the Atlantic, and trekking across a Persian desert in a caravan.
Perhaps the most astounding moment was facing down a cannibalistic tribe in Sumatra. Having already encountered remote societies of headhunters by trekking through vast regions of impenetrable, leech-infested swamps, and after attempts by local guides and colleagues to warn her against pushing that far, she finally reached her “goal:” a direct confrontation with a fierce-looking army of 80 real-life cannibals. She was ready.
“Don’t eat me,” she said in their language. “I’m an old woman, my flesh is tough.”
Bursting out in laughter, the tribe was appeased. Not gettingng eaten by cannibals: check.
In Van Wyhe’s account of Pfeiffer, the extraordinary facts of her life speak for themselves. He recounts the breathtaking events with little embellishment, as she does in her own travelogues, which began as near-scholarly records of what she observed. He does, however, briefly reflect on how Pfeiffer might have viewed mass tourism today, arguing that the world, with all its international networks, has “already been a global village for a very, very long time.” But today, in the wake of a pandemic that has grounded a huge portion of a world already wrestling with the implications of climate change, international travel is facing an existential impasse. To travel or not to travel? Luckily, Ida Pfeiffer never had to answer that question.