Backpacking holidays are increasingly popular nowadays – whether you’re taking a gap year or volunteering abroad, you’re one of the many people who’re choosing to travel light, sleep rough and do it on the cheap. For you intrepid journeymen and women, you scrounging adventurers, we’ve compiled a few of the worthwhile lessons learned by the pioneering travellers who’ve gone before.
The overwhelming moral of their tales? ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’: remember, in times of stress, that there are plenty of explorers that would thank the stars named after them if their biggest problem was a getting the travel insurance sorted….
1. Marco Polo
Marco first set out into the world with his father and uncle at the tender age of 17. They spent 24 years on the go around Asia, travelling and trading, and ended up very wealthy men. During a war with Genoa, Marco was captured and spent the months he spent in prison dictating the extraordinary stories of his adventures to a fellow inmate; the collection was later published around Europe, giving the West its first comprehensive travel guide to the East.
Lessons: Passing on your love and respect for other cultures (and their currency) is one of the great joys of being a parent – still, backpacking with hyperactive children and grouchy teens can be difficult. Just remember it’ll be worth it when they immortalize your travels in print, earning you a bit more travel money to trade with. If you haven’t got any offspring, it’s always worth recording your stories on a blog or in a journal for posterity.
2. Meriwether Lewis & William Clark
Two of the most intrepid and celebrated American explorers of all time, Lewis and Clark set out to map unchartered North America in the early 1800s. They travelled about 7,000 miles and came into contact with dozens of new Native American tribes – situations when their Shoshone interpreter, Sacagawea, came in useful. At the age of just 15 she was married to one of the fur-trappers on their expedition and was a huge help in their diplomatic efforts.
Lessons: Try and have a local guide, someone who knows the areas and the bargains to be had. The websites where you can connect with people who offer couch surfing are also great places to grab a one-on-one tour from a native of your destination.
3. Harriet Chalmers Adams
National Geographic photographer and noted explorer Harriet Adams travelled an estimated 100,000 miles in her lifetime, often accompanied by her husband. She documented the lives of the indigenous people of South America, writing and taking pictures to share with American audiences. She was also a pioneer of the women’s right to explore: she was the founder of the Society of Women Geographers in 1925.
Lessons: The lessons here are twofold: firstly, one-on-one holidays with your significant other don’t have to be schmaltzy romantic affairs. Nothing will get your pulses racing like nearly being eaten by a lion. Secondly: Harriet proved again and again that women can be rough, tough and capable. Ladies, challenge yourselves and gender stereotypes by taking the road less travelled.
4. Vasco Núñez de Balboa
Not the most savoury character but certainly a model in thriftiness: the trip that would end in Balboa heading up the first European settlement in America started with him stowing away on a ship, hidden in a barrel. He was attempting to escape the men who’d loaned him money after the failure of his pig farm – by the end of his journey he’d discovered the South Sea and more gold than you could shake a stick at.
Lessons: Cutting corners means you can afford to be spontaneous; often the most priceless moments of a journey come for free. And don’t be put off by an inauspicious start to your holiday because things have a way of picking up.
5. Jason Lewis
No relation to Meriwether – Jason Lewis is a modern-day adventurer and an example to us all when it comes to endurance. Yorkshire-born Jason spent thirteen years making a self-powered expedition around the globe: cycling, canoeing and even rollerblading across continents and oceans. He survived crocodiles, septicaemia, and two broken legs after being hit by a drunk driver – not to mention a spell in an Egyptian prison. What started as a three and a half year trip ended thirteen years after its start date, when Jason made his triumphant return to Greenwich in 2007.
Lessons: Keep travelling: don’t let a bad experience put you off from getting out there and exploring new places. Make time to accomplish your goals and don’t let expanding your horizons take a back seat to your worries about the unknown. Also, do be careful if you’re kayaking in Egypt – if crocodiles don’t get you, the authorities might.