Whether by land, sea or air, exploring has aided our understanding of the world. Let’s follow in some adventurers’ intrepid footsteps…
Whether or not Leif Erikson was the first European to land in North America, he got there 500 years before Columbus. When King Olaf I of Norway sent him as a Christian missionary to Greenland, it’s believed Erikson was blown off course and discovered part of North America, which he named Vinland. Whether accidental or a deliberate detour based on another explorer’s tale, Erikson went on to establish a small settlement in Vinland (ie Newfoundland, Canada).
Christopher Columbus did not ‘discover’ America. Unbeknown to him, natives had lived there for centuries — and been recorded by other Europeans. In fact, he stumbled across the continent rather accidentally while taking what he thought was a shortcut from Europe to Asia. Despite others landing there first, Columbus did make Europeans more aware of this New World, leading to increased contact, colonisation and the development of the modern Western world.
Covering over 112,650 kilometres (70,000 miles) and visiting more than 40 modern countries, Moroccan Muslim scholar Ibn Battuta is one of the most-travelled people of all time. Spending approximately 30 years of his life travelling extensively around the Islamic world, as he set out on a pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca, his adventures led him through non-Muslim lands too. Ibn Battuta encountered neardeath experiences from bandits to sinking ships, but thankfully lived long enough to tell his tales.
At 17 years old, Marco Polo accompanied his father and uncle on their second trip to Asia, unaware he would spend a third of his life travelling. Residing in the land of Mongol ruler of China, Kublai Khan, Polo was sent on diplomatic missions around China. His closeness to Khan’s daughter resulted in him escorting her to Persia via several South-east Asian countries before returning to Venice. Polo’s adventures encouraged interest in China and likely inspired Columbus.
On becoming a ship’s captain in his twenties, Francis Drake was on his way to fulfilling his dream of finding an undiscovered land in the Pacific. Drake’s travels took him to the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico before finally embarking on a secret expedition for Elizabeth I to the western coast of North America. At sea for almost three years, his circumnavigation helped identify the true geography of our planet.
Muslim slave Estevanico was sold to a Spanish nobleman and taken on the Narvaez expedition in 1527. Estevanico consequently ended up travelling for almost an entire decade, exploring North America and experiencing the challenges that accompanied such expeditions. Estevanico was likely the first African to visit the continent, and was one of only a few survivors on this trip, returning as a guide some years later.
NATIVE AMERICAN 1788-1812
Born into the Shoshone tribe, Native American Sacagawea was kidnapped as a child, then ‘acquired’ by French-Canadian Toussaint Charbonneau, whom she married. When Lewis and Clark led the Corps of Discovery to their North Dakotan camp, they hired the pair as guides. Being female, Sacagawea was a symbol to other tribes that the group was peaceful and harmless, yet she played a fundamental role in helping to navigate, trade, translate and survive. Remarkably, the trip led them up the Missouri River to Sacagawea’s homeland and family. A true explorer, though, she continued on the expedition, travelling approximately half of the 12,875-kilometre (8,000-mile) journey.
Ferdinand Magellan had a dream: to visit the Indonesian Maluku Islands. He set off with five ships and over 200 men, heading west via South America. Unaware how vast the Pacific was, they faced great challenges and many died. The remaining crew reached the islands, where Magellan was killed by natives, and only one ship made it back to Spain. Although Magellan died, he led the expedition, so is credited with the first round-the-world voyage.
Trading a life as a doctor for one as a polar explorer was an easy decision for Roald Amundsen. His heart set on exploring the Arctic, Amundsen quit uni and began his adventures via land, sea and air, first sailing through the Northwest Passage. Beaten to the North Pole, Amundsen was determined to be the first to reach the South Pole, and he was. Subsequently crossing the Arctic by air, Amundsen became one of the greatest polar explorers of all time.
For some, land exploration just isn’t enough. After serving as a US Navy pilot in the Korean War and becoming a test pilot, Neil Armstrong joined NASA in 1962, later becoming the organisation’s first civilian astronaut to fly in space in 1966. As if this great achievement wasn’t enough, in 1969 he went on to become the first person to walk on the Moon during Apollo 11.