Women who discovered the world


Jessica Watson, True Spirit'When young men approach me,' writes Peter FitzSimons in his Sydney Morning Herald article 'Plenty to Write Home About', 'I give them a brief speech that runs along the following lines. If you want to write, you have to have something to say that people will give a stuff about ... you need to get out of the safe bubble of your existence and broaden your experience.'

Then, tongue in cheek, he lists the possibilities, which include hitchhiking around Australia, contracting the clap in Amsterdam and driving through Uganda with some drug-addled truck drivers.

And no, he says, he doesn't give the same advice to young women. 'I push the same theme, with different specifics, and then steer them towards my wife.'

It's true that adventure and travel writing has long been the domain of males; males like the free-wheeling James Hamilton-Paterson, who, in his book, Playing with Water, talked of messing around in the Philippines, along lava-strewn tracks, in a tropical jungle and far from home.

Discovering a deserted island, he decided it was just the place to live for a year and write a book. The local chief granted permission after they had drunk enough liquor between them to lay them flat. A young woman would have been hard-put to do that, for in this part of the writing jungle, biology has traditionally dictated destiny.

An uncertain stream of women travel writers has meandered through history, but even the indomitable Freya Stark braved foreign climes with an enormous entourage, while Rose Macaulay had a car and bank account to keep her out of strife, and probably didn't walk out at night. Even the more recent travellers, like the wonderful Alice Steinbach, stick to well-trodden places like Paris, London and Florence.

So, in the past, most feats of derring-do were achieved by men; gentlemen travellers exploring lonely places: Wilfred Thesiger crossing the Sahara in Arabian Sands; Paul Theroux striding down a blighted continent in his Dark Star Safari; Colin Thubron adrift in The Lost Heart of Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Norman Lewis, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Raban, Peter Matthiessen, Simon Winchester and Pico Iyer also belong to this illustrious band of adventurers, all now gone, or hanging up their walking boots.

However, as British explorer Benedict Allen points out in his recent Guardian review of The Great Explorers, by Robin Hanbury-Tenison: 'From the point of view of our dear old absurd and shrunken planet they (the explorers) do now seem entirely unnecessary.' He adds that 'Exotic travel is no longer the preserve of a few privileged and romantic males. You do not need us; we are all explorers now.'

This, of course, includes women women. Young, Australian women, who have somehow ignored, or escaped the advice of such diehards as Peter FitzSimons.

Robyn Davidson trekked with her camels across the Australian outback, and wrote about it in Tracks. Paula Constant, inspired by Thesiger, set out on foot to cross the Sahara Desert, and said, after writing Sahara, 'One of the greatest gifts that this walk has given me is the knowledge that I can write, and that's possibly one of the things that I've been most proud of.'

And, most recently, Jessica Watson, our young Australian of the Year, sailed solo around the world at the age of 16, and recorded the experience in her book, True Spirit.

But FitzSimons, undeterred, is back with his young male acolytes. Once they broaden their experience, he says, and for their writing to finally succeed to the point where they can earn a living from it, they will need, among other things, to read, find their voice, rewrite and 'push through the hard yakka'.

Timely advice for young men, who have not yet pushed off from shore, or written their books, but there is another ingredient which, throughout history, has been shared by a fortunate few writers, men or women, adventurous travellers, or stay-at-homes, and this is the magical ability to turn the base matter of their experience, no matter how narrow, into written gold.

Two hundred years ago, an unmarried, clap-free, village-bound and bubble-safe Jane Austen wrote to her nephew, modestly referring to her writing as 'The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour.'

What else might she have written, one wonders, had she gone to sea in a yacht, or even, God willing, traversed a desert or two. 

Eleanor MasseyEleanor Massey is a long time English teacher who now works casually in NSW schools. She is a freelance writer, with a number of published articles in such magazines as The Big Issue, Good Reading and Wet Ink.

Topic tags: Eleanor Massey, Peter FitzSimons, Jessica Watson, True Spirit, Wilfred Thesiger, Paul Theroux



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Existing comments

In which category does Jan/James Morris belong?

For what it's worth, I nominate Dervla Murphy as the supreme travel writer. Her book The Island That Dared: Travels in Cuba was released in this country last year as were some of her earlier travel writing.

Contrast her and indeed Jessica Watson with the Hurley/Lohan/Hilton version of womanhood that has dozens of people camped outside mansions in Melbourne or Hollywood wasting time that could be spent digging roads or doing something useful with their lives.

Frank | 11 February 2011  

In defence of Peter FitzSimons, he is not saying that girls shouldn't go out and experience what the world has to offer. His comment indicates to me that he would simply use different examples.

His referral to his wife, who is a journalist and has also experienced life on the road, is an acknowledgement of her experise and perhaps her ability to give better advice than he can.

Erik H | 11 February 2011  

Frank, I couldn't agree more. Last year I had the pleasure of reading Where the Indus is young:a Winter in Baltistan by Dervla Murphy in which she chronicles her travels with her 6 year old daughter in the mountains in northern Pakistan during a particularly freezing winter. What an inspirational, brave and fascinating woman: by far a better model for young women -indeed all women, in our search for what life and the world has to offer. The less said about the alternative offered by the media the better!

Sarah | 11 February 2011  

Go girls Go!!
Having three adult daughters who are excelling in what were previously male dominated fields ,one a lawyer another head of of a maths department in a large high school and the other an artist . They have had to crack the glass ceiling but have succeeded, after some pretty serious opposition, because they are better than their male contemporaries

David | 11 February 2011  

Thanks Eleanor, for an insightful article. Although, nowadays, we could all be considered explorers, some of us actually go there. Then, when you have a moment, please read The Pea Pickers, by Eve Langley.

Joyce | 11 February 2011  

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