Legends Series: Ida Pfeiffer

Adventure Travel

Ida Pfeiffer was the world’s first solo female travel writer. Pfeiffer spent 16 years traveling, covering more than 20,000km by sea and 30,000km on land. She was an improbable trailblazer. Neither wealthy, beautiful, or educated, she lacked attributes thought essential for women travelers of her era.

Pfeiffer’s quest was simply to experience travel the way men do. Over 100 years since her first adventure, her legacy has endured.

Ida Pfeiffer funded most of her travel by selling rare specimens collected around the world.

Childhood

Born in 1797 in Vienna, Pfeiffer was the first daughter in a family with four sons. For the time, her father was unconventional, allowing Pfeiffer to flourish in boyish activities, which she much preferred over girlish alternatives. Instead of wearing dresses, she wore trousers. Instead of learning to sew or play the piano, she played with swords and fired guns. Encouraged by her father, she even had the same education as her brothers. Her early years prepared her for traveling later in life.

“I was not shy,” she wrote of her childhood decades later, “but wild as a boy, and bolder and more forward than my elder brothers.”

When she was eight, Pfeiffer’s father died and her life changed. Her mother began enforcing typical female behaviors. During her teens, Pfeiffer was under the charge of a tutor, whom she fell in love with. He was the only person for whom wearing dresses and learning needlework or piano was worthy. But Pfeiffer’s mother disapproved of the budding relationship and instead arranged a more suitable partner: a doctor, 24 years Pfeiffer’s senior, widowed with a grown-up son. They wed soon after meeting.

Dr. Reyer may not have been Pfeiffer’s preferred husband, but she was a respectful wife and wasn’t unhappy. Shortly after their wedding, her husband had to resign from his prestigious job. For the next 18 years, they were almost penniless, the first time in Pfeiffer’s life that she experienced true economic hardship.

With Reyer, she bore two sons, raising them with unequivocal commitment. Then, once her boys grew up and settled into careers of their own, she was free to begin a life of travel that she had always dreamed of.

A travel trailblazer

Before Pfeiffer, there had been two well-known women travelers who had profited from writing about their adventures: Lady Hester Stanhope, an aristocrat, and Isabella Frances Romer, who had traveled with a male companion. The idea of a woman traveling unescorted was preposterous at the time.

In the Victorian era, women were considered too fragile for the long, unpredictable, and uncomfortable nature of long-distance travel. They were also thought to be an easy target for thieves and pickpockets. Women had to abide by a strict set of social rules: speak only when spoken to, dress appropriately, hand money over to male companions, and to only select seats in carriages next to other women or elderly gentlemen. An audacious solo adventure was not something women of the age were thought capable of.

Pfeiffer didn’t accept that boys were issued with a different set of rules. She longed to unravel the diverse cultures and customs outside of Vienna.

Using a small inheritance, Pfeiffer funded her first solo trip. Under the guise of visiting friends, she sailed along the Danube River to Constantinople (now Istanbul) then continued on to Palestine, Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon, and Egypt. She was 45 years old.

In the eyes of bystanders, some of whom pestered, mobbed, and ogled her, she had no business undertaking such an audacious journey. She spent hours riding by camelback, met artists and botanists, and engaged in customs she’d never seen before.

When she eventually returned home two years later, she wrote an anonymous account of her travels. She found instant success and it was later republished in her own name: Journey of a Viennese Lady to the Holy Land.

With the book’s proceeds, Pfeiffer funded her next adventure, traveling north to Scandinavia and then to the great geysers of Iceland.

Expedition funding

She soon began financing expeditions by sourcing rare minerals and specimens, which she sold to museums in Vienna. With sales from her Iceland trip, she launched her biggest adventure yet, an around-the-world trip.

This time Pfeiffer traveled for two years, first by sailboat (the cheapest mode of travel in 1846) to Brazil, then onward to the Pacific Islands, India, and Iran. She befriended the Queen of Tahiti, accompanied a tiger hunt, and battled Cape Horn’s swells. As a woman, she was prevented from entering places reserved for men and she endured more than one brutal attack. But mostly, she was a curious sight to those who spied her.

She didn’t ride first class with other female travelers. instead, she was content to forfeit comforts in favor of seeing more on her shoestring budget. Occasionally, her notoriety awarded her free stays on ships or in hotels.

She was confident, deliberate, and austere. A woman with the ability to stand up for herself, these strengths had been ingrained in her since childhood.

She also funded her second around-the-world trip by selling specimens, but also with a government grant. Despite her obvious aptitude, she only received the grant after her male counterparts lobbied on her behalf.

In 1851, she left Berlin on a four-year journey from Britain to Palestine, Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Americas. After, she returned to Europe and published My second trip around the world. The following year, she set off once again, unaware that the trip would end her life.

A coup and malaria

Ida Pfeiffer became embroiled in a coup while in Madagascar. Sent to trial, she was then exiled.

In 1857, Pfeiffer was accidentally involved in an attempted coup. The Queen of Madagascar uncovered a plot to depose her that involved her son and French nationals in the capital. Somehow, Pfeiffer was implicated. Sent to trial, Pfeiffer was exiled from Madagascar.

While making her way from Antananarivo to the coast for her departure, Pfeiffer became seriously ill. She had most likely contracted malaria. Shortly after her return to Vienna in 1858, she died in her brother’s home.

Her grave can be found in Vienna’s Central Cemetery. Some of her specimens are still in the British Museum and Berlin’s National Museum.

Ida Pfeiffer’s grave in Vienna Central Cemetery. She died in 1858. Photo: Secret Vienna

Pfeiffer’s fearlessness was not only uncommon for the Victorian era but centuries after, until commercial airlines drastically changed travel.

She wrote more than a dozen books, some of which became bestsellers and have been translated into several languages. She became the first woman to become an honorary member of the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris.

In 2000, a Munich street was renamed in her honor. In 2018, the University of Vienna established the Ida Pfeiffer Professorship, which combines earth sciences, geography, and astronomy.

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About the Author

Chasing Dreams Travel

Alex Myall

After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long-haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She took a diploma in travel journalism, backed it up with travel industry certificates, then launched Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency.

Now she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular South Coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being mum to a gorgeous baby girl. She maintains a “life’s too short to do things by halves” attitude.

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Twinkletoes
Twinkletoes
3 months ago

Great story! It’s nice to learn about those previous explorers

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