Mountaineering & Expeditions

Death, Disease & Adventure | This Former Teacher Is Recreating The Treacherous Journeys Of Victorian Female Explorers

Adventurers aren't always men, as Jacki Hill-Murphy set out to prove when she retraced the steps of these women's epic expeditions

Plenty of us talk about quitting our jobs to travel the world, but how many of us actually act on those impulses? While most just chat about charting grand adventures around the world, Jacki Hill-Murphy actually does something about it.

After 20 years as an English and Drama teacher in Bristol, Jacki had enough. It was time for a change. “I came across the story of Isabella Godin in the Royal Geographic Society library while researching for my master’s degree,” she says. “Godin was the first woman to travel the length of the Amazon River in 1769. So I decided to write a film about this woman for my dissertation.”

When her son finished school, Jacki handed in her notice, telling the school management she was heading off on a 500-mile journey down the Amazon River in a dugout canoe. “They said, are you coming back? And I said, no I’m not!” Jacki laughs. “I never did go back.”

I feel much happier when I’m off the beaten track

She left behind the comforts of life in the UK and hopped on a plane to South America. “My family’s attitude was just, Jacki needs to do it. That’s the way she is.” The trip was entirely self-funded – and the first of many to come.

Jacki tells me that she’s always had an adventurous spirit. “When I was a little girl, I used to read all of Gerald Durrell’s travel books. The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl completely blew me away at the age of nine. That was when the wanderlust entered my soul.”

In 1988, she crossed Africa in a Land Rover. It took Jacki and her team an entire year. Since then, she has travelled to South America, India, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Russia and lived in Turkey and the United States. “I feel much happier when I’m off the beaten track.”

Photo: Jacki Hill-Murphy

Jacki has spent the last eight years travelling to some of the most remote places on earth, tracing the footsteps of adventurous women from the past. She has documented them through film and in her book, Adventuresses.

Her first adventure was tracing the heartbreaking tale of Isabella Godin, a woman who took on a 3,000-mile journey through the Amazon Basin to find her husband who was stranded in Ecuador. She didn’t know whether he was dead or alive.

During the voyage, her children died from smallpox and the 42-man crew she was travelling with perished from infected insect bites, leaving her as the sole survivor. She wandered alone in the jungle for nine days before she stumbled into an Indian camp. The tribal people took her to the ship where her husband was waiting – 20 years after she had last seen him.

You can talk about something forever but if you don’t do it, you could end up being trapped and unhappy for a long time

A year later, Jacki followed the path of Mary Kingsley, a Victorian explorer who led a group of men up Mount Cameroon, a 4,000m peak in Africa, in 1894. They were the first Europeans to do so. “Mary Kingsley was an incredible women. She went to West Africa when it was considered to be a white man’s grave. It flew in the face of everything that was going on in Victorian England at the time,” says Jacki.

“Women just did not do that sort of thing. Where did she get those skills to lead a group of men up Mount Cameroon? Going against convention was massively difficult in those days.” Today the Foreign Office tells us which countries are safe to visit but in Mary Kingsley’s day, that kind of advice just wasn’t available. “These women didn’t know if they would ever come back alive.”

Jacki specifically chose to uncover the stories of women who went on these extraordinary adventures on their own – without the support of a husband or male family member. “I also wanted to go through countries where there was a good chance nothing much had changed in 100 years,” says Jacki. “So I could compare how they coped with how I could cope.”

Photo: Jacki Hill-Murphy

She quickly discovered that it is not easy to recreate these journeys, 100 years later. Everything from visa restrictions to modern road developments have prevented Jacki from staying true to the original routes. “Isabella Bird, for example, was able to travel around the Rocky Mountains in America on horseback freely. I have tried and tried to hire horses to trek in her footsteps and I’ve been laughed at. I’ve had guys who own ranches writing back saying, ‘You’re a joke, aren’t you?’”

But it’s not just the methods of transport that have changed. Jacki travelled on foot to the river where Bird was nearly killed on a trek in the Himalayas because the river was so dangerous and turbulent. “When I got to the exact same spot, there was no glacier there and the river was a trickle. I was witnessing the effect of global warming too.”

Most recently, Jacki traced British Victorian nurse Kate Marsden’s epic mission across Siberia to take on the cause of leprosy. “Imagine Miranda Hart in a nurse’s uniform being very serious and bossy, that’s Kate Marsden,” she says. Kate travelled thousands of miles in the depths of a Siberian winter to get to a little wooden hospital in one of the most remote villages on earth.

Victorian men didn’t applaud any kind of female achievement. Women had no voice

“She travelled by sled and horseback in -40°C. Nobody would voluntarily do that – except Kate Marsden.” However, after Marsden returned to the UK, her life was shrouded in scandal, so she never made it back to the little village nor did she get the recognition she truly deserved.

Unlike Ernest Shackleton, Captain Scott and David Livingstone whose expeditions were widely praised and are still taught in school history lessons today, Isabella Godin, Mary Kingsley, Isabella Bird and Kate Marsden’s astonishing achievements vanished into obscurity.

So, why weren’t these women acknowledged for their feats? “Victorian men didn’t applaud any kind of female achievement,” says Jacki. “Women were still 30 years away from the vote in the 1890s. Women had no voice. Men were free to abuse women in every way.”

Photo: David Tett

While times have changed since the Victorian era, prejudiced attitudes to female explorers still exist. “Ideas are constantly being pitched to TV companies about female explorers – and they all get rejected,” says Jacki who has tried numerous times to spread word about her expeditions across the media.

“I can’t get on TV whereas men like Levison Wood can. It’s a shame. I was never a feminist but I’m terribly interested in this. That’s the reason I wrote the book.”

Ideas are constantly being pitched to TV companies about female explorers – and they all get rejected

Jacki says she hopes this perspective of female explorers is changing. She now gives talks to primary school children because the national curriculum is starting to recognise achievements from female adventurers and explorers. “Every time I go into a school, those children are getting the message that women are just as important as men.”

She also believes events like the Women’s Adventure Expo, which took place for the first time in Bristol last year, marks a real shift in interest surrounding adventurous women. “There was an incredible buzz in the room from women of all ages,” says Jacki.

“They all wanted to do something different with their lives. I wonder whether it coincides with a feeling of entrapment among people, who are cooped up in small flats and office jobs, surrounded by lots of people and traffic.”

Photo: Jacki Hill-Murphy

So what advice would Jacki give someone who is looking to take on an expedition off-the-beaten track under their own steam? Well, the hardest part is actually doing it,” she says. “You can talk about something forever but if you don’t do it and change your life, you could end up being trapped and unhappy for a long time.”

“It’s easier now with organisations like Explorers Connect because you can join in with somebody else’s adventure. It can be quite low key – a weekend away – and then build up slowly. You don’t have to launch yourself straight into the unknown.”

So, next time you’re sat with your friends late at night, nursing a glass of wine and pondering all the grand adventures you could embark on, take a leaf out of Jacki’s book – and make that dream a reality.

Jacki Hill-Murphy will be speaking at the Outdoor Adventure & Travel Show at London ExCeL, which takes place from February 11-14 2016

Read the rest of The DIY Issue by Mpora here

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