Photo Essay: Great Expeditions

By Ella Frances Sanders, Illustrator in Residence Share

Expeditions, adventures, journeys, voyages, quests, travels - call them what you will, humans have long had an inherent desire to explore further, higher, faster, and longer than ever before - in some of the wildest and most remote places on Earth.

For many hundreds of years, man (and woman) have conquered unimaginable heights, crossed the most unforgiving of landscapes and survived the harshest of seas, all the the name of exploration.

This collection contains 20 of the greatest adventurers from the past and present - you will find both dusty black and white memories and vivid colourful photographs of modern-day explorations.


1 | Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summit Mount Everest: 29th May 1953 

Before this historic and famed expedition, the highest mountain on Earth had long been considered either impossible to climb or at the very least - the ultimate challenge. Before this successful ascent, Everest had already claimed the lives of 13 climbers. Hillary and Norgay were the only two men from the 1953 British Everest Expedition to reach the 8,848 m summit - they had climbed for 7 weeks to have just 15 minutes at the top of the world.

People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.
— Edmund Hillary
edmund hillary tenzing norgay mount everest

2 | 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura's summit of Mount Everest: 23rd May 2013

20 years ago, Yuichiro Miura had skied down the world’s seven highest peaks, but had never climbed one. He says of his decision to climb Everest (the first time), “After retiring, I was a little bored with nothing to do and got fat. I thought, if a 60-year-old metabolic fat man, after five years, can get to Mount Everest, that would be very exciting.” A decade later, a 70-year-old Miura reached the summit for the first time, and since then has overcome multiple heart surgeries to climb the mountain for a second time (aged 75), and for a third time (this year) when he became the oldest person to reach the top of the world, at a sprightly 80 years of age.

The challenge of the peaks is the challenge of life itself: to always struggle higher.
— Yuichiro Miura
yuichiro miura mount everest climb

3 | Robert Falcon Scott didn't reach the South Pole: 17th January 1912

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen successfully reached the South Pole on the 14th December 1911, while the competing expedition led by Scott made it just 5 weeks later - but they never made it back. Sadly, on 29th March 1912, the last three men died knowing they were only 20 km from the next food depot (the return journey would have been 1,500 km in total). Scott’s faded pencil notes and thoughts from the expedition have become one of the most famous diaries in the world.

I can imagine few things more trying to the patience than the long wasted days of waiting.
— Robert Falcon Scott
robert falcon scott antarctic expedition

4 | Christian Eide made the fastest solo, unsupported trip to the South Pole: 13th January 2011

A century after Amundsen claimed the South Pole, another Norwegian set out on his skis, attempting to set a new record for a solo, unsupported crossing to the Pole. 24 days, 1 hour and 13 minutes later he arrived at 90 degrees, beating the previous time (set by American Todd Carmichael) by a staggering 15 days.

If you want a blank spot on the map, you gotta leave the map behind.
— Jon Krakauer
christian eide south pole trip

5 | Percy Fawcett's last expedition to find the Lost City of Z: 20th April 1925 

Fawcett’s expedition to find the mysterious Inca city was to be his last, and as many as 100 people have either vanished or perished looking for both Fawcett and the Lost City of Z over the decades that followed. A few years ago, a chap named David Grann journeyed into the Amazon, discovered new evidence about Fawcett's ill-fated expedition, and wrote an incredible book about it. Whether Fawcett and party were killed by fierce Indians or not, he was clearly a fiercely optimistic and determined man - he concluded a letter to his wife from the last known location of the expedition, “You need have no fear of any failure...”.

That is the exploration that awaits you! Not mapping stars and studying nebula, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.
— Leonard Nimoy
percy fawcett lost city of z expedition

6 | Ed Stafford walked the length of the Amazon River: 2nd April 2008 - 9th August 2010 

Ed’s story about his crazy undertaking (as the first man to walk the Amazon river from source to sea) is quite something. He describes some of brilliantly in his 2010 DO lecture just here, but in short he achieved the impossible, spending two and a half years walking 4,000 miles and even surviving the notorious drug-trafficking ‘Red Zone’ of Peru, angry natives and a lot (no really, a lot) of mosquitoes.

I’m not lost. I’m exploring.
— Jana Stanfield
ed stafford amazon walk river expedition

7 | Freya Stark's travels in the Middle East and Afghanistan: First expedition in 1927

By the time Freya Stark died in 1993, she had lived through adventures that others couldn’t even dream of, let alone contemplate in their wildest dreams. After a bohemian childhood and a lonely start to her adult life in Asolo, Italy, the ‘Passionate Nomad’ finally left aged 33 with newly-learned Arabic and travelled to the East. Over the next 12 years she undertook perilous journeys, mapped remote regions and was, according to Gertrude Bell, "one of the few women of her time who could not only take on the burgeoning numbers of men in her field but also beat them at their own game."

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.
— Freya Stark
freya stark explorer middle east africa

8 | Rory Stewart's walk across Afghanistan: January 2002

In January 2002 Rory Stewart found himself walking alone (although part way through he did get adopted by a retired fighting dog he named Babur) across a war-torn Afghanistan in winter. From 2000 to 2002, he walked 6,000 miles through rural areas of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, staying in five hundred different village houses along the way. He wrote a darn good book about his encounters and adventures, and said upon recalling an American journalist who asked if he thought what he was doing was dangerous, said: "I had never found a way to answer that question without sounding awkward, insincere or ridiculous."

My feet beat out a steady muffled rhythm. My thoughts participated in each step, never getting ahead of me.
— Rory Stewart
rory stewart afghanistan walk

9 | Henry Morton Stanley's travels in Africa: 1874 - 1877

Aside from his fame at finding Dr. Livingstone somewhere in Central Africa in 1872 (the famous words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” are brilliant but also probably made up), Stanley travelled extensively between 1874 and 1877, covering some 7,000 miles between from Zanzibar in the east to the mouth of the Congo River in the west - in the process solving many unresolved questions about the geography of Central Africa.

I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.
— David Livingstone
henry morton stanley africa expedition

10 | Wilfred Thesiger's 50 years of exploration in East and North Africa: He reluctantly left the continent in 1994

A gentleman thrillseeker, you could call Sir Wilfred Thesiger the last of the great explorers. His books (Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs) are seen as classics of travel literature, and his astounding, raw photography has inspired generations of travellers. He took some 17,000 photographs in Africa over the years, of not only romantic, empty landscapes but of the people. "Ever since my time in Northern Darfur," Thesiger wrote, "it has been people, not places, not hunting, not even exploration, that have mattered to me most."

When you have worn out your shoes, the strength of the shoe leather has passed into the fiber of your body. I measure your healthy by the number of shoes and hats and clothes you have worn out.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
wilfred thesiger africa

11 | Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal are the first to successfully climb an 'eight-thousander': 3rd June 1950

The first to conquer a peak over 26,000 feet, Herzog and Lachenal climbed with their team in the spring of 1950 and reached the summit of Annapurna I in the Himalayas despite brutal weather conditions, followed by an agonising descent while suffering from frostbite and snow blindness. Herzog wrote what National Geographic called ‘the most influential mountaineering book of all time’ while recovering, “The whole of this book has been dictated at the American Hospital at Neuilly, where I am still having rather a difficult time,” he wrote in the introduction, a year after the journey. The book concludes with the famous inspirational line: “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.”

This diaphanous landscape, this quintessence of purity - these were not the mountains I knew: they were the mountains of my dreams.
— Maurice Herzog
maurice herzog louis lachenal annapurna summit

12 | Reinhold Messner became the first person to climb all 14 'eight-thousanders': 16th October 1986

Reinhold Messner is widely thought of as the greatest climber in history, and with good reason. Not only was the first climber to ascend every mountain on the planet over 26,000 feet (without supplemental oxygen), but also as the first man to summit Everest... also without supplemental oxygen. He said of the expedition, "It was like going to the moon without oxygen—how is it possible?” This feat ‘electrified’ the public, and Messner repeated this again two years later in 1980. In-between his numerous ascents he has found time to write at least 63 books, and you can read an amazing article about Messner by National Geographic here.

After Messner, the mystery of possibility was gone; there remained only the mystery of whether you could do it.
— Ed Viesturs
reinhold messner greatest mountaineer

13 | Mary Kingsley's travels in West Africa: Landed in Sierra Leone on 17th August 1893 

Up until 1893, Kingsley lived a secluded life in Victorian England. She finally left aged 30 for West Africa, initially planning to collect botanical samples for her father’s unfinished book. What followed were some unbelievable exciting travels, and her book ‘Travels in West Africa’ has become an adventure classic. In the photo below, Mary Kingsley is sitting in the centre - you can definitely sense the fierce determination.

...but when you get to see - well! see things worth seeing.
— Mary Kingsley
mary kingsley west africa travels

14 | Kira Salak's 600-mile solo kayak paddle down the Niger River: July 2002

Kira said of her adventures, “In the beginning, all my journeys feel at best ludicrous, at worst insane.” and this one was no exception. She paddled 600 miles alone from the town of Old Ségou to Timbuktu, enduring rapids, tropical storms and the unforgivable heat of the Sahara - but also unimaginable kindness and hospitality from the people she stayed with along the route. As an ‘adventuress’ she is unequalled, and her book about these miles ‘The Cruelest Journey’ is well worth a read, as is this interview with her from National Geographic.

And so I’ve told the world that it can do what it wants with me during this trip if only, by the end, I have learned something more. A bargain then. The journey, my teacher.
— Kira Salak
kira salak solo river kayak expedition

15 | Sir Ranulph Fiennes' 100,000-mile transglobe expedition: 1979 - 1982

In 1972 Fiennes’ first wife Ginny conceived this crazy idea. After seven years of planning and raising support for the idea, Ranulph Fiennes set sail with a crew of volunteers in 1979 to complete what would be the first circumpolar journey around the Earth, and what the New York Times called ‘the last great adventure.’ They travelled ‘vertically’ using only surface transport - across the Sahara, through swamps and jungles, over unexplored crevasse fields in Antarctica and through the inhospitable Northwest Passage. Fiennes is pictured below with Charles Burton, toasting to their transglobe expedition.

I am doing this for many reasons, some of which I don’t fully understand. That there is an inner urge is undeniable.
— Ranulph Fiennes
ranulph fiennes transglobe expedition

16 | Al Humphrey's cycled around the whole world | 2001 - 2005

Age 24, Alastair Humphrey left England at the end of the summer of 2001, and travelled alone around the world by bike. He left with a budget of only £7,000, and spent the next four years cycling 46,000 miles through Africa, the Americas and Eurasia - crossing a staggering 60 different countries across 5 of the 7 continents. His journey was described as 'the first great adventure of the 21st century' by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and the three books he wrote about his adventure are gripping tales of exploration, the nuances of human nature, and what is possible with just one man's determination.

I do not explain, I explore.
— Marshal McLuhan
al humphreys bike around the world

17 | Isabella Bird's final expedition in Morocco and the Atlas Mountains: 1901 - 1904

One of the great female explorers - and the first woman to be inducted into the National Geographic Society - Isabella Bird’s first voyage across the Atlantic to America was in 1854 was for health reasons, but it wasn’t for another 20 years that her travels really began. Her final expedition was to Morocco, where she was the first European woman to meet the Emperor, to travel with Berber tribesmen, and to venture into the Atlas Mountains.

I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one’s life and sigh.
— Isabella Bird
isabella bird explorer

18 | Michael Asher's crossing of the Sahara Desert: 9 months in 1987

Michael Asher met his future wife, Mariantonietta Peru, whilst on an expedition in Sudan, and it was less than a year later that they - having only been married for 3 months at this point - made the first west-to-east crossing of the Sahara Desert, by camel and on foot. They finished their journey in May, having travelled 4,500 miles together. Asher says of desert exploration, “The feeling of wilderness – being 200 miles from the nearest settlement and connection with Nature, you can’t get this in a motor-vehicle.” Their journey was described by Reuters as the ‘the last great journey man had still to make.’

This I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.
— John Steinbeck
michael asher desert crossing

19 | Neil Armstrong's flight to the moon: 20th July 1969

Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon changed the world forever. The ‘reluctant’ American hero has been outlived by his incredible legacy, and had many interesting opinions about the future of spaceflight. In a 1988 interview, Armstrong said that "...the emotional moment was the landing. That was human contact with the moon, the landing…. It was at the time when we landed that we were there, we were in the lunar environment, the lunar gravity. That, in my view, was…the emotional high.” His incredible last interviews can be found here.

Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.
— Neil Armstrong
neil armstrong moon landing

20 | Chris Hadfield's 5-month mission as Commander of the ISS: 19th Decemeber 2012 - 13th May 2013

We don’t know how he managed it, but Chris Hadfield refocused millions of people onto the astounding, often incomprehensible world of spaceflight. Inspired as a child by the 1969 Apollo moon landing, he would grow up to become the first Canadian to walk in space. Having inspired the people on Earth to look up, he ended what will (probably) be his final mission this May. Chris Hadfield’s sign off from aboard the International Space Station made us all want to be part of the Oddity that is Space.

Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction.
— Chris Hadfield
chris hadfield commander iss space mission

We hope these photos of epic adventures resonated with you as much as they did with us! If you have a moment, we'd really appreciate it if you could tweet this post and @mention any friends who you think might also enjoy this photo essay as well.


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Date added
Location Taghazout, Morocco