It has been a wretched tradition that women could only take on their careers once they had finished bringing up their children. This is exactly what happened to Ida Pfeiffer (1797-1858), one of the most notable women explorers of all times. She managed to travel around 32,000 kilometres by land and 240,000 by sea in the last sixteen years of her life, from 1842 to her death in Vienna in 1858 from a not fully diagnosed tropical disease she had contracted in her last trip to Madagascar.
Ida Laura had been born in a comfortable, one could say wealthy, household. Her father, Aloys Reyer, was a successful Viennese textile manufacturer who provided her with private tutoring and education and gave Ida the most momentous experience of her life: a trip to Palestine and Egypt when she was only five years old.
She married young to a much older man, the doctor Mark Anton Pfeiffer, from whom she lived most of the time separated. With more help from her brothers than from her husband, and doing endless hours of private tutoring in Vienna of those skills she had learnt at home, mainly music and drawing, she managed to put her two sons to school and college. Only when she felt they had been properly taken care of, at the age of 45, she embarked herself, literally, on her new life.
The first trip she made was to exactly those two places where she had been taken as a child: Palestine and Egypt. Then Iceland, Scandinavia and two complete round trips of the globe (1846-48 and 1851-55).
During her trips, she collected endless ethnographic observations and specimens she either sold or donated to museums. She wrote five travelling books, some of them is several volumes, of her trips. For the first one, Reise einer Wienerin in das Heilige Land (“A Vienna woman’s trip to the Holy Land,” 2 vols., Vienna, 1844), which she published anonymously, she received 700 guilders, which she used to fund her next trip. It was an instant hit and underwent three editions and was translated into English in 1852. In fact, all her books were edited several times during her lifetime and translated into several languages, such as English, Russian, French, Dutch or Malay. She learnt languages to go places, she inspired naturalists such as Charles Darwin, who counted on her observations for their own theories. Her last book, Reise nach Madagaskar, was edited and published posthumously by her youngest son, Oskar, three years after her death.
In those last sixteen years, she visited endless places, met some fascinating people and, one can imagine, enjoyed thoroughly every moment of it: “When I was but a little child, I had already a strong desire to see the world. Whenever I met a travelling-carriage, I would stop involuntarily, and gaze after it until it had disappeared; I used even to envy the postilion, for I thought he also must have accomplished the whole long journey” (Reise nach dem skandinavischen Norden und der Insel Island im Jahre 1845 (“Visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North,” 2 vols., Leipzig, 1845). It took her 45 years to start the journey, but the wait must have been worth the trip.