Hippos, Crocodiles, and Rhinos! Oh My!

Deborah Savage, Librarian, History & Genealogy Department,
Ana Beker
Ana Beker Rides Into Victoria, Mexico

A colleague in the History Department recently came across an old book whose drab cover hides a fascinating adventure story. Woman on a Horse, written in 1956, is Ana Beker’s account of the four years she spent riding horseback alone from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Ottawa, Canada. Why would anyone do such a thing? It turns out that in the early 1940s, Ms. Beker heard a horseman named Aime Tschiffely speak of his journey riding horseback from Argentina to Washington, D.C. When she told him she would ride even farther, he scoffed at the notion that a woman could make such a journey. Determined to prove him wrong, she spent nearly ten years planning her epic odyssey that spanned the years 1950 through 1954 and covered 17,000 miles. She rode through the civil war in Colombia, saved her horses from vultures and vampire bats, and had some terrifying encounters with hostile humans. Newspapers across America covered the stops she made in towns large and small along the way. And then, her journey was largely forgotten.

In honor of Women’s History Month, get inspired by a woman like Ana Beker. The History Department has several stories of women who, for a variety of reasons, have taken off on epic solo treks in locations around the globe.

Journey Across Tibet, by Sorrel Wilby (1988). This amazing Australian bicycled across China, Japan, and Korea by the age of twenty-five. She followed that up by hiking 1,900 miles alone across Tibet, befriending nomads along the way and depending upon them for guidance. With few roads, she sometimes could only follow trails made by animals.

The Cruelest Journey, by Kira Salak (2005). Another author who will make you feel extremely lazy, the American Kira Salak backpacked across Papua New Guinea before undertaking the journey described in this book. She hiked six hundred miles up the Niger River through Mali. Her inspiration was the eighteenth-century explorer Mungo Park, who lost his life in the process of becoming the first Westerner to travel the Niger River. Salak encountered furious hippos, tropical storms, and dysentery. And once she reached Timbuktu, her goal was to buy the freedom of two slave girls.

Down the Nile by Rosemary Mahoney (2007). Boston native Mahoney spent three days rowing over 100 miles down the Nile. Her craft was a 7-foot skiff given to her by a kind Egyptian stranger. She was not deterred by the previous year’s horrific slaying of fifty-eight tourists at a temple in Luxor. She closely interacted with rural Egyptians in a way few foreigners ever do, providing deep insight into the Egyptian people and culture. Oh, and yes, there were crocodiles.

Nothing to Declare, by Mary Morris (1988). Originally from Chicago, Morris spent two years in the 1980s traveling alone throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. She avoided the comforts of travel like hotels and cars, and instead sought to live as much like a native as possible. This is now considered a classic of travel writing.

East Toward Dawn, by Nan Watkins (2002). Spurred on by the end of her marriage and the tragic loss of her 23-year-old son, Watkins embarked on a solo trip through Europe and Asia just before her sixtieth birthday. Her trek took her from the coast of Ireland to the deserts of India, a true journey of the spirit. She immersed herself in local culture and described the joy of finding "rhino trees," trees high enough to climb to avoid charging rhinos.

Amazing women like these do exist beyond the pages of books. Two local women, very dear to me, recently sold all of their possessions, quit their jobs, and left Los Angeles behind. They spent a year backpacking around the world, traveling on foot whenever possible. Like the authors above, they fought off illness and injury and encountered many terrifying creatures (especially, of course, in Australia). They desperately sought Wi-Fi in Patagonia, finally finding a bar where they could hole up and watch their beloved Red Sox win the 2013 World Series. Their journey changed not only their lives but the lives of all of us lucky enough to know them. Welcome home, ladies! You are truly inspirational.