If there is one thing which has defined human nature throughout history it is our fidgety, irrepressible impulse to move, to discover and cross new frontiers, to adapt to new environments, to appease that same unquenchable curiosity which prompted our earliest ancestors to swing down from the treetops and start exploring the jungle floor six million years ago.
Our story, the history of travel, begins here, with our early ancestors, specifically the type of human known to science as Homo erectus, which lived from about two million years ago up until about 150,000 years ago. Homo erectus was remarkably unique and sophisticated in a number of ways: this was the first type of human to control fire and one of the first to use stone tools. And although we now know the species originated in East Africa, the first fossil discovered was in 1891 in Java, an Indonesian island some 5,000 miles away as the crow flies.
Of course, Homo erectus wasn’t a crow and it couldn’t fly, and although there is some evidence to suggest the species created basic rafts, it certainly didn’t invent anything which could cross thousands of miles of Indian Ocean. The only plausible answer, which has been confirmed by other fossil finds in the last century, is that Homo erectus saw fit to gradually leave Africa and colonise other parts of the world, notably the landmasses of Europe and Asia.
The first of the great human migrations had begun, and so too the history of travel.
It’s a peculiar thought that the human race once comprised several different species: our dazzling egos rarely permit us to imagine any other life form being remotely similar in terms of intelligence – even our own family, so to speak. But the fact is there were many, and all are now extinct apart from one: Homo sapiens, from which every human alive today is a direct descendant.
Like other human species, Homo sapiens – that’s us – originated in Africa, with the earliest fossils dating to approximately 200,000 years ago. And like Homo erectus, we migrated out of Africa and began colonising other parts of the world, with the first intrepid explorers flying the nest about 70,000 years ago.
Unlike Homo erectus, we travelled much further, most notably to Australia and the Americas, which meant that by about 10,000 years ago every major inhabitable landmass on Earth supported human life.
Our willingness to travel and explore had allowed us to populate the planet.
If a small and tenuous population of protohumans had not survived a hundred slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (and potential extinction) on the savannas of Africa, then Homo sapiens would never have emerged to spread throughout the globe. Stephen Jay Gould
Ironically, the next phase in the history of travel was sparked by people remaining in one place, abandoning the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle which had served its purpose so well for hundreds of thousands of years.
The reason for this was the invention of agriculture, otherwise known as the Neolithic Revolution, arguably the most important development in human history to date. It would go on to evolve independently in locations around the world, but the first example we know of was about 10,000 years ago in an area called the Fertile Crescent, which on today’s maps encompasses parts of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
The domestication of plants and animals removed the need for people to roam endless landscapes in search of food and water. Small groups of nomadic hunters, free from competition, were able to join together into single, settled societies, which were the seeds of civilisation as we know it.
Suddenly there was a surplus of food, people and, ultimately, time. Humans were no longer just surviving; they were living.
The implications of this were vast, but one particular way which affects our story is the innovation of new technologies which enabled us to better move around.
The most beautifully simple and obvious invention ever conceived by the human mind evolved, like most things, from something less sophisticated.
The use of logs as rollers dates back deeper than we’ll ever know, but the modern wheel – that is, built with spokes, attached to an axle and used specifically for transport – seems to have emerged around 5,000 years ago.
To thank for this we have the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation, who inhabited parts of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and formed one of the three earliest civilisations; the other two were Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Like any good idea, this one quickly spread, though without decent roads to travel on, the world’s oceans and rivers would continue to provide the best surface for long distance journeys.
A sailing vessel is alive in a way that no ship with mechanical power ever can be. Aubrey de Sélincourt
No one knows precisely when the first boats were invented, but the sailboat – a significant improvement on, say, a dugout canoe – probably came into use around the same time as the modern wheel.
The Mesopotamians are credited with its invention, and in any case certainly benefited from it, using it to develop a flourishing trade with neighbouring territories and cementing their place in history as one of the world’s most successful civilisations.
The sail boat would continue to evolve and develop, and some of the great voyages throughout history would never have been achieved were it not for this type of vessel. It allowed people to traverse vast distances in a way which simply would never have been possible by land.
Other ancient civilisations, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians, would continue to use the sail boat to both establish trading posts and to begin exploring the wider world. Eventually this would culminate in the first mini age of discovery, with Ancient Greek and Carthaginian explorers like Hanno, Nearchus and Hippalus making extraordinarily ambitious voyages to places as far east as the Indian subcontinent and as far north as the British Isles.
Civilisations continued to grow and multiply, and so too did the concept of travel as a means to trade and explore...
Phoenicia was the first civilisation to really up the game in terms of sea voyages: these maritime traders explored every corner of the Mediterranean from their base on the coasts of present-day Lebanon and Syria. And it wasn’t just trading posts they established: it was also their cultural influence, most significantly in the form of their alphabet, which forms the basis for all Western alphabets to this day.
Happily for our story, the emergence of written language opens the way to find out more about individual explorers from these ancient times, as opposed to deriving general anthropological trends from archaeological evidence.
Hanno the Navigator
500-400 BCThis Carthaginian explorer headed a fleet of ships which left the Mediterranean and explored the northwest coast of Africa. A few colonies were established on behalf of Carthage, which at the time was a major power in the Mediterranean. En route, the expedition discovered an island where the indigenous folk didn’t take too kindly to the intrusion. According to Hanno, they were violent savages, but he then casually notes skinning three captured females, which seems somewhat hypocritical.
Himilco the Navigator
500-400 BCHimilco was also a Carthaginian explorer, but unlike his counterpart he sailed north instead of south, tracking the Atlantic coastline of Europe as far as Albion, which is the earliest known name of the British Isles. Very little is known of the man himself, or indeed his voyage, only that he was probably trying to establish trading posts, and that he returned with terrifying tales of sea monsters encountered en route. There may have been some truth in this: have you ever seen a giant squid?
Scylax of Caryanda
550-450 BCThis Greek explorer is most famous for his 30-month voyage in which he was responsible for discovering the course of the Indus River. On the orders of Darius I, king of the Persian Empire, Scylax set sail from a place called Gandhara (the northern-most part of modern-day Pakistan) and followed the river to the Indian Ocean. From there, he sailed west, eventually reaching the Red Sea, and then as far north as Suez, at which point he doubled back for the return journey.
400-300 BCNearchus was a prolific Greek explorer who worked for Alexander the Great, who through a series of successful military campaigns established one of the largest empires of the ancient world. Among many other regions, Alexander conquered the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, at which point he dispatched Nearchus down the Indus River to explore. In the following months Nearchus and his men would explore the Persian Gulf and be the first Greeks to visit Bahrain.
Eudoxus of Cyzicus
200-100 BCEudoxus of Cyzicus was a Greek navigator who developed an interest in Africa after being blown off course onto its east coast from the Indian Ocean. He found the remains of a ship, which he believed had originally come from the west, meaning it had attempted to circumnavigate Africa. This inspired Eudoxus to try himself. Alas, he never returned, and was never heard from again. 1500 years would pass before anyone else attempted this extraordinary feat.
100-0 BCHippalus was a Greek navigator and explorer who is best known for his voyages from the Red Sea to the west coast of India across the Indian Ocean. In completing these journeys, he deduced that the Indian coastline ran from north to south - not, as everyone else in the ancient world had presumed, west to east. This discovery by Hippalus meant that the time it took seafaring travellers to reach India from the Red Sea was dramtically reduced.
Although exploration in the ancient world offered few guarantees, if voyagers were fortunate enough to return with their lives, they could also be sure to return with at least one invaluable commodity: knowledge.
The world was an enormous jigsaw puzzle which had to be painstakingly put together, piece by piece, a practice which we know today as cartography – the making of maps.
Depending on how loosely the word ‘map’ is defined, arguably the earliest known example can be found in the caves of Lascaux, near Bordeaux in France. Some of the pre-historic rock art within these caves depict star constellations, which throughout history have provided direction and helped people to navigate. The earliest known printed examples of star maps are the work of a Chinese astronomer called Su Song, who lived in the 11th century.
The first maps of planetary geography are difficult to date; there is little consensus regarding precisely when they emerged, and indeed whether some examples are even maps of real terrain as opposed to mythical lands.
It’s generally agreed the earliest surviving attempt at a world map is an engraved clay tablet from the ancient civilisation – and shown from the perspective of – Babylonia, dated to around the 6th century BC.
As time wore on and knowledge of the world increased among civilisations, maps grew from rudimentary reckonings to increasingly accurate depictions on much larger scales. A cartographer called Anaximander is credited with producing the first map (of which no evidence remains) showing the entire world as known to the Ancient Greeks, and his efforts were improved upon over the next few centuries by figures like Hecataeus, Herodotus and Eratosthenes.
In the 2nd century AD the Greco-Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy wrote his Geography, which compiled everything the Romans knew about the world at the time, and was fervently translated by knowledge-hungry civilisations for the next thousand years.
The stars may have given humans direction, but direction alone was not enough: we needed to know what we could expect to find in any given direction, and maps answered that need.
When I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia. Ptolemy
While the early civilisations of the Mediterranean Basin and Western Asia were developing successful trading economies and societies, spurred on in the knowledge that the more they travelled the greater their influence would become, something was stirring in the east...
In the far east of present-day China, on the banks of the Yellow River, a new civilisation had arisen of its own accord, and by about 220 BC it had been unified into a single kingdom – the Qin dynasty.
The first Emperor, one Qin Shi Huang, had rather grander aspirations than establishing colonies and trading posts. He decided he wanted to live forever, so sent his minions off into the East China Sea with the unenviable task of locating the secret of immortality.
The most famous of these voyagers was a man called Xu Fu, who duly went about fulfilling the request in the company of 3,000 virgin children. Between 220 and 210 BC Xu Fu made two expeditions. He returned from the first empty handed. He didn’t return at all from the second one, and is presumed to have lived out the rest of his days on the islands which we now know as Japan.
The Qin dynasty was followed by the Han dynasty, one of the rulers of which – Liu Bang – had slightly more grounded ambitions with regards to the outside world. Eager to know what lay in the lands to the west, in 138 BC he dispatched a man called Zhang Qian to find out and report back with information.
Little did Zhang Qian know, but his resulting journey into the heart of Asia would lay the foundations for one of the most important overland trade routes in human history: the Silk Road.
Qian's travels opened the door between Eastern and Western civilisation, and the world would never be the same again.
As we have seen, many thousands of years ago some humans began to abandon their nomadic existence, settling down into small communities to farm the land rather than roam it. Some of these communities developed into societies. Some of these societies developed into civilisations. And some of these civilisations developed into empires.
Travel led to knowledge, to trade, to unfathomable riches. Ultimately it led to power.
Many empires had sprung up by the start of the first millennium, but there was one in particular that dominates the history books, just as it dominated much of the Western world during its existence: the Roman Empire.
As you might imagine, the Roman Empire – the size of which at its height in the 2nd century was unprecedented – cost a fair bit to run. This meant trade was essential, which in turn meant travel was essential, both within and outside the borders.
Furthermore, the Romans weren’t exactly famous for their shy and retiring nature: they were quite partial to a bit of conquest here and there, meaning a decent army was essential. As well as conquering new lands, the army was responsible for protecting territory already gained, which meant soldiers needed to be able to travel through the empire with ease, which in turn meant good infrastructure was essential.
It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness. Seneca
The Romans did not invent paved pathways. Civilisations the world over, from the Incas to the Celts, developed these independently. The Romans were not the first to build roads to link settlements. The Minoans, for example, constructed a 50km road through the mountains of Crete in 2000 BC, more than a thousand years before Rome even existed.
The Romans were the first, however, to build long distance roads on a massive scale, and this made their empire the mightiest the world had ever known.
Rome was the hub, and great highways radiated out from the ancient city like spokes on a wheel, stitching the entire empire together, from the grassy hillocks of northern England to the burnt deserts of Saudi Arabia.
The Romans were so prolifically effective at facilitating travel within their empire that many of their roads are still clearly visible to this day, and others form the literal foundations for major routes still in use.
This expansive network was clearly helpful for the army, and traders who needed to transport goods, but others benefited too. Super-wealthy Romans built holiday villas in places like Pompeii, Baiae and Capri, and used them for vacations, marking the beginning of leisure travel and development of seaside resorts.
And then there were the early pilgrims, whose impressive journeys introduced an entirely new type of travel.
Religion points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage. Frederick Buechner
Whatever your religious convictions, or absence thereof, the vast majority of modern academics agree that Jesus existed as a historical figure. The general consensus among historians is that he was born around 5 BC and was probably a Jewish rabbi who preached his message in Nazareth in Israel, and was almost certainly crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem when he was about 33.
He also sparked the beginnings of Christianity, which by the 4th century had become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. It was around this time that early Christians began making the first pilgrimages to sites associated with Jesus in the Holy Land.
One of the earliest we know of was undertaken by the Pilgrim of Bordeaux, an anonymous character who travelled from France to Jerusalem and back again from 333-334 AD. He wrote about his journey in the form of an itinerarium, an ancient type of map used by the Romans to navigate their extensive road network.
The 6th and 7th centuries saw the birth of Muhammad and subsequent rise of Islam, and Mecca in modern-day Saudi Arabia became a focal point for Muslims to make a pilgrimage to.
This particular pilgrimage is called the Hajj, which means 'to intend a journey', and takes place in the last month of each Islamic year. The Hajj is compulsory for all physically and financially capable Muslims to carry out at least once in their lifetime to demonstrate their commitment to Islam.
Of the 15 million Muslims who visit Mecca annually, over 2 million arrive for the Hajj, creating the largest annual gathering of people anywhere in the world.
The best known of the many rituals Muslims are required to complete on arrival is to walk counter-clockwise around the Ka’aba, a cube-shaped building in the middle of Al-Masjid al-Haram – the holiest and most sacred mosque in Islam.
Just as Mecca is the holiest city in Islam, Varanasi is the holiest city in Hinduism. People have lived there for more than 3,000 years, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and older than most world religions, including Christianity and Islam.
For hundreds of years Hindus have been converging in this sacred city to bathe in the River Ganges, which to them is an incredibly sacred body of water.
Hindus believe that to bathe here cleanses all sins and releases one's soul, so some terminally ill Hindus travel here to die, making this particular pilgrimage a one way journey for many.
The city is famous for its ghats, a series of steps which lead down to the riverfront. There are almost 100, and while most are used by bathers, some are reserved for public cremations, which take place throughout the day.
Each individual pilgrimage is a very special type of travel: one geared towards spiritual betterment and inspired by faith.
The man that walks his own road, walks alone. Old Norse Proverb
One summer’s day in 793, a small population of monks on the tiny island of Lindisfarne, a monastery just off the northeast coast of England, saw a fleet of boats emerge on the horizon.
The monks wouldn’t have seen this type of vessel before. These boats were made from wood. They were long, narrow and shallow; their sterns and bows arched up symmetrically from both ends. The sterns were topped with carvings of snarling heads.
The boats had small cloth sails but were mainly propelled by teams of oarsmen sat on chests containing their worldly possessions.
The oarsmen were Vikings and their boats were called longships, which just happened to be ruthlessly effective at transporting would-be invaders into the heart of unsuspecting settlements, either from the ocean or rivers.
The monks on Lindisfarne on that summer’s day in 793 were about to become the first victims of what would be a 300 year Viking assault on settlements all over Europe.
There are lots of myths about the Vikings – horned helmets being a classic – but one indisputable fact is that they were prolific seafaring travellers who completed a series of incredible journeys from their Scandinavian homelands.
The Roman Empire had collapsed in the 6th century and this created a power vacuum throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The thousand years of chaos that followed are broadly known as the Dark Ages.
Long distance land travel became very difficult: what had once been a vast empire through which citizens and traders could move freely was now divided into hundreds of tribal territories, devoid of any central power structure. Trade and communication between distant lands suffered greatly as a result.
The Vikings realised that sea travel was the most viable way to connect with the rest of the world, be it for trade, settlement or just good old fashioned rape and pillage.
Indeed, the Vikings were no strangers to a bit of pillage. These Norse warriors plundered coastal and riverside settlements for hundreds of years, getting as far east as Istanbul and as far south as the north coast of Africa, crashing down like tsunamis upon vulnerable populations time and again.
One contemporary British chronicler gave an indication of the fearsome reputation the Vikings quickly established:
Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.
One Viking leader, Ivar the Boneless, was remarkably brutal. He was what other Vikings called a ‘berserker’, which meant he was one of a special few who went into a trance-like frenzy during battle (this is where the English word ‘berserk’ originates from). On one occasion Ivar dispensed with a captured English king by strapping him to a tree and shooting arrows at him until his head exploded.
On another, he killed a rival Viking leader by snapping his ribs at his spine and pulling them out so they resembled wings, then wrenching the victim’s lungs out through the gaping cavity in his back. This particular method of execution became known as the Blood Eagle.
The Vikings as explorers were exceptional, even when they didn’t mean to be: many of their most impressive discoveries were accidental. On one occasion, a Viking called Naddodd drifted off course on his way from Norway to the Faroe Islands, and ended up on Iceland. He didn’t much care for the climate and left, but he was followed by one Ingolfr Arnarson a few years later, who visited with the aim of settling.
As the story goes, Ingolfr, upon sighting land, cast two wooden pillars into the sea, vowing to settle between wherever they washed up. He reached the coast, scoured it for the pillars, found them and set up camp. Today this settlement is called Reykjavik.
The Vikings were also the first Europeans to travel to North America – not, as every school child will tell you, Christopher Columbus and his crew. About 100 years after Iceland was settled, some Vikings travelled even further west, ending up on Greenland, where a couple of colonies were established.
Soon after, a Viking captain called Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course on his way to one of the new Greenland colonies, and sighted the North American continent (but didn’t land). He was soon followed by another Viking, Leif Erikson, who did land and established a small settlement in the northern reaches of Newfoundland: he called it Vinland.
Although the Newfoundland settlement didn’t last long, Leif secured his place in history by being the first European to set foot in North America.
He would not be the last.
The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr. Muslim Hadith
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire – also known as the Byzantine Empire – enjoyed an initial period of relative peace, though soon became embroiled in a series of exhausting wars with its neighbour, the Sasanian Empire.
The confrontations culminated during the first two decades of the seventh century into a final conflict which crippled both powers both economically and militarily.
It was around this time that a man called Muhammad, born in the city of Mecca in modern-day Saudi Arabia, began claiming he was having conversations with higher beings. He started preaching the resulting revelations and gradually amassed an army (literally) of followers, who under his leadership conquered Mecca, which along with the rest of the region swiftly converted to a new religion: Islam.
By the time Muhammad died in 632, he had unified the Arabian Peninsula both politically and religiously, and this marked the beginning of a golden age for the Muslim world.
Over the next century, the Muslims swept through the Middle East, Northern Africa and parts of Southern Europe, invading and claiming territory from the weakened Byzantine and Sasanian empires, and establishing their own empire – or caliphate – which by 750 had become the largest the world had ever seen.
The Islamic caliphate fostered remarkable ambitions and was extraordinarily progressive, even by today’s standards.
Most major cities featured hospitals which were open 24 hours a day and which by law had to provide free healthcare for citizens and foreigners alike, regardless of wealth or status – and mental illness was taken just as seriously as physical ailment. Freedom of expression was the norm, and religious tolerance was widespread, with high level government positions being awarded on merit to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Education flourished with the emergence of leading learning centres, like the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, widely regarded to be the oldest in the world and certainly the first to issue degrees.
Above everything, the Muslims craved knowledge; they sought to expand their minds as much as they did their territories.
One of the key tenets of the Islamic Golden Age was the efforts of scholars to translate into Arabic everything that was known about the world, be it regarding medicine, architecture, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, science, or any other subject. And they absorbed this knowledge from peoples past and present; the Greeks and the Romans, the Indians and the Chinese, the Persians and the Phoenicians, the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians.
As well as fervently translating and documenting all that was known about the world, the Muslims travelled throughout it as far as they feasibly could, establishing trading posts and connecting with foreign lands. The empire ran on a merchant economy, the foundation of which was the vastly lucrative trade routes which ran from the far east of China to the far west of northern Africa and the Mediterranean.
The Muslim empire was the beating heart of the global market; everything either began there, passed through there, or ended up there. Traders travelled far and wide, both disseminating and returning with new inventions, technologies, ideas, foods, goods, and every other conceivable thing that contributes to the makeup of human society.
Naturally, the success and influence of the Muslim empire did not go unnoticed by other world powers, and the first two or three centuries of the second millennium would mark its decline, with major threats emerging from both the west and the east.
Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. Pope Urban II
One of the many results of Muslim expansion was that the Holy Land eventually became closed off to European Christians. By the turn of the second millennium, pilgrimages to sites associated with Jesus, notably in Jerusalem, were commonplace for these people, and to suddenly be denied access to the source of their religion caused a furore.
Capitalising on this, Pope Urban II, in late 1095, delivered one of the most important speeches in history: he urged all Christians in Europe to take up arms, to go to war with the Muslims, and to wrest back control of Jerusalem.
The war cry was a success: between 60,000 and 100,000 Christians throughout Europe joined forces to march on the Holy Land and, through sheer numbers alone rather than military skill, laid siege to Jerusalem, massacring thousands of Muslim and Jewish residents and taking control.
Like the Vikings, Crusaders have been reinvented and romanticised over the centuries into the literal ideal of knights in shining armour, but the reality is that they came from all walks of life, and often displayed chilling acts of brutality.
Many were simple peasants, eager for adventure and attracted to the spiritual immunity promised by Pope Urban II for their allegiance. Others were less scrupulous noblemen, who saw the opportunity to increase their land and wealth along the way through pillage. All had a willingness to travel, to leave the familiar, to accept they may never return.
I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you. Genghis Khan
While the Muslims were busy fending off the last of the Crusaders from the west, a greater and far more ominous power was rising in the east.
By the start of the thirteenth century, a Mongolian man who went by the name Temujin had succeeded in unifying the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into a single dynasty.
The man became known as Genghis Khan and his dynasty developed over the next few decades into the Mongol Empire, which at its greatest extent in 1279 covered almost 25% of the planet’s land surface.
To this day the Mongol Empire remains the largest contained land empire in the history of the world.
It was also one of the shortest-lived, fragmenting into warring factions a mere 150 years after it emerged, but for those few decades of stability an unprecedented freedom of movement and degree of safety for travellers and traders existed throughout the vast territory.
Historians have termed this period of stability the Pax Mongolica – the literal Latin translation is ‘Mongol Peace’ – and it meant the Silk Road, the collective name for the ancient land trade routes linking Europe and Asia, was fully re-established after centuries of fragmentation and being fraught with danger.
“A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head can wander safely through the realm,” was a common saying at the time.
Whether or not a gold-carrying maiden ever did wander through the realm is unclear, but we do know that a Venetian merchant called Marco Polo did.
Venetian Rustichello da Pisa must have scarcely been able to believe his luck. While languishing in a Genoese prison in 1298, probably for his part in a battle between Venice and Genoa (in which Venice lost), he was given a new cellmate who went by the name Marco Polo, a fellow Venetian who had been imprisoned for similar reasons.
Pisa was an Italian romance writer with an insatiable interest in the East, which is exactly where Polo, a Venetian merchant, had just experienced one of the most epic adventures of all time: a 24 year roam through lands that held practically mythical status to Europeans at the time.
Marco was born in Venice in 1254 into a family of wealthy and influential jewel merchants. When he was six years old, his father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo, left Venice and travelled first to Constantinople (Istanbul) and then further east into the Mongol Empire, where they set up trading posts and met Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China.
Intrigued by Christianity, the emperor urged the two merchants to go back to Europe and return with scholars who could better explain the religion and European society in general. Niccolo and Maffeo arrived back in Venice in 1269 and two years later set off again for the East, this time with two missionaries and the teenaged Marco in tow.
When they eventually returned to Venice in 1295 – now fabulously rich – they found it at war with Genoa, which is how Marco ended up in his cell with Rustichello.
Rustichello was enthralled by Marco’s life and urged the explorer to tell him everything. The result was the Book of the Marvels of the World, a work which described in detail the regions of the Middle East, India, Sri Lanka, Central Asia, Russia, China, Japan, South East Asia and the coast of East Africa, not to mention the inner workings of Far Eastern society.
Though generally agreed at the time (and now) to be embellished, the book was extremely popular, widely translated and published time and time again.
The tales Marco Polo returned with played a big part in reigniting European interest in the Far East and thus helped to spark the European Age of Discovery, a golden age for travel and exploration.
I have not told half of what I saw, for I know I would not be believed. Marco Polo
Back on the misty horizon that is the beginning of this history, you may remember reading about an explorer from Ancient Greece called Eudoxus, who lived in the 2nd century BC. He was the first to try to sail around the African continent, an endeavour which ultimately failed and led to his death. Amazingly, it would be 1500 years before someone successfully completed the journey.
That person came in the form of Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer who in 1498 became the first European to circumnavigate Africa and reach India. It was an enormous achievement, one preceded by many years of failed attempts, hundreds of shipwrecks and thousands of lost lives.
To understand why the Portuguese – and soon after the Spanish, English, French and Dutch – were so obsessed with finding a sea route to Asia from Europe we have to consider the state of the world at the time.
The Western Roman Empire was long gone and the Eastern Roman Empire had been gradually overcome by the Islamic Ottomans, culminating with the fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453. Muslims now controlled land access from Europe to Asia, making trade with the Far East – the lifeblood of many European economies – expensive and dangerous.
Of all the phenomenally valuable commodities from the Far East, spice was the most lucrative and sought after: it was used for many things in medieval Europe, including cuisine, medicine, perfume and rituals. The Portuguese knew that if they could find a way to bypass the traditional land trading routes and the expensive middle men, they could gain a serious foothold in the spice trade, which would lead to untold fortune.
And so it was, the Age of Discovery began, and with it a scramble among European powers to explore the world.
As we have seen, in 1498 Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, became the first European to sail around Africa and reach India. The momentous implications of this journey cannot be emphasised enough. Vasco da Gama filled a colossal gap in European maritime knowledge and opened up a whole new era of travel.
The entire voyage took almost two years, during which time da Gama lost two of the four ships in his fleet and more than half of the 170 crew. But he returned a hero, having discovered the fabled Indian spice routes. In the decade that followed, the Portuguese would travel even further east, eventually discovering and conquering the source of the trade, the Spice Islands themselves (today the Maluku Islands) in Indonesia.
It should be said, for the record, that Vasco da Gama, for all his navigational prowess, was a man of exceptional cruelty. Driven by his desire to establish Portuguese dominance in the region, he dealt with anyone he viewed as competition – and those he didn’t – with ruthless violence. On one occasion he intercepted a ship in the Indian Ocean with 400 unarmed pilgrims on their way to Mecca.
After looting the boat and locking the men, women and children below deck, he set fire to the ship and burned them all alive. An eye witness described how da Gama was unmoved after looking through the porthole to see panic-stricken mothers holding up their babies and begging for mercy.
While the Portuguese were tentatively scoping their way along the coast of Africa looking for a way around to Asia, the Spanish were looking to the west. They had the same ambitions as the Portuguese – to tap into the spice trade, albeit from a different direction.
Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer, was the man hired by the Spanish monarchs to find the route.
Contrary to popular belief, Columbus and his contemporaries knew that the world was round, not flat, so to seek Asia travelling west across the Atlantic was not an unreasonable strategy.
What Columbus didn’t know about was the existence of the American continents. No one knew about them. So when Columbus sighted land during his first voyage in 1492 he assumed he had discovered the other side of Asia, which is how the Caribbean gained its misnomer of the West Indies.
The land Columbus found – he would return another three times in his lifetime – quickly became known as the New World, and word spread throughout Europe like wildfire.
Columbus never did make it to Asia and he wasn’t the first European to reach the Americas (as you may remember, a Viking expedition travelled there hundreds of years previous), but he was the first European to establish regular contact with the new lands, and for this he became one of the most important figures in the history of the world.
One obvious yet incredibly challenging journey that still had to be made was a full circumnavigation of the planet. This challenge was given to the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, hired by Spain, who in 1519 set sail across the Atlantic with the same goal as Columbus: to find a westerly route to the Spice Islands, from which he could carry on in the same direction all the way back to Europe, thus completing a full loop.
The voyage was unsurprisingly tortuous, and by the time the fleet eventually found its way to the Pacific after crossing through the southern tip of South America — now known as the Straits of Magellan — there had been mutinies, storms and wrecks. Still, the remaining men pushed on across the Pacific and found their goal: the Spice Islands.
For Magellan, this was the region where his journey ended. He decided to try and convert the inhabitants of Mactan, an island in the Philippines, to Christianity, and when the leader of the island refused, Magellan returned with the intention to attack. The resulting battle didn’t go well for the captain: he was incapacitated by a bamboo spear and subsequently hacked to death by the locals.
Some of his men survived and carried on the journey, now under the leadership of a man called Juan Sebastian Elcano, and by 1522 arrived back in Spain. Of the five ships and 270 men that originally set sail three years before, one ship returned with just 18 survivors.
By the turn of the seventeenth century the coasts of most of the world’s significant landmasses had been mapped to varying degrees of accuracy, but there was one major omission: the 3 million square miles of land that we now know as Australia.
Medieval Europeans suspected the existence of a great continent, mainly based on the theory that a certain amount of land in the Southern Hemisphere was needed to balance out the land in the Northern Hemisphere. But no one had ever actually seen it.
Not until, that is, a Dutch navigator called Willem Janszoon landed on the north-eastern tip of the country while searching for trading posts in 1606.
He soon departed back to Asia, though, and another 40 years would pass before someone saw fit to delve a little deeper. That person was a Dutch explorer called Abel Tasman, who between 1642-44 became the first explorer to circumnavigate Australia.
Tasman also became the first explorer to reach Tasmania (his namesake), New Zealand and many of the Pacific Islands, including Fiji. He was sufficiently interested enough in Australia to afford it the name New Holland, loosely claiming it for the Dutch, but neither he nor any of his compatriots ever settled there.
The voyages and explorations that cumulated in the Age of Discovery changed the world forever.
The Age of Discovery began with Portugal trying to tap into the lucrative spice trade and ended with a global mingling of cultures, foods and technologies on a scale never seen before. Historians have termed this meeting of the Old and New Worlds the Columbian Exchange, after the explorer who was the first to establish regular contact.
The extent to which people benefited from the Columbian Exchange really depended on where they were born. Generally speaking, the march towards globalisation was enormously advantageous to European powers and mostly cataclysmic for everyone else.
Diseases like small pox and measles had always been a problem for Europeans and Asians, but after countless generations many had developed a natural immunity. Native Americans, however, had no immunity whatsoever, and these diseases absolutely decimated their populations. Conservative estimates claim that 85-95% of these peoples had been wiped out by Old World diseases within 150 years.
This meant there was practically no resistance to European powers seeking to establish colonies in the Americas. When these colonies had been established, people were needed to work in the fields of the new lands, and for this resource Europeans turned their attention to Africa. And so began the Atlantic slave trade.
One of the many, many consequences of the Age of Discovery and Columbian Exchange was that Europe became phenomenally rich – and remains so to this day.
In all parts of the Old World, as well as of the New, it was evident that Columbus had kindled a fire in every mariner's heart. That fire was the harbinger of a new era, for it was not to be extinguished. Charles Kendall Adams
As we learnt earlier, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe was plunged into what historians have termed the Dark Ages, one of the many lowlights of which was the Black Death, which wiped out half the continent's population.
Perhaps understandably, by the time European powers had finally gathered themselves and achieved some stability they began looking back to the ancient civilisations of Rome and Greece with an air of nostalgia.
The renewed interest in classical civilisations – combined with a surplus of wealth – sparked a cultural movement called the Renaissance. It sprouted in Florence before blossoming throughout Italy and then the whole of Europe, and at its essence was a revival of European art and literature inspired by classical models.
It was this cultural movement that set the scene for the first ever gap years.
Starting in the mid 17th century, young male English aristocrats began travelling across the Channel to explore France, Italy and other countries on the continent. Money was no object and they would hire guides and carriages as and when they needed them.
The aim was to build on their classical education, to see the architectural skeletons of the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds with their own eyes, to mingle with the high society of their European neighbours, to study first-hand the grand masterpieces being created by men like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, to perfect their foreign languages and etiquette, to commission paintings and sculptures which they could bring home as souvenirs – proof of their broadened horizons and connections.
These men became known as the Grand Tourists and their journey was called the Grand Tour. The itinerary depended on the whims of individual travellers but the compulsory destinations were Paris, Florence and Rome, where anything up to a year would be spent in each.
For about 200 years the Grand Tour was a privilege only available to the fabulously wealthy. However, as industry developed, the possibility to travel both domestically and internationally widened enormously for those lower down the social ladder.
The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the mid 18th century and spread throughout Europe and North America over the next few decades.
The ways in which it changed society are practically infinite but as far as our story is concerned one of the most interesting developments was that of the railroad.
The main cities of Europe were already reasonably well-connected by actual roads, but railways offered a considerably cheaper, quicker, safer and more comfortable alternative.
Britain was the first to recognise the infrastructural advantages of railways and by 1850 – just 20 years after the first intercity track opened – there were an astonishing 7,000 miles of railroads stitching the country together.
The rest of Western Europe soon emulated Britain’s lead and by the turn of the 20th century trains completely dominated long distance land transport, and remain to do so in most countries around the world.
The birth of the railroad marked a colossal leap forward in making travel accessible to the masses and it wasn’t long before someone capitalised on the new infrastructure.
Many people even to this day claim that train travel is the best way to get around. It’s relatively cheap, it allows travellers to absorb the scenery through which they move and it offers the kind of comfort impossible to find on planes and busses. It is also an incredibly safe form of travel.
The industrial revolution has brought different peoples in such close contact with one another through colonisation and commerce that no matter how some nations may still look down upon others, no country can harbour the illusion that its career is decided wholly within itself. John Dewey
One summer’s day in 1841 a man called Thomas Cook was walking to a meeting in Leicester, England. The meeting was hosted by his local temperance society, part of a wider movement which campaigned for moderation of alcohol intake. Members believed alcohol abuse was the root cause of most of the social problems in Victorian Britain.
Cook later recalled from that walk: “The thought suddenly flashed across my mind as to the practicability of employing the great powers of railways and locomotion for the furtherance of this social reform.”
Upon reaching his meeting, Cook suggested to the members that for their next get-together, which was 12 miles away in the town of Loughborough, he charter a train to get them there and back, and provide everyone’s lunch, too. The idea was met with great approval, so Cook negotiated a deal with Midland Counties Railway Company. Each passenger would be charged a shilling for return tickets and food, and Cook would receive a percentage of the total figure made.
The concept was simple. Everyone was a winner. The railway company was happy to get so many seats filled up in one booking.
Thomas Cook was happy because for arranging the excursion he received a share of the profits. And the passengers were happy because they didn’t have to go to the bother of organising their journeys. Or lunch. Everything was taken care of in one handy package.
Cook could never have known it, but the thought that flashed across his mind on that summer’s day in 1841 planted the seed for what is today the world’s fastest growing industry, one which sees more than a billion people cross international borders every year, and one which is worth more than a trillion dollars to the global economy: tourism.
Buoyed by the success of that initial outing, Cook continued for the next few years to organise similar excursions, in the process inadvertently becoming the world’s first travel agent. It wasn’t long before he saw the potential for leisure travel and started putting together tours of Scotland, and then eventually overseas trips to Europe, Egypt and the States.
Unlike the Grand Tours of the 17th and 18th centuries, these trips were available to a much wider range of people, namely the newly created middle classes.
Thomas Cook died in 1892 and his sons and grandsons continued to run the family business, which by the turn of the twentieth century had offices in Australia and New Zealand and had organised over 3 million trips.
And that was just the beginning.
Transport to travel is what armies are to conquest: the better the former the easier the latter.
The introduction of railways marked an enormous leap forward in facilitating mass transit but it wasn't the only invention to emerge from the fires of the Industrial Revolution.
Hot on the heels of the new locomotives were enormous ships capable of carrying people en masse across oceans in relative comfort for the first time in history. Unlike their predecessors these ships were made from steel, not wood, and powered by steam, not wind.
The American-built SS Savannah is often cited as the first steamship to make a transatlantic crossing, from Georgia to Liverpool in 1819, but this is a slightly misleading accolade. The ship was a hybrid of a sailing ship and steamship, and it only actually used steam propulsion for a tiny portion of the trip. Furthermore, during the historic crossing, the ship was completely devoid of passengers: so novel was the new design that people simply mistrusted it and not a single ticket was sold.
Still, the scene was set and with constantly improving technology it would only be a matter of time before steam-powered engines replaced sails universally.
The most important thing was that a regularly scheduled transatlantic crossing was fast becoming a reality; the Old and New Worlds were being connected on a scale that just a century earlier would have been unimaginable.
One of the most famous – or infamous – ships of this age was the aptly named RMS Titanic, the colossal passenger liner which struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic in 1912 on her maiden voyage to America, and crashed onto the ocean floor soon after. More than two thirds of the 2,224 souls on board perished in the freezing waters.
The Titanic, like many of the great ships of the time, was more than just a vessel: it symbolised a new life in a new world. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw millions of people from Europe emigrate to the United States – the New World – in search of a better life, something that became known as the American Dream.
One evening in 1878 in the town of Richmond, Indiana, USA, a father brought home a toy for his two young sons, Orville and Wilbur. The toy was made from paper, bamboo and cork, and resembled what we might recognise today as a basic helicopter.
The father threw the toy into the air and, speaking many years later, the brothers recalled: “Instead of falling to the floor, as we expected, it flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor.”
Orville and Wilbur – better known today as the Wright Brothers – were utterly entranced by this thing. They played with the toy relentlessly and when it broke, instead of pestering their father for a replacement they just built a new one.
The boys turned into men and as they grew bigger and stronger so did their homemade toys, and a week before Christmas Day in 1903 they completed the first ever heavier-than-air human flight in their newly invented flying machine. It lasted 12 seconds, reached an altitude of ten feet and covered a distance of 37 metres.
The heavier-than-air point is important. For thousands of years humans have been launching themselves into the skies using gliding contraptions with varying degrees of success. But what the Wright Brothers had achieved was to invent something which actually powered through the air rather than simply resting on its currents.
It was a remarkable technological breakthrough, one which is still being fervently honed and improved to this day, though its basic principles remain the same. Humans had found a way to travel across land, they’d found a way to travel across water, and now they had found a way to travel through the air.
The first half of the 20th century was marked by two world wars, and the military potential of planes was lost on no one. This led to flying technology and the production of aeroplanes accelerating at a blistering pace, and by the end of the Second World War there was a surplus of disused military aircraft.
The larger bombers were converted into commercial aircraft, which started a whole new industry, and soon planes for the first time were being built solely to transport passengers en masse.
The first was the de Havilland DH 106 Comet, which was developed in Hertfordshire in the UK, and launched its commercial service in 1952. Alas, the design was flawed, and after several planes breaking up mid-flight the service was retracted.
Although the Comet was brought back into service after some much-needed adjustments, it would be a company called Boeing that saw enduring success with its commercial aircraft. Boeing was already well-established as a plane manufacturer, having developed a name for itself making military aircraft during World War II.
When the war ended Boeing turned its attention to passenger aircraft and in 1958, barely half a century since the Wright Brothers’ first tentative flight, launched its 707 model. One of the routes the new jet flew was New York to London, and 1958 was the first year that more passengers travelled to and from America by air than by ship.
A new era of travel had begun. Our era.
The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space on the infinite highway of the air. Wilbur Wright
As you may remember, the first circumnavigation of the planet – an expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan – took three years. You can now do it in less than three days.
The jumbo jet has turned the world into a village. And it’s becoming ever-more affordable to visit. Nowadays it’s not unusual to pick up flights that come in cheaper than the train ticket to the airport. Overseas holidays are now part of mainstream culture – at least for those lucky enough to have been born in one of the world’s wealthy countries – and as noted earlier, tourism is the fasted growing industry in the world.
Plane travel wasn’t always affordable. That’s a relatively new development. Back in the 1950s, when commercial air travel was just taking off, it was prohibitively expensive for most.
Despite this, the late '50s through to the '70s marked a golden period in the age of travel, a period which was the precursor to today’s gap years. In a domestic sense, the emergence of the personal automobile gave enormous freedom at home, and in an international sense, bus travel became very popular.
Life is a journey. It revolves around the decisions you take, the experiences you have on the way, and the reflections you make on what you’ve achieved. Tom Griffiths
Young backpackers from Europe and America began travelling overland from Europe to the Indian subcontinent on what quickly became known as the Hippy Trail.
Most began in London or Amsterdam, travelled east via Greece to Turkey, continued through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, before ending up in Goa, India or Kathmandu, Nepal, and in some cases, right down to Thailand.
Some were seeking spiritual enlightenment, some were keen to sample as much hashish as possible, some simply wanted an adventure, but all had one thing in common: a desire to be on the move for as long and as cheaply as possible.
Due to its cost, flying was out the question, so the only option was to travel overland. Companies quickly sprung up to cater for these young intrepids.
One of these companies was started by a young Australian called Graham ‘Skroo’ Turner, who while working in the northeast of England purchased an old double decker bus and decided to drive to Morocco in it – as you do. The seats quickly sold and off they went. Turner would go on to drive all the way to Kathmandu, and his first company, Top Deck Travel, was born. The young entrepreneur went on to form Flight Centre, which today is one of the world’s biggest and most successful travel companies.
Although the steadily dropping price of flying meant many began to opt for that form of transport, overland journeys remained popular, and other companies sprung up in the wake of Top Deck, including Dragoman in 1981 and Oasis Overland in 1997.
In the same year that Turner bought his bus, Tony Wheeler and his girlfriend Maureen headed out to Asia on the Hippy Trail and decided to write a guidebook for others following in their footsteps.
They called their guide Asia on the Cheap, and it would be the first book published under the newly-formed Lonely Planet, which today is the largest travel guide publisher in the world.
Travel guide books remain an essential item for many travellers on the road, but with the digital age there had to be an online space for backpackers, too.
The first to realise this were Tom Griffiths and Peter Pedrick, and in 1998 they founded gapyear.com, the same website on which you read this history. For the first time there was a platform that not only gave essential advice for those planning a gap year, but also provided a place for backpackers to connect with each other digitally.
There are many limits within our world, but one thing which knows no bounds is our collective curiosity.
Our destiny as a race is to explore, to travel, to turn over every rock in our universe. The great voyages of the Age of Discovery marked a golden age for travel, and inspired the confidence needed to keep going.
The world had begun to take shape on our maps and in our minds, but enormous blank spaces remained. Victorian explorers like David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley delved into the wild, uncharted heart of the African continent, while explorers like Robert Burke and William Wills traipsed across the burnt, bewildering vastness of the Australian Outback.
In 1831 a young naturalist called Charles Darwin set off on a five year circumnavigation of the planet, during which time he would become entranced by the world’s geology and biology, and many years later reveal his theory of evolution by natural selection.
The last century has seen the world’s attention drawn towards the extremities of the planet; the deepest oceans, the highest mountains, the bitter polar regions. And eventually beyond our watery little world, into Space itself.
The polar regions of our planet caught the attention of explorers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period when navigational and transport aids were becoming sophisticated enough to offer a glimmer of a chance against the ferociously harsh elements that characterise the North and South poles.
Since as early as the 1500s explorers had been trying to discover the Northwest Passage, a sea route which linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Arctic Ocean, but it wouldn’t be until 1903 that a Norwegian called Roald Amundsen was able to fully navigate the treacherous route.
Amundsen was prolific. His Northwest Passage expedition alone was enough to secure him legendary status as an explorer, but incredibly he would also go on to be the first man to reach both the South Pole, in 1911, and the North Pole, in 1926.
History rarely remembers those who came second, but a special mention should be afforded for Robert Falcon Scott, a British explorer who led an expedition which was trying to reach the South Pole before Amundsen.
When they arrived on 17 January, 1912, they discovered to their crushing dismay Amundsen’s team had won the race by 34 days and already departed.
Scott and his men began the gruelling return journey but were never seen alive again: their frozen, emaciated bodies were discovered in a tent ten months later.
Amazingly, almost half a century would pass before humans once again reached the South Pole overland, an achievement which came in the form of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. One of the members of this team was one Edmund Hillary, who had secured his place in world history five years before when he summited a certain mountain in the Himalayas.
The group, which comprised a team of New Zealanders, led by Hillary, and British, led by Dr Vivian Fuchs, not only reached the South Pole, but also became the first to traverse the continent of Antarctica overland. This accomplishment would not be repeated until 1981, when Ranulph Fiennes and his Transglobe Expedition became the first to make an overland circumpolar navigation of the planet.
The conditions at the top of Everest, the highest mountain in the world, read like a weather forecast from an alien planet: 200mph winds, brutally cold temperatures, a disquieting deficiency of breathable oxygen.
In 1953 Edmund Hillary became the first man to summit the peak, along with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
Unlike many of the great explorers discussed in this history of travel, Hillary wasn’t in search of trading routes, religious sites, a new place to live, fame and fortune, conquest or science; he simply climbed it because it was there. Which is as good a reason as any.
He would later say: “If someone starts out on a challenging activity, completely confident they’re going to succeed, why bother starting? It’s not much of a challenge.”
Hillary certainly had no guarantees of success, and few could deny the enormity of his challenge. Although his climbing gear was clearly adequate for him, it was thoroughly rudimentary compared to today’s standard of equipment. Even now, for every 10 people who successfully summit Everest, one person dies.
What makes Everest so incredibly dangerous is not so much the mountain itself – technically speaking, the terrain is fairly straightforward for experienced mountaineers – rather the extreme conditions in which its peak resides.
The portion of the mountain which is over 8,000 metres high is known as the Death Zone, due to the extreme temperatures and lack of breathable oxygen. This is so debilitating on the human body that the final mile to the summit usually takes climbers – typically people at the very peak of physical fitness – anything up to 12 hours to trudge. Frozen corpses are an eerily common sight in the Death Zone of Mount Everest.
The deepest ocean on our planet is the Pacific, and the deepest part of the deepest ocean is the Mariana Trench, the floor of which sits almost seven miles beneath the surface. For context, that’s about the same distance a commercial airliner at maximum cruising altitude flies from the ground. More than 6,500 ft higher than Mount Everest.
The first people to fully descend into the abyss – all 35,797 ft of it – were Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh on 23 January, 1960. Piccard was a Swiss oceanographer and engineer, and Walsh was a US Navy Lieutenant.
The bravery of Piccard and Walsh can scarcely be emphasised enough. The deepest point of the deepest ocean is – as far as humans are concerned – one of the most inhospitable places on our planet.
The weight of the water at that depth is scarcely comprehendible: for every square inch there are eight tons of pressure. If their submarine – it was called the Trieste – were to succumb to the immense forces bearing down upon it, the result would have been catastrophic.
At the 30,000 feet mark, one of the outer window panes on the vessel cracked, causing the vessel to shudder violently. This meant there was just a single pane of glass between the men and instant death thought, unaware of the damage, they decided to press on and continue their descent regardless.
Almost five hours after beginning their journey, Piccard and Walsh touched down on the primordial ooze that covers the floor of the Mariana Trench. Once there, they discovered the crack in the outer window pane, which meant they only spent 20 minutes at the bottom before heading back up.
Amazingly, before this feat, not even an unmanned vessel had reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench. When asked many years later why he didn’t just send a robot down there, Don Walsh said: “You gotta be there because that’s what we do.”
And so to space, where with a big bang it all began.
Try to imagine the almost infinite nature of space and your mind will probably begin to flounder. Perhaps this is because everything on Earth, everything we have ever known, is finite, and our brains simply cannot comprehend anything but.
All life is finite, be it the life coursing through the wings of a gnat, the roots of a great oak or the arteries of a human heart. All inanimate objects are finite, even mountains, which rise and fall like great waves on the sea of time.
The Earth itself is finite: it once didn’t exist and there will be a time when it once more ceases to exist.
All travel on Earth is finite, too, owing to the very spherical nature of our little marble: move in any direction for long enough and you will eventually end up back where you started.
It took a long time, many thousands of years, to explore the lump of rock upon which we live, to find its limits, and our own in the process, but that is just the beginning of the history of travel.
The next age of discovery, an age which has already begun, will take place in space, and like space, will not be finite, but infinite.
Tentative steps have been taken in the last few decades and, in a similar vein of irony to plane technology, some of the greatest creative advances have been inspired by the destructive urges spawned by war, both literal, in the case of World War 2, and ideological, in the case of the Cold War.
In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Germany launched a successful test flight of the world’s first ballistic missile. It was called the V-2 rocket and, apart from being devastatingly destructive, these missiles were famous for being the first objects created by man to reach space. To the enduring dismay of the Allies, they would depart back to Earth soon after. But a technogical milestone had been achieved.
Wernher von BraunOne of the key architects behind the V-2’s technology was a man called Wernher von Braun; he was at the centre of the Nazi’s rocket development program. Germany was defeated in 1945 and, in what became known as Operation Paperclip – an effort by the USA to gather the greatest minds in Europe, regardless of wartime allegiance – Braun was assimilated into the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The poached scientist would go on to lead the team which developed the Saturn V launch vehicle, which would provide the immense thrust needed to put a man on the moon.
Sergei KorolevSergei Korolev was Wernher von Braun’s Russian counterpart: he headed up the Soviet Space program and is considered one of the fathers of astronautics. Korolev had such a brilliant mind and was so instrumental for so much of the Soviets’ success in space that in his lifetime he was known simply as “The Chief Designer”. The Soviets’ reluctance to publically identify their star rocket scientist stemmed from a (probably perfectly reasonable) fear that the Americans would send assassins to kill him. It wasn’t until after Korolev’s death in 1966 that he was acknowledged and given the credit he was due.
Even in an age when technology seems to advance at approximately the same speed as light, the idea of a human kicking up clouds of dust on the moon is still scarcely plausible. Perhaps this is because almost half a century has passed since the last moon landing (there have been six, though we only ever hear about one) or perhaps it’s because it really was such a giant leap for mankind.
Neil Armstrong, as you no doubt know, was the man who, while taking a small step, coined that phrase. The pressure of saying something clever to the world’s population at the precise moment of summiting the pinnacle of human achievement must have been immense.
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. John F. Kennedy
The year was 1969, and the Cold War – the struggle for ideological supremacy between the USA and USSR, the super powers of the world – was in a state of permafrost.
Since the end of the Second World War a deep mistrust had grown like a cancer between the two nations, and they became embroiled in an endless game of one-upmanship, which had implications – potentially disastrous – for the entire planet. Though they inadvertently fought one another on foreign battle grounds, this war was mostly psychological; a battle of ideas and minds which often manifested itself in technological breakthroughs, and nowhere was this more pronounced than in space exploration.
Until the 1969 moon landing, the Soviets had pipped the Americans to the post for most of the major milestones, leading the way in a space race they later claimed not to be part of.
In 1957 they launched Sputnik 1, which became the first ever satellite to orbit the Earth. Later that year they launched the first animal into orbit – Laika the dog – on board Sputnik 2.
In 1959 they launched Luna 2, which became the first manmade object to land on (or, to be more accurate, crash into) the moon. In 1961 the Soviets achieved the first human spaceflight; Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth and returned safely, and a national hero. He was followed in 1963 by Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and in 1965 Alexey Leonov would become the first human to exit a spacecraft and conduct a spacewalk. He was to be the first of many.
After the USA had seized the ultimate prize – a man on the moon – the Space Race quickly declined, and the major exploratory advances in the last few decades have been made by robots.
There are many manmade probes cruising through space as you read this, but by far the farthest is NASA's Voyager 1 space probe.
The first Voyager probe was launched by the USA in 1977 and certainly lives up to its name: at the time of writing it is approximately 12 billion miles from the Sun, yet it has barely left the starting blocks on its vast journey to explore other star systems.
After 40,000 years of travelling through interstellar space, it will pass close to it's first star, Gliese 445, before continuing on it's epic journey through the Milky Way galaxy, at a speed of around 17 kilometers a second.
The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of Planet Earth, taken by Voyager 1, from 3.7 billion miles away, through the rings of Saturn, at the request of Carl Sagan. He reflected:
That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,' every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
A little closer to home – 350,000,000 miles, to be approximate – the Mars rover Curiosity has been diligently scouting out the Red Planet, which in all likelihood will one day be inhabited by humans (providing the species doesn’t obliterate itself first, of course), or at least play host to an intergalactic service station.
Most recently, the European Space Agency's extraordinary Rosetta mission saw a spacecraft land on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is hurtling through space at 24,600 miles an hour. Mission manager Dr Fred Jansen described the final stage of the multi-million-mile journey as the equivalent of transferring one object from a speeding bullet to another.
The ESA mission is aptly named after the Rosetta Stone, an enormous, engraved slab of rock, and one of the greatest archaeological treasures ever discovered: it effectively translated what had been undecipherable Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the process completely revolutionising our understanding of the past.
It is hoped that the Rosetta mission will provide something similar, except on a much grander scale. It is assumed that a comet probably provided Earth with its water, and possibly seeded life itself, meaning the information gained from the mission could answer the greatest mystery we have ever faced: the very nature of our existence.
Until now, space travel has only been available to trained astronauts. The next few decades, however, will see more and more people, beginning with the super-rich and gradually trickling down to the everyman, experience what it is to travel above the Earth’s atmosphere. One company striving to achieve this is Virgin Galactic, whose purpose is to “become the spaceline for Earth, democratising access to space for the benefit of life on Earth.”
If you are reading this history of travel you have at least two things: a screen and an Internet connection. Your screen – you probably have more than one – is your window on the world, and you probably spend a significant portion of your waking life peering into it, and you’ve probably noticed that the view is getting better by the day.
The Internet has not so much touched the travel industry as it has hoisted it up, twirled it around, spun it upside down, and played bongos on its head. Inventions like the railroad and the aeroplane may have found a way over the physical barriers of travel, but the Internet simply transcended them. Never has our world been so instantly accessible, available and connected.
And yet for all this, it is more important than ever that we continue to travel. Our windows into the world are useful enough, but they give mere inklings of the real thing. Travel should be gregarious, not vicarious; technology should be used to enhance, not replace, our experiences.
We have come a long way. A very long way. Our fidgety, irrepressible impulse to move, to discover and cross new frontiers, to adapt to new environments, to appease that same unquenchable curiosity which prompted our earliest ancestors to swing down from the treetops and start exploring the jungle floor six million years ago, is as strong as ever.
And the only way to indulge it is to continue to travel.