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The Greatest Travellers of All Time

When it comes to famous travellers and explorers, things ain’t what they used to be. Back when travelling was in its infancy, the most famous explorers were those who danced with danger, made amazing discoveries and introduced the world to new cultures. These days we have to put up with over-enthusiastic travel channel wannabes and fat blokes who travel the world eating stuff.

I’m jealous, you might say, and I would say you’re half-right. I would love to have all my travel experiences hosted and paid for and only have to spurt a couple of clichéd platitudes in return. However, my point is that the age of great travellers seems to be over and, sadly, those who blazed a trail opening up routes and developing relationships in lands people now visit on a whim – are almost forgotten.

So in the spirit of keeping the flame of the old school alive, here’s a look at the greatest explorers of all-time and why they deserve to be remembered.

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Ibn Battuta

The 21-year-old Moroccan left home on a pilgrimage to Mecca in the 14th century and didn’t return home for more than 20 years. He took in three continents and major cities such as Constantinople, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Hangzhou, writing about it in his book Rihla (Journey). At the end of his trip, he had visited more than 40 countries (on a contemporary map) and was one of the most accomplished travellers the world had seen – especially in terms of ground covered.

Christopher Columbus

Columbus is one of the world’s best-known travellers but also one of the most controversial. As any know-it-all will tell you, he didn’t actually “discover” America, but he did open the door for a new age of exploration of the Americas, from Canada all the way down to the Caribbean. But the controversy isn’t about whether he was the first to land there, but in what he unknowingly (and knowingly) bestowed upon the Americas: amongst other things a host of diseases that wiped out local populations, European settlement, the forcible removal of indigenous peoples from their land and helping pave the way for the slave trade. Other than that though, he was pretty sound chap…

Captain Cook

Captain Cook was everything a good traveller should be. A chronic planner and disciplined recorder of his travels (a modern day travel agent and blogger rolled into one), Cook was a born leader, good with his hands and genuinely curious about foreign cultures and customs. In the mid- to late-1700s Cook discovered and mapped more of the world than anyone before him, including virtually all of the South Pacific Isles, New Zealand and Australia. He came to a bloody end when he was clubbed to death on a beach in Hawaii, possibly showing a bit too much curiosity with a group of angry locals.

Xuanzang

In 629, Xuanzang decided to take a 10,000 km trip from his home in China to India in search of sacred Buddhist texts. He travelled through the northern route of the Silk Road and through the Hindu Kush, site of the wondrous Gandhara Buddist statues that were infamously destroyed by the Taliban in 2000. His trip took 16 years and he returned home with never-before-seen Sanskrit scrolls and texts that gave enlightenment to Chinese Buddhists. He was offered many honours upon his return but he preferred to work in a monastery translating the valuable texts he found on his travels.

Sir Walter Raleigh

From the mid-1500s until his death in 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh led a fascinating life. He spent time in Ireland putting down rebellions and travelled to America where he helped settle the colony of Virginia, named after the virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. He also travelled the Americas in search of the city of gold “El Dorado”, although his tales of giants and mountains of treasure proved to be a little on the fictitious side. Raleigh twice found himself interned in the Tower of London for annoying his monarch; he twice managed to be released with promises of treasure. Widely credited with popularising potatoes and tobacco in England, Raleigh could quite legitimately be considered the first English “lad” for helping invent chips and ciggies.

Michael Palin

This might seem a little left field but few people have contributed as much to modern travel as Palin. One of the few travellers worth watching on the telly at the moment, his effortless blend of intelligence, charm and wit provide a refreshing change to the cookie-cutter travel shows on U.S. cable networks. The ex-Monty Python star has got around since becoming a professional traveller when he tried to faithfully recreate the journey in 80 Days Around The World in 1988. He’s taken epic trips to the Sahara, the Himalayas, from Pole to Pole and followed in the footsteps of nomadic writer Ernest Hemingway, showing no signs of slowing down despite heading into his seventh decade.

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