Mariella Frostrup: In praise of wild women

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I used to think I was pretty adventurous, but having spent the past few months reading accounts of derring-do from female travellers over the centuries I’ve had to revise my credentials. Sure, I’ve been to the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea, climbed Machu Picchu and cruised up the Strait of Magellan, but always accompanied and seldom in any discomfort.

My own little jaunts to the four corners barely deserve to inhabit the same sentence as the likes of Robyn Davidson, who set out to cross the Australian outback with only a couple of camels as companions. Alone and without Google Maps to guide her, it’s hard to comprehend the scale of potential for night terrors, hundreds of miles from civilisation and without human company. She’s just one of many feisty, danger-eschewing thrill-seekers whose wilderness encounters I’ve been gorging on.

For those who think men have the monopoly on exploration, my upcoming anthology, Wild Women, will hopefully challenge familiar misconceptions and return a selection of intrepid dames to their rightful place in the annals of history. Whether it’s Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Everest, or Nellie Bly, who in real life managed to shave eight days of the 80 it took Jules Verne’s fictional hero to circumnavigate the globe, there’s a large and inspirational cast of footloose femmes to add to the canon of more familiar explorers, like Livingstone, Shackleton and Hillary.

Solo travelling has always involved more dangers and challenges for women, so as a parent the prospect of raising a young adventuress is fraught with conflicting sentiments. Reading Lois Pryce’s account of being trapped on an overnight Congolese train crowded with drunken soldiers, alone with her motorbike, is enough to have any sensible mother burning her daughter’s driving licence. But instilling fear in a child, instead of fearlessness, is a parenting crime. Instead, as in so many aspects of childrearing, it falls on our shoulders to endure the personal torture that pushing our minnows past safe boundaries provokes and fan the flames of any hunger for adventure they display.

Despite my misgivings, I can’t help but admire my own daughter’s appetite for thrills, at 14 already pouring over maps of the remote areas of ocean she’s determined to explore and saving up for driving lessons (still four years away), so she can escape the bucolic valley we currently have her ‘imprisoned in’ (her words). A taste for adventure may cause elevated worry for those charged with your safety, but it’s an essential ingredient for fostering inquisitiveness and developing resilience.

It’s up to us to ensure that we’re inspiring our children to push themselves to the limits, no matter how personally terrifying that is, instead of curtailing adventurous young hearts to quell our own fears.

I’m well aware of the potential for hypocrisy. As with so much theory and advice, it’s easy to dole out and much harder to live up to. I’ll no doubt be the parent blocking the front door and wrestling my daughter for her passport, rather than shoving her out to join the legions of wild women I so admire.

Mariella presents Open Book on Radio 4. To read more of Mariella’s columns, visit

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