Retracing Journeys Straight From the History Books

Meet the adventurers who follow in the footsteps of the great explorers and their epic journeys.
The rivers winds and curves through lush jungle. © Tom McShane
By Tarquin Cooper

They say that explorers lead, and the rest of us just follow. Well, in some cases their original journeys are still quite an adventure today, like polar explorer Captain Scott's route to the South Pole and back, or the Spanish conquistadors' route across Central America. Even shorter and more accessible journeys like Napoleon's trek across the Alps offers a chance to share some of the glory. Plan your own historical adventure or meet the adventurers carving their own...

Burke and Wills' crossing of Australia

Where: Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria
Distance: 2,000 miles
Best for: Adventurers with a lot of time
Hazards: Heat, humidity, mosquitoes and swamps
Trivia: Burke lived up to his name by refusing help from the aborigines; had he accepted, he may have lived.

The journey, north to south across Australia, has to be one of the most challenging undertakings on earth. The desert temperatures regularly climb to the 40s, with humidity levels reaching 80 percent.

Burke and Wills' route across Australia © Sumic

Dave Phoenix retraced the route in five months in 2008 with a dog called Cooper, so named after Cooper Creek, where Burke and Wills died of exhaustion. “The hottest day got to 44 degrees C [111 degrees F],” he said afterwards. “The last 10km [6.2 miles] were the hardest of the whole trip, it took three days thanks to the mud.”

Menindee Lakes during twilight.
Menindee Lakes, Australia © Getty Images/Flickr RF

Napoleon's crossing of the Alps

Where: Martigny to Aosta
Distance: 46 miles 
Best for: Ski tourers and mountaineers
Hazards: Avalanches
Trivia: The pass is famous for St. Bernard rescue dogs, but contrary to legend they never carried brandy around their necks (but they do sell it at the hut).

When Napoleon's troops crossed the Alps in 1800 they famously consumed 22,000 bottles of wine offered by the monks of the St. Bernard refuge.

Napoleon's crossing of the Alps © Sumic

Hiking the six miles to the hospice in winter (the most noteworthy part of the route) is a real adventure as the only way to get there is on skis or snow shoes – and past a notorious avalanche-prone area. Unlike Napoleon, however, you'll need to pay for the vino when you get there – the French general famously also left without paying.

Snowcovered St. Bernhard pass in Switzerland
In the footsteps of Napoleon at St Bernard Pass © Tarquin Cooper

Lewis and Clark's Crossing of America

Where: St Louis to Pacific Ocean
Distance: 3,728 miles
Best for: Multisport adventurers
Hazards: Rapids, capsizes, man-made obstacles, storms
Trivia: On top of all the usual hazards, Clark was shot in the behind by a one-eyed fiddle player.

The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail extends for almost 3,728 miles across America via some of the most stunning and wild locations the country has to offer. Much of the route is on water – the two explorers covered 1,900 miles alone in a boat – and the hazards remain the same as they were then. Stages can also be done on foot, horseback and bike.

Lewis and Clark's trip west across North America © Sumic

Last year, Janet Moreland retraced much of the route, descending over 2,485 miles of the Missouri River and beyond by kayak, bike and skis -- the first woman to do so. The journey took seven months.

She paddled six-to-eight hours a day, survived electrical storms and was so remote she carried supplies for three weeks. “This was the perfect adventure for me,” she said.

A young man kayaking on the Clearwater River.
Much of the Lewis and Clark route is on water © Getty Images/All Canada Photos

The South Pole: The Hard Way

Where: Antarctica
Distance: 1,900 miles
Best for: Endurance junkies
Hazards: Blizzards, extreme cold, starvation
Trivia: “I'm just going outside and may be some time,” were the last heroic words of one of Scott's men before he walked into a blizzard to die.

It took over 100 years for anyone to retrace (and complete) the legendary last journey of Captain Scott and his men. The British explorers famously died just a day's march from safety after being beaten to the pole by their Norwegian rivals.

The Scott Expedition went to the South Pole © Sumic

Earlier this year, Ben Saunders and Tarka L'Herpiniere, completed the out and back 1,800-mile trek in 105 days. The pair pulled 440-pound sledges, endured temperatures as low as -50 degrees F and came close to hypothermia and starvation.

“I came here to be challenged and tested, to give my all to the hardest task I have ever set myself,” Saunders said at the time. It's safe to say he succeeded.

Saunders will trek to the south pole and back. © Andy Ward

La Ruta de los Conquistadores

Where: Costa Rica
Distance: 300 miles
Best for: Jungle- (and coffee-) loving mountain bikers
Hazards: Humidity, bugs and hypothermia (yes, really)
Trivia: The route crosses nine microclimates.

The Ruta is dubbed 'the toughest mountain bike race on the planet', and with good reason. It's a four-day crossing of Costa Rica and with a killer 39,000 feet of climbing through climates that range from steamy jungle to exposed volcano.

The Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica © Sumic

Still, that's a lot quicker than Juan de Cavallón, who took 20 years to cross the stunning tropical and mountainous terrain of the country. The rewards are the same though – sore legs, but infinite glory.

Competitors carrying their bike during the La Ruta bike race.
La Ruta: More than just a bike race © J. Andrés Vargas - Lead Adventure Media

The Route du Rhum

Where: Saint Malo, France to Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe
Distance: 4,000 miles
Best for: Sailors and boats of all types
Hazards: Storms, capsizing, exhaustion
Trivia: The route actually has little to do with the rum trade.

The Route du Rhum is a classic solo trans-atlantic race that is unique for attracting boats of all classes – from super-fast multi-hulls to small ocean yachts – and pro skippers to amateurs. They are united by one desire: to face the ocean and whatever it brings.

The Route du Rhum crosses the Atlantic Ocean © Sumic

Despite the name, there is no official link to the historical rum trade. The race was originally conceived to boost the Caribbean rum business and Guadeloupe produces some of the purest and strongest varieties of the mariner's favourite. For those who make the crossing, a very warm welcome awaits.

Menindee Lakes during twilight.
Banque Postale in the Route du Rhum sailing race © AFP PHOTO / MARCEL MOCHET

Walking the World's Longest River

Where: The Nile
Distance: 4,000 miles
Best for: Old-school explorers
Hazards: Crocs, malaria, rapids, deserts soldiers...
Trivia: The 19th century explorers all failed in their quest to follow the Nile

It's one of the most epic walks in recent years. Levison Wood has retraced the length of the Nile from its source in Rwanda to the Mediterranean coastline of Egypt.

In doing so, the 31-year-old Englishman has succeeded where countless explorers failed. While the search for the source of the Nile was the great geographical mission 150 years ago, none of the great explorers managed to journey the Nile's length.

The Nile is the world's longest river © Sumic

“It has been my lifetime adventure,” Levison told reporters. “There are so many ways you can see a country and I feel I am very privileged to be able to walk through six different countries and meet people of different cultures on the way.”

Sometimes 'walking' means 'wading'. © Tom McShane
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