‘The thing is so difficult that it is not worthwhile attempting it. The thing is so difficult that I cannot help but attempt it.’ So said the Swedish civil servant Salomon Andrée, who attempted to reach the North Pole in a hot air balloon in 1897. His words encapsulate the spirit of the explorers, travellers and dreamers whose unlikely adventures are told in this book.
Before the modern age, the world was an unknown and mysterious place, and only the intrepid, the foolhardy or the mad would undertake a voyage of exploration. Impossible Journeys tells the stories of 24 of these journeys spanning 600 years from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era, which ‘whether in the planning, the execution or the outcome, were implausible or unlikely, if not wholly impossible’. Some were attempts to reach places that did not exist, such as Walter Ralegh’s search for El Dorado; others were reports from the realm of fantasy, like that of the mapmaker who confidently located Paradise ‘forty miles from Ceylon’. Among the travellers we meet are the medieval monk who set out to locate the North Pole; the Papal envoy who claimed to have seen the Queen of Sheba; the Tudor crew forced to resort to cannibalism; and the young girl marooned off the coast of Newfoundland who survived by shooting polar bears.
Described by the author as a cross between The Canterbury Tales and Touching the Void, these tales encompass heroism, cowardice and foolhardiness, success and failure, drunken visions, tall tales and genuine world-changing discoveries. Andrée’s trip to the North Pole ended in tragedy, yet his voyage, and all the others included here, widened the horizons of the world, and continue to thrill us today.