Humans have always been drawn to the unknown, whether it’s a theorized continent, the inhospitable poles, or a celestial body entirely beyond our own unique and fragile planet. As the astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said, “Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.”
No period saw more exploration than the Age of Discovery, when seafaring Europeans began to explore the globe in the 15th century. This, of course, brought with it a clash of cultures and the dark excesses of colonialism — issues that have led to controversial legacies for some of the most well-known explorers. Yet many adventurers, both past and present, remain shining beacons of bravery and discovery. Here are quotes from some of the most famous names in exploration, from Marco Polo to Jacques Cousteau.
I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.
— Marco Polo, Venetian merchant who explored parts of Asia from 1271 to 1295
If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.
— David Livingstone, Scottish physician and anti-slavery crusader who explored parts of Africa in the 19th century in search of the source of the Nile River
I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one's life and sigh.
— Isabella Bird, 19th-century English explorer, writer, and naturalist whose adventures took her all over the world, from Hawaii to India and China
I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world.
— Matthew Henson, African American explorer who was part of the 1908–1909 expedition that claimed to have reached the geographic North Pole for the first time
Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.
— Roald Amundsen, Norwegian polar explorer who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole in 1911
To be brave cheerily, to be patient with a glad heart, to stand the agonies of thirst with laughter and song, to walk beside death for months and never be sad – that's the spirit that makes courage worth having.
— Ernest Shackleton, Anglo Irish Antarctic explorer and leader of the unsuccessful Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, one of the most epic feats of endurance in human history
To awaken quite alone in a strange town, is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.
— Freya Stark, British Italian explorer and travel writer who traveled extensively in the Middle East and Afghanistan during the 20th century
From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.
— Jacques Cousteau, French ocean explorer who led numerous underseas investigations
I am doing this for many reasons, some of which I don’t fully understand. That there is an inner urge is undeniable.
— Sir Ranulph Fiennes, English explorer whose many accomplishments include becoming the first person to completely cross Antarctica on foot
The narrative has always been that the explorer looks a certain way, and that’s never like me, but I want to change that. I hope people will see me and think, “Yes, I can do it too.”
— Mario Rigby, a Black explorer and adventurer who completed a two-year-long walk across Africa, from Cape Town to Cairo, in 2018
Photo credit: SOTK2011/ Alamy Stock Photo