Explorer, travel writer, sportswoman and journalist Ella Maillart has long had eyes only for the oceans. And then, she traveled the mountains! Discovery of this extraordinary character.

Ella Maillart was born in Geneva to a father selling furs and an athletic mother. Young, she competed in sailing events, then in alpine skiing. She plays hockey. She even sails on the high seas with her student friends. They will meet navigator Alain Gerbault who infects them with his plan to leave a continent that has allowed the atrocities of war. In the aftermath of the conflict, keen on sailing, Ella dreams of going to live in the Pacific with her friend Hermine de Saussure (descendant of Benedict de Saussure of Mont Blanc). But the illness and then the marriage of the latter will reshuffle the cards and Maillart will move away from the oceans.

She then leaves for the vast world, in search of discoveries that will feed books or articles. At that time, mass tourism did not exist, adventure was in order. Maillart notably visits the vast Soviet lands, crossing the Caucasus. She travels from northern China to Kashmir in the company of Peter Fleming (the brother of the creator of James Bond), journalist and British secret service agent. Then she travels to India, Afghanistan or even Iran.

She does not claim to be a feminist but everything in her behavior demonstrates her non-conformism. She wears so much more practical male clothes when traveling, smokes a pipe and plays many sports. And no one to provide for his desires elsewhere. Unlike an Alexandra David-Néel who can count on her husband’s fortune to finance her wanderings. Maillart pays for his projects by writing books, selling reports to the press.

Travels in Nepal in the 1950s

She leaves for Kabul and then lives for a time in India when the Second World War is raging in Europe. It goes through Nepal in particular when the country is barely opening up to foreigners. And she comes back to it several times, even late. At more than 60 years old, she thus completed a trek to the foot of Everest.

In 1951, she hiked in the Gosainkund region in the north of the country. She travels light. Excerpt from his expedition report:

“I took with me a small tent, a good sleeping bag, an air mattress, a gas stove, a backpack with three cameras, 16mm film. Everything was contained in the load of two porters, including my large bamboo basket with my pot, my cup and my provisions.

Everything was bought when I was finally able to leave accompanied by Lieutenant Malla, the best interpreter possible, on loan from the army for three weeks, the government not having approved my idea of ​​traveling with the lama of Bodhnath. Milk, eggs, butter and tsamba could be purchased along the way. I went to the market for tea, dried apricots, raisins, nuts, rice and local churia or rice flakes, useful as cooked meals. My bill was about £1. (…)

Lieutenant Malla was accompanied by three men: orderly, sergeant and cook; his military equipment was heavy and he needed five porters in all. In the eyes of the Nepalese who saw us, he passed for the ‘Sahib’, sitting at ease on his immaculate camp bed, under his large two-winged tent, waiting to be served dinner. While I squatted in my little tent, crying as I peeled my onions, fluffed up my mattress or cleaned my frying pan. I had surprised everyone by arriving on a bicycle or in my way of calling the Maharajah. I had a lot of fun joking with Malla, telling him that the new government was going to introduce democracy. I considered myself quite qualified to demonstrate the inelegance of the manners to which I was accustomed in the West”.

Back in Europe, she took up residence in the Swiss mountains where she died in 1997 at the age of 94.

Illustration © Swiss Archives – Public Domain