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Ella Maillart, a life of adventures

Sportswoman, traveler and writer, Ella Maillart had many talents. Extraordinary story of a brilliant Swiss woman.


Ella Maillart also worked as a travel journalist.

The salty sea air, the smell of freshly fallen snow. The spices of the markets, the exhaust fumes of the Ford, the air of the desert, the musty smell of cellars where you do drugs, that of the paper of your books ... Maybe we should tell the story of Ella Maillart with smells.

Ella Maillart, born in Geneva in 1903, is the daughter of a wealthy fur trader. As a child, she got up at four in the morning on Sunday to go  to ski  with his mother. At 13, she won her first regattas, at 16 she founded the first women's land hockey club in French-speaking Switzerland, and at 19, she sailed to Corsica with a friend, then sailed to Greece and Brittany with other comrades. At 21, she took part in Olympic regattas; she was the only woman in the competition. In the winter, she took part in competitions with the national ski team. She was secretary, actress, stuntwoman and captain of the Swiss hockey team.

Then she began to travel and write. Moscow, Crimea, Caucasus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. In 1934, while visiting Manchuria, she met New York Times reporter Peter Fleming in Beijing and traveled with him for seven months, crossing Tibet to Indian Kashmir. Marshy sites, deserts, mountains ... It was a very peaceful trip, she later recounted enthusiastically. Silence, calm: perhaps we should also tell the story of Ella Maillart with sounds. And why not with colors. Anyway, his biography relates everything that happened in the 1920s and 1930s: tourism, mobility, sport, films. With talent, money and the courage to undertake adventures, the inconceivable was possible.


In February 1939, in Geneva, Ella Maillart put her luggage in the Ford of her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach, daughter of an industrialist and a countess, granddaughter of a general, journalist, writer, lesbian, drug addict, and the only one of the Schwarzenbach family opposed to Nazism. They passed near Zurich, where the  Landi  had just been installed, crossed the Balkans towards Istanbul, Tehran, and finally towards Kabul.

The journey was marked by successes and failures. Ella and Annemarie moved to Afghanistan, but the addiction did not leave the latter. Annemarie Schwarzenbach could not free herself from her addiction and Ella Maillart, disappointed and disillusioned, left her in Kabul in September 1939, shortly after learning of the outbreak of World War II. Annemarie Schwarzenbach then traveled to the United States and then returned to Switzerland. In 1942, she fell on her bicycle in the Engadine. She succumbed to her injuries two months later. As for Ella Maillart, she spent the years of the war with spiritual masters, then wrote down her travel stories, was a tourist guide, and became a fervent defender of the environment. Older, she retired more and more to Chandolin, where she died in 1997. Perhaps her adventures should be told in stories. Or maybe just a look into her big, light blue eyes is enough to learn it all.

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