Excerpt from Aloha Wanderwell
In 1922, a 15-year-old girl, fed up with life in a French convent school, answered an ad for a travelling secretary. Tall, blonde, and swaggering with confidence, she might have passed for twenty. She also knew what she wanted: to become the first female to drive around the world. Her name was Aloha Wanderwell.
Many of her achievements have been lost to history. An undertaking of ten years of research in archives and repositories in more than a dozen cities worldwide, Randolph Eustace-Walden and Christian Fink-Jensen pieced together Aloha’s life from a bewildering variety of sources.
Aloha’s story began over a century ago. A young girl drove off on a global adventure, set world records that have yet to be broken, entertained audiences around the world, and created a life that only Hollywood could compete with. No wonder Aloha Wanderwell became known far and wide as “the Amelia Earhart of the open road.”
Aloha and Walter drove as fast as possible, anxious to outrun the storm but the Sone River, when they reached it, was glutted with tumbling water and impossible to cross. They were stranded. With rain hammering down, they discussed their options: return to Benares, look for a village, or attempt to cross the railway bridge that spanned the river. Walter spotted some buildings at the distant edge of a field. He ran off to investigate and returned an hour later. “Fabulous news,” he said. The buildings were the home of a Scottish railway engineer and he’d invited them to wait out the storm inside.
A grateful Aloha and Walter were served a hot lunch and tea laced with Scotch. The railway engineer’s wife was thrilled to have company and spoke almost non-stop. It was here they learned that a team of American flyers were due to land in Calcutta in a few days’ time. Called the Douglas World Cruisers, the airmen were engaged in a race to become the first men to fly around the world. The engineer’s wife found it curious that the Wanderwell Expedition should be attempting essentially the same feat by car. Wouldn’t it be marvellous, she thought, if the two expeditions could meet? Walter’s mind began whirling.
Despite their plans to visit Gaya and Asansol, Walter now proposed that they push straight through to Calcutta. Aloha agreed. When the rains lessened, the engineer organized a crew of workers to place lengths of wood across the railway bridge, moving and removing each plank as the cars progressed. After hours of effort, the cars crossed and, after a last check of their map and a thank you to their hosts, Aloha and Walter headed for Calcutta.
They flew through storms and wild temperature variations, charging across muddy plains and up rocky hills, pushing their stamina to the limit during “forty-eight hours of driving. No sleep, no dry rags.”
The feat took a toll on Aloha. “I ached with wracking shivers, my fingers were seized to the wood steering.” The roads were often flooded and the intensity of the rain made it difficult to see. Aloha wrapped herself in a tarp and pressed on until they reached Bengal, where the rains and windy landscape gave way to soft sunlight slipping through dense jungle greenery. It was like waking into paradise. Kim squealed and chattered at the sounds of the jungle and Aloha spotted large monkeys swinging through the trees and racing alongside the cars.
Late on the second day, Cap [Walter] signalled Aloha to pull over. He hobbled to her car and said he thought they could reach Calcutta by nightfall, another 60 miles or so, that is, if she could continue. “The shakes were so severe I couldn’t open my mouth. With teeth clenched I shook my head up-down . . . . It had to end.” Over the next few hours the scenery continued to change. “The jungle became the old Trunk Road . . . villages. We drove belly-to-the- ground, sheets of water spewing out from wheels, drenching pedestrians.” They arrived in Calcutta just after dark on June 25, 1924, having covered more than 1,200 miles, a third of that on monsoon-battered roads. It was gruelling but they were in time to meet the American flyers. Amazingly, neither Aloha nor Walter gave themselves the luxury of realizing a world record had been set. A thoroughly exhausted seventeen-year-old Aloha Wanderwell had just become the first woman to drive solo across India.
Local and international newspapers ran headlines such as “The Yanks are Coming!” In the London Times’ “Telegrams in Brief,” only the Wanderwell Expedition received mention, describing how “Captain and Miss Aloha Wanderwell . . . who are doing a world tour in a Ford motor-car, arrived in Calcutta from Allahabad yesterday. So far they have passed through 39 countries.”Click to listen to a sample of the audiobook.