Back when “explorer” or “adventurer” were viable professions, back when men cut swaths of jungle with simple machetes, searching for ancient treasure or peaks of cloud-draped mountains; when women piloted their aircraft around the world, breaking records and appearing on as many front pages as the New York Yankees (as human flight was a concept barely two decades old at that point), Aloha Wanderwell was making an international name for herself as an intrepid and fearless explorer, an adventurer of the highest regard.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1906, Wanderwell -- born Idris Galcia Welsh -- was already a world traveler well before her tenth birthday. Along with her sister and mother, a young Idris followed her stepfather to Europe as he fought in the First World War with Britain’s Durham Light Infantry. After the war, the family stayed in Europe, sending the young girls to boarding schools in France and Belgium.
In 1922, responding to an ad looking for a young woman to join a round-the-world expedition, Idris met Walter “Captain” Wanderwell. Captain Wanderwell was immersed in the Million Dollar Wager, which was an endurance race to see which of two teams could visit the most countries using the then-new Ford Model T. Idris joined the expedition as a driver, translator and documentarian, soon rebranding herself as “Aloha Wanderwell.”
Beginning in Nice, France in late 1922 and ending in early 1927, Wanderwell became the first woman to ever drive around the world. In her Model T, Wanderwell drove from place to place, while filming the farthest reaches of Earth and lecturing the “civilized” world on what she’d discovered.
The couple drove through forty-three countries, from Cuba to South Africa, through Europe and South America. As the roads in many of the places the couple traveled were often dirt paths, the duo often had to resort to ingenuity to keep moving. Famously, they use elephant fat for motor oil and crushed bananas for grease when in Africa.
In 1932, Captain Wanderwell was mysteriously murdered aboard the couple’s yacht while docked in Long Beach, California. Many speculated the murder was some sort of retribution for his work as a spy during the First World War, an act for which he was jailed in the United States in 1918. Others blamed Wanderwell’s womanizing ways and pointed fingers at any variety of scorned husbands. The murder was never solved.
Aloha Wanderwell would go on to marry a man named Walter Baker. Her zeal for travel, adventure and discovery would hardly wane as the couple traveled to New Zealand, Australia, Hawai’i, China, India, Cambodia and several other exotic and far-reaching locales. Wanderwell continued to make films documenting her travels and eventually settled into a long career giving lectures about her life and adventures.
After retiring from the lecture circuit in 1982, Wanderwell lived quietly with Baker for the rest of her life. After leading an exciting life, full of adventure and exploration, of fearless discovery and insatiable wanderlust, Aloha Wanderwell died in 1996 at eighty-nine years old.