Say Aloha to the 16-year-old girl who traveled around the world in a Model T
With a name like Aloha Wanderwell, you’d expect a life filled with travel and adventure. And make no mistake, the courageous young woman with this curious title had an abundance of both during the 1920s (and beyond). At the age of 16, she answered an advertisement to join an around-the-world expedition in a convoy of Model T Fords, and after being selected to join the group she went on to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in an automobile.
If you haven’t guessed it already, Aloha Wanderwell—which sounds a lot like Hello, Wanderlust—wasn’t her given name. She was born Idris Walsh on October 13, 1906 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and later took her stepfather’s name, Hall.
The precocious teen joined Walter “Cap” Wanderwell’s team as a translator, driver, and filmographer in October 1922 after responding to a newspaper inquiry for “Brains, Beauty & Breeches – World Tour Offer For Lucky Young Woman” and proving herself hearty enough and valuable enough to make the grade. The group, which promoted world peace through the newly formed League of Nations and an organization that Cap called Work Around the World Educational Club (WAWEC), was on the road for most of the next seven years.
“The whole world was out there,” Aloha wrote in her 1939 memoir Call to Adventure. “I, reaching for it. The world reaching for me. Ecstasy—the ravishing thrill.”
Of course, there was just one vehicle that seemed up to the task. “For the longest-possible, most-serendipitously hazardous motorcar trek on record, the Flivver, Henry Ford’s Model T, was the only vehicle,” Aloha wrote. “Lightweight… can be raised by its occupants… good clearance imperative… repairs simple…The Flivver will open the roads of the world.”
And oh, how it did for her.
Starting the expedition in Nice, France, the Wanderwall caravan drove throughout Europe, traveling through Italy just as Mussolini was coming to power and braving food riots in Germany before continuing to Poland. Young Aloha had become the face of the expedition, which was being filmed at every turn, and she quickly became known throughout the world through numerous newspaper reports, newsreels, and travelogues—much like another American female adventurer of the era, pilot Amelia Earhart, who was nine years older.
As the weather in Europe grew cold in 1923, the WAWEC team became snowbound in the Carpathian Mountains in December. Aloha—who by this time adopted the Wanderwell surname, even though Cap had a wife at home—abruptly left the group, then rejoined the caravan in Egypt. “I just couldn’t brave the outfit any longer,” she wrote. “I just had to get home [to France].”
The team trudged on through Sudan and Yemen, inspired to push hard for Calcutta, India, so they could rendezvous with another group of American adventurers. Four military flyers were circling the globe (headed in the opposite direction) as part of a promotional mission called the Air Service USA World Flight.
Once the Wanderwell entourage reached India, in May 1924, the travelers were warned of bubonic plague and urged to avoid “untouchables whitewashing a ring encircling a dead body on the street”—a sure sign of the disease.
Road conditions, if you could call them roads, were so horrible at times that the team often had to ask for help from villagers—and their animals—to get unstuck and back onto the route. They managed to reach Calcutta in time to meet the Air Service USA World Flight team. The two groups happily posed for photos and exchanged stories, one team regaling the others with tales of adventures on the ground and from above.
After leaving India, the WAWEC group drove through China and Russia, then jumped aboard ship to Japan before sailing to Hawaii and on to the mainland. Upon their arrival in California, the 36-year-old Cap (now divorced) married 18-year-old Aloha on April 7, 1925. Their marriage actually kept Cap out of jail, since the FBI was prepared to arrest him under the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting women and girls across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
Onward they went, driving across the U.S. to Detroit, where their trip officially ended in August 1925 and the weary travelers were honored with a downtown parade that included all eight WAWEC Model Ts.
Aloha’s adventures on the Wanderwell Expedition included camping at the base of the Great Sphinx in Egypt, disguising herself as a man so she could pray at Mecca, befriending Chinese bandits, nearly dying of thirst in the Sudanese desert, and being granted the title of “Honorary Colonel” in Siberia’s Red Army. Your standard-issue travel-abroad activities.
When it was over, she and Cap traveled to Miami, where Aloha gave birth to daughter Valri on December 20, 1925. With the baby in tow, the Wanderwells set sail for Cape Town, South Africa, on October 30, 1926, planning to continue their adventures. Two months later, Aloha learned she was pregnant again, and daughter Nile was born on April 29, 1927.
Despite their young and growing family, the Wanderwells were intent on continuing their travelogues, namely With Car and Camera Around the World, which was released in 1929. So the children were sent to live with their grandmother, and the Model T Fords were off again.
“I would not be detained,” Aloha wrote. “Something compelled this wanderlust.”
She celebrated her 21st birthday on October 13, 1927 in Kenya, and in December of that year she wrote that she was headed back to Paris “to meet Mum and the kids and edit film.”
Aloha Wanderwell’s adventures continued beyond the automobile. After learning to fly, she and Cap made several flights to Brazil in the early 1930s in search of lost explorer Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett, who was looking for the Lost City of Z when he went missing. Once they ran out of fuel and were forced to live with the Borobo people for months. They were the first to present photographic proof of the Borobo people’s existence, and The River of Death (1934) was the couple’s only film with sound.
Aloha’s life was not without tragedy. On December 5, 1932, Cap was shot and killed aboard their yacht in Long Beach, California. William James Guy, a member of the Wanderwells’ 1931 expedition to South America, who had attempted to mutiny on a previous voyage, was tried for the crime but acquitted.
In December 1933, Aloha married Walker Baker, and she continued traveling, writing, and lecturing. Known as “the world’s most traveled girl,” she died on June 4, 1996 at the age of 89.
“When you’re an adventurer by profession,” Aloha wrote, “you learn to live from day to day and regret nothing.” It was a motto she lived to the end.