The life story of Aloha Wanderwell is worthy of the movies, as she lived a life of intrigue and adventure. She was ‘the most traveled woman in the world’ in the 1920s and ’30s, and apparently the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by automobile.  She was also a pilot, and a dab hand with an Indian motorcycle, which accompanied her and husband Walter Wanderwell on their travel tours of every continent. Luckily, she made films of her adventures traveling the world in the 1920s and ’30s, and it was her movies that caught our attention, as the Academy Film Archive (think Oscars), compiled some of Aloha’s donated footage into a short film of her remarkable life.

A publicity poster from 1930 [wikipedia]
Aloha was the stage name of Idris Welsh, born in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1906. She spent her early years with her mother and developer step-father on Vancouver Island, but the whole family moved to Europe during WW1, where her step-father was a lieutenant in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  He was killed at Ypres in 1917, and Idris was sent to various boarding schools (in Belgium and France) to ‘tame her tomboy tendencies’.  At 16 (in 1921), she answered an ad for a woman with “Brains, Beauty & Breeches – World Tour Offer For Lucky Young Woman…. Wanted to join an expedition… Asia, Africa…” and took a job as Wanderwell’s translator (she could speak fluent French), secretary, and a driver of the three vehicles on the his round-the-world tour.

Walter Wanderwell’s trip was part of a ‘Million Dollar Wager’, effectively a race between Ford-sponsored teams driving Model Ts around the world, the winner being the team visiting the most countries. Wanderwell’s expedition was partly subsidized by lectures and film presentations along their route, as it left Nice, France, and traveled through Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and North America.  Not long into Idris’ journey, she took the stage name Aloha Wanderwell, even though Walter was married at the time; he soon divorced his wife, although he didn’t marry Aloha until 1925, in Riverside, California, partly because the FBI was planning to arrest him for violating the Mann Act, which prohibited  crossing state lines with a woman for ‘immoral purposes’.  Walter’s real name was Valerian Johannes Pieczynski, who had spent the bulk of WW1 in an American jail as a suspected German spy!

‘Captain’ Walter Wanderwell on the Indian-supplied 101 Scout, and a uniform of his devising (since he spent WW1 in an American prison as a suspected German spy) [National Motorcycle Museum]
Traveling overland in the 1920s was extremely difficult, and it’s no wonder the expedition took four-and-a-half years to return to its starting point at Nice. Roads were poor or nonexistent in many places, there were often no maps, and gasoline was rare. Moving across Africa between 1926-28, they were forced to use crushed bananas for grease, and elephant fat in their crankcases.  During the trip, Aloha gave birth to daughter Valri (1925) and son Nile (1927), who accompanied their parents on the journey.  By 1929 they’d visited 43 countries, and donated their Model T ‘Little Lizzie’ to the Henry Ford Museum. Sadly, Henry Ford had Little Lizzie and 50 other cars in his collection scrapped during WW2 to supply metal collection drives.  The Wanderwells settled in Miami in 1929.

“In Paris, France, our motorcycle temporarily engulfed with a sidecar to take care of the transportation of 3 members of our expedition + driver on the journey from Berlin through Switzerland to Calais.” The Scout transformed with white paint into a publicity vehicle; the WAWEC was Walter Wanderwell’s international goodwill organization (Work Around the World Educational Club), inspired by the League of Nations. [National Motorcycle Museum]
The expedition’s Indian Scout motorcycle was apparently supplied by Indian themselves, as mentioned in a letter to the Indian Motorcycle Co. in  Jan.1931.  When the initial expedition was finished, the Scout was displayed on a red carpet in the Indian factory lobby, along with posters, letters, and photographs of the journey.  Aloha’s letter to the factory (reproduced here) includes a note that Indian also would supply an outboard motor for an Amazon expedition, where Aloha would travel only with a native stenographer/translator and a film camera in search of a pair of female warrior tribes living on an Amazon tributary!

Aloha Wanderwell’s letter to the Indian factory, with details about their upcoming Amazon expedition, as a plea for an Indian outboard motor! A hard look at her Amazon film should reveal if Indian complied with the request. [National Motorcycle Museum]
The letter from Aloha to the Indian factory (Attn: W.S. Bouton) is part of a trove of documents and photos donated to the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa, by Aloha herself, later in life.  The photos used in this article (and Aloha’s notes from the back of the photos) are all from that trove, and used by kind permission of the National Motorcycle Museum. They had lain forgotten in the NMM’s archive, until Aloha’s family at the Richard Diamond Trust and www.alohawanderwell.com alerted our Editor for Film, Corinna Mantlo, about their existence!

“Arrived in Milano after a trip along the French and Italian Rivieras, zigzagging around the Alps.” [National Motorcycle Museum]
The Wanderwells indeed visited Brazil in 1930 and ’31, where Aloha earned her wings, learning to fly a seaplane nicknamed ‘Junker’.  They explored the interior of the Amazon jungle, landing on the Amazon and Paraguay rivers, and were the first Europeans to encounter the Bororo people, after a forced landing, whom the crew filmed extensively.  Their silent film ‘The Last of the Bororos’ is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Studies Film Archives.  Ostensibly the group was looking for the lost explorer Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett, who was searching (and perhaps found) the ‘Lost City of Z.’

“Sometimes the pilot, and sometimes the tandem rider.” Aloha Wanderwell in her Brazilian piloting uniform, ca 1930. Adventuring was an excuse for a cool outfit in the 1920s and ’30s! [National Motorcycle Museum]
The couple was planning a trip by boat to the South Seas in 1932, and purchased a 110-ft yacht, ‘Carma.’ It might have been mis-spelled karma, though, as Walter was murdered on the boat on Dec. 5, 1932, the day before they were to sail.  While a former team member who’d caused previous trouble was arrested, he was acquitted by a jury (he had an alibi), and no-one was ever convicted of the murder.

The Wanderwells visiting an Indian dealership, presumably where they received their 1928 Indian Scout [National Motorcycle Museum]
Aloha later remarried, to Walter Baker, and the couple also traveled extensively, making films and giving lectures of their travels.  Aloha wrote an autobiography in 1939, ‘Call To Adventure!’, which was republished in 2012.  Aloha worked in radio and print journalism and eventually ended up in Newport Beach, California, where she lived to 90 years old.  She had made a dozen films, was a motorcyclist, driver, pilot, explorer, author, and all-around pioneer, living a remarkable life that’s simply not possible today.  Here’s to Aloha, our lost heroine, now lost no more!

“A Zulu rickshaw boy at the controls after a dash across Karoo from Cape Town to Johannesburg and Durban.” Note the rifle scabbard on the front forks – useful in case of an elephant charge – which happened! [National Motorcycle Museum]
The Wanderwells [National Motorcycle Museum]
“A water hole in Portuguese East Africa, with Shangaan natives.” [National Motorcycle Museum]
The Wanderwell route around the world [National Motorcycle Museum]
“Every station town has a similar ‘square’ and several such towers” Location unknown – presumably Italy [National Motorcycle Museum]
“In Portuguese east Africa”, presumably a hunting camp [National Motorcycle Museum]
“Our first ‘bag’ in Africa” [National Motorcycle Museum]
“Getting ‘dolled up’ for another jaunt – a little paint always improves her appearance.” [National Motorcycle Museum]
“Crossing a dried-up river bed in Portuguese east Africa. It was the first time motor vehicles had ever attempted to cross from the Tinfofo river to Sabi; 110 miles as the crow flies – covered in 3 1/2 months.” [National Motorcycle Museum]
“A typical camp, without tents or beds. Egypt.” [National Motorcycle Museum]
A typical poster advertising a speaking engagement in eastern Europe, where the Wanderwells could fund their journey [National Motorcycle Museum]
“On the Spanish highway – girls repairing the roads.” Note Walter with a movie camera. [National Motorcycle Museum]
Aloha Wanderwell in her swashbuckling ‘adventurer’ getup of leather jerkin and robust belt for hanging pistols and equipment. Her ringlets and Marcel wave were high fashion in the 1920s.[National Motorcycle Museum]