Throughout history there have been those particular individuals who were larger than life and who inspired fascination and wonder. Among these have been the numerous explorers of our world, who devoted their lives to pushing out past the boundaries of our understanding and past the dark borders of what we know to bring back tales of high adventure and intrigue, their lives reading like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. One such very special, courageous, and unique individual was a woman who lived a life that seems almost unreal, trotting about the world in a whirlwind of adventure, discovery, romance, and at times tragedy.
The woman now known popularly as Aloha Wanderwell was born Idris Galcia Hall on October 13, 1906 in Winnipeg, Canada, but moved to Europe at an early age when her step-father, Herbert Hall, joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was transferred to different posts around England, Belgium, and France with the Durham Light Infantry. In 1917, Hall was tragically killed in combat during fierce fighting in Ypres, Belgium in World War I. Idris would move through several boarding schools before being enrolled in a convent school in France, where she was thoroughly miserable. Idris was an adventurous sort, who wanted to go out and see the world, so she felt caged and confined in those convent walls, perpetually looking out towards the horizon and daydreaming about the wonders and strange lands that lay out beyond it. In 1922, when she was just 16, she would grasp at this wanderlust and take an opportunity that would change the course of the rest of her life.
It began with an advertisement in a paper that Idris came about by chance, which read “Brains, Beauty & Breeches – World Tour Offer For Lucky Young Woman. Wanted to join an expedition… Asia, Africa…” She couldn’t resist the siren call of this ad, and immediately applied for the expedition, which happened to be led by a Walter “Cap” Wanderwell, who had actually been born in Poland as Valerian Johannes Pieczynski. It turned out that the expedition was part of a “million-dollar wager round-the-world endurance race” that had started in 1919 and which was being carried out by two teams driving Ford 1917 Model Ts in a contest to see who could log the most miles and visit the most far-flung countries. Although Idris first joined on as a mechanic and French translator, her charm and good looks soon made her the face of the expedition, and she was featured heavily in promotional material and the travelogue documentary film the team was making along the way.
Joining the ambitious expedition in Paris, Idris was soon whisked off on the journey of a lifetime. From between 1922 to 1927, she would travel 380,000 miles across 80 countries, in the process becoming the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in a Ford 1918 Model T, along the way producing films of their travels, during which Idris picked up the stage name “Aloha Wanderwell,” despite the fact that the two were not married at the time. They produced many films during this time, and Aloha also found herself heavily involved with photography, editing, and cinematography, working as much behind the camera as she did in front of it. She even managed to film other momentous historical occasions, such as filming the first aerial circumnavigation of the world when they came across the planes in Calcutta in 1924. However, it was far from glamorous most of the time, the journey a grueling, often dangerous one. During their travels they drove through dangerous war zones, food riots and hostile mobs in Germany, across treacherous terrain that often required them to tow their vehicle by oxen through swamps, mud and rivers, through arid deserts where the two almost died of thirst, all the while dodging dangerous wilds animals, bandits, and hostile natives, barely escaping death on various occasions.
Of course, being cooped up in a car together over hundreds of thousands of miles and almost dying together numerous times can bring people together, and Aloha and Walter found themselves falling in love, despite the fact that he was separated but still technically married at the time. However, when they returned from their fantastic journey they ended up getting married in California, having two kids, and also releasing a documentary of their exploits called With Car and Camera Around the World. They were launched into fame as intrepid explorers, soon starting their next adventure, venturing through Africa from 1926–1928, and then setting their sights on South America in 1931, where they meant to fly into the uncharted jungle realm of the Mata Grosso region of the Amazon basin in search of the missing explorer Percy Fawcett, who had vanished while searching for his mythical City of Z.
They flew into the remote, unexplored region aboard a German seaplane, which at one point ran out of fuel and came down on an isolated stretch of the Paraguay River. They would luckily receive help from a little-known tribe called the Bororo, who were up until then uncontacted. The crew would film the tribe, becoming the first outsiders to ever do so, and gained the tribe’s trust enough that when Walter went to try and get to civilization for help, he left Aloha behind to live amongst them. She would learn their ways and film them in their daily lives and rituals, eventually making it all into a 32-minute silent documentary called Flight to the Stone Age Bororos, still considered by the Smithsonian Institute’s Human Studies Archive to be a very important anthropological study and resource. She would live with the mysterious tribe for months before Walter returned and they were able to return home in 1931. They never did find any trace of Fawcett, but it had been quite the adventure of a lifetime once again.
The couple by this time were world famous, and they planned to have many more adventures, but these plans were cut short by tragedy. At the time Walter was renovating and repairing a 110-foot yacht called The Carma, in order to sail it to Tahiti and document their planned voyage around the South Seas, but it was a trip they would never take. On the evening of December 5, 1932, Walter was on the yacht in the harbor near Long Beach, California, his children sleeping below deck when a stranger came aboard requesting to see him. What happened next is unclear, but people nearby heard gunshots and ran to the yacht to find Walter Wandewell slumped over dead, shot in the back. The mysterious stranger was never found or identified, and although a disgruntled former employee of the Wanderwells by the name of William Guy was suspected, he was later acquitted, leaving the murder unsolved. At the time it was major news, sparking much debate as to what had happened and who the killer was, as well as scandal and even some people suspecting Aloha herself. One researcher of the case has said:
The list of possible killers with a motive would have made Agatha Christie’s head spin. It could have included husbands, boyfriends, jilted women, jilted business partners, an agent of a foreign power, rogue police, and Aloha herself.
No one would ever be charged with the crime, leaving it a perplexing mystery that has lingered to this day. In the wake of this tragedy, Aloha went on to marry a Walter Baker in 1933, while continuing her adventures, ultimately travelling over 500,000 miles through six continents in Ford vehicles, as well as making over a dozen films, including To See the World by Car, India Now, and Explorers of the Purple Sage. She would gain nicknames such as “The Most Travelled Girl” and “The Amelia Earhart of the Road,” giving lectures and writing extensively of her travels, including her autobiographical travelogue Call to Adventure!, eventually settling in Newport Beach, California before passing away in 1995 at the age of 89. Much of her work has been painstakingly preserved and her films remain important additions to various archives, educational institutions, and museums. Aloha Wanderwell lived enough for several lifetimes, doing, seeing, and experiencing things most people can only dream of, things that are like something straight out of and action-adventure movie, and she stands tall as one of the more fascinating figures from history.