Two Wheels to Adventure. The first women to cycle across the Nullarbor
In 1946 two Melbourne girls made the journey of a lifetime and touched the heart & souls of Australia in a time when it needed it the most. It was post World War II and Australia was suffering from depression & desperately needed a hero to give them hope. Australia found not one but two in Wendy Law (19 y.o) & Shirley Duncan (21 y.o). These young women planned on spending 6 months touring around Australia, but underestimated how much fun they would have. Their adventure kept on rolling for four years until they rolled back into Melbourne in April 1949.
“We have a love of travel and thirst for adventure. Travelling the country by bike is much more interesting, seeing the country first hand, meeting local people and gathering experiences” – Shirley Duncan
Before their epic adventure begun, Wendy & Shirley were already experienced cyclists. The girls had travelled extensively around Victoria to Adelaide and also toured Tasmania in order to prepare themselves for the journey to come. Peter’s ice-cream offered them a unique sponsorship of unlimited ice-cream for the duration of their trip. Peter’s gave them a letter which they could take to any distributor entitling the distributor to bill Peter’s directly for any ice-cream the girls would eat. You can pretty much guess what their staple diet for the journey was.
Malvernstar also sponsored the journey providing their bikes and servicing along the way. The girls had nothing in the way of money and to help fund the trip so they took on a job selling magazine subscriptions to fund their trip.
They also took on odd jobs throughout the trip with each odd job becoming an adventure in itself.
The girls Aussie adventure became legend and Wendy & Shirley became mini-celebrities with their trip receiving much publicity. They would be interviewed by local newspapers. Do radio interviews, and do talks for schools, churches and community organisations. Their journey was put in the national spotlight when their trip was featured on the Movietone News, which was played all around the country at the movie theatres (see You tube clip below). Their success helped them along the way as they used their fame to help them meet many lifetime friends along the way. Ordinary Aussie’s welcomed the girls into their hearts and their homes. The girls did not need to buy a meal for the first 2 & a half years. Now that’s a testimony to the great Aussie spirit!
Touring on 2 wheels gave the girls a first hand view of what the country had to offer. Wendy & Shirley went rock climbing, shooting, caving, skiing, and were even taught how to fly a plane at one stage. They were in no hurry to end their adventure, so it took them a year to make it up to Brisbane.
This is where both of the girls fell in love.
Not with a smelly hairy Swagman, but with a 6 month old cattle dog, who they found at the “Happy Dog”, where they bought a small six month old blue cattle-dog who they named Peter in honour of their sponsorship with ice-cream company Peter’s. Peter was to remain with the girls for the remainder of their journey and travelled with the girls in a cardboard box, flimsily tied to the front of one of their bikes.
The girls continued on their way and spent some time in Darwin before heading south to Adelaide where they caught up with family. They spent a fair bit of time there before setting off for arguably the hardest part of their journey. The thought of being the first female cyclists to ride across the Nullarbor Desert. They worked hard to save up £15 passage across to Perth where the plan was to cycle back to Melbourne.
“Between us and Perth lay a five-hundred mile desert known as the Nullarbor Plain. Flat, empty and treeless. With a fairly good road we knew that we could ride it“.
Back in the late 40’s the road across the Nullarbor was little more than a goat track, and a challenge to drive a motor vehicle across. It was definately n0t a road designed with cyclists in mind. “The road ran straight ahead in an unwavering line, growing thinner and thinner. Although it looked flat, we seemed to be pushing a continual incline, to the horizon“. The going was hard and although the girls grew weary, they were unable to take proper rest breaks along the way as there were no trees with which they could lean their bicycles.
“The bikes were so heavily laden that if one fell over it took two of us to lift it, so if we lain them both down we could never have got them up again, except by untying all of the luggage. So we rested standing up holding the bikes“.
There were sections which left them pushing through mud & gunk. The Nullarbor Desert tested the girls physically and mentally. At times they even feared for their survival “we would become so worked up by all these tragic possibilities we almost cried. Almost devoid of vegetation. We had no idea of judging how far we had ridden“. Then there were the nights. On the odd night where they weren’t able to make it to a station and had to sleep under the stars they experienced a new type of cold; “I was colder than I have been in my life. Whoever said “the sands of the desert grow cold” knew what he was talking about”.
The Nullarbor was an ordeal and they were relieved when it was over. “By the time we reached Colon we had ‘had’ the Nullarbor and hardships and loneliness. All we wanted was to get back to civilization and to home“. Although when asked by a reporter asked if they were sorry that they attempted it? They replied;
“Good heavens, no. Now it’s over and we are very glad we did it. We can look back and laugh about this for the rest of our lives“.
Two Wheels to Adventure
Between 1946 and 1948 Wendy & Shirley travelled over 18,000 km’s around Australia. Shirley Duncan published a book on their adventures in 1957 which she named “Two Wheels to Adventure”. Their ability to always see the best in life was truly remarkable, and we can all learn from their ambitious spirits and the way they managed to laugh off some of their bad experiences.
“Gympie was a cyclist’s nightmare. Never did I see such ghastly hills! Some of the streets looked almost perpendicular. In Proserpine the road was so ghastly that Peter in his box was being shaken to jelly, so we decided to let him run alongside us. He had grown almost too big for the box anyway”.
All great journeys must come to an end, and when the dynamic duo reached home they received a mighty reception in Melbourne.
A huge crowd gathered in front of the Melbourne Post Office to welcome them home. Wendy & Shirley rode into a sea of family and friends and well wishers. The media was on hand with cameras flashing and newspaper men on hand to interview the returning heroes. The radio was also on hand and 3AW broadcasted the event.
“As we stand here beneath the big clock in the heart of Melbourne it gives me a great thrill to welcome back these two adventurous young ladies after the bicycle trip of-how far was it, girls? – eleven thousand miles.” – 3AW
Wendy & Shirley were best of friends and shared a tale of adventure and made their dream a reality. “whenever we disagreed about anything – which was seldom, as our tastes were astonishingly similar – we settled it by tossing a coin, which Wendy always seemed to win”. Their journey was an experience which took them to some truly remarkable places, and they met some wonderful people along the way “we might have been in danger of starving to death on our budget of five schillings per day. People seldom allowed us to buy a meal. I cannot over-praise the generous hospitable folk we met on our tour.”
Their journey was shared with Peter. They say that a dog is “a man’s best friend”, but Peter was the girl’s. “Peter thoroughly enjoyed this new experience, bounding far ahead of the bicycles, then looking back to make sure we were following. We hated to see Peter grow up. He was the cutest pupply in the world and we wanted him to never change. Each day was a new adventure, and whenever we loaded up our bicycles, he jumped joyfully around us“.
We can look back in hind site, and marvel at what Wendy & Shirley achieved under extraordinary circumstances. They cycled through much isolation and there were numerous times when they ran out of food & water. The bikes that they used weighed in excess of 30 – 40 kg’s with their packs, and their bikes had neither brakes nor gears. They laughed at how they would roll down a hill and then walk up another.
Their ride was a success, despite the fact that they encountered a number of potentially dangerous circumstances. On a ride in the forests towards Hobart (Tasmania) for instance they found themselves riding straight into a bushfire “On either side of the road trees blazed, shooting out sparks. Darkness turned the bushfire into a spectacular fireworks display”.
It was common for the girls to laugh off any danger.
Sadly their trip was also marred by two attacks. The first attack took place near Mount Kosciuszko and thankfully neither were injured. In the second attack Shirley Duncan was sleeping in a Church Hall in Darwin. She was woken in the middle of the night. She recalled: “Peter our dog was barking like mad’ and she was confronted by a man who grabbed her around the throat. Shirley screamed and he said, “Shut up or I’ll kill you!”. Shirley’s screams & her dog’s barking woke the minister who came to her aide saving her.
“The police recommended we bought a little revolver,” Ms Duncan said. “But we were more afraid of it than anyone else. We practised shooting gum trees.”
Much to Ms Duncan’s disgust, the man was fined £10 for unlawful entry but only £5 for molesting her.
Wendy & Shirley’s tale of adventure is a tale which should inspire all of us to get out on our bikes and to live the dream…….
- Two wheels to adventure : through Australia by bicycle / by Shirley Duncan, Publisher: London : George G. Harrap, 1957
For those interested in reading more about this story, Wendy Law published “With Bags and Swags: Around Australia in the Forties” in 2008 and you can still order a copy of this book online.