This is an original and remarkable story from an age when women had won the vote, but had yet to find acceptance as mechanics, engineers, motorcyclists… no matter how well they acquitted themselves.
Florence Blenkiron and Theresa Wallach were not the first female motorcyclists to cross the Sahara desert in 1935; they were the first motorcyclists full-stop. Their feat was but a small part of a much more ambitious two-woman expedition; London to Cape Town aboard a specially prepared 600cc Panther ‘Redwing’ and Watsonian sidecar combination.
These two remarkable young women came from very different backgrounds, but each was imbued with a pioneering spirit that had already brought each of them success as racers and trials riders – Florence was the first woman to lap Brooklands at more than 100mph, she and Theresa being among just three women to win the famous Gold Star award of the BMCRC.
This credibility and sheer determination was essential to secure the corporate sponsorship needed to undertake an overland journey of the most extreme kind. If this is beginning to sound like movie personalities Ewan and Charlie’s preparation for the Long Way Down, just consider that Theresa and Florence were such big news that Lady Astor ( the first woman to take a seat in Parliament) officiated over the send-off with about 1,000 Londoners waving and cheering them on their way.
Clearly, the great British public had some appreciation of what was being essayed; no roads as we know them, just heading due south across the Sahara, then westward through equatorial Africa to Kenya before driving down to the Cape; no back-up either, all the spares, tools and necessities for this truly epic journey were towed in an early trailer tent.
To make it a bit more interesting, they did it all without a compass simply asking directions (possibly why they achieved the feat before any male riders), hopping from oasis to oasis, wearing down a recalcitrant Captain of the French Foreign Legion who declared their journey too dangerous to continue; fabricating a replacement tow-hitch in the desert; rebuilding the entire engine in Agadez; colliding with the only car they’d encountered for days.
Apart from the man-made vexations, mother nature provided extremes of weather, from sand-storms to deluges, as well as a roll-call of dangerous animals and, of course, the unrelenting terrain.
It’s a great story and really fun to read for anyone looking for a little adventure or an inspirational tale that reminds us that you can do great things no matter the time or place.
This Second Edition of ‘The Rugged Road‘ has been augmented with additional photos as well as further biographical information. Both riders led remarkable lives, before and after their pioneering journey, although it was Theresa who continued to carve out a life imbued with two-wheeled achievements – an accomplished riding instructor during the second world war she ran her own motorcycle dealership and taught generations of riders according to her own system of rider training. As the first Vice-President of the Women’s International Motorcycle Association, she rode until just two years before her death in 1998 at the age of 90. Theresa was inducted in to the AMA Hall of Fame in 2003
My copy of the second edition is paperback, but a special 75th Anniversary Edition was produced in Hardback. If you’re lucky you might even be able to find a copy of the video Theresa produced using original cine footage and which accompanied the first edition of this enthralling book.
The Rugged Road – Theresa Wallach; Introduction and biography by Barry M Jones
Second edition January 2011 Published by Panther Publishing
Paperback, 174 pages, 40 photos and maps, 156 x 234 mm
£12.00 available here
ISBN 9781909213029 (Kindle) 9781909213012 (EPub)