In 1946, nice young Australian ladies didn’t travel, as Wendy Law Suart (left) and her friend Shirley Duncan (right) wanted to do. No, they got jobs, as Suart told The Age in a 2008 interview.
“Then you’d meet a fellow, you’d get married and have kids, and then when you’re 50 or 60 and the kids were off your hands, you might think about going abroad,” Suart said. “Shirley said, ‘I don’t want to climb the pyramids when I’m 50; I want to go now’.”
Suart (then Wendy Law) and Duncan, then 19 and 21, respectively, took off from Melbourne (on Australia’s east coast) on their Malvern Star bicycles. They rode north into Queensland, to Darwin, then back south to Adelaide. They became the first-ever female cyclists to cross the desolate Nullarbor Plain, a 600-plus-mile arid region — tourists still buy “We Crossed the Nullarbor” bumper stickers today to celebrate driving across it in motor vehicles.
They had planned on six months away from Melbourne. Their trip took three years. Along the way, they became famous. The Australian press nicknamed them “The Girl Cyclists,” and they were featured in a Movietone News segment.
It was a far cry from today’s bike touring: The ladies pedaled when they could and walked their loaded bikes — single-speeds — when it got too steep. They found in the Nullarbor, with no trees to support the bikes, that they needed each other’s help to stand the bikes upright again. They had a small sponsorship from Malvern Star and another that got them complimentary Peters Ice Cream wherever they traveled, but along the way worked jobs to support their tour: cattle ranching, selling sandwiches, and working in a canning factory.
Friendly Australians often put them up for the night, and as Suart said, they didn’t have to pay for a meal for the first two and a half years of the trip. Their boyfriends back in Melbourne were forgotten, but they picked up a dog, Peter, along the way.
Suart and Duncan largely avoided incident during their three-year trip, except for two scary attacks. In a church hall in Darwin, Duncan awoke to find a man attempting to strangle her. Peter’s barking alerted the minister, who came to the rescue. The police recommended the ladies purchase a pistol, and they did, but admitted that they were mostly scared of it and only used it for target practice on gum trees.
In 1949, they returned to Melbourne, and Suart took off quickly afterward to visit her brother, who was working in Borneo. There, she got a job and met her future husband, later relocating to England with him. She had six children and seven grandchildren, and the family moved around the world, following her husband’s job.
After her husband died, Suart traveled the world on her own: Antarctica, the Amazon, Tierra del Fuego, China, Russia, Hong Kong and other places.
Both women wrote books about their trip: Duncan’s Two Wheels to Adventure: Through Australia by Bicycle was published in 1957, and she lectured throughout Europe. She married and moved to Washington, D.C. Suart published With Bags and Swags: Around Australia in the ’40s in 2008, one of many books she’d written about her travels and her life. The ladies reunited in Melbourne in 2008, and Jason Steger wrote in The Age, “It was as if they had turned the clock back 60 years, one finishing the other’s sentences, the other correcting the first’s stories.”
For the last 11 years of her life, up until a few weeks before she died, Suart played the piano in an antiques warehouse in England, releasing an album of songs from the 1920s through the 1940s. She died at her home in England in July 2012, a few weeks short of her 86th birthday.