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A 22-year-old woman crossed the continent because she bloody well could

It was with the succinct reply above that 22-year-old Winifred Wells answered a journalist who wished to know what prompted her to undertake one of the most arduous and dangerous long-distance motorcycle rides in history. The daughter of a furniture manufacturer in Shenton Park, West Australia, Wells managed the solo ride from Perth to Sydney and back – 9000km – in 21 days, and this achievement was justly acclaimed as one of the greatest feats in the annals of Australian motorcycling.

Her journey began on Boxing Day 1950, when she set out from Perth at noon having loaded her 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet with provisions and spare clothing in two pannier bags and a carrier-borne suitcase. In her pocket was £25, which was all that she allowed herself for her three-week “holiday”. She wore riding boots, fawn breeches, a blue sweater, leather jacket, and an old tweed cap. Since it was high summer in Australia there was no need to wear waterproofs – on the contrary, most of the journey was done under a scorching sun.

“I was full of myself, as you are at 22 years old,” admitted Wells many years later. “But I was determined to ride to Sydney. Perth’s Royal Enfield distributor Carl Cohen was very approachable and, as a businessman, could see the merit in my proposal to
ride across the Nullarbor
and back.”

Possibly all Cohen could see was a very determined and very pretty blue-eyed young lady and, though he sponsored the undertaking to the tune of 25 quid, he was businessman enough to sign Wells up on the never-never – the Royal Enfield would only become hers after she’d made the final payment. In fact she had to obtain permission from the financier IAG to take the bike out of the state.

Wells’ knowledgeable Norton and macho Matchless-owning fellow MCC members weren’t so supportive, claiming the “puny” machine would self-destruct, leaving her to perish out on the Nullarbor; yet it appears none offered to ride shotgun.

However, Wells was adamant, and even a bad fall on only the second day out didn’t deter her. “I was haring down these terrible corrugations and had the biggest spill you could imagine, a full locker and highside that sent me sprawling. It was near Spargoville, one of those small mining settlements that had sprung up in the goldfields, and a motorist tried to convince me to return to Perth. He was quite distressed because I’d wiped the side of my face off and cracked my head. I’d also done a bit of damage to the bike but the garage in Norseman gave me a bit of a hand with the bike and that was that.”

The prodigious distance covered in such a short time impressed motorcyclists everywhere, but only those very few adventurers who had first-hand experience of the exacting conditions prevailing over much of Wells’ route would have been able to fully appreciate the true merit of this remarkable transcontinental crossing.

On her return to Perth, Wells was congratulated by the Lord Mayor Joseph Totterdell, and while the press stuck to the basics, he popular People magazine reported: “For days on end Winifred averaged no more than one meal a day and her normal weight of 7st 13lb [50kg] dropped a few pounds. The blue-eyed, small-faced young woman is 5ft 5in [165.1cm] tall, has a trim, well shaped figure, good legs and wiry wrists. Her stay in Sydney lasted only from Friday night to the following Sunday morning, but in that time she ‘took in’ most of the sights, including Kings Cross and nearby beauty spots in the luxury of a friend’s car, all whilst wearing a smart dress and high heels. Few overlanders who had seen her ‘on the track’ only days before would have recognized the healthy well-turned-out
young woman.”

And, by all accounts, an independent one too!