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Louise Sutherland: The Unstoppable Cycling Tour of the World

By Tereza Antonova

Some stories, worth being told a thousand times, forever stay only in the memories of their witnesses. Some stories make it out there and become legends, sometimes even when they don’t deserve it as much. This is a story worthy of retelling as many times as possible so that no one ever forgets the incredible lady who became the first woman to travel through the Amazon Rainforest.

Louise Sutherland was born in 1926 in New Zealand. Before she turned 19, one could easily mistake her for a typical good girl, following societal expectations. Young Louise graduated and took up a nursing job. The only catch was the distance from her home, which was about 100 kilometres. So, anytime Louise started feeling homesick, she would have to travel for seven hours. Luckily, this is not a story of a family growing apart. Quite the contrary – it’s a story of Louise happily hopping on a bike, making the trip, and finding herself a new hobby: cycling.

The nursing career later brought Louise to London, a city waiting for her, holding the breaking point of her story. It happened in 1949 when the hospital organised a jumble sale. Louise purchased a bike for as little as £2.10 and planned on making a trip to Land’s End, Cornwall. However, somewhere along the trip, she decided to change directions and what followed was an 8-year-long adventure (in total) across the world, something very uncanny for a woman living in the early 20th century.

The trip began in Calais, France and continued through Belgium, Germany, and Italy. Yugoslavia would be next on the schedule, followed by Greece. Then the young lady boarded a ferry to Israel. Being a trained nurse turned out to be a great travelling asset, as the young lady got admitted in many hospitals across her journey. Ultimately, Louise ended up in India, the last point of her world tour.

You have already travelled the world on your bicycle. What do you do next? Louise came up with a brilliant idea. Wouldn’t it be great to solo-cycle through the Amazon Rainforest, east to west, making it a 4,440-km trip? A thousand times she was told it’s impossible – a thousand more reasons to go.

And so, aged 52, Sutherland would embark on yet another journey. No one has ever dared to try and cycle through the Amazon, which, dare we say, was quite understandable. The weather conditions were extreme and the Trans-Amazonian highway was not the nicest road out there. But, of course, that didn’t stop Louise. However, about 130 km from the finish line, Louise found out there was no road. The rains made it impossible not only to ride but also to walk.

For the first time in her life, Louise decided to give up, wait for a plane, and fly out of the forest. How and where she expected the plane to fly in is not very clear. Sutherland waited for 6 days, after which she realized there’s probably no plane coming to save her, took her bicycle and somehow made it out of the forest. The whole feat took the lady in her fifties 7 months.

Louise became friends with many of the Amazon Rainforest inhabitants and, later in her life, she would raise money for medical assistance for the tribes. Her life became a bit quieter: she used to spend six months of each year back home in New Zealand while enjoying the other six on the road. After 54 visited countries and more than 60,000 kilometres in her legs, Louise Sutherland died in 1994 of a brain aneurysm. She left us with two autobiography books and one great wisdom: “I was never lonely. I had my bicycle to talk to.”