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Driving for the environment

Bridget Thackwray and Topher Richwhite have returned to New Zealand for the foreseeable future. Photo: Bridget Thackwray
Expedition Earth co-founder Bridget Thackwray has been on the journey of a lifetime with her partner Topher Richwhite: driving around the globe promoting environmental issues.

How does Expedition Earth promote environmental issues?
We have been working with a number of conservation initiatives from National Geographic Society and World Wildlife Fund to smaller, grass root programmes. Because we are accessing areas far off trail, organisations such as Nat Geo give us assignments to document some of the many projects they fund.

What inspired the journey?
We decided to undertake the journey on our second or third date when we were having a picnic near Aoraki/Mount Cook in the freezing snow. Topher had read about a German explorer called Gunther Holtorf who spent 25 years driving the planet with his partner. We named our Jeep after Gunther and were lucky to meet him at his home in Bavaria last year for breakfast. He was a great man and it turns out he also shares our same environmental concerns.

What happened when Covid-19 hit?
We had just started the third leg of our journey from northern Siberia when we had no choice but to drive Gunther back to Moscow and fly to New Zealand. Our route ahead is from Russia to New Zealand. It will take us through 25 more countries over 11 months.

Was it difficult to get home?
We had been staying with a Nenet family in a fur chum when the New Zealand embassy informed us that Russia was five days away from closing its borders. It took us six days to drive nonstop to Moscow, over frozen rivers and roads that were frequently snowed over. At Moscow airport, there were jets parked up on the grass. We realised we would not be returning to Gunther for a long time so we found a car park where we could store him for 12 months.

Have you learned any hard truths on the journey?
We began Expedition Earth with an open mind, but very quickly our focus turned to overpopulation and understanding the effects it’s having on our natural habitats. The good news is, the projections show that the growth curve is decreasing but it still has a long way to go. There is now a lot of environmental awareness in developing countries, from family planning to sustainability and plastics. We do believe the world is heading in a positive direction.

How do you respond to criticism regarding the environmental impact of the expedition?
When we began Expedition Earth, we were aware that driving a car around the planet may come with some criticism. We are working to plant enough trees to remove our emissions within three years of completing the journey. We truly believe that self exploration and showcasing the beauty of our planet is what inspires us all to protect and preserve its beauty. If Topher and I were living in New Zealand, we would also be using a car, but most likely eating imported food, flying to holiday destinations and contributing to environmental damage potentially more than we are on the expedition.

Have you had any experiences you thought you wouldn’t survive?
We were in the Danakil Depression near Eritrea where you must be escorted by security guards. Our guards were both inside Gunther when one pulled a knife on the other. We were miles away from phone reception and had to diffuse the situation so we could continue the three-hour drive together. It was about 50℃ and they had not eaten because it was ramadan. I think they were hot and hungry.