British Asia Network - Shahzad Sheikh
London 5 October 2019 - Jeep UK recently hosted an exhibition in London showcasing the incredible adventures of the Expedition Earth team, and I went along to meet the amazing couple behind it: New Zealanders Topher Richwhile and Bridget Thackwray - oh, and of course their faithful companion, Gunther the Jeep - a modified five-door Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon powered by the 3.6 V6 Pentastar petrol engine.
The Jeep is actually named after Gunther Holtorf, a German who, along with his wife, drove 900,000km (560,000 miles) around the world in a Mercedes G-Wagen (dubbed Otto!). They visited 215 countries in 26 years from 1988 to 2014.
The young Expedition Earth duo - who remarkably decided to embark on their epic journey on only their second date together - have committed to cover seven continents in three years covering 350,000km (220,000 miles). After well over 500 days since they started their journey, they stopped off in London at the Motor Village (the Jeep and Fiat showroom behind Selfridges in London, on Wigmore street) to host a temporary exhibition of their stunning photos and drone videos from their travels, and revealed details of their onward their journey, which will take in India next summer.
'We will be arriving into north India from Nepal in July 2020. Our plan is to explore India, but the exact locations will depend on timeframes. The Taj Mahal and the city of Varanasi will be two of our destinations for sure. If time allows we will venture east into the Rajasthan and potentially also south to Hampi.' they told me.
Topher is a towering presence, but quietly contemplative and extremely affable. His height does make Bridget appear diminutive, but her effervescent charm and talkative nature more than makes up for any perceived lack in stature. How do they pass the time on those long drives? 'She just talks the whole time,' admits Topher. Bridget is responsible for taking the sensational photos and Topher captures breathtaking landscapes through drone footage. They are producing footage for The National Geographic and may be doing a TV series on their journey.
So far they have travelled from North to South America (the first leg of the journey), across Africa and up through Europe (the second leg which is still to be concluded as they are now heading towards the arctic climates of Scandinavia and then Russia). The Wrangler has done over 135,000 miles and suffered only two punctures and needed only an engine flush after someone installed the wrong filter during a routine service - which says a lot for the robustness and durability of the Jeep.
They chose the Wrangler for its uniquely qualified abilities and durability, but also because 6ft 5in Topher could sleep in the back of it once the rear seats were folded down!
For Africa they upgraded the suspension, added a snokel, extra lights and storage as well as sticking on bigger wheels. In London they have added heaters in the footwell for the cabin and one in the engine bay to stop it freezing in the icy cold -50 degrees centigrade temperatures - next part of their journey.
Topher and Bridget say they are focussed on 'promoting the natural beauty of this planet, inspiring our followers and readers to keep the Earth pristine, along with exposing the threats and fragilities our Earth is facing.' As such they avoid capturing man-made structures and try to seek out the most remote, isolated and difficult to reach parts of the planet which has led to difficulties and dangers!
They are an undoubtedly brave pair persevering with their journey despite several harrowing experiences including a some that would have put off any right-minded travellers should they have survived to tell the tale too. For instance just a couple of days after they passed through a volatile Khatoum in Sudan there was a deadly rebel attack.
The scariest incident was in Ethiopia on the way to the Danakil Depression - extraordinary salt flats that look like the terrain of an alien planet and regarded as the most inhospitable place on earth - travelling through an area known for tribal wars. Despite having armed security with them for the trip, they were still stopped by six uniformed men and held at gun point pinned to ground.
Fortunately thanks to the intervention of the crowd that had gathered around them, they were allowed to continue on their way after a tense few moments.
'She is fearless' said Topher of Bridget, but they overall they both admit they have found that most people are friendly and want to help you along your way. So they continue undeterred and after completing the current leg, the third part of their journey will take them to central Asia and eventually back towards Australia and New Zealand.
What are they looking forward to most when visiting India? ' The friendly people and the diverse and unique culture. We have a number of Indian followers on Instagram (including famous cricketer, Anil Kumble) and they have always been the most supportive and interested followers we have! We have heard the most friendly people are from India, so we are excited to see this for ourselves.
'Beyond this, we also have a number of 4x4 enthusiasts from India who have been messaging throughout our journey wanting to organise a convoy and some off-roading adventures. Of course, we (and Gunther) love this idea!
'We are also looking forward to the amazing culture of India which is arguably going to be the most colourful and diverse we will come across!'
Judging by the jaw-dropping content they've captured on their travels so far, we can't wait to see what they capture in India and how they get on there. You can follow them at http://www.expeditionearth.live and https://www.instagram.com/expeditionearth.live/