A journey of discovery has reached half way, writes Topher Richwhite.
Last year, Kiwi couple Bridget Thackwray and Topher Richwhite packed up their lives and went on a mission — dubbed Expedition Earth — on which they planned to drive across seven continents and 70 countries from the Arctic Circle, back to New Zealand. As of today they'll have been on the road for 321 days, with more than 18 months still to go.
Here are some of their thoughts and highlights from the journey so far.
From the most northern drivable point in the Americas, 1100km above the Arctic Circle in temperatures below -30C, Expedition Earth began its three-year circumnavigation of the globe. Our goal was to drive our way 350,000km around the planet, over 70 countries, covering all seven continents, until we would eventually arrive back in New Zealand in late 2020.
It's now been 10 months since departure, and the Expedition Earth team — me, Bridget and our Jeep, Gunther — have driven the length of North America, Central America and South America, from Alaska to Antarctica.
We set off on a journey of self- and environmental discovery, not planning much more than the direction we were heading and a rough route map of how we'd tackle all seven continents in three years.
We wanted our journey to give us more of an education around the environmental issues omnipresent in recent global media: single use plastics, overpopulation, the environmental impact of tourism and global warming.
With pleasant surprise, we have repeatedly found that tourism is helping to significantly reduce the impact that humans are having on the planet. Many local economies in Central and South America depend on — and benefit from — foreign tourism, and we have found that locals are now protecting wildlife and landscapes to preserve their economy. Mexico's Baja Peninsula, for example, recently banned fishing of the whale shark after local businesses reliant on marine tourism were under threat.
We have also found that social media has encouraged holiday-makers to venture beyond the walls of their resort compounds. Of course, there are exceptions but, on the whole, these tourists are helping encourage local economies to protect their natural surroundings. Online platforms also give social-justice warriors the chance to make a difference to dubious tourist attractions. Places in Central America that would have once claimed to be animal rescue centres are now being forced to close their doors, rebrand or change the treatment of their captive animals because of online backlash.
The work isn't done, of course. There are still attractions that are questionable and it's important for travellers to make a fair judgment of whether their holiday snap is at the expense of an exploited culture, species or system.
Although we believe that overpopulation is a very real issue, we did manage to find ourselves in remote landscapes we never thought would still exist. Between Peru, Bolivia and Chile, we navigated our way south through the Andes for days without seeing any more than a few shepherds on horseback. With farmers still using traditional methods, it was a journey back in time and an area well worth exploring in a 4x4.
From New Zealand, the Galapagos Islands are a trek and a half, but well worth the effort. About 1200km off the coast of Ecuador, the islands seemed fairly plain from afar, especially when compared to New Zealand's dramatic landscapes. It's not until you arrive in Puerto Ayora, the main town and home of the Charles Darwin research centre, that you realise where you are. With our bags in hand, we trudged the backroads of the capital looking for a hotel. It wasn't long before we were joined by an iguana, a seal and a greedy pelican.
The islands really came to life when we looked beneath the surface. In an hour's diving, we encountered more marine species than we had seen down the entire coast of the Americas.
To enter the Galapagos, travellers must pay US$100 per person, which goes towards conservation. The islands are a protected national park, although there are some exceptions for locals. After seeing DoC's efforts on pest eradication in New Zealand, we were horrified to see household pets such as cats roaming freely around the islands. This is a sensitive local topic and one we struggled to accept.
Our time in the Americas ended with a three-day crossing of the notorious Drake Passage between Argentina's Ushuaia and the Antarctic peninsula. Beneath 3000m snow-clad peaks and kilometre-wide icebergs, we explored the coast by snow shoe and Zodiac. On board a Russian expedition boat, we were accompanied by leading scientists and explorers from all over the world.
During the 10-day expedition, the debate of global warming left us asking more questions than we had when we started.
Every action humanity takes to interfere with nature has consequences, even if the action is made with positive intentions. We are learning as we go and enjoying every step of the journey. However, we realise we have a long road ahead until we formulate the end-goal for Expedition Earth.
This month, we were reunited with Gunther in Durban, South Africa and began the second leg of the expedition. We will venture north through Africa to the Middle East, working with conservation programmes and efforts along the way. We will cross through Jordan, Saudi Arabia and north into Iran before entering Europe. Leg two will end in Norway after an expedition to Greenland, Svalbard and Faroe Islands. We're looking forward to learning what the next stage of our journey has to teach us.
Bridget and Topher will be sharing more of their adventures in upcoming issues of Sunday Travel.