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  • From the Scorching Heat of the African Desert Into the Freezing Cold of Siberia

    Expedition Earth: 
    From the Scorching Heat of the African Desert Into the Freezing Cold of Siberia

    The couple from Expedition Earth embarked on a lengthy expedition to the boundaries of Russia’s Arctic Circle, equipped with Webasto heaters. At one of the most remote places on earth they meet the Nenets people, spending time with them ice fishing and keeping an eye on their reindeer herds. What begins as an adventure turns into a race against time, due to a worldwide pandemic. Read in this article how the story of the two adventurers and their jeep Gunther continues.

  • We began our journey into the Yamal peninsula from Salekhard, a small Siberian shipping port sitting on the boundaries of Russia’s Arctic Circle. Strategically positioned in the delta of the Ob River, Salekhard is completely inaccessible by car outside the winter months. The only way in or out of the region is to wait until the rivers have frozen thick, forming Russian snow roads.

    Having battled our way through the scorching deserts of North Africa and the length of South America’s Andes the year before, we were feeling confident we could tackle Siberia’s snow roads in our now well-equipped Jeep ‘Gunther’.

    The Yamal peninsula is ranked as having the world’s most volatile weather patterns so solo driving is extremely risky. For this reason, we were accompanied by a local guide called Roman and his Jeep with 2-meter-high tires.

    We carried an extra 160 litres of fuel on the roof which would get us to our destination and back with a bit to spare in case of an emergency. In the freezing temperatures fluctuating between -25 °C and -50 °C we felt comfortable knowing we had our Webasto heaters keeping the engine and cabin from freezing overnight.

     

    Expedition Earth: Topher with Jeep Gunther on frozen rivers Our journey across the frozen rivers turns out to be a real adventure.
  • Traditional woman of the Nenets stands in chum and cooks tea The Nenets live in traditional chums secluded from the world.

    After 2 excruciating days of ploughing through thick snow and ice, we crawled into our camp with our Jeeps at 5 am. We were greeted by two men cloaked head to toe in reindeer hide who ushered us into their chum for some tea.

    As we entered the traditional tent, the first thing we noticed was the smell. The Nenets people do not bathe during the winter months. There is limited ventilation inside the chum to prevent heat loss, so with a family of 4 living, cooking and sleeping inside with their dogs, there is quite an odour. Thanks to a wood burning stove in the centre, the chum has a comfortable temperature.

    Exhausted after our long drive, we managed to catch up on some much-needed sleep. We found ourselves waking up in the night with the dogs inside our sleeping bags, also escaping the cold.

    Our time with the Nenets was spent ice fishing through the 3-meter-thick ice sheets upon the river Ob River, keeping an eye on their 400+ herd of reindeer and learning about their traditions and beliefs. With their population steadily decreasing, the Nenets people and their culture will soon be lost. 

  • As one might imagine, the Nenets people live without an Internet connection to the outside world. Our time in this remote part of the planet therefore left us oblivious to what was going on in the world, and more specifically, to Covid-19.

    After a week and a half in Yamal we eventually returned to civilization, to find that Russia was only 4 days away from closing its borders. We received an email from the New Zealand embassy in Moscow, letting us know that almost all countries along our Leg 3 route had already closed their borders to overland visitors. 

    The situation didn’t look good. Our only options were to remain in Russia and wait out the lockdown or drive non-stop to reach Moscow airport and return home to New Zealand, postponing the expedition. With so much uncertainty around borders reopening, the latter option seemed much more appealing. 

    The traditional huts of the Nenets snowed in with their herd of reindeer. The Nenets live with a herd of 400 reindeer and move on sledges. 
  • Jeep Gunther from Expedition Earth is accompanied by a native through snow and fog The way on its own is too dangerous, so Gunther is accompanied by a local. 

    We began our 68-hour journey from Northern Siberia to Moscow. The first 30 hours required driving over ice rivers, Russia’s ‘Winter Roads’. Thank goodness for our Webasto heaters pumping throughout the night whilst we battled with thick snow in a freezing blizzard. Eventually, as the blizzard cleared and the sun rose, we reached the first gravel trail. After another 15 hours on the gravel trails, Gunther’s tires touched tarmac. What a moment! 

    Eventually, without stopping and through rotational sleeping, we reached Moscow. We parked Gunther outside Moscow airport, in a ‘long stay’ parking lot, and we were on the first flight home. 

  • We touched down in New Zealand just days before the country closed its borders. We’ve now been here for over 6 weeks and have just come out of the highest level of lockdown. New cases are now down to only 2 or 3 per day, so the hustle and bustle of the streets outside is beginning to come back. Every day we check for border updates on the countries along our Leg 3 route. However, it doesn’t seem likely that we will be able to restart our expedition for a number of months. 

    Via Whatsapp, the parking warden sends us photos of Gunther parked up in the melting snow of Moscow. Patiently, he is waiting for us to continue our expedition.

    Expedition Earth on a lonely beach in New Zealand. In New Zealand you can clearly see the effects of Covid-19 on the popular beaches. 
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