Ducking Down Under
Next year, Richard Coe, a Zimbabwe-born mariner and researcher, and seven companions plan to drive the 24,000 miles from London to Sydney, Australia. What make this different from any other road trip is that they will be driving over all the wet bits, too. A DUKW — a World War II-era U.S. military amphibious vehicle pronounced "duck" — will, they trust, carry them across not only thousands of miles of remote and rugged terrain but also down 1,000 miles of river and over 400 miles of open sea. Coe answered 15 of our questions about his forthcoming adventure, Duck Down Under, which is inspired by the transcontinental journeys in amphibious craft of American travelers Frank and Helen Schreider in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Active Times: What is the big challenge to you of this trip?
Richard Coe: The first and probably biggest challenge is finding the finance to undertake this. After that is taking a vintage vehicle all that way through different environments from deserts to rivers and jungles to sea.
When will you start and how long do you expect the journey to take?
We want to start in 2015 and have given ourselves a year to do it. Given that we don't just want to travel the route but work with solar charities and hopefully conservation projects, I'd say we need the time.
Ever done anything like this before?
No, but after reading about the Schreiders' journey through Indonesia in the August 1962 edition of National Geographic some 20 years ago, it's always stuck in my mind that this may be possible and the idea simply refused to leave me alone. They used a Ford GPA as their vehicle which is a small, amphibious jeep, but as I wanted to take an exploring party, I reasoned that a DUKW would be a better fit in that it was bigger and more powerful.
What inspiration did you draw from the Schreiders?
The Schreiders were incredibly inspiring in that they seemed almost fearless in tackling daunting routes and were determined in overcoming serious obstacles. It's certainly something to measure up to. Frank passed away in 1994 but I managed to trace Helen and was lucky enough to meet her for a few days. She is an amazing person who has taken a deep interest in the project. We talk regularly and I've learnt a lot very quickly. A documentary is being made about their exploits. I urge everyone to be on the look out for it when it airs. Watch this space!
Describe a DUKW and say why you chose it for this adventure?
The DUKW was produced by General Motors during the latter stages of WWII primarily to transfer personnel and material from ships to beach heads. Being extremely versatile they were quickly drafted into a range of other applications. It's essentially a six wheel drive floating truck and saw service in the Pacific theatre, invasion of Sicily and the D-Day landings. People may know these as "duckboats" from numerous harbor tour operations on offer in the U.S.
DUKW's have been out of service for three decades; where did you find yours, and what are you having to do to it to make it 21st-century adventure ready
Certainly DUKW's have been out of military service for some time, but have continued operating as tour vehicles to the present day, which is quite something. We are hoping to acquire an ex-tour vehicle in the U.K. shortly. It's already in tour configuration, so it will be a question of replacing the engine and a general, all-round overhaul. We're working with a retired military engineer who specializes in DUKWs and think six months should do it.
Does she have a name?
She does indeed have a name. The Schreiders' first expedition was from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego in their first GPA, Tortuga 1. Their Indonesian journey was conducted in their second GPA Tortuga 2. During an afternoon with Helen, going through some of their footage and books, we both came to the conclusion over cheese and wine that the vehicle can only be called Tortuga 3. The legend continues!
Give us an overview of your route; is the situation in Ukraine causing you to make any changes
The route still has to be finalized but will incorporate enough flexibility to allow us to avoid any potential hot-spots such as the Ukraine. We will cross the [English] Channel, most likely at the shortest point, and then pretty much head East through Europe in a straight line. Mongolia and Kazakhstan are on the cards before passing through China into Laos. A real hope is to head down the Mekong River. It may be we are able to include Burma. Then it will be south into Malaysia, across the Malacca Strait to Indonesia before island-hopping to Timor Leste. Then the last sea-crossing to Darwin, Australia. This route was chosen as it not only represents an exciting itinerary but at the same time avoids a lot of volatile regions to the south as we cross Europe and Asia.
Your route takes you through some of the harshest, hottest and coldest parts of the planet; what do you expect to be the most challenging section(s), and which the real highlights?
It will all be pretty challenging to a degree but the leg from Timor to Darwin looms fairly large in my imagination as a seafarer. It'll also be interesting to see how things pan out in places like Mongolia, which I've wanted to visit for a long time. Traveling any significant stretch of the Mekong would certainly rank as a highlight.
Has a DUKW ever crossed 400 miles of open sea as yours will have to do to get from East Timor to Australia?
No. The DUKW was intended to drive ashore after being deployed from vessels standing off an invasion beach, so long sea passages were not considered in the design. That said, I've been in contact with a number of people who believe in this vehicle and I am confidant — as are they — that with the correct procedures, training and maintenance it can be done. One amazing gentleman I spoke to, who has two DUKWs, wants to sail one across the Atlantic some day, such is his conviction. I'm sure he'll do it, too, but his biggest challenge I believe, will be convincing his wife.
What scientific research will be done en route?
Again, something we're in the process of pinning down but broadly speaking there are programs on the Mekong that I think are very impressive and necessary, the amphibious nature of the vehicle means that we can probably get to some out of the way places. I'd also love to be involved with coral health monitoring through Indonesia and some of the Coral Triangle that we'll be passing through. As a diver and having worked on oceanographic research ships, it's something I feel strongly about.
What does it cost to mount an expedition like this and how are you funding it?
We'll only know the true cost involved once we have the vehicle and can start to look at what spares we need. Also, once we have the new engine in place we need to conduct speed and endurance trials to work out the fuel budget. We can only estimate this for now: $160,000- 200,000 would be a good place to start. We'll likely self-fund the purchase of the vehicle and then apply for a number of grants and look at sponsors and investors. We have videographers on board and the aim is to produce a quality documentary, so that is in the plan. Social media will also play a big part. Another idea is to offer the opportunity to be on the expedition for a fee.
Are you still looking for crew?
We are. Given that the aim is for a credible expedition in the classical style, medics are welcome as well as potential scientific leads. But anyone with a genuine interest in what we're trying to do and where we want to go would be considered. (How to apply.) This won't be cheap however, so anyone with serious intentions would also be expected to commit financially as well. Presently we have backgrounds in marine engineering, navigation, teaching and film-making.
What do you want the legacy of this trip to be?
I would want the legacy to be one of exploration and conservation. We aim to work with a solar charity that provides small-scale solar systems for clinics in remote communities as well as teaching people how to maintain solar equipment. If we could set up teaching and training opportunities along the way in a lasting fashion, then that would be perfect.
What is the biggest joy adventure travel gives you?
Seeing of new places and experiencing different cultures. Duck Down Under is certainly poised to deliver that.