by Chris CollardPhotography by Chris Collard and The Turtle Expedition, Unltd.

The names Gary and Monika Wescott are as familiar to overlanding circles as Mallory and Hillary are to mountaineers. They have been weaving an intricate web of tracks across and around our blue planet since the 1970s. Tales of their adventures have been featured on television shows, in international newspapers, and have graced the pages of magazines the world over. A seed of inspiration that originated at a café in Istanbul, Turkey, germinated into a lifestyle that has become the envy of millions. Their method of travel is slow, relaxed, and methodical, and resembles that of their mascot, the Galápagos tortoise. And as is the case with a tortoise, their house is always right behind them. Like many successful endeavors, this nomadic duo hasn’t achieved overland nirvana alone. They have relied on several generations of Turtles, their latest being the exquisite example of overland bliss before you: The Turtle V. The Wescotts recently returned from a two-year, 40,000-mile expedition across Europe, the Middle East, Stans, and Asia, and I caught up with them in Northern California for a detailed look.

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The magical trail through Tajikistan’s Wakhan Corridor along the border of Afghanistan was one of the more exciting sections of our Trans-Eurasian Odyssey. This portion of the Silk Road was made famous by Marco Polo.

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Playa El Requesón on Baja California’s Sea of Cortez has always been one of our favorite campsites.

To the casual observer this global explorer may appear like other über-overland rigs with a custom home in tow, but further examination reveals features and details that could only be conceived by minds that thoroughly understand the challenges of living on the road, in some of the most difficult environments on the planet. Gary said, “The goals were safety, comfort, functional performance, and reliability.  Above all, reliability.” To ensure these objectives were met he called a number of mechanical and fabrication specialists, including Overland Journal contributor Ned Bacon.

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The Gates to Hell in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan is a natural gas crater that was set on fire by Russian geologists. It has been burning since 1971.

Suspension and Drivetrain

The latest Turtle rolled out of Ford’s Kentucky truck plant with a tough, working suspension, but a number of tweaks would be required to survive its future as a world traveler. The first was to install heavier-duty National springs and Rancho RS9000XL adjustable shocks at each corner. Fore and aft Hellwig sway bars, along with rear Hellwig air assist bags control body roll and the additional weight of the onboard house. The OE duallies were exchanged for Michelin 335/80/R20 XZL MPT tires on custom 20- by 11-inch Rickson wheels. A Lee hydraulic ram assist keeps them rolling down the road in a straight line. Because the failure of a 41-inch tire can be disastrous, a SmarTire wireless pressure/temperature monitoring system was added. The final configuration has provided a functional and reliable suspension that is reasonably comfortable. The decision to maintain a stock-height suspension mandated trimming the fenders to eliminate rubbing. Bushwacker stepped in to assist and used the Turtle as a template to fabricate their first Super Duty cutout fender flares.

The rear Dana 135-S sports an Eaton Detroit Truetrac. Behind it, a custom Transfer Flow fuel tank was designed to fit between our aftermarket exhaust and camper support.

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(Top left) Left to right: gray water tank, Magnaflow exhaust, Transfer Flow auxiliary fuel tank, AccuAir 5-gallon air tank.

(Top right) Up front is a Dana 60 fitted with an ARB Air Locker.

(Bottom left) The Michelin XZL 335/R20 tires have performed perfectly. Not a single flat in 40,000 miles over roads you wouldn’t want to walk on.

(Bottom right) Rickson 20 x 11 steel rims are fitted with valve stems on both sides so front and rear tires can be reversed.

(Below) Song Köl Lake in Kyrgyzstan turned out to be one of our favorite campsites on our way to the Chinese border.

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Dana 60 and 135S axles, which are fitted with an ARB Air Locker and Eaton Detroit Truetrac respectively, are kept contaminant free by K&N breathers and take no issue with the 550’s 17,500-pound GVWR. Dynatrac Free-Spin hubs were installed up front after two sets of the factory unit bearings failed. Twin Extreme Outback compressors and an AccuAir 5-gallon tank support the ARB locker, air bags, and Fiamm air horns, as well as power pneumatic tools and any tire needs. With long hauls through remote regions in its future, a Transfer Flow 33.8-gallon auxiliary fuel cell was installed, increasing capacity to 75 gallons and providing a range of 1,000 miles. A custom switchover valve manages tank selection.

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Splashing through a creek crossing on a back road near Grass Valley, we took some pictures for our current information card.

Under the Bonnet and Recovery

The base vehicle is a 1999 Ford F-550 equipped with a Navistar 7.3-liter Power Stroke intercooled turbo-diesel and 6-speed manual transmission. The mill, which was the one millionth Power Stroke off the assembly line, generates 305 horsepower and 550 lb-ft of torque. The OE air filter was tossed in lieu of a more space-efficient system, and Bacon fabricated a custom tray for a K&N high-flow washable unit and Outerwears Pre-Filter. The truck was ordered with the ambulance package, which allowed for an auxiliary alternator. An externally regulated Prestolite/Leece-Neville high-output unit is managed by a Balmar Max marine charge controller and dedicated to charging an array of “house” batteries. Bringing the Power Stroke to life is a pair of Odyssey Extreme Series batteries and MPA Xtreme starter. Other improvements include an ATS Aurora 3000 turbo, Dieselsite high-pressure oil pump, and Dieselsite coolant filter.

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Leaving the beautiful Song Köl Lake in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, we imagined pack trains with camels and yaks loaded with treasures from the Far East climbing over this pass.

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(Left) The Turtle V was privileged to receive the One-Millionth 7.3 Liter Power Stroke engine

(Right) Four Odyssey Extreme Series batteries supply power to the camper and its inverter. They are identical to those in the engine compartment for easy swapping.

(Below) A unique feature of The Turtle V is a 12-gallon reserve oil tank behind the wheel-well for areas where oil is unavailable. Amsoil on tap.

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Always looking for ways to test our equipment before we leave the country, the Devil’s Highway along the Arizona-Mexico border was perfect.

The Buckstop bumper holds an array of PIAA long-range driving and fog lights, as well as a Warn 16,500-pound winch spooled with Viking synthetic line. It has lockable storage compartments on each side, mounts for GoPro and Total Vision cameras, and dual 2-inch receivers that double as Hi-Lift jack points. A Lund Industries X-Terminator Wrap bug shield (interchangeable with their winter shield), was installed to protect the radiators and coolers from gravel, kamikaze birds, and bugs.

 

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Our Buckstop bumper was custom-built to our specifications and included mounts for a Go Pro camera, Total Vision front camera and PIAA driving lights.

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 (Left) A Warn 16,500-pound winch with Viking synthetic rope and sealed lockable storage compartments were part of the custom features on this Buckstop bumper.

(Right) The lower rear storage area holds two Extreme Outback air compressors and labeled storage bins.

Office Ergonomics

When your office is equipped with a steering wheel, crafting it to be ergonomically comfortable as well as functional can make life on the road (work in the Wescott’s case) a joy. When in the midst of a monsoon or trudging through the emptiness of the Gobi Desert, quick reference to critical vehicle functions is a must.

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This old gentleman was quite surprised to see us camped on Issyk-Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan. He spoke Russian so Monika was able to communicate a bit.

The cab was initially stripped down and treated with easy-to-clean Rhino lining and Kraco multi-season rubber floor mats. Dynamat was added to the floor, doors, and hood to add a measure of noise abatement. Recaro orthopedic seats with MasterCraft four-point harnesses were installed, and Halon fire extinguishers are within arm’s reach on both sides of the cab. A custom walnut console provides handy access to maps and small items. Overhead is a Cobra CB, Optronics map lights, JRV auxiliary light switches, and SmarTire monitor. To aid in hydration on the road, Platypus Big Zip water bags hang from the back of each seat.

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(Left) Mechanical Auto Meter gauges ride on the dash and give us accurate engine conditions.

(Right) The electric panel in the camper features controls for the PROsine 2.0 inverter/converter, RV Power Products Solar Boost 2000E and switches for all 110V and 12V equipment.

A full array of mechanical Auto Meter Pro-Comp gauges ride on the dash in clear view of the driver, as does a Garmin GPS and bright red Auto Meter Pro-Lite (alerts the driver of a sudden drop in oil pressure). A display monitor was added for the Total Vision front, rear, and interior cameras, and an Airguide interior/exterior temperature gauge keeps the pilot apprised of possible icing on the road. Due to the F-550’s 30-inch doorsill height (Monika is petite in stature), a set of Kodiak Sidewinder steps which automatically deploy when a door is opened were installed.

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Our camp at Aqua Verde, Baja California, was ideal.

A Turtle is Only as Good as Its Shell

Turtles, though they move slowly and with purpose, do have their limitations. Their bodies are wide, which can limit passage through narrow, mud-walled streets of third-world villages. Size and weight can be the nemesis of overland vehicles, and these factors were at the forefront of the Wescott’s minds when it came to their “shell.”

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This Caravanserai in Turkey was typical of the special stopover places the caravans along the Silk Road used.

The superstructure consists of an aluminum exoskeleton fitted with Nida-Core extruded polypropylene composite honeycomb panels skinned with a thin layer of fiberglass. The panels, which are attached to the frame with Sikaflex marine adhesive, are lightweight, provide excellent insulation, and are extremely rigid. German-made Seitz dual-pane windows feature roll-up privacy shades and roll-down mosquito nets. Though cabover designs provide an instant bed and additional storage, aerodynamics and height considerations won out, thus the tapered nose and walls.

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Passing over the high mountains of Tajikistan’s Pamir highway we found some beautiful camps next to clear running streams.

When traveling across South America and Siberia, the Wescotts learned that traditional four-point mounting systems flex in technical terrain; the torsional effect causes fatigue to the camper’s frame. The solution was a three-point system commonly used on expedition campers. The two front mounts ride on polypropylene pads while the rear pivots on a single center point, allowing the frame to twist independently of the camper (you can’t twist a box).

 

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(Above) Custom rear racks carry the spare tire, NATO-style jerry cans and military-style sand ladders.

(Below Left) A Weatherguard sealed and lockable aluminum storage box fits perfectly on our over-the-cab rack with room for firewood or extra fuel/water cans in front.

(Below Right) A custom lockable weatherproof storage box was built to carry extra clothes and equipment for four seasons. Note the PIAA back-up lights and the Total Vision rear camera.

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(Above Left) Global Expedition Vehicles installed a custom door for the camper. The German Seitz Windows are dual pane with privacy and mosquito screens. Additional padlocks were fitted to all doors.

(Above Right) Two BP 85W solar panels keep our arsenal of Odyssey batteries charged when we’re camped.

(Below) 40,000 miles through 26 countries following the Silk Road was a Great Adventure

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The rear racks hold NATO-style jerry cans and a spare tire, which is raised and lowered with a 1-ton Maasdam Pow’r-Pull manual hoist attached to a removable overhead boom. Below is a set of Darr aluminum sand ladders, and the Hi-Lift jack and gear stow securely in exterior storage compartments. Additional features include PIAA backup/flood lights and Grote SuperNova LED stop/turn indicators.

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The back roads of Baja California have always been the perfect testing ground for our expedition trucks.

The Abode

The interior is no less than luxurious, albeit in a condensed form. A dedicated bathroom was foregone for a Thetford Porta Potti that slides on tracks into the doorway, which also doubles as a shower stall. A slide-out bed sits in the back, while the front is utilized as a living room, dinette, and workspace. Under the seating area is a 40-gallon water tank and Hunter radiator that keeps the camper warm while on the road. A diesel Espar Hydronic D5 fluid heater plumbed to a FlatPlate heat exchanger provides continuous hot water and will preheat the engine when needed. When parked on cold nights, an Espar Airtronic (also diesel) keeps the house toasty warm. Filling electrical power requirements is a bank of Odyssey Extreme Series batteries, kept topped off by a pair of roof-mounted BP 85-watt solar panels. A PROsine 100-amp, 2,000-watt inverter provides 110 AC and will charge the batteries when hooked up to shore power.

(Below) The rear of the camper is dedicated to a large, comfortable bed and plenty of storage. At night, the bed folds out in seconds with fitted sheets already in place.

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(Top left) A Thetford Porta Potty slides on tracks into the entryway.

(Top right) A crawl-through dual pane window to the cab allows for a quick exit if rousted in the middle of the night by undesirables. Every night we unlatch truck cab rear window.

(Bottom left) An Everpure superchlorination/declorination filtration system removes the chlorine taste, bacteria, and viruses from the treated water tank, a method suggested by the EPA.

(Bottom right) A Prosine 2.0 converter provides 110V when we need it and its 100amp inverter charges the batteries when we’re plugged in.

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(Above)  A world map is an appropriate table covering for a nomad like The Turtle V.

(Below left) The Dometic CoolMatic refrigerator is a compressor type that does not need to be level and runs on either 12V, 110V or 220V.

(Below right) The entry doubles as a large shower and a bathroom. Gray water drains into a tank below.

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The galley consists of a Magic Chef 3-burner propane stove, Dometic CoolMatic compressor refrigerator/freezer (12 V/110 V), and two sinks. There is ample counter space and loads of storage. With diesel hot water and heat, the two 20-pound Manchester LP tanks are sufficient for three months on the road—and can be filled anywhere in the world. Even with the aforementioned luxuries of indoor living at their disposal, Gary and Monika prefer the outdoors. To starboard is a Fiamma crank-out awning for sunny days and rainy nights.

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(Above) The galley has a Magic Chef 3-burner propane stove with a super burner, two sinks, overhead storage and plenty of counter space.

(Below) Our camp along the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan (the mountains) was a good place to take a break and do a wash. Our Fiamma awning made a good clothes line in this treeless land.

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The Turtle V was designed by Gary and Monika (with a pencil and paper) and built with the assistance of craftsmen from around the U.S. The only major failure was the house door, which was replaced with a custom, one-off unit from Global Expedition Vehicles. Considering the fact that it was completed in 2000 (if any build is ever complete) and continues to stand in a class of its own after traversing dozens of countries and spinning the odometer to almost 200,000 miles, one could argue that The Turtle V is the ultimate live-on-the-road overlander.

 

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(Above) Packed and ready to roll for our next adventure, South America 2017.

(Below left) Following the infamous Wakhan Corridor along the Afghan border in Tajikistan, our GPS peaked at 15,270 feet as we crested the Ak-Baital Pass.

(Below right) These washboard tracks across Mongolia were marked on the map as “main highway”.

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(Above) Leaving Western Europe and crossing into Asia was the beginning of a new chapter.

(Below left)  It was interesting to compare the comfort of our camper to these yurts in Kyrgyzstan.

(Below right) Sometimes ferries are necessary. It’s always great to get back on solid ground.

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Specifications

Vehicle: 1999 Ford F-550

Engine: Navistar 7.3L Power Stroke turbo-diesel, ATS Aurora 3000 turbo

Output: 305 hp @ 3,200 rpm, 550 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Transfer Case: OE 2-speed

Axles: Dana 60, Dana 135S

Differentials: ARB Air Locker, Eaton Detroit Truetrac

Tires/wheels: Michelin 335/80/R20 XZL MPT, 20 x 11 Rickson

Suspension: National springs, Rancho RS9000XL shocks

Steering: Lee hydraulic assist

Bumper: Buckstop custom

Recovery: Warn 16,500-lb winch, Viking synthetic rope, Hi-Lift

Fuel cell/gal/range: Transfer Flow, 75 gal, 1,000 range

Compressor: Extreme Outback Extreme Air

Batteries: Odyssey Extreme (6)

Lighting: PIAA, Grote SuperNova

The abode: Too many custom items to list here…

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The old road to Coco’s Corner passes through one of the most beautiful deserts in Baja California.

Gary Wescott’s Words of Overlanding Wisdom

If we are talking about the ultimate overland vehicle we need to be clear about the word ultimate. According to Merriam-Webster it means something that cannot be further improved or refined. Let’s keep that in mind.

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At an overnight stop in Turkmenistan to visit the Gate to Hell, we drove back into the desert to get away from the searing 130°F heat.

If designing your own camper, the first thing you need to do is decide where you’re going and for how long. Will you be visiting national parks, taking weekend trips to the beaches of Mexico, or driving around the world? If the former, do you really need four-wheel drive, a winch, and locking differentials? Is it going to be warm and sunny where you’re going? These factors will influence both camper size and equipment needed. The second consideration is who you are traveling with. Will it be just yourself and a companion, or with two kids, a cat, and a dog?

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(Above) We had to laugh when this herd of sheep and goats wandered through our camp while we were eating breakfast.

(Below left) Following back roads through the Stans, most of the traffic was the four-hoofed type.

(Below right) Where does this track lead? This is an Overland Traveler’s dream.

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Next is to determine is your level of comfort—a very individual matter. You may be content curling up in a sleeping bag on the ground, crawling into a pup tent, or climbing up to a roof top tent. Those are all fine choices, but they relate back to where you are going, for how long, and ultimately the weather. Can you be comfortable for five days of pouring rain in Ecuador?

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Rolling across the grassy plains of Kyrgyzstan near Song Köl Lake we were the only ones on the road.

When I began outfitting The Turtle I, a 1967 109 Land Rover in the early ’70s, there were specific goals to be met. Most importantly, my traveling partner and I needed to sleep in a comfortable bed in any weather. That requirement does not change for a week in Baja or a year in Tajikistan. We also needed to be able to go to the bathroom. Not necessarily the most important thing…but it will be if you can’t. Are you happy behind a bush with a shovel or a portable toilet seat (a luxury if you don’t like to squat), or a toilet seat over a plastic bag and small trashcan? Maybe a step up to a Porta Potti is preferred? The bush works really well provided there are bushes and not many people around. The plastic bag in the trashcan is an excellent solution—we used this for years. It should be noted that it’s a lot easier to get rid of a plastic bag than it is to find a place to dump 5 gallons of goo. Use a pee jar at night. Privacy you ask? If you are traveling in a small camper for a year and cannot go to the bathroom in front of your partner, you may have a bigger problem. Don’t forget to include a bathing option: a solar bag on the roof, sponge baths, or a dive in the ocean. Be aware that you need to plan on how you will handle personal hygiene before you stink.

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A quick stopover in Vladivostok while we waited for the ferry to take us to South Korea. This marked the end of another leg of our TransEurasian Odyssey.

The next critical consideration is a reliable source of purified water. The concern in developing countries isn’t just bacteria, but viruses too. Though there are all kinds of water filters and purifiers available, the most practical solution we found is to chlorinate the water in the holding tank, then filter out the chlorine and dead bacteria and viruses. This allows us to fill the tank from any source: a river, lake, irrigation ditch, or village well.

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Driving back from a visit to the beautiful Iskander lake in western Tajikistan, the dirt road serpentined down the canyon.

Cooking is another important component of a well-designed overland camper. Eating well is essential to your health. Aside from the cute little backpacking stoves that are designed for, well, backpacking, you have two choices with regard to fuel: diesel or propane. Both are available everywhere in the world. Diesel stoves have obvious advantages if you are driving a diesel truck, but we highly recommend you try one for a few days before you give up propane.

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Exploring the interior back roads of Baja California often leads to surprises.

From a vehicle standpoint, you have to look at all of the above to determine how much storage you will need. If the goal is to see how far off the beaten track you can get and still be comfortable, it shouldn’t be too big to go where you want to go. Choosing a vehicle with an appropriate gross vehicle weight rating is key—adding bigger springs or stiffer shocks to a low-GVWR platform is not necessarily the answer.

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Fishing along the coast of the Sea of Cortez in Baja California has always been productive.

Lastly, you must consider the type of fuel. Gasoline is available everywhere, but diesel has always been the preferred choice for overland travel. Newer diesel engines require ultra-low-sulfur fuel and diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), which will pose a problem in third-world regions. I suggest starting with an older 3/4- or 1-ton American diesel pickup (it will run on any diesel fuel) with the weight capacity you need. There are millions of used trucks out there and the aftermarket companies offer products that will make them stronger and more reliable.

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Small ranches in the central part of Baja California are friendly places to stop.

The goal in building The Turtle V was to create a vehicle that was comfortable and reliable, and a home that was big on the inside and small on the outside. Did we succeed? For our kind of travel, which is living on the road and exploring the remote regions and cultures of the world, the answer is absolutely! Is this the ultimate overlander? It is a work in progress; check with us after we’ve driven around the world a third time.

To to learn more about these world travelers or hear of their previous vehicles and adventures, check out their website here.

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Approaching the border to Azerbaijan, we wondered what kind of luck we would need.

 

World Nomad: The Turtle V

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About the Author: Chris Collard

Chris spent his formative years riding dirt bikes with his dad in the deserts of Southern California and Baja, Mexico, which led to a lifelong quest for adventure. He is handy behind a viewfinder and at the keyboard, and brings four decades of international travel experience to Overland Journal as Editor-in-Chief. His career, which includes work for National Geographic Adventure, Four Wheeler, Hot Rod, and Autoweek, has taken him through 50-plus countries and to every continent. He has also served as correspondent to magazines in a dozen countries and in as many languages. In 2013 he was part of the Expeditions7 team that crossed Antarctica and he has recently been inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame as a pioneering journalist. When not behind the camera Chris can be found on The Office (his sailboat), or undertaking meticulous “research” for upcoming articles in locales such as Tequila, Mexico.