Charlie Frew: Off-road from Hong Kong to Portugal

Charlie Frew: Off-road from Hong Kong to Portugal

Driving 40,000 kilometers, close encounters with a "monster" and why vodka is important for adventurers
Charlie Frew
Charlie Frew with agent Ben and his colleague at Erenhot on the China-Mongolia border.

On May 19, 2010, Hong Kong-based marine ecologist and part-time adventure racer Charlie Frew set off on a year-long, off-road journey across the world.

His mission was to drive 40,233 kilometers from Hong Kong to Portugal, alone, in a 1992 Hilux 2.4 TD, "fully spec’d out with a fake snorkel, bug deflector and way too many Chinese parts" as Frew puts it.

Along the way, the 40-year-old had conversations about climate change with people living across Eurasia, some amongst the most fragile environments and remotest habitable regions on earth.

Frew used their thoughts to complete a "social understanding" of global warming based on interviews, images and film. His findings were based not on hard science, but experience.

"I'm a skeptic," Frew says, "I think we disillusion ourselves by trying to stabilize an unstable climate.

“I do believe that humans are destroying the planet [in other ways]. But what's going on upstairs, I don't believe that is [anthropogenic], not after my drive. I saw a glacier in the Gobi desert. Go figure."

So far, his travels have raised HK$40,000 for three charities, including the Shark Trust (UK), SOS Children's Villages International (Russia) and the Christina Noble Children's Foundation (Mongolia).

Ahead of the release of his book, “On the Wrong Side,” in 2012, Frew shares some of the highlights of his adventure.

Hong Kong

There was a yellow rainstorm warning the day I left Hong Kong. There was lightning everywhere and I was in Sai Kung with probably the world's most expensive expedition vehicle.

Beijing hadn't delivered my China visa yet by the time I was ready to go, so it looked like the car was going to end up taking a short trip to the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. I was massively worried-- that would have been an embarrassing drive back.


People thought China would be difficult for me and the planning part was, because nobody had done a completely off-road journey before in this particular way.

The key is, don't be scared of the world

-- Charlie Frew

I made up a story about a caravan expedition, and Beijing approved it. Then they sent back a whole file of correspondence saying that I needed a convoy of at least 10 cars to get into China.

I got my friends to send in their license plate numbers. But when I showed up at the Hong Kong border to get the visa, I couldn't have it unless the nine other cars were there. So I phoned up the Hong Kong Land Rover Club and they helped me out.

I had an agent in my car the whole time in China, because you're not allowed to drive by yourself.

One day, we got to Shenlong forest where supposedly there's a wild animal that's half-ape, half-human.

We were driving through and it was really dark and eerie. Ben [the agent] was nodding off.

I saw a shadow -- but it wasn't the monster. It was a tank with a big gun. I said to Ben that we should turn around and he didn't have a clue what I was talking about, so we kept going towards Xi'an.

Then, bang! These lights came on and a police car pushed me off the road.

They were shouting “Get out! Get out!”

Our route was correct, but what we hadn't noticed was that 20 kilometers back, there was a sign that said “no foreigners allowed.”

Charlie FrewAt the Hongor sand dune, Gobi desert.


Mongolia and Russia

I've never met such friendly people in my life as I did in Russia. In fact, of all the countries I drove through I think they were the most generous.

My suspension snapped in Mongolia. The wheels were falling off the car so I stopped and asked around for a mechanic.

Someone said if you drive really slowly for 1,000 kilometers you might find a garage over the border in Russia, which I did. This family in Novosibirsk said they would fix my car if I stayed with them. I was there for three weeks.

In Russia, I learnt that when you have vodka for breakfast, you know it's going to be a good day.

One night I smoked this drug called Spice and became extremely paranoid. I ran into the car, locked it and hid under a blanket. The whole world was spinning and my heart was going and the guys just said, it'll wear off in 28 minutes. And it did.

I reached the peak of the highest mountain in Mongolia -- 4,374-meter Khuiten Uul.

I've never climbed before and this was ice axes and crampons and glaciers creaking. I was out of my depth.

My mountain guide, Ghanga, had led trips to Everest and there she was in this little town. It was fate.

When we pulled into the park to begin the climb, there was a team there from England. The weather had moved in and they had just spent five days sitting in a tent.

I rocked up, parked the car, had a beer and said to Ghanga “Are we going up tomorrow?”

She said, “We'll go up tomorrow.”

I swear, there wasn't a single cloud for three days after.

Charlie FrewDriving from Murmansk to the Norwegian border with no window: "This is when I thought I was going to die."



I think the biggest challenge for me was the cold. I spent 43 days living in my car in the Arctic. It is stunningly beautiful but, wow, it's dangerous up there.

I made a mistake in Murmansk, which is the most northerly city in the Arctic. I left the 'Lux' for two nights in the same place. That's a big no-no, because then somebody knows where you are.

A drug addict came along and smashed my windows and stole my snowshoes. I would've given them to him.

Have you ever tried driving in minus 35 degrees Celsius with no window? If you're cold when you get into bed, you cannot heat up. Everything froze. The food froze, so I was basically just eating ice.

What's amazing is that vodka doesn't freeze.

There were so many times when I thought, get me out of here. But I never doubted myself. If you dig hard enough into your psychological tool kit, you'll find the thing to get you out of there.

You have to keep going, kilometer by kilometer. And give yourself little challenges.

My mantra was “do one thing a day that scares you.”

I'm not saying go for a swim naked in a lake. I'm saying, actually go and scare yourself witless.


I took the ferry from Zeebrugge to Hull in this illegal car with colonial British plates. And this guy knocked on my window and said, are you carrying any illegal people?

I said, no, not in my car.

He said, where are you off to?

I said, Portugal.

He said, you're in the wrong country.

Charlie FrewTurning off the engine at Cape Saint Vincent in Portugal.

The end

When I started off at Cape D'Aguilar in Hong Kong, I filled a little bottle with sea water and put it in my glove compartment. The saddest part of the trip was pouring it over the edge of Cape Saint Vincent in Portugal and turning the engine off.

The car was pointing towards somewhere and purring away and part of me wanted to turn back and carry on driving. I never expected the journey to be magical or life changing, but what I saw and learned personally was.

I was never bored. Never. Some days I drove for 10 minutes -- I just drove around the corner and thought, my God, look at that view. I'll stay here.

Some days I drove for 10 hours. It wasn't planned day by day. You can't rush these things, because you'll never do it again. The key is, don't be scared of the world. 

Samantha Leese is a Hong Kong based writer and editor, focusing on travel, arts and culture. Her articles have been published internationally by titles such as Condé Nast Traveller, The Spectator, Artforum and Time.

Read more about Samantha Leese