Leigh and Steph explore the world in a Land Rover Defender 130 and Four Wheel Camper. Along the way they’ve crashed in Portugal, been arrested as spies in Azerbaijan, and climbed a Soviet monolith in Georgia. Meet GrizzlyNbear Overland.
Above: Leigh and Steph in Svaneti National Park with their Four Wheel Camper Grizzly and Land Rover Defender 130
What holds us back from living our most ambitious dreams? What prevents us from doing exactly what’s in our heart of hearts? Why doesn’t everyone push to fully achieve their absolute potential and burning ambitions?
Is it money? Obligation? Fear of the unknown? Fear of failure?
Naturally it’s all of these things, and more. Fear of going broke. Fear of letting our family, friends and spouses down. Fear of what we don’t know. Fear of just plain screwing up and being a disappointment to everyone. It’s all damn fear.
Which is why people like Leigh and Steph and their unbelievable perseverance while chasing their dreams is so important. We may not be able to summon the courage to go as far as Leigh and Steph, but they can inspire us to buck up, dust off and charge forward with what we are truly meant to do.
Some of Leigh and Steph’s story really hit home with us and helped reaffirm our purpose on the road. Truck camping, traveling, and experiencing life to the fullest with fellow adventurous spirits is what we are all about. This is who we are and what we love to do. As someone reading this article, perhaps you can relate.
That said, we probably would quit the magazine, truck camping and generally speaking in coherent sentences if our truck camper rig was surrounded by a foreign police at 2:00am. Somehow Leigh and Steph kept it together, even after subsequently getting arrested as suspected spies and interrogated. And that’s not even close to the whole story. Did we mention the head-on car accident in Portugal?
Sit back and put the coffee down. This is one for the ages.
How did you two meet, start climbing and traveling the world?
Ten years ago we were both on a rock climbing trip in southern Thailand. Steph was traveling with a friend from Paris and I was with a friend from Australia. After spending an amazing two weeks together we knew that we had something special and couldn’t not see each other again.
My job at the time was working in the offshore oil and gas industry which means working a time on, time off rotation with four weeks on and four weeks off. This gave us a great opportunity to give the relationship a chance. Three months after we met in Thailand, I traveled from Australia to Paris to visit Steph.
Again we had an incredible time together. During this time we discussed the future. Not long after, Steph got a working holiday visa and traveled to Australia.
We spent the next five years traveling around Australia and southeast Asia. Always in search of new climbing areas, we backpacked throughout Asia and then lived out of a camping trailer in Australia.
In 2013, I was offered a job working in West Africa. We took this as a great opportunity to move to Europe and continue our travels on a new continent.
Since then we have been traveling the world in search of new adventure and climbing areas to develop and explore. Our journey so far has taken us to over 50 countries.
Four years ago we committed to our most challenging adventure yet. We are driving around the world with our Land Rover Defender 130 and Four Wheel Camper.
Four Wheel Campers are not typically matched with Land Rovers. How did the concept for this rig come about?
I was discussing our plans to live on the road in Europe with a Canadian work colleague. I explained that I would love the option to have the living space and vehicle as separate items without having to tow a trailer.
This was the first time I ever heard the words truck camper. I couldn’t believe these magical things existed. In Australia people tow camping trailers, have caravans or install roof top tents. At the time, truck campers were extremely rare in Australia.
Above: Demounting the Four Wheel Camper in Bavaria, Germany
As we often spend long periods camping in one place to explore the rock climbing, being able to remove the camper and have the truck for daily trips was absolutely fantastic for our lifestyle.
After deciding on a truck camper for this global overland trip it was time to narrow down the choices. The truck and camper had to fit into a shipping container, be off-road capable and comfortable to live in full-time for the long-term.
Above: Traveling in Morocco
Choosing the Land Rover Defender 130 was the easy part as we have been Defender fans for many years and owned a few before the 130. The Defender is an iconic, unique and capable four-wheel drive vehicle with a rich history. Owning a Defender comes with a lifestyle, an amazing truck and a global family of passionate enthusiasts.
The Four Wheel Camper was recommended to me by the same friend who first introduced me to the truck camper idea. Similar to the Defender, Four Wheel Campers has a long and proven history with many of the older models from the 1970s still in use and in good condition. After research, I found the European importer in Germany.
We bought a used Four Wheel Camper and had it modified to fit on the Defender 130. The camper needed to be lifted to clear the roof of the truck. We added a large slide-out storage drawer system under the camper and side storage boxes. This was a major benefit as it created large storage areas that standard truck campers don’t have.
We utilize these slide-out storage drawers for all of our camping gear, climbing equipment and the jacks that remove the camper. We will usually remove the camper if we decide to stay in one place for two weeks or longer.
Above: Shkhara Glacier in Georgia
How did you come to the idea to travel around the world in the Land Rover 130 and Four Wheel Camper rig?
The decision to drive around the world was made after completing our first overland trip in Europe. In two years we made it as far as Turkey. At the time we contemplated the idea of just continuing into the east, but had never heard of anybody doing this. The thought was a little intimidating.
We returned to the south of France and attempted to settle down in an apartment. After only a few months of living a more conventional life, we got itchy feet.
The decision came easy and the plan was made to attempt a global overland climbing trip in our own vehicle. We set out from the town of Millau in the south of France in 2017. We headed south through Spain and took a ferry to Morocco. After Morocco it was back to Spain and then Portugal.
Unfortunately, two years into the trip, we were involved in a collision with a speeding truck in Portugal. It was December of 2017 and a speeding truck lost control on a blind corner and hit us head on.
We were very lucky to walk away with minor injuries, but the truck was a total write-off. One positive is that the camper was not mounted on the truck when the accident happened. It was safely back at the campsite. Even with the camper safe, the accident nearly ruined our dream.
We can relate to that. How did you move forward?
After several days we came up with a plan.
We had a wrecked truck and a camper that needed that truck to be moved. Since our truck was only badly damaged in the front, we had the truck delivered to the campsite and attempted to install the camper onto the vehicle. It was a challenge because the truck had no steering and could not be driven.
With the assistance of a friendly truck driver and a lot of pushing, winching and manual work, we succeeded. The truck and camper were loaded onto another truck and on their way to our Land Rover garage in the south of France.
The accident was a very stressful period. First, it happened in a foreign country. Second, the French insurance company made it very difficult for us to claim what they owed us.
At one point during the six-month battle with them we thought we were getting nothing. This would have ruined our dream because we would have no money to purchase another truck and continue our journey. We had our savings, but that was needed for living expenses.
We spent some time contemplating our next move while we were at Steph’s mother’s house in France. That’s when the truck and camper made their way to our garage.
The initial shock of the accident wore off and we reminded ourselves how lucky we were to be alive and that vehicles can be replaced. We resolved to rebuild and continued our dream.
Above: The new truck is complete and they are off on their trip again
How long did it take to get back on the road?
Over the next six months I worked in Africa to try and recoup the lost savings. When I was home we lived in the car park and worked full-time on the truck.
Above: Rebuilding their Land Rover Defender 130 after the accident
As we had already built one Defender 130, we had learned a lot. We made a lot of new modifications and got our truck exactly how we wanted it. It was bigger and badder than Bear #1.
Above: Post accident rebuild inside their Land Rover Defender 130
Finally we were ready to set off. The decision was made to head east. We left Paris once again traveling through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Montenegro, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. We recently arrived in our current location of Kyrgyzstan.
You mentioned going back to Africa to make enough money to recover from the accident. How are you otherwise affording this amazing trip?
We have multiple streams of income. First, we have a house in Australia that we rent out. Second, we have a YouTube channel in which we are documenting our journey with weekly videos.
Through Patreon we are supported by amazing people from all over the world who contribute to Steph’s hours of hard work to get a weekly video edited and released.
Above: Leigh and Steph wall climbing in Turkey
What are your personal goals for this trip you’re on? Why are you doing this?
The primary reason for this journey is to pursue our passion for mountaineering and rock climbing. We also love the outdoors, enjoy trail running and long distance hiking.
Above: Big wall climbing in the Aladaglar Mountains
Becoming immersed in the different cultures as we travel is also an essential part of our personal journey. The world is such a beautiful place filled with amazing people.
In one of your pictures it looks like you are climbing in a tube and your camper is below you. Where was that picture taken?
One of the more interesting campsites we were lucky enough to stay at was the old Soviet Union monument in Tbilisi, Georgia. This abandoned 30-meter high concrete monolith had been given to the local rock climbing community.
The rock climbing community converted it to an urban climbing wall. We were given permission to camp there by the awesome Georgian climbing club and had the best possible views of the city.
The truck fit nicely inside the monument. We stepped out of our back door and straight onto a climbing wall, all the while wild camping in the city center. It was a very unique and special experience.
Above: Ganja City, Azerbaijan, the day before they got arrested
That’s incredible. Have you had any challenges traveling into different countries?
We try to keep our plans very loose as things can change at any time. We are very lucky because our French and Australian nationalities allow us visa-free entry to a lot of countries around the world.
When we do need visas we apply well in advance and always have a back-up plan if one of our visas is rejected. We also research current political situations in the countries we are intending to visit.
You can only be so prepared and every now and then things can get a little scary. We recently had an experience in Azerbaijan.
Having done our research we were aware of the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. We knew that we could not visit the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh in Armenia during our time there or we would not be allowed to enter Azerbaijan. We needed to cross Azerbaijan to ship our truck across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan.
At the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan things got a little tense after a border guard took offense to the little Armenian flag sticker on our camper. The guard demanded we take a knife and scrape it off. We kept the peace by covering the flag temporarily with another sticker. They asked us many questions about our time in Armenia, but finally let us enter.
We were excited to be in a new country and headed straight to the mountains to find a campsite and explore the Goygol National Park. During a night of wild camping, we had evening visits and multiple night time visits from the police and military.
Having your truck surrounded by flashlights at 2:00am in a remote area of the mountains in a foreign country and not being able to understand a word that’s being said can be a scary experience. Finally morning came after a restless night.
We drove further into the mountains crossing multiple military check points. After arriving at a mountain lake, we were aware that we were being followed by secret police. Deciding to go for a small hike, the police followed us getting closer and closer until finally asking for our passports.
As soon as the Armenian stamps were found, we were told to go with them. Escorted back to our truck we found it surrounded by military police. We were made to clear a space in the back and were told that a police officer would accompany us inside our car. We were to follow another police car out of the park to the closest town 45-minutes away.
After having all of our electronic devices taken we found ourselves in an extremely intimidating office in front of the Chief of Police for the entire region. We were interrogated for a few hours and made aware that they thought we were filming through our truck’s dash camera for the Armenians.
After a stressful few hours, the police chief finally relaxed and was convinced that we really were just innocent tourists and not Armenian spies. We were offered coffee and biscuits with him. Then we were released, escorted from the town and told to continue to the capital of Baku.
Looking back we don’t know that we could of done anything different. We did learn a valuable lesson about how quickly a situation can change and how to deal with it. Remaining calm and respectful is essential, but also assertive and confident.
That’s an insane and utterly terrifying story. On a much lighter note, what’s the story behind the children climbing your rig?
That was in the Moroccan Sahara Desert in a small town close to the Algerian border. The kids mobbed us when we arrived in the town and were fascinated by the truck. I told them they were more than welcome to climb up on top. Steph snapped the pictures during the scramble.
How do you make full-time living in a Four Wheel Camper work? Relatively speaking, that’s a small camper.
Keeping the camper and truck neat, tidy, and organized is essential to full-timing. Steph is a master of this and is constantly finding better ways to keep us organized. Obviously weight is always a limiting factor.
We like to spring clean every six months. We take everything out of the truck and camper. If we haven’t used something during that period – and it’s not spare parts, recovery or maintenance-related – it goes.
Whether it’s new or not, it’s very easy to accumulate items. We do our best to live a minimalist lifestyle. We give a lot of things to people we meet along our journey.
Above: Exploring Svaneti National Park
What does GrizzlyNbear mean? Where did you come up with that name?
The name of our expedition, GrizzlyNbear Overland, was actually quite simple. The model of our Four Wheel Camper is the Grizzly. The previous Defender that was involved in the accident had a front bull bar made by a company Wild Bear. Bear Grylls, the British explorer and adventurer, was always a big inspiration for me. Grizzly the camper and Bear the truck makes for GrizzlyNbear Overland.
Above: Durmitor National Park, Montenegro
That’s perfect. What’s next for you?
Eighteen-months post accident we are now in Kyrgyzstan. Looking to the future we plan to continue living this lifestyle for many years to come. The loose plan is to continue to Central Asia in 2019.
We will head south to Tajikistan and then north again through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, China, South Korea, and then Japan. Sometime next year we plan to ship the rig to North America. The plan is at least three to four years exploring the Americas before shipping from Uruguay to Africa.
This is a long way off and anything can happen, but we have no plans to settle down. We will continue this journey as long as we can and are motivated to do so.
After completing our first circumnavigation of the world we think we will begin again, taking a different route and getting to all the countries we miss on the first time around. As we like to move quite slowly, we could easily be on the road for at least the next ten years.
Above: Cappadocia, Turkey
Eventually we think we will find the perfect country where we can settle down. So far the countries high on that list are Turkey and Georgia. Both countries are extremely beautiful with friendly, welcoming people. And, of course, awesome rock climbing.
Leigh and Steph’s Rig
Truck: 2010 Land Rover Defender 130, four wheel drive, diesel
Camper: 2014 Four Wheel Camper Grizzly
Suspension: 285/75R16 Cooper STT pro with racer alloys, Terrafirma adjustable shocks, Airbagman airbags,2-inch lift with heavy-duty coils in rear, upgraded heavy-duty Terrafirma front radial arms
Gear: ARB winch bull bar, Warn winch, Nakatanenga snorkel, ARB twin cylinder compressor, Bosch dual battery system, 33-millimeter waffle board sand ladders, Mudstuff roof console