Claire Oelrichs OAM has recently returned from a trip to Ukraine as part of her ongoing involvement with a grassroots initiative supporting the fight against the Russian invasion. Georgia Fox spoke with her to learn more.

Most of us feel powerless and overwhelmed in the face of larger world forces, seemingly beyond our control. Few, like local conservationist and retired veterinarian Claire Oelrichs OAM, run full-steam towards them, determined that they can, and must, make a difference. Whether it be tirelessly regenerating the 100 acres of Coopers Shoot land she and her late husband, Ian, purchased in the early 1990s, or working to protect the threatened elephants, tigers, and rhinoceros of southern Sumatra, Claire is giving it her all. She might try to downplay her decades of frontline activism as being almost accidental, but her actions speak for themselves as to the level of dedication involved.

Though she continues to be busy tackling her last hill at Coopers Shoot, and is still heavily engaged in international wildlife conservation efforts, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, her heart has been in Eastern Europe. She says there is no personal connection to either Ukraine or Russia that would explain the degree to which she has been affected by the developments there, but learning of her father’s life-risking secret ops in the British Navy as a Russian-speaking spy during the 1950s, one might beg to differ.

Her horror at the unfolding catastrophe in Ukraine prompted a deep dive into the subject, impressed beyond measure with the resolve of the people she witnessed in the documentary, Winter on Fire which examines the 2013 Maidan Uprising that instigated the current Russo-Ukrainian war. Further digging left her aghast, finding little-discussed but verified reports of widespread war crimes, including the abduction of thousands of Ukrainian children, and the common practice of genital mutilation of prisoners of war. “It’s an abomination, and offends every sense of right and wrong!” she says.

Determined to find a means in which to contribute in a substantial way, she became aware of a campaign called ‘Car for Ukraine’ (C4U), which sees a network of volunteers across the UK and Europe procure vehicles for the Ukrainian army. Second-hand dual-cab 4×4 utes, most often sourced from the UK due to their cheaper cost and more plentiful supply, are purchased by members of the public and transported by expat Ukrainians to C4U’s armoury in Lviv, where they are transformed into battle-ready trucks and sent off to the frontline.

She started following C4U’s progress—who have so far delivered 411 trucks worth around five million dollars—and inspired by their tenacious grassroots approach, began fundraising with friends to purchase their first vehicle. Over the next couple of years, a further two vehicles were secured, liaising with London based Ukrainian Sergiy, who facilitates the process.

Claire Oelrichs OAM Photo supplied

With her 70th birthday approaching in March of this year, Claire and her Berlin-based sons, Dexter and Cooper, were discussing ideas for a birthday holiday get-together when the possibility of personally transporting a fourth vehicle to Ukraine was floated. The 1900km journey, usually squeezed into a punishing weekend of 18-hour days for the volunteers who transport the vehicles, was plotted as a less arduous five-day family road trip, and by the time they converged in London this past Easter weekend, one ute had become one each, taking the total of supplied vehicles to six. Fitted out with BYO CB radios, the Oelrichs family convoy hit the road to Lviv.

The post-Brexit hard UK/EU border crossing from Dover to Calais got them off to a challenging start. Travelling as ‘cargo,’ their utes were dwarfed by a wall-to-wall flotilla of giant freight trucks, with the three Oelrichs packed into carriages alongside an army of drivers from every corner of Europe. The unusual convoy, emblazoned with Ukrainian stickers and bound for a conflict zone, garnered extra thorough searches and x-rays, sending pulses racing amongst the Australians who realised they had put themselves in a potentially vulnerable position. “We’ve all seen The Mule!” Claire laughs. Passing with flying colours and their faith in C4U confirmed, they were free to begin their adventure across Europe.

Whizzing through previously visited countries, their pace slowed in Poland to enjoy some sightseeing and hiking, before the mood changed considerably crossing through Ukraine’s wartime border and travelling the two hours into Lviv on its dilapidated major highway.

From left; Ivan, from Car for Ukraine, with Cooper, Dexter, and Claire Oelrichs, in Lviv, Ukraine Photo Ivan Oleksii

After delivering the vehicles and seeing the armoury, the Oelrichs visited the Field of Mars—named for the God of War—an “unbelievably moving” cemetery struggling to cope with the ever-increasing number of graves of the region’s fallen, brightly decorated in flags and flowers, each bearing their photo, as well as the emotionally charged treasures left by loved ones—often their children. Before heading back to Poland, they shared dinner at a restaurant with C4U members, including the founder, Roman, during which an app on the Oelrichs’ phones started blaring in unison, warning of imminent attack. The locals were unfazed, reassuring them, despite the scars peppering the city from a series of missile strikes in 2022 and 2023, “they never bomb Lviv”. Its standing as one of Ukraine’s safest cities, furthest away from the frontlines, is all relative for a country living under the most difficult of circumstances.

Energised by the experience and determined to do even more to help, Claire is drawing on her expertise as a seasoned conservation tour guide to lead a larger convoy of between five to 10 vehicles this September/October for keen travellers looking for an adventure with purpose. Groups can come together to purchase a vehicle, costing on average around £4000/$8000, with between two to four drivers of each vehicle self-funding a week-long road trip through the UK, France, Belgium, Germany and Poland, with a day trip into and out of Lviv. While the convoy would start and finish, as well as cross the UK/France and Poland/Ukraine borders together, vehicles can branch off as desired, or remain in tow with Claire, staying at strategically located Airbnbs and visiting sightseeing destinations along the way.

Claire would love to hear from anyone interested in joining: claireoelrichs@gmail.com For more information about C4U, visit car4ukraine.com

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