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The Entire World is a Family

- Maha Upanishad


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Adventure Travel

Aug 23, 2016

How to Drive a Mercedes-Benz Unimog

Behind the wheel of Mercedes-Benz’s legendary all-wheel-drive off-road expedition trucks in Germany’s Black Forest, PLUS a fireside chat with Gunther Holtorf, who’s put in a million kilometers on his trusty 1988 G-wagen, driving to nearly every country in the world.

WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

When Daimler invited me to Stuttgart over a weekend to go on a drive to the Black Forest in Germany, I couldn’t say no – especially when I learnt that we’d get a chance to test the legendary Unimog off-road truck on a test track in Ötigheim.

Accompanied by mostly German car and adventure travel journalists, we headed out to the Unimog Museum for a briefing – where we also met our companion for the trip, legendary traveler Gunther Holtorf, who’s driven nearly a million kilometers in his trusty G-wagen “Otto”, to nearly every single country in the world.

 

I’d gotten a fantastic introduction to the off-road capabilities of the G-wagen during my desert drive in Namibia in a month before. However, I’d never driven a Unimog before.

The Unimog
The Unimog (or “Mog”, as its aficionados call it) is a compact, highly maneuverable, all-wheel drive, off-road truck, used for special purposes in everything from the military, to adventures and expeditions worldwide, to extreme motorsport events like the Dakar Rally. Its all-wheel drive, flexible frame/suspension and very high ground clearance (portal gears allow the axles to be higher than the centre of the wheel) – allow the truck to be driven over meter-tall boulders, over ice, through deserts and forests (literally over tree trunks) and rivers.

At the museum we got a first look at our convoy: expedition Unimogs with fully-livable campers (from Merex, a specialist Unimog service-provider and builder); a Zetros; a G-class; and the new Sprinter van and V-class (great for surf trips!). All were fitted out for sleeping in overnight in the rolling hills of southern Germany’s Black Forest region.

We got a jaw-dropping introduction to the capabilities of these off-road trucks at the testing ground – their professional driver leisurely drove the vehicles up and down on everything from 60% to 110% gradients. Then, with no second thoughts, we watched as the trucks were driven in reverse up a stairway.

Mercedes Unimog GIF 3

After a while, it became like watching a video game – the “Mogs” and Zetros were driven over boulders, through bombshell craters, meter-deep waterways, and obstacle courses that would literally break the spine of any other vehicle.

Check out the following pictures to see the incredible articulation and suspension of the Mog.

Finally, I got a chance to get behind the wheel of the incredible off-road truck. It felt surprisingly easy to drive, with three diff locks which one could engage as needed, automated tire-control systems and a lot more I wasn’t familiar with. Modern “Mogs” have a surprising amount of electronics in it, just like the G-classes I drove a month before in Namibia. I climbed into the cabin, adjusted my seat, and followed the instructor’s guidance. The Mog practically drove itself, and I found myself climbing up steep inclines and terrain that would have been difficult to walk on, let alone drive. I began to imagine the potential and possibilities for expeditions in remote regions of the world, as has been done before with these vehicles – from desert crossings to scientific expeditions and explorations.

German traveler Gunther Holtorf has driven just about 900,000 km in 26 years in the same trusty 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300GD G-wagen, which he named “Otto” because that’s what he’d call all his friends’ children. With his wife Christine (until her passing) Gunther's crossed the Amazon jungle through Guyana; been the only westerner to drive across North Korea (under strict escort); across Russia twice; and discovered that India was “the world’s biggest open-air museum”. A third of the odometer was done on unsurfaced roads or tracks, and the entire around-the-world trip was self-funded, apart from service and technical support from Mercedes and the occasional diplomatic interventions! Photo: Apoorva Prasad/ The Outdoor Journal
German traveler Gunther Holtorf has driven just about 900,000 km in 26 years in the same trusty 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300GD G-wagen, which he named “Otto” because that’s what he’d call all his friends’ children. With his wife Christine (until her passing) Gunther’s crossed the Amazon jungle through Guyana; been the only westerner to drive across North Korea (under strict escort); across Russia twice; and discovered that India was “the world’s biggest open-air museum”. A third of the odometer was done on unsurfaced roads or tracks, and the entire around-the-world trip was self-funded, apart from service and technical support from Mercedes and the occasional diplomatic interventions! Photo: Apoorva Prasad/ The Outdoor Journal

For us at The Outdoor Journal, sustainability is our top concern. We realize the need for vehicles in our daily lives as well as for global adventures but we always want to find out more. Modern Mogs are Euro-6 compliant and are constantly engineered to evolve with time.

We realize the need for vehicles in our daily lives as well as for global adventures but we always want to find out more. Photo: Apoorva Prasad/ The Outdoor Journal
We realize the need for vehicles in our daily lives as well as for global adventures but we always want to find out more. Photo: Apoorva Prasad/ The Outdoor Journal

So are we going to see a hybrid or electric Unimog? Mercedes did just release a first-of-its-kind fully-electric 26-tonne urban truck last month. Hopefully this is a trend that will also eventually percolate down to this very hardy 60-year-old outdoor off-road platform.

Feature Image: The Unimog’s “home” is in Gaggenau, where it was first manufactured, and from there we drove further south into the Black Forest or Schwarzwald, the legendary, haunted, deeply forested hills that form a historic border region between France, Switzerland and Germany © Apoorva Prasad/ The Outdoor Journal

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Adventure Travel

Jul 04, 2018

Become the Bear! Tackling Middle Aged Life the Bear Grylls Way.

This story originally featured in a print issue of the Outdoor Journal.

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WRITTEN BY

Jamie East

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Bear Grylls is probably one of the most famous adventure celebrities in the world. Aside from all his adventures, Bear also shares his survival skills with anyone ready to pay for it. One such chap was our middle-aged writer Jamie East, who usually preferred watching other people take risks from the safe distance of his television. Until he decided to go out there himself and get dirty.

Well, there’s something liberating about jumping into a freezing, fast-flowing river with all your clothes on. It’s the kind of thing that, as a child, you told yourself you’d do all the time once you were big enough and your parents couldn’t tell you off. Yet staying on the precipice at age 39, all I can think of is, “Is this jumper dry-clean only?”

This is what life does to you. It sucks the adventure from you quicker than a Dyson in a bag of sawdust. Before you know it, you’d rather sleep than live, drive than hike, sink into the sofa than swim.

I suppose this could be classified as bare survival. You exist but don’t live, and I’ve decided enough is enough. What would the 12-year-old Jamie, who got sent home from school for falling down a ravine he thought he could clear in one leap, say to me if he could see the 39-year-old me? “Man up!” probably. “Your clothes are stupid?” most definitely.

Bear Grylls is the man we all aspire to be. Hard as nails on a mountain ledge, soft as grease at home with his kids. The fire in his heart burns brighter than Krypton being destroyed, and he’s harder than a 60-foot working model of optimus Prime made from diamonds. He also embraces the outlook on life we all wish we had time for had those damned IsAs, smart phones and creamy pasta sauces not gotten in the way. Thankfully for those of us with a terminal case of lazy-itis, we can see how the other half live over at the Bear Grylls survival Academy from the bleak Scottish Highlands or the luscious surrey forests in England. Run by Grylls and his team of ex-paratroopers, the survival Academy is an ideal introduction into a world of skills and endurance we think we’ll never need. Be honest; how many of us truly believe that there will come a time when we will be skewering a rat for dinner or navigating a 23,000-acre highland with only the stars to help? But these are skills that used to be second nature to us humans. If there weren’t people like Grylls to show us the way, there are a lot of people around the world who wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale of the time their car broke down in the Australian outback, or when they had to make a snow cave that provided those few vital hours of warmth on a mountaintop. Whether we like it or not, the knowledge could prove life-saving.

A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.
A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.

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The Academy offers several options tailored to your needs. You can opt for a 24-hour experience in Surrey either alone or with a family member older than 10. Although only 10 minutes from the motorway, such is the Surrey countryside that you could be in Montana for all you’d know. The dense forest makes for a real wilderness experience. The deep rivers you’ll be crossing, the rabbits you’ll be gutting, the trees you’ll be stripping to make shelter, and the ravines you’ll be shimmying across really do give you a feeling of being alive. A 20-minute run is considered a “big thing” in my house, so spending days in the real outdoors felt invigorating. I felt alive!

I’m not an all-rounder though. I found some of the requisite skills completely beyond me, navigating by starlight was one. My brain is just not wired to untangle that kind of data.

I used to think I could point out the north star in a heartbeat. Nope. The north star isn’t the brightest one. Nuts.

“The North Star is, in fact, the one perpendicular to blah de blah de blah babble babble wibble waffle.” That’s how that sentence sounded coming from the instructor’s mouth: just a stream of nonsense about ploughs and bears. It doesn’t look like a plough. If it looked like a plough, I’m pretty sure even I could find it. But it doesn’t. It looks like a slightly wavy line of stars that is buried among 200 billion other stars. It makes finding a needle in a haystack look like finding an elephant in an eggcup, so if I’m stuck anywhere in the world (and I mean anywhere: La Rinconanda, the Kerguelen Islands or just past the BP garage near my house) without Google maps or a TomTom, you may as well kiss this writer’s sorry ass goodbye, because I’ll wither away in a puddle of my own dehydrated tears.

Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.
Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.

But there are things that must have been festering in my subconscious all these years, like a coiled snake ready to unleash, on an unsuspecting world. For instance, I could light a fire that is neither at the end of a cigarette nor underneath a pile of half-frozen burgers. I mean a real fire created by nothing but flint and dried bark. It’s a panic-inducing task, and I’m not ashamed to say it took me nearly 40 minutes. As my instructor, Scott, told me, it’s all in the timing. Put on too much too soon and you’re buggered. Too little too late and, yup, you’re buggered.

Instructions for making a fire without matches or anything a sane human would have within arm’s reach
You need the slightest feathers of bark piled up like Candyfoss. You need your spark. Mine was from the flint on my Rambo knife. The very second that spark takes hold of one of your bark feathers, blow very gently. If all goes well, that will turn into a largish smoldering lump of smoke. If it doesn’t, go back to the beginning. You now need to start throwing on more feathers of bark, a fraction larger than the one before, before moving onto dried-out twigs no thicker than a hair on a baby’s ear. Eight hours later, you have a fire that could singe your eyebrows from 183 m. Well done!
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse - a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse – a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.

So, if ever I do go missing near the BP garage by my house, just look for the massive fire right next to the petrol station. Well, I may need to think that through a bit more.

The Scottish Highlands course that is offered is similar to this, apart from a few key points. It goes on for five days and takes place in one of the most remote places in Britain. It’ll probably pour down with ice-cold rain for the entire trip, and you’ll have to eat rat and cross a river in your underpants. Apart from that, exactly the same.

Spending time with this team baked common sense into my brain. The lessons easily transform into mundane, everyday life. The buzz phrase of the trip is “Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.” out in the highlands, this means, “If you don’t prepare well, you will likely starve and die.” At home, this translates to, “Use a tape measure, or your shelf won’t be even.” The sentiment is still the same. Don’t judge me.

You should know what you’re getting into, of course. This is a Bear Grylls branded experience, after all (and all the equipment says as much). You won’t be expected to drink your own body fluids, squeeze drops of moisture out of elephant dung, or decapitate a rattlesnake with the sole of your boot, but you will feel as though you could if you were the last man on Earth. I did eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river, set traps and eat rabbit I skinned with my own bare hands. And do you know what?

I’ve never felt more alive or more connected with the world I selfishly pillage on a daily basis. I’m not alone, either.

People the world over have sought out the Grylls way of life. Upon his return to the US, my fellow survivor Caleb said “my hands are shredded, my nose is stuffed, my throat is raspy and my body is tanked, but I am alive now more than ever. It was everything I hoped for: an empowering learning experience.

Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.
Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. After the aching had subsided, and the clothes were washed, the niggling feeling that I was approximately 3 percent more of a man than I was before I began, just wouldn’t leave me. It still hasn’t.

I didn’t imagine that sleeping rough, eating worms and swimming in rivers could possibly have this much of an effect on my psyche, but it really has. I’m not saying I could rescue someone hanging off a cliff, or survive in the jungle for more than a couple of hours. But if you get the chance, breathe in the air, sharpen that stick and venture out into the big, wide world. Just remember to take a compass with you. I swear those stars are out to get you.

Photos by Discovery Channel, Jamie East & The Bear Grylls Survival Academy.

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