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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

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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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