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Mercedes Benz G-Wagen Sahara Desert Adventure - Sahara Sojourn

Posted in Events on February 1, 2005
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Contributors: Tom Sheppard

With big skies, foreboding climates and vast horizons, the Sahara Desert is one of the most inhospitable frontiers to the outdoorsman. To conquer it in four-wheel drive, one needs a vehicle with the very best engineering-so it was not surprising that my fourth trip to the Sahara, encompassing 100,000 total miles of desert overlanding, should see me here with a solid, unpretentious, very functional Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen-in this case a basic Type 461 with selectable 4WD.

The clinchers were the G-Wagen's engineering standards, the down-to-earth specifications, and, very specifically (a want born of many years' of desert experience) the seemingly unique designed-in ability to let you shift easily from low- to high-range gears on the fly. This is a life-saver when, in deep sand, you cannot step off in high-range and dare not stop to shift into it after a low-range start. (Land Rover's new LR3 offers a similar feature.)

The G-Wagen also comes with no-nonsense, manually engaged, mechanical locking differentials back and front-a vital part of the package. I waited a fair hunk of 1999 while the vehicle was built, and on my second trip to Munich took delivery; one of the last righthand drives and one of the last Kastenwagens (van bodies). Tongue in cheek, I relished the derogatory UK "white van" label since nothing, with a Sahara-load of fuel and water cans in mind, could have been more suited to my needs. The rock-of-ages 2.9L five-cylinder Type 602 turbodiesel (non-common-rail) was teamed, without the option, to a four-speed Mercedes automatic transmission while a heavy-duty rear axle and suspension pushed max GVWR to 7,000 pounds. My hesitant but untried (after all these years) attraction to automatic transmissions for really demanding off-road going would be put to the long-term serious test at last.

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On a previous Sahara trip, the drive-by-wire throttle failure light came on five days from the nearest telephone. The handbook seemed written for eight-year-olds, so I needed that phone-which, portable and hooked into the Thuraya satellite, I now carry with me. I was to discover later that when the throttle ECU thinks there is a problem, it automatically engages "limp-home" mode, which limits power to 50 percent in most cases.

The cause turned out to be a random and intermittent harness short-circuit. The short blew a fuse every now and then, which the ECU interpreted as component failure and caused it, as programmed, to go into save-the-engine partial shut-down mode. So my cautious reception to electronic throttles was provisionally put on hold; there was nothing wrong with the drive-by-wire system at all.

Despite the slightly scary security situation in the area I wanted to visit (e.g., extremists, kidnappers, hijackers, bandits and all-round baddies), my most recent trip was a calculated and (for me) acceptable risk. The most movingly beautiful landscapes in the Sahara again had me under their spell, and OTP sectors up to 620 miles-no people, no gas stations, no other vehicles, and often no tracks-were turning in up to 25 mpg, so the carefully planned logistics were OK.

The automatic transmission was a joy to experience, invariably using fewer rpm than would have on a manual, tirelessly making imperceptible changes to keep the tide of torque flowing in those deteriorating soft-sand conditions when you most need it.

A vast ring of rocky outcrops, impressive by day, was positively awesome by the light of a full Saharan moon. Despite heat and extraordinary mirages, life abounded-wadis were green and the trees robust. Huge hornets droned in and out of the vehicle, eager to explore. Birds were equally inquisitive. Landscape happens on a grand scale.

The desert ran its full gamut of mood swings: Hot and hostile in the middle of the day; early morning and late afternoon electrifyingly beautiful with low sun angles yielding rich colors; and cross-lighting and side-shadows that punched a dramatic third dimension into the landscape. Nights were of absurdly bright moonlight or diamond-bright stars, the constellation of Orion sliding sideways into the eastern horizon on my left as I wriggled into my sleeping bag and its elevation over the sky giving me a reliable time check.

On the day it stormed strong enough for the sand to pit the windshield lightly, visibility varied from half a mile down to 100 yards. With 80 miles to go to the next waypoint, the thin weaving skein of old tire tracks long since vanished and a gray threatening overcast covering the stony plain, two Touareg on camels (desert nomads, not Volkswagens) materialized out of the dust, battling into the wind. Our exchange of greetings was carried away in the gale, and the camels plodded on unconcerned. Much later, with sunset fast approaching, the log entry at last read, "1,639 hrs. Miles: 30,160, OAT: 29C. God Bless America-particularly her GPS! With 0.35 miles to the waypoint, the huge rock massif loomed out of the murk right on the nose! Bingo! Tea at Tellata!"

The next nearly 200 miles were the most demanding the Merc had ever traversed. A heroically established route through dry washes, rocky hills and over a ferocious rock mountain had been put in place by the French in the '40s and '50s, and been at the mercy of erosion ever since. They must have had bulldozers and scrapers to make it, yet you wondered how on earth they got them there. What were the logistics of keeping the road gangs supplied with food and water over that time and distance? Painstakingly marked with rock cairns, sometimes every 75 yards, this engineering achievement leaves you open-mouthed.

As does the mapping. Done long before satellite imagery or GPS were even dreamed of, the accuracy and detail is staggering. GPS should unquestionably earn a Nobel prize for its inventors, but it is useless without a good map or geo-referenced satellite image to use it on. But ant-like, with these two ancient and modern benchmarks of man's ingenuity as props, the G-Wagen-another modest benchmark-picked its way agonizingly over the unforgiving terrain to the tarmac road that waited all those tortuous miles away to the west.

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Careful driving and care of the vehicle was paramount. High-density cargo (fuel, water cans) were stowed mid-wheelbase behind the seats, equipment carefully boxed and lashed-down on padding.

Who or what else was there? The God-given scale and majesty of the landscape makes the heartbreaking influence of the human overlay even more poignant in some parts of the Sahara with its problems, its unemployment, its never-ending political turmoil and attendant loss of life through extremist activity. But the sheer niceness of the people was truly humbling. Military checkpoints were abundant on main roads, yet at each, after the appropriate checks had been made, one or more of the soldiers summoned enough English to say, "Welcome to my country!" In one small town, as a visitor, I went into a shop to buy some biscuits, coffee and a couple of eggs. Not having the right money I offered a high denomination note-worth about $10. The shopkeeper did not have change. He pondered for no more than a second or two and then said, "Well, take it anyway!" Humiliatingly, I wondered how a lone Arabic-speaking North African would be treated in the UK in similar circumstances.

There is sand and, I thought, there is sand! There are probably a hundred types, textures and bearing strengths, but this is business-the best sand on the planet. Crunchy sand is good sand, a kind of mini-aggregate of different-sized particles. Here, near some cliffs, it was crisp and orange and hard, bearing the footprint of the Merc's seemingly indestructible BFGoodrich A-Ts with clarity and precision as the setting sun threw it into relief. I drove to make circular patterns in it and tested the generous torque of the 602 diesel by pointing the G-Wagen up the foot of the escarpment to leave a puzzle for anyone who might pass this way in the future. The moon was rising and I yelled my customary hello. The Merc had done well and we were both, I think, enjoying ourselves. This is what one has a G for.

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