Traversing North Africa In A Mercedes G-Wagen
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.
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.