A world tour in a firefighting vehicle

It must’ve been New Year’s Day 2014. I was having a rambling conversation with a friend, and we agreed that it would be cool to travel to Southeast Asia in our own vehicle — a nice change from the obligatory “work and travel” year in Australia. From that time on, this idea never lost its grip on us, and we spent over a year looking for the right vehicle.

We finally found something on the Internet: a water tender vehicle (TLF16) based on a Mercedes 1017 from 1977, which is now more than 40 years old. But first, a brief word about us: Back then, Lukas Walz and I, Moritz Exner, were both in our early 20s. Lukas was working as an industrial engineer, and I was studying for my business management degree. Later on we were joined by our friend and fellow traveler Jonas Hautsch, who was also in his early 20s and a mechatronics student.

Available and affordable

By now you might be wondering why two, and later three, young men were convinced that they needed a truck to travel in. But for us it was a logical step. The G-Class, a Land Cruiser or a similar vehicle is very expensive to buy, and people have to be very good friends in order to share the roof tent at night for a whole year.

The van class is also relatively expensive. At this point I should also add that we wanted a 4×4 vehicle. In the end we decided to check out the truck segment, because trucks are readily available and affordable.

From a firefighting vehicle to a mobile home

Almost a year and a half after having this brilliant idea, we really got going on the rebuilding project, even though none of us yet had the right kind of driver’s license. We got rid of the firefighting structure, the water tank, and the pump, and then we started to work on the driver’s cabin. We didn’t want a double cabin, so we decided to shorten it.

Because none of us had any experience in this area, the whole process was a matter of learning by doing. We ultimately made the cabin one meter shorter and painted it an up-to-date color. Jonas always helped us with this work, and finally he became a member of the team.

The next big step in making a finished mobile home was the residential cabin behind the driver’s cabin. We looked for a long time and traveled all over Germany without finding anything appropriate. We wanted to use our space optimally, and half a meter here or there makes a huge difference if you only have less than 11 square meters at most at your disposal.

Here too, we decided to do the work ourselves and to build the whole residential cabin out of wood. That would not have been possible without the professional help of Lukas’ father, who is a master carpenter.

More than a full-time job

We built the residential cabin in 11 days after Christmas 2015. During the following year we had to take care of lots of things all at once. Jonas and I still didn’t have our truck driver’s licenses, both of us had to write our bachelor’s theses, the finishing touches had to be put on the residential cabin, and we also had to plan our trip.

All of these things together amounted to more than a full-time job. On the last day before our departure we were still tinkering with the truck, and we had to take some of the work along with us on the trip because we weren’t quite finished.

We divided up the cost of the rebuilding among ourselves. Jonas and I did a lot of paid work on the side, and Lukas had a job, so all of us were able to manage the financial burden.

One year, 50,000 kilometers, and 365 unforgettable days

The original plan was to travel to Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, we had to abandon that plan, because we reckoned Myanmar was too expensive and also risky. The entry requirements were constantly being changed, and we didn’t want to get stuck at the border with invalid documents.

So we ended up traveling right through Europe to Turkey and across Georgia and Armenia to Iran and Pakistan in order to reach our initially most southeastern destinations in India and Nepal. On the return trip we traveled back to Iran, and from there we drove through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan to Russia and into Mongolia.

At Lake Baikal we finally reached our easternmost point, and from there we traveled home via Ukraine and Poland. We were on the road for exactly one year, traveling almost 50,000 kilometers during more than 1,300 hours of driving, with nine flat tires (concentrated within a month and a half) and 365 unforgettable days.

With all-wheel drive and snow chains through Tajikistan

An especially adventurous part of our trip happened on April 17, 2016. We had just reached the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Until then we had used our vehicle’s connectable all-wheel drive once in a while, but only because of youthful high spirits or in order to travel just 15 meters further to an especially appealing parking place for the night.

Now that situation changed very fast. We suddenly needed everything we had: all-wheel drive, the locking differential, and the snow chains. We needed them not to reach a parking spot but to get into Tajikistan.

It was still early in the year, and our adventure started a good 20 kilometers before the border post in Kyrgyzstan. The road was covered with snow, and our ten-ton vehicle kept sinking into it. About 500 meters in front of the border post, we had roiled up the snow to such an extent that even a 4×4 car would have problems getting through.

After crossing the border, we had to drive for another 18 kilometers through no man’s land, and we had been told that the road conditions were not good. As a result, we decided to complete all the formalities and start driving again on the following morning as soon as the snow had frozen over again. That’s because the temperature that day was almost 15°C in the sun — at an altitude of almost 3,500 meters!

A strenuous day

Unfortunately, our plan backfired. When we woke up, the temperature was only 4°C and there was a fresh layer of snow on the ground. We realized that the day could become difficult.

We had driven less than a kilometer when we came across a vehicle we had seen the previous day at the border post. It was stuck in a huge puddle. We somehow managed to get past the Australian vehicle with a Kyrgyz driver and tow it out of its awkward predicament. In the next 12 hours we had to pull it out of the slush over and over again, because the snow was now thawing.

But we also had some problems of our own. The border pass is situated at an altitude of 4,250 meters. Not only the three of us but also our vehicle was really losing its breath, and all of us realized that we weren’t up to the task. For every two shovelfuls of snow we cleared, we had to take three deep breaths. At one steeper section of the road, we almost lost all hope.

We always managed about ten meters forward before getting stuck again…and that kept happening over a distance of more than 400 meters. Whenever we saw an oncoming vehicle, we tried to find out something about the road ahead. The responses ranged from “it gets a lot worse” to “it gets better from now on.” However, turning around was not an option. We even considered spending a night in no man’s land.

When we reached the border post in Tajikistan, we were completely exhausted and beyond happy that we had with us a friend visiting from Germany who always diligently helped us shovel the snow. At the border, we received a very warm welcome and were offered a cup of tea while we did the paperwork.

That was certainly the most strenuous day of our journey so far, during which it took us 12 hours to drive 18 kilometers. But we and our truck had stayed the course, bravely and without any dents or wounds.

“We would do it again anytime”

Four months later the journey was over, and we and our truck were in Germany again. We still looked the same as we did a year ago, but nonetheless we had changed greatly. All of the experiences and impressions we had gathered, the stressful situations and the moments in which the three of us had to find a compromise had made a deep impression on us. So had our experiences with various different countries and cultures. It was not always an easy journey, but all of us agreed that we would do it again anytime!

I should just add, for the benefit of people who are now feeling wanderlust themselves, that it’s very cheap to travel in your own vehicle, because you don’t have to calculate in any expenses for flights, hotels or campgrounds. Our journey cost us just under €400 per person per month. The costs naturally depend a lot on your requirements and the extent to which you want to spoil yourself once in a while. It’s also possible to live cheaply on the road.

Moritz Exner studied business management at Pforzheim University of Applied Sciences. After completing his degree he went on a year-long journey with his friends. Although he studied a generally theoretical subject, he enjoys making things with his hands, such as the mobile home they traveled in.