Across Africa in a Unimog II: Driving the back roads

Shipping a truck to South Africa is not an easy task. It’s an impenetrable jungle of price-performance calculations.

We wanted one, we got one, we did some conversion work on it, and now we’re on the road with it. I’ll be reporting on what we experienced before and during our journey with the Unimog at regular intervals here on the Daimler-Blog. In part 1 I reported about our search and the reconstruction.

The shipping odyssey

First, I booked a transport from Bremen to Durban. The people at the shipping agency kept putting me off for a long time. They insisted that the booking had to be for a specific ship and that it had to be made well in advance of the actual transport. Otherwise it wouldn’t work. But they didn’t accept my booking anyhow. I then switched shipping agencies and made a guaranteed reservation for transport from Antwerp to Walvis Bay in Namibia on the specific ship Freedom Ace. Now we were ready to start…

I drove ahead in the Unimog on a Thursday evening, and my family followed me on Friday in the car. We wanted to hand over the Unimog at the harbor on Friday, because the ship would lift anchor on Monday. Anyone who didn’t make it to the ship on time would lose out and would forfeit his Money.

Getting stuck: 50 kilometers from the harbor…

An unpleasant surprise occurred when I was 50 kilometers from the harbor. After I had gotten gas, the starter motor went on strike. This left me standing there and blocking the gas pump. It was raining cats and dogs. My family drove to join me at the gas station on the highway. What was I supposed to do now? Call a tow truck? I tried to use the traditional remedy: pounding on the starter motor. However, in the OM352 it’s installed on top, so I could only look at it but not whack it with a hammer.

By coincidence, just then soldiers from the Belgian Army happened to arrive at the highway rest area. “Wow, they’ve got a Unimog 435 over there!” I decided to ask them if they would help a civilian. I went into the coffee corner, where the unit was taking a break. I addressed the guy with the most bling on his shirt and asked him in English whether he had a mechanic in his unit who could help us.

The mechanic knew all about starter motors that refuse to start, and he also had a trick that involved pounding on the solenoid switch. He simply used a metal bar. We tried everything. We hammered on the ignition magnet, and we rotated the crankshaft bearing slightly with a size 46 wrench so that the starter magnet could kick in more easily. Nothing worked.

I asked the mechanic how he repairs his Unimogs when he’s on the road. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s a guarantee claim for Mercedes.” Obviously, I now needed a replacement part ASAP.

After a three-hour telephone odyssey, there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Nothing was working in Belgium, so I drove back to Germany. A Mercedes workshop in Aachen had ordered the starter magnet overnight. That was what saved us. After discussing the matter, we decided as a family to drive back to Aachen in the car early on Saturday morning to pick up the replacement part. In the meantime, I would continue on to the harbor.

Because the starter motor wouldn’t start, the Unimog had to be towed. This was done by a team from the highway department. They were a cool group.

Beware the Belgian marauders

After the Unimog had broken down, we thought things couldn’t get any worse. But they did, in the shape of a law enforcement officer. Because the Unimog is so chic, the officer waved me over to a parking lot. Where was my onboard unit, I was asked. Haven’t got one! This is a camper van with a special H license plate for vintage vehicles — two good reasons for not having an onboard unit.

The officer was stubborn, and he kept insisting that I should pay a fine of 1,035 Euro. Somehow this was a situation I would sooner have expected to encounter in the Congo rather than in Belgium: law enforcement officers who don’t know their own laws and therefore impose fines arbitrarily. Because I paid the fine with my Visa card, at least he wasn’t able to pocket the fine for himself. For me, the main goal was to get to the harbor on time. Incidentally, the money was refunded to me by the Belgian tax authority as a result of just one letter written by my lawyer.

Now we were able to continue to the harbor. There we received a tip about a fairly well guarded spot where we could park the Unimog. In order to reach the ship on time, we negotiated with the harbor workers to get permission to check in on Monday at six a.m. On Saturday we drove back to Aachen, picked up the replacement part, drove back to the harbor in Antwerp, and installed the part. When the new starter motor reliably started the Unimog late that afternoon, I felt an incredible sense of relief.

TiA – This is Africa

I had thought that it would be enough to send the customs documents to Namibia in a registered letter with a return receipt. But to my great disappointment, I was informed by e-mail that the customs documents had still not arrived. I realized that things could get tight. The Unimog arrived two days earlier than planned at the harbor in Walvis Bay and had to go through customs. The tracking procedure showed only that the papers should have arrived four days previously.

But then I had a stroke of luck: All post offices have an e-mail address, and they answered my inquiry. I found out that the shipment had been labeled in Windhoek as being especially important — so important that my letter was covered with lots of labels. Unfortunately, one of the labels was stuck directly over the address field. As a result, the post office in Walvis Bay didn’t know where the letter was supposed to go. I sent an e-mail with the correct address. That worked. TiA — this is Africa!

Unimog in Action: On track at last

The process of picking up our Unimog was not very spectacular, but we were delighted that we hadn’t experienced any of the horror stories we had heard about expedition vehicles being shipped on ferries. Nothing had been broken. Nothing had been stolen. I was driving my Unimog at last. We stayed on the unpaved back roads.

The first stretch through Africa with the Unimog took us from Walvis Bay in Namibia to Pretoria, South Africa. Some impressions seen in passing: A garden decoration made of old chassis — for attracting tourists.

Typical scenes — the Unimog on the pad, i.e. the dirt road winding over the hills. The grid in the road is there to prevent the farm animals from escaping through the gate. We were surprised by the oryx, a kind of antelope, that ran alongside us at a speed of 50 km/h.

Still images — our campground was sometimes in a town center and sometimes in the middle of nothing in Namib-Naukluft National Park.

The Unimog, our helper: Here I switched into all-wheel drive for the first time so that I could safely get our vehicle out of the sandy Terrain.

Unimog 435

Animals crossing: Here a couple of springboks are running across the road. In the Namib-Naukluft National Park we could have tried driving through the soft sand, but we politely obeyed the rules and stayed on the road.

This is something we really had not expected: The bumpy roads (which are nicknamed “corrugated roads”) caused a vibration load that damaged our brake fluid reservoirs so that the brake fluid leaked out. If the reservoirs are empty, the brakes don’t work. How was I supposed to go on driving if the nearest source of replacement parts is 400 kilometers away?

Thanks to the kindness of South Africans and their know-how concerning emergency repairs, I found a simple solution. We first pumped off the brake fluid with a syringe and then cleaned everything off. Then we roughened up the surface of the reservoirs and used two-pot epoxy paste to form a sealing and supportive collar. The collar then had to sit for 20 hours before we could pour in the brake fluid.

Through this experience I really learned something new. Since then, I’ve always had this epoxy paste on board. Fortunately, while the epoxy was hardening we used the time to soak in a pool filled with warm water from the Ai-Ais hot springs at the end of the Fish River conservation area.

The end of the exhaust pipe broke off and was lost somewhere on the road. Hurrah! Now I no longer have to justify having brought along a drill and riveting pliers in the onboard toolbox. After all, you never know when you’ll need a certain tool.

I quickly repurposed the grill as a tool tray and used an old stainless-steel canteen to fashion a new end for the exhaust pipe. I had found the canteen in a pile of rubbish.

Interestingly enough, nobody in rural Namibia makes any effort to dispose of rubbish in the ways that we’re familiar with. The rubbish always simply lies around, somewhat hidden from the tourists’ gaze. The idea is that some of it may someday turn out to be useful. Africa is the ideal place to learn how to improvise.

Cool sunglasses: Our daughter persuaded us to take a family vacation in 2018 and drive around in the Unimog for a loooong time. Experiencing a country and its people away from the tourist highlights…

This blog post is the first installment of a travel series. Dr. Robert Mutschler will report at regular intervals on his experiences on the road — and about his Unimog too, of course. He plans to use his Unimog, which he largely designed and built himself, to take trips as much off the beaten path as possible through Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, and South Africa.

Dr. Robert Mutschler works on strategic issues in the Passenger Car Production Planning department. His motto is that “those who have their technical stuff together also have their costs under control,” which may explain why Mutschler is currently cited as the inventor in 33 listings at the German Patent and Trademark Office. Mutschler is on sabbatical from March to December 2018, and he and his family plan to explore and experience the fascination of the Unimog during this time.