Driving an X-Class in Albania
How does the Mercedes-Benz X-Class X350d deal with earthquakes, torrential rain, rock falls and tracks being washed away before our eyes?
Disclaimer: The photos you’re looking at were taken two weeks before and a couple of days after the events in this story took place and in no way represent what I experienced.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON UNSEALED 4X4: Earthquake. A 5.6-magnitude earthquake. Near Tirana. 37 people injured. That was the tele-type-esque text message I received from home when I switched my phone back on with several hours left before the plane landed at Tirana International Airport in Albania. Gulp.
Yep, about 35 kilometres away from Tirana, my destination, in the seaside village of Durres a 5.6-magnitude earthquake had torn buildings apart and sent rubble crashing to the ground crushing vehicles and injuring people.
And then I looked at the weather report. I shouldn’t have done that. Rain was forecast. A lot of rain.
See, I was about to be handed the keys to a Mercedes-Benz X-Class and pointed towards Mount Datji. A perfectly good bitumen road runs from Tirana to the 1613m summit but we weren’t going to be driving on the road. Instead, we’d be driving on a goat track clinging to the side of the mountain. Great.
Bet you don’t know too much about Albania. It’s all thieves and mobsters, who’ll sooner snip out a kidney than give you the time of day, or so I thought. Only that isn’t the case. At least not in the areas I went walking around in Tirana. Sure, there are unpaved roads in the city co-habiting with beautiful strips of bitumen. And a mixture of weird, re-painted Soviet buildings next to brand-new builds, and while this might sound like a tourist brochure, with more than 3000 years of history, Tirana, Durres and Albania are worth a look-see. Think Adelaide, only better.
See, and take a deep breath, Albania has been a cross-road from eastern to western Europe for centuries. As such, it’s been conquered time and time again by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantians, Slavs, Bulgarians, Sicilians, Serbians, Ottomans, Italy during WWII and then the Communists. The result is a mish-mash of cultures and architecture.
The place was, in the nineties, following the collapse of Communism, an economic mess. Sitting on the Adriatic Sea, Albania is surrounded by noisier and more noticeable neighbours, like Greece, Macedonia and Serbia…it’s why it’s often referred to as the orphan of Europe. But things are changing.
Back to earthquake. While Tirana escaped unscathed, the ground continued to shake for days following the main quake. Something I had no idea about until I was literally shaken awake on my first night in Tirana, promptly falling out of my bed and onto the floor of the hotel room.
Mount Datji (part of the Sakander mountain range) looms over Tirana like Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings and it’s even more menacing today with the top barely visible through the low-hanging clouds. There’s even the odd flash of lightning and clap of thunder.
Considered a weekend-escape location for the locals, Mount Datji is, in winter usually covered in snow and is home to little more than a few TV repeater towers, bears, wolves, waterfalls, caverns, forests, a lake and a ruined castle. The main road up the thing is called, the Kings Road. Why? Because a king lived at the top and made the road. Simple.
But our road wasn’t the Kings Road. Ours was the peasant’s road. A goat track paved with dirt and jagged rocks designed to rip and tear at tyres, filled with wandering livestock and a sphincter-tightening lack of barrier fences from the bottom to the top. Indeed, the track itself is barely wider than our X350d. And I’ve never driven on the left-hand side of the road before. And the drizzle has given way to proper rain.
But the call across the radio is to press on up the side of the mountain as the track zig-zags higher and higher. I’m behind the wheel of our X350d Power and driving in a convoy with journalists from all around the world. None of us are feeling comfortable right now. Well, the Germans writers clearly are as they’ve careered off ahead of the main group. I’m sure you can guess what happens next.
With the rain giving way to heavier rain, and more thunder and lightning the track has changed from damp and dangerous to literally running with water and falling apart. Bits of the mountain are now starting to give-way and tumble down across the track…
Our drive has slowed to a crawl and then a halt as we creep around a bend in low-range when our German colleagues start yelling over the radio that they’ve been hit. From behind we couldn’t see what they were talking about. But braving the weather we walked around to the front of the X-Class to see the bumper had been torn clean off by a rock tumbling down the side of the mountain. And there was a big, fist-sized dent in the door too. If the rocks had been bigger then the Germans would have been nothing more than smears on the Albanian countryside.
We’re all breathing more heavily now, and rock falls and mud slides are now taking turns at trying to send us for six. We’ve been crawling up the side of Mount Datji for around five hours and we’re still some way from the summit.
We’d come here to see the sights and give the Merc’s 3.0-litre V6 a proper workout, but we’ve been barely travelled faster than a heavily-laden packhorse for hours. And while our road-oriented rubber was fine on the highway, things are becoming slippery. Fortunately, despite the best efforts of the mountain and the fact we didn’t air down at all for the track the tyres hold together.
A few twists and turns later and the track beginning to resemble a stream, the call is finally made to turn back. But how. There is no turn out bays and the track is barely wider than the vehicle. You remember that scene in Austin Powers where he tries to turn the electric cart around in the corridor? That was the six X350d Mercs.
Inching our way back down the mountain, with visibility down to just 10 metres it’s my vehicle’s turn to take a hit. A tree branch falls from an overhanging tree and lands on my bonnet. My heart skips a beat as the branch slides off before disappearing from sight somewhere down the side of the mountain. Sweat starts to bead on my forehead and I grip the steering wheel a little tighter.
It’s bad enough having to dodge falling rocks but now tree branches are crashing across the track as the rain becomes hail, the vehicle peppered with icy rocks. See Albania, the boss had said to me. Drive an X-Class up a mountain. I’m starting to wish I’d never left the office.
It takes longer to get back down the mountain than it did to drive up. And it’s well and truly dark by the time we arrive back at the hotel; we had intended to camp on the mountain. We pile out of our vehicles and make for the hotel, becoming soaked through in the few short metres across the carpark.
The next day dawns and the horror of the night before is revealed. The TV news is showing widespread devastation from flooding, roads are closed, and homes have been cut off by rising waters. All this in a city that only a day or two before had been shaking and wobbling after an earthquake.
Out in the carpark, our vehicles are looking dishevelled, dented and one’s missing its bumper and dented door having barely survived its machine vs nature stoush.
With roads flooded and people needing to be evacuated we spend our day driving around the countryside near Tirana. And the place is stunning. Properly breathtaking stuff. With noses pressed against the windows, every corner reveals a new vista, from rivers to forests, lakes and mountains.
Sitting there in the leather-wrapped passenger seat of the X350d, my mind wandered to thoughts that Mercedes-Benz is considering killing of the X-Class. Sure, it hasn’t sold in the sort of numbers the German company had hoped and it had copped a lot of negative press about being little more than a trumped-up Nissan Navara. That might be the case with the four-cylinder models which are more Nissan than Mercedes, but this X350d with it 190kW and 550Nm V6 engine is a lot more Mercedes-Benz than it is Nissan.
This X350d, like Albania, bear with me, is ignored because of its noisier neighbours. Like the X-Class the countries around it are better known. There’s Croatia (the HiLux) been around longer, Greece (the Ranger), is more respected, Italy, (the Navara), and possibly cheaper, Montenegro, (the BT-50), but that doesn’t mean neither Albania or the X350d are not as good those around it. While it may not necessarily be the most capable, the most affordable, or the most sensible 4×4 pickup, the Mercedes X-Class does have a certain style about it. And with its stonking V6 engine it’s got power too.
But, more important than all of that stuff. The X350d suffered the worst the weather and Mount Datji could throw at it and got me home in one piece.