Ex Army Unimog Travelling through the Gulf and Territory
People keep on asking me: “So, why did you buy a Unimog?” And, like most things, the reasons are multi-layered. First, I blame online auctions like the one I entered on Grays Online. Hey, I’m no gambler, but I reckon the buzz of watching the clock tick down and beating other bids is downright contagious (not to mention dangerous). And then there are the mid-life crisis reasons. Yes, I could have bought a clapped-out Porsche … but that’s a little too predictable.
I’ve admired the Mercedes Benz Unimog for many years, largely because of what lies beneath. They’re called portal axles, and rather than pushing the drive along the axles to the wheels in a straight line, they feature hub reduction gears which sit inside the massive steel wheels. This keeps the axle nice and high, and gives the Unimog more than half a metre of ground clearance (most 4WDs have about 200mm). So the theory in all of this is the next time I see a half-metre boulder in the middle of the track, I won’t even decelerate!
But there’s a second reason. The Unimog U1700L that I bought has a turret, and let’s face it, every man should have a turret in his 4X4, right? It operates as a sunroof, and a peephole, and it is pretty good at circulating cool air (which is a good thing considering there is no air-con). And I’m thinking that the turret will turn this into a pretty fine hunting vehicle – all I need now is a gun. Actually, young Bill and Gus have that side of things sorted with their Super Soaker assault water pistols. Beware, 11-year old infidels, when my boys are near!
Of course, every 4X4 deserves a name, and this one was no different. So after a fantastic Facebook discussion, it seemed that my daughter Charlotte’s suggestion of ‘Tiny’ was the most popular.
Buying the Unimog through Australian Frontline Machinery and Grays Online was the easy bit. You pays your money, they gives you the keys. Getting to Darwin from Sydney with the right tools, camping gear and spares – that could prove a problem. We packed up three swags and a Pelican storage box worth of tools and spares; and we headed for the airport. Oversized baggage anyone? We scooted through surprisingly easily. Mental note – people are friendlier when the whole family are wearing Akubras.
I’m pretty accustomed to wheeling around in ‘normal’ 4X4s, but what I didn’t bargain on were the challenges of setting up a seven tonne truck. My regular snatch strap couldn’t cut it – not strong enough. And when checking the tyres, I found that the optimal dirt road pressure in these big tyres is 80psi. My ARB gauge maxed out at 70psi.
I also had to hunt around for a jack to not only carry the momentous weight of the rig, but to reach and lift from beneath the dizzying 520mm heights. I settled on three blocks of wood from a Darwin timber mill and a six tonne bottle jack.
We stopped in at various auto parts stores in Darwin to grab the cheapest and nastiest camp chairs on offer. Only one out of three survived the journey home.
I picked up the Mog from a trucking yard in Darwin, after being given a three-second lesson on how to turn it on and how to apply the air brakes. Mmm. It was a steamy 36 degrees that day, and the vinyl seats were toasty as we climbed into the cab. The boys were pumped, though.
After a few oohs, aahs and exclamations of ‘that’s huge’ they leapt into the cabin and started exploring. The turret was duly popped by Bill after about 30 seconds. Following a quick inspection, we lobbed our bags in the back, and motored towards the Hidden Valley caravan park.
I quickly learned a few things about Unimogs. First, with the eight-speed gearbox, there is no need to start in anything less than fourth gear (unless you’re in a race with a turtle). Second, Unimogs have unbelievably great vision. You can see forever from the cabin, although you can’t comfortably wear an Akubra up there because your hat will hit the roof.
Back at the caravan park, I was amazed at the condition of the 1989 vehicle. It had a belly full of clean and fresh engine oil, diff oil and portal axle oil. It was in immaculate condition. The log books were comprehensive, with everything from frayed seatbelts to alternators being noted and repaired. Even the tailgate on the tray opened and closed as if it were new. Phew, my risk was (so far) paying off. I would never recommend that someone buy a vehicle without inspecting it, but that’s exactly the punt I took. The going price for a decent Unimog is around $45-65K. So it works out, I got a absolute shed-load of 4X4 for my money.
Darwin is a wonderful place to visit. On the first night the boys and I took the Mog down to the Mindil Beach markets for a feed. One of the perks of a seven tonne army truck with no number plates (unregistered vehicle permit) is the fact that you can park just about anywhere unquestioned … even if you do take up more than one parking space.
At the markets we dined on fresh seafood paella and pizza. And I even tried an Elvis special – a deep-fried Mars Bar. For the record, it wasn’t worth it.
The next day, we visited Crocosaurus Cove (great fun and so much bigger than the shopfront suggests). We also ducked out to Palmerston Water Park. It’s a great park and it’s free – perfect for those 30-degree Darwin winter days. We had races down the massive water slide, and let’s just say the additional weight of the deep-fried Mars Bar paid dividends …
At first light the following day, the boys and I loaded up the Mog and left the accommodation. We bowled southwards down the highway, headed for Litchfield National Park. If you haven’t yet been, Litchfield is an absolute gem; and its proximity to Darwin means that it’s favoured by Darwinians even more than Kakadu. However, since these places offer sealed access, they lack the serenity of the southern Litchfield waterfalls (picture tour buses, schnitzels (that’s Germans) and whizz-bangs (motorhomers).
We visited Buley Rockholes (great swimming hole) and Florence Falls (again, just brilliant) before motoring down the dirt road to Surprise Creek Falls. Unfortunately, the road was closed a few kilometres in, so our off-road adventure had to be postponed for a few more days. We retreated to Buley Rockholes campground and opted to stay there for the night. All was going well until a Pommie tourist camper and her boyfriend turned up and proceeded to tell their life stories until 3.00am. Until the angry guy in the Unimog started threatening to drive over their Hyundai … and herein lies the problem with bitumen road access. I’m sure someone should do a thesis on how human intelligence depletes as more bitumen is laid.
As morning broke, the boys and I opted to walk down to the rock holes – and we had them all to ourselves. It was a superb few hours as the boys tumbled, splashed and dived into the magnificent clear waters.
Refreshed and rejuvenated we ambled down the highway, fluctuating between 80 and 93 kilometres per hour. There would be no speeding fines along this 130kmh posted stretch. The U1700L was charging confidently down the road, but the further we drove, the more we started to lose minor electrical functions. Gauges were reading low, and dash lights began to disappear. As a precaution during toilet stops I kept the motor running; but I wasn’t sure what the problem was. We pulled into Katherine Macca’s for lunch, and when I tried to start her back up, she was dead. No clicks, no starter motor, nothing.
I checked the fuses, and there were none. Only breaker switches, and none of them were tripped. The voltages on the starter batteries were reading low, so not knowing what condition the batteries were in, I opted to try chucking in at least one new one. The Mog runs a 24-volt system, made up of two 12-volt batteries. I replaced one, and it made no difference. So, lugging a second one up the main street of Katherine and into the Macca’s carpark, I fitted a second. Bingo – we have power! She kicked over beautifully. But given I was heading into the remote Gulf Country soon, I needed to know why these batteries had failed. So I called my mate Ben Nash from Unimog Central to try and nut it out. Unable to do much from Canberra, he referred me to a customer of his who happened to live in, wait for it, Katherine! And he happened to also own an identical model of Unimog.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and my new Unimog buddy Nick had a look over my Mog, starting with the electrical system. He found the problem almost immediately – the alternator was not plugged in. Feeling rather dopey, but thrilled at the same time, we plugged it up and kicked her over. Instantly, the gauges picked up and she was charging at 28 volts. Nick then spent plenty of time going over the Mog with me, explaining all sorts of Mog nuances – from how much oil the portal hubs really need, to how to switch on the stealth convoy lights (very important).
After a few hours with Nick, we motored down the road to Mataranka and camped at the campground. We splashed into Bitter Springs at first light. These warm clear waters are the very definition of Outback paradise, as Paperbarks and Livistona Palms shroud the swift flowing hot streams. I’ve no doubt that sunrise is the best time to experience this sensation. Things were going well; so far we hadn’t missed a swim on a single day, and the boys were loving it.
ANYONE FOR GULF?
The route home was one chosen to get the most out of the scenery, while trying not to be stupidly remote given the limited spares and tools I had on board. We headed east at Five Ways on the Carpentaria Highway and onto Cape Crawford. We made Borroloola and topped up the meagre 140 litre tank before pushing on to camp. It was about 20 minutes out of Borroloola when we hit our first corrugations – or that was what they looked like. Bracing myself for the noise and clatter, I soon started laughing raucously as I noticed that the Unimog rode as if they weren’t even there! It might have been the progressive twin coil springs, with the lighter longer inner coil taking the initial bumps before the heavier main coil. Although I suspect that the tyres are just so damn big that they were actually bridging the gap between the corrugations. Either way, I was one happy camper. Later in the journey as we hit some bigger corrugations I could actually feel them – so the big green behemoth wasn’t 100% immune.
We made camp by the Foelsche River, near a nice shallow rocky crossing and a sky full of stars. Finally, we were starting to get away from it all. The camping setup in the Mog went like this: Three swags laid out side by side through the night, with the odd chair and esky chucked outside. Then, in the morning we would unceremoniously throw all of the swags on top of each other, never needing to actually roll them up for the trip. Then we would throw the esky and chair/s in, tying them down to the half-inch thick chain tie-downs. There are some advantages to having a trayback that can handle a 20 foot container.
We motored on towards Wollogorang and the Hell’s Gate Roadhouse, on dirt roads most of the way. The Mog was running like a charm – seeming to enjoy the roads even more, the more remote they became. Fellow travellers marveled at the 1989 model Mercedes, particularly when spying the massive ground clearance.
After fuelling up at Doomadgee, we rolled into one of my all-time favourite spots – Lawn Hill National Park (Boodjamulla). I know that the word ‘oasis’ sounds like an over-used cliché, but this joint seriously is one. The surrounding lands are dry and barren, until you get near Lawn Hill Gorge – where an explosion of green is there to greet you. We hired a canoe, and paddled the two kilometres down the gorge, admiring the Pandanus Palms and Freshwater Crocs along the way. At the end of the first waterway, you can slide your canoe along for a further 50 metres and enter the top part of the gorge … but we instead opted to swim in the beautiful fresh water. Here, you’ll find tufa dams – which result from a buildup of mineral deposits (over time) that create dams and waterfalls mid-stream. They also create natural spa baths, and we splashed and played in the spas and the waterfalls for hours. I thought this would be hard to top, until the boys spied the aquatic attractions at out camp for the night at Adel’s Grove.
Adel’s Grove is a compulsory camp in my books, with some of the finest shady campsites in the entire Gulf. It was developed by one of Australia’s earliest botanists, who had a penchant for collecting seeds and planting incredibly diverse species of trees and flowers. It sits upon a beautiful green waterhole, with a superb floating pontoon where the boys and I played ‘Hold the Fort’. And it also has a tree that hangs over the deep water, which our kids and plenty of others used to leap into the green waters below. If you have a family, you must put this place on your list – I left scheming to find another excuse to bring the whole family up.
Roughly 100 kays down the road, we pulled up for a stop – only to discover a big leak, and oil sprayed liberally around the underbody. Thankfully, it was only from the right rear portal hub; not the engine. The filler plug had come loose and had leaked hub oil. I thanked my lucky stars for the advice of Mog guru Ben Nash, as he had advised me to pack an oil syringe for just such a moment. A funnel would have been slow and painful. With the repair done and dusted, we were back on the road – splashing through a few more Gulf causeways with ease.
Incidentally, when you lock your Unimog into four wheel drive, the headlights automatically pressurise with air (to prevent leaks in deep crossings). See, told you it was a serious rig! And that’s not the half of it. A Unimog roof is designed to carry up to a one tonne load – not bad considering most 4X4s max out at 200 kilograms. My Unimog also used to have a crane in between the cab and the tray, and it retains all of the hydraulics from that installation. Actually, that’s what the turret is meant for – controlling the hydraulics on the crane.
Our next stop for fuel was Senator Bob Katter’s hometown of Mt Isa. From here, we needed to make a mile to get back for Bill’s Saturday morning soccer match. With a chance of getting in the finals, we had a deadline. We would now take the caravanner’s route back through Outback Queensland – through Longreach, Winton and Charleville – before hitting Bourke, Dubbo and then the Blue Mountains.
It was a beautiful day when we drove into Winton on a near empty tank, but out here the service stations aren’t in obvious places (like on main roads). So after a few hot laps of town, we finally stumbled upon a servo. I topped up the tank, grabbed some lunch and then kicked her over. Well, I should say, I tried to kick her over. She had plenty of kick this time around, but it was obvious that no fuel was getting through. Figuring the dregs of the tank had caused a filter blockage, I set about changing both twin paper filters and the clear bowl filter right there on the forecourt of the servo. With everything hooked up again, I tried to kick her over again, but with no luck. Again, Unimog Central to the rescue – and with a call to Ben I located the diesel primer pump. With the system pressurised, she started. Phew. With that realisation, I wondered whether I had actually needed to change the filters after all. In hindsight, I might have just run out of juice at the exact time that I turned the truck off at the servo. Ah well, the stuff-up had set us back a few minutes; but the boys handled it all beautifully – with Bill handing me tools and getting his hands into places where mine wouldn’t fit, and Angus helping to push the truck when it wouldn’t kick over.
We motored on down the highway a few hours behind schedule, and smack in the middle of some roadwork we lost power and ground to a halt. Oh dear, my corner-cutting had come home to roost. Air was getting into the fuel system as I had neglected to fit a new rubber seal to the clear bowl filter, preferring to re-use the old one. Another 15 minutes lost and the new seal fitted, we continued onwards down the road.
Thankfully, all of the issues with the Mog were caused by human error, not wear and tear from the machine itself. In fact, it felt more reliable the longer we drove.
After leaving Wellington at 3.30 in the morning we made it back home, and we also managed to get back for Bill’s soccer match. To his credit, despite being cooped up in a Mog for eight days, he managed to set up the team’s winning goal.
What started out as a frivolous purchase turned into a brilliant adventure. And the shared experience with the boys undoubtedly forged some stronger family bonds. If you’ve got kids and are considering a boys’ 4X4 adventure, I’d say go for it. And while you don’t necessarily need a fruity 4X4 like a Mog, they sure do add to the fun!
Can you see yourself behind the wheel? Pat’s Unimog is now for sale: Check out the link here on Carsales.com.au