Team ELMO – at home
all over the world.

On a round-the-world trip with the Unimog expedition vehicle – Part 1.

To many people it sounds like a lifelong dream: travelling round the world in a converted Unimog. This dream has come true for Sonja Beheng and Dirk Erker. For nearly nine months now the draughtswoman and the car and motorbike mechanic have been on the road in their Unimog U 1450 L, model year 1992, which they have lovingly nicknamed ELMO. The husband and wife estimate that their circumnavigation of the world will take them two years. Team ELMO documents the journey on Facebook.

Sonja and Dirk consciously scheduled in their adventure between two stages of life. Before their trip they burned all their bridges in Düsseldorf, where they used to live, and bought a farm in Bad Muskau, Saxony. The two nature-loving rangers want to renovate it and open it up to tourists upon their return.

Ever eastward in the Unimog expedition mobile.

MBS World: Your journey began in Bad Muskau, Saxony. Which route did you take from there and how many countries have you visited so far?

Dirk: I think we've travelled through 20 countries up to now. We only had to drive for three minutes before we entered Poland. From there we continued eastward. We had only planned the approximate itinerary as far as Vladivostok – because of three different visas. Russia wanted to know when we wanted to enter the country and leave it again.

Sonja: The schedule as far as Vladivostok was also important, because we definitely didn't want to travel through Siberia in winter.

Dirk: Other than that, we plan afresh every morning. Quite a lot can change during a journey like this – due to political circumstances, too. For example, we actually wanted to go to Azerbaijan and Armenia. But things were a bit too lively on the political front there at the time. So we adjusted our route spontaneously.

You're currently in Australia. What happened after you left Russia?

Dirk: ELMO travelled to Australia by ship, and we backpacked to South Korea, Japan and Indonesia. We were able to follow the Unimog's sea voyage on the internet and five or six weeks later we got ELMO back in Melbourne.

And then there was a big, happy reunion?

Sonja: Of course!

Dirk: It's our house, you know! No hotel bed is as nice as the ELMO bed. [laughs]

"Let's pack up and go."

Every journey has to be planned. How much time elapsed between having the idea and setting off?

Dirk: A year and a half?!

Sonja: I have to say that Dirk would have preferred more time to plan. The idea of going away for a longer period of time came after a trip to China, Vietnam and the Philippines. That was when Dirk thought OK, we could now draw a line under everything and sell all our possessions, but I'd at least like a base where we can put our things and somewhere to go after our travels. And that's exactly what we did.

Dirk: When we were hiking all over Germany we fell in love with the East, and then bought the farm in Bad Muskau.

Sonja: Then we looked for the right vehicle for our trip. And found ELMO. Once it was with us, the desire to set off grew by the day. Dirk had actually planned to take three years to get the Unimog ready for the off. But after a year I thought let's just pack up and go.

Dirk: That meant that we had to do some of the work on the Unimog as we were travelling. But so far that's worked out really well. We've always been able to find the right places.

Team ELMO on tour in places including Georgia, ...
...Kazakhstan, ... the Pamir Mountains, ... Mongolia ...
...and in Australia.
Team ELMO on tour in places including Georgia, ...

We're curious: which Unimog is ELMO and how did you come by the name?

Dirk: Despite the fact that our radiator grille tells us something else, we have a U 427 1450 L with civilian equipment and 366A engine. Model year '92.

Sonja: Yes, the name. A Unimog like this is quite a size – it's a truck. And when a machine like this approaches you, it can be a bit intimidating. That's why we wanted something friendly.

Dirk: We had a brainstorming session and came up with the acronym ELMO: Expedition survivaL MObile. And as the character of Elmo is a friendly chap, it was a good fit.

Sonja: It was also practical for recognition purposes. People come up to us and say: "Are you the ELMOs" or "Are you the ELMO team?"

The Unimog is and remains the best off-road truck in the world.

Dirk Erker, car and motorbike mechanic on a round-the-world trip

Let's just back-track for a moment. Why did you decide on a Unimog?

Dirk: Well, quite honestly I think the Unimog is and remains the best off-road truck in the world. As far as I'm concerned there are three manufacturers who can make portal axles. Two have cribbed and the Unimog is simply the best. Plus, I was impressed by the coil springs well before ELMO came along, having already had three Mercedes G-Class vehicles prior to that. And I also know the Unimog from my time with the military police.

Sonja: We were actually approached by someone travelling in a Magirus (editor's note: an old fire-fighting truck), who we met on the Pamir, and who told us that the standard of off-road vehicles is based on the Unimog. Apparently this is known as the Unimog Index.

Dirk: And of course we had to agree with him. The reason is – and I'm really clear about this – we'll never find out what the Unimog is capable of because we'll never encounter its limits. Right from the outset I said we'll buy the best material but try to avoid poor roads as far as possible. But should we find ourselves having to ford a river, that wouldn't present a problem, either. And that has indeed been the case so far.

Sonja: I also think the Unimog is fantastic. From a woman's perspective, too. After all, appearances count for a lot. [laughs]

Dirk: And there's another reason for choosing the Unimog. It's mechanical. That means you can even drive it on sunflower oil. You can no longer do that with newer vehicles. What we have here is the simplest form of – to put it bluntly – tractor engineering. I can go to any tractor workshop with ELMO and they'll at least know a bit about it, as the engineering is so similar. That's very practical when travelling and it's precisely what we need. But it's not all flattery: obviously there is also a negative aspect. A lot more could have been done in the way of anti-corrosion measures. Ours isn't corroding because it stood in a warm hall for 20 years. So it's as good as new. But now I can see that it's starting to suffer. But otherwise it's flawless from a purely technical point of view. In 40,000 km we haven't had a single fault. Nothing! We do drive carefully, but it's got fast axles, and it could do 110 km/h. We usually do 75, sometimes 80.

And what's ELMO like to drive?

Sonja: Our Unimog really is child's play to drive. We have a clutch pressure booster, so operating the clutch is just as easy as in a car. I can't imagine there being any difference. Look at how heavy-going the Germany Armed Forces Unimog models are, for instance. We've definitely got the cream of the crop.

Dirk: Yes, but it's got a somewhat more modern transmission with synchronisation. There's a big difference 1992 and the 1980s. You do notice it, and it's really nice to drive. It's also very forgiving. You can do 30 or 110 in eighth gear, it doesn't care. And it works perfectly on difficult terrain too. It just ploughs through in first or second gear.

Sonja: All you have to do is steer. When driving downhill it just holds back, and uphill it just carries on automatically.

Dirk: The engine has incredible power. As I've said, we'll never know where its limits are.

Sonja and Dirk still have lots to tell. Part 2 of the interview is about the conversion work on their expedition mobile ELMO and what happens next on their round-the-world trip in the Unimog.

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