Friday, February 19, 2021

What do you do when you’ve resigned from your job, have a taste for adventure, and the keys to what can only be described as one of the most capable mobile homes on the planet? If you’re Gunnar, Elena, and Lasse Müller, you set course for a faraway land – and hit the road!

Photo: On the road to Glenorchy with Lake Wakatipu behind.

New Zealand is no stranger to the travelling tourist, or their motorhomes and campervans. The country is a mecca for nature lovers and adventure junkies and its relative compactness means seeing all the great sights doesn’t take too long or cost too much. But if you’ve been here twice, done 5000km in campervans and still not seen the real sights, the parts of the country most others don’t go to (or are prohibited from in their rental agreements), then there’s only one way to do it properly. The biggest, the best, the Unicat. Now, this is not the kind of story we’d usually write for New Zealand Trucking magazine, but we’re always on the lookout for something new, different and awesome – and, at the end of the day, this particular Unicat is based on a MAN TGM 18.330 4x4 with some very serious hardware. So when we heard in January that an affable German couple and their then 11-month-old son had just begun their planned 6-month criss-cross of New Zealand, we thought it would be rude to not, at the very least, introduce ourselves and have a poke around the truck. Evidently, a Unicat is a magnet for that sort of thing. From the moment it arrived at the Ports of Auckland on 20 December 2019, it would be the spark to just about every social encounter the Müllers would have on their tour of Aotearoa. Blending in and cruising below the radar was not going to happen!

Photo: The more remote the better’ was the approach.

She’s a pretty big job
While the Unicat was brought into the country as a temporary import, one of the first stops was the Albany VTNZ for a CoF. “It was like a party, all the engineers came over to see it and take pictures. That was the first time we realised the interest in it. Meeting so many people wouldn’t have happened with a normal campervan,” said Gunnar at our first meeting, about a month into their trip. At this point the Müllers were passing through Tauranga on their way to Matata and the East Cape, having already traversed Auckland, Northland and the Coromandel Peninsula, up and down their east and west coasts. “Everybody likes it. The first week we drove to a small campsite in Takapuna and couldn’t get anything done, there were so many people stopping by to see the truck. We’ve already met so many nice people that way, offering their help or services. The Kiwis are very, very helpful – we actually felt embarrassed, I don’t think anyone coming to Germany would be treated that nicely. When Kiwis say something, they’re honest and genuine and they mean it.” The interest in the Unicat wasn’t expected at all. In fact, the Müllers were a little worried after reading a report about another German couple who brought a similar vehicle here a few years ago whose trip didn’t end too well. “They must have done something wrong and got into trouble, probably because they didn’t inform themselves,” Gunnar said.

Photo: Tongariro National Park. Route up to the Tukino Skifield was no contest.

But inform themselves the Müllers did. If you’ve ever wondered what the process involves when bringing such a vehicle into the country, it goes something like this: Obtain a Carnet de Passages from the ADAC (Germany’s AA), a customs guarantee for the duty-free temporary importation of a vehicle that means New Zealand Customs just waves the vehicle though; understand the importance of biosecurity in New Zealand and get stuck into cleaning the truck for 10 days, toothbrush in hand; have it cleaned again at the port in Germany and obtain a certificate from the port authorities; have it fumigated there for two days as well, get a certificate for that too; arrive in Auckland in advance of the truck and rent a small house in Ponsonby for a few weeks to take advantage of the New Zealand summer while you wait; thank your lucky stars when the truck arrives two days ahead of schedule, get it out of customs before the Christmas shutdown; get very expensive special comprehensive insurance from underwriters that specialise in campers; get a CoF from VTNZ; join the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association and get a self-containment certification, for freedom camping and docksides, as well as a warrant of electrical fitness, all done in one day by some friendly NZMCA members. Gunnar said that the only hiccup they experienced was the theft of some items from the truck either at the port or on the ship. “Nothing valuable but it was annoying. We heard it happens to 8 to 10% of motorhomes that are shipped, because you have to give them all the keys for customs and biosecurity,” he said.

Photo: “Yes, you can go to Countdown with it!” said Gunnar. The biggest thing in Whangarei?

Photo: Never mind all that – Raspberry Flat carpark at the entrance to the Mt Aspiring National Park.

House or truck?
Lasse’s a very lucky boy. Not even two years old and he’s spent most of his life in a truck! Around the time he was born, 35-year-old Mama and 45-year-old Papa decided to take a break and go on a big adventure. “After 15 years of working you feel there might be something else you’re missing out on, and you’ll never find out if you don’t try it. The decision we had to make was to buy a house or buy a truck. We thought ‘since we don’t know where we’ll end up, a house on wheels is more suitable – so let’s buy the truck!’” Gunnar said. It’s not the first truck the Müllers have owned, though. They had an ex-German Army Unimog that they bought at an army auction and started to convert, but while it worked for two people, it was too small for three. The Unimog also had coil springs and its famous portal axles, therefore more off-road capability, but it wasn’t great for long distances on tar. “You couldn’t even read in it while driving,” said Gunnar. The Unicat – a TerraCross 55 - Comfort Plus model – was bought secondhand, which was much more convenient than waiting the two years for delivery of a new one. “We bought it online in Germany. It was built for a Spanish guy who owned a restaurant chain.

Photo: Familiar MAN view forward with a few key additions; the Garmin marine GPS unit and bolted-in child seat.

Photo: Individual rear seats the same airsuspended units as the front.

Photo: The Unicat could be had with a rear bench and fold-down bunk.  Crawl-through makes moving between the two compartments easy at any time.

He travelled all over the world.” Lasse was four months old when the family packed the Unicat, left their hometown of Hamburg, and travelled Northern Europe, Denmark, Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland, clocking up about 10,000km before departing Germany for New Zealand. The initial plan was to also explore some other countries the Müllers might consider settling in for a few years, Canada for instance. “There is no real deadline for us to be back in Germany, but we’re aiming for May. We both resigned from our jobs; we didn’t just take parental leave, so we’re not guaranteed the same jobs back. But even though we quit our jobs one of us still gets 60% of our salary from the government for 14 months. We’re both orthopaedic and trauma urgeons. The job market in Germany is very good right now for doctors, so we should easily find jobs. “If you have this break in your life anyway, you might as well use it to do something you’ve always wanted to do. We are very fortunate,” Gunnar said.

Photo:  Running along the Forgotten World Highway. If the bridge wasn’t there, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. 

And then the world went mad…
By now you’ve probably put two and two together and realised the Müller’s intrepid journey was about to be dealt the Covid curveball. Having left the East Cape behind, it was a roundabout route to Taranaki via the Desert Road, around Mount Ruapehu and through the Tongariro National Park to the Forgotten World Highway, and then down the coast to Wellington. (Yes, they got their passports stamped at the Whangamomona pub!) “When we took the ferry we could feel something was happening, and took a cabin to keep social distance,” Gunnar and Elena tell me when we meet up again on an overcast August day in Thames, a week before they were to leave for Hamburg. From Picton the trio carried on to the Marlborough Sounds, where they were for two weeks before lockdown hit.

Photo:  Lasse checks the undercarriage at Puriri Bay DOC campsite.

“We were at French Pass, the furthest out campsite in Marlborough Sounds, in the middle of nowhere, camping with another couple from Hamburg travelling in a small van who we met a few weeks earlier. A friend from Thames called to check if we knew about the lockdown. We needed to find a space we could park up for weeks or months at a time, and not knowing how long it would last we searched Bookabach. When we first looked everything was booked out because Easter was coming; the next day people were giving the baches away for half price.” The two families locked down at Kaiteriteri, at the entrance to the Abel Tasman National Park, for 52 days. When lockdown ended the Unicat traversed the South Island from Farewell Split to Dunedin, covering almost everything in between. “Travelling after lockdown was heaven for us. We were practically the only people at any of the sites!” Gunnar said.

A mobile abode to conquer mountains
There are a few ways to find the best a foreign land has to offer and navigate your way there. The first is to carry a good old-fashioned map book and circle all the suggestions from the locals who will inevitably come over to chat about your truck. The second is to ensure your Unicat is fitted with a Garmin GPS marine chart plotter, onto which you can download open global and street maps to see even the smallest trails. Then you could go the most modern route and download an offline navigation app onto the iPad. Spending some time in the evenings bringing these together to plan the next leg of the journey is the key. “Sometimes we’d plan to go 100 or 200km, drive 30km, round the next corner and decide to stop. It’s very spontaneous,” Gunnar said. With spontaneity comes the need to be prepared for anything and there could be no better vehicle for this than the Unicat. None of New Zealand’s roads, tracks or trails was a match for this 14-tonne bach on wheels. The base as mentioned is an 18-tonne (derated to 15 tonnes for German tax reasons) 330hp MAN TGM 4x4 chassis with diff locks front and rear, 12-speed MAN Tipmatic transmission and reduction box. With more than enough gearing to tackle most situations and massive military-spec 395/85 R20 Michelin tyres, there’s little chance it should get stuck. But, if it does, 18-tonne hydraulic winches front and back are ready to help it out.

Photo: Survival gear.  Note tracks attached to rear bumper for the stickiest situations.

Photo: Living space for the free spirit. Note crawl-through behind swing-out table.

There’s a tow coupling on the rear if needed, too. Gunnar said tyre pressures are kept at 5.5 bar front and 6.0 rear, and they’re pretty bulletproof, having even driven on fresh volcanic lava in Iceland, which is sharp enough to cut into the rubber. The truck’s equipped with tyre pressure and temperature monitors (the Müllers removed the CTI unit to avoid unnecessary trouble in the middle of nowhere). With two 400-litre fuel tanks and 600 litres of fresh water onboard, all up weight on the VTNZ weighbridge was 13.5 tonnes. On the roof of the truck is one spare and a stainless steel crane and winch to get the 130kg wheel down to ground level. “I pushed one off once back at home and almost destroyed some cars! I thought it would bounce once or twice and land; it bounced nearly as high as the truck all over the place!” Gunnar said with a laugh. Also on the roof is a solar system with six large batteries that generated enough power during the New Zealand summer to meet day-to-day needs, even running the washer-dryer twice a day sometimes (yes, it has one of those, as well as a fridgefreezer, microwave, induction cooker, oven and pull-out barbecue). There’s also a diesel generator, which came into its own during the South Island winter. All equipment is electrically powered, there’s no gas. Elena and Gunnar both got their heavy vehicle licences and share driving duties.

The left-hand drive configuration was no problem in New Zealand, the mix of left and right-hand drive being quite common between Europe and the UK. Its size wasn’t a problem either; this Unicat measures 8700mm length x 2550mm width x 3680mm height (on a 4800mm wheelbase) and just one bridge at one of the docksides wasn’t passable. That Garmin unit holds another trick up its sleeve, with a rear-view camera for reversing (it has a second channel for another camera too). The MAN cab is otherwise very familiar, and comfortable. The four individual seats are all air-suspended and heated, and little Lasse even has his own child seat up front, one of the most secure that could be found in Germany, bolted directly to the cab. There’s separate HVAC front and rear. Between the rear seats is a 60x70cm tunnel to move between the cab and living area.

Expecting the unexpected
The Unicat is fitted with Bluetooth and a dual-band, short- and long-range VHF radio – which as any truckie would know, is something you can’t be without. In Gunnar’s case, that also goes for some basic mechanical knowledge. Before studying medicine, he was a trained firefighter and that included vehicle maintenance. In the case of a breakdown the truck’s packed with power tools and basic spare parts. Electric cab tilt makes the job just that little bit easier. “Most things I’d be able to repair myself if I needed to, even though I’m not a trained engineer. It’s always annoying to have to tow a truck away,” he said. Or you could always rely on that typical Kiwi spirit. “We had an experience when a little rubber component of the cab suspension fell out. We pulled into a small parking lot where a lady in a car drove off while I was fixing it. She came back five minutes later saying she felt bad because we probably needed some help. This doesn’t happen everywhere,” Gunnar said. Thankfully, that was the only hiccup on the mechanical side of things, but the ‘house’ side of it all suffered a bit of flooding when the 60-litre hot water cylinder cracked and leaked in mid-June, somewhere close to Westport. It took Gunnar a whole day, with much of the Unicat’s interior out in the campsite, but he got the job done.

Photo:  Elena, Gunnar and Lasse Müller in Tauranga. “After you posted that picture we had even more people recognise us, lots of truck drivers at the petrol stations and truck stops,” said Gunnar.

“We thought that finding an Italian-made hot water maker for a German vehicle in New Zealand would be difficult, but we found out that they’re used on lots of boats, so we called a marine company in Auckland and they had one in stock. We had it in 36 hours – the payment probably wasn’t even in their account before they dispatched it – but that’s typical Kiwi!” he said with a smile. By the end of their extended stay, the Müllers had clocked up another 20,000km in their Unicat and been won over by Aotearoa and everything Kiwi. They plan to return on a more permanent basis, and the Unicat will be coming with them – there’s still a lot to explore. “What we like most is the beauty and variety of the nature – you can ski in the morning and in the afternoon sit on the beach and have a cocktail. It’s one of the only countries that offers that. Mountains, beaches, rivers, lakes … and the way New Zealand takes care of those areas, they’ll stay that way for a long time. “When we stayed in Port Jackson it was crowded over Queen’s Birthday Weekend, then everyone left and we were by ourselves again, and there was not a piece of rubbish left. That’s very different from Europe.

There was not a trace; I like that. Kiwis are proud of their country and they will keep it for the next generations. That impresses me; there aren’t many places where that happens,” Gunnar said. “The people are amazing, relaxed, open-minded, trusting, interested in you, and friendly. Obviously the truck sparks conversation… We met so many people; I have a whole pile of [business] cards. People really mean it when they say ‘ring me and come by’ – and we did that a lot, visited people, stayed in their driveways, some helped us to get things sorted. That’s really special. We’ve had a really, really nice time.” Doing it properly – Kiwis being Kiwis, and the Müllers in their Unicat.

Photo: Alongside Lake Hawea at Kidds Bush. “You can just drive, find something beautiful, decide to stay for a couple of days.”