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After more than eight years of traveling the world on a motorcycle, I recently started to feel like something was missing. Or rather, some aspects of two-wheeled nomadic life were getting old.
One of those aspects was distance. No matter where you are, every now and then you need to go some distance. Boring, long, non-scenic, and non-adventurous distance, like rushing to do a border run from Peru to Chile and back (think 1,000+ miles on a highway through the Atacama Desert) or riding the miles of the Spain to Croatia to get to a rally race in time. More and more I wanted to ride mostly dirt, mostly off-road, but the problem is the in-between places. Whether it’s exhausted visas, rally races to attend, or missions to complete, sometimes doing big boring miles is part of the deal, and over the years it’s become a bit of a meh publish.
Another aspect of traveling by bike is that you are always a guest. Guest guest (staying with friends or other bikers), paying guest (hotels or AirBnBs) or retrieving guest (wild camping), you may need to pack up and go. No space is ever yours, and even if you stay somewhere for a month or two, at the end of the day it’s temporary and you’ll have to leave again.
Now I realize that for other cyclists, those two things might actually be what makes long-term travel great. I realize that RTW-by-moto fatigue doesn’t necessarily happen to everyone, and many people continue to ride for decades or their entire lives.
Turns out I’m just not one of them. It’s not that I want to stop traveling and settle somewhere. I just want to travel in a way that allows me to have my own space and travel long distances more comfortably while allowing for dirt driving, remote locations and rally racing.
So this year, my partner Lennart and I decided to find a new way to travel. How to stay nomadic, ride a bike when you want, but also have your own private space and a bit of comfort along the way?
Enter Mercedes 1113
Building an overland truck is like that.
The idea first came to us while wild camping in Slovenia last year. Lennart once owned an old Mercedes motorhome, and it didn’t take long to convince me that a house on wheels would be ideal for what we want to do: have our own moving house with a small kitchen, bathroom bathroom, a bedroom, and a small office to do the work, a garage to store the bikes and take them out whenever we came to a scenic location and with lots of good dirt rides, and being able to carry more than two panniers and a gym bag worth stuff. Not that we plan on having a lot of stuff, but having a change of gear, good tools and spares, all the cameras and laptops we need for the job, and a coffee maker on the road, it feels good.
Except, of course, a regular motorhome wouldn’t do. We would have to find something a little more creative; something that would be roomy enough to house us and the bikes, something that’s capable of off-roading if we end up in Mongolia or Botswana, and something that’s sturdy enough and simple to maintain over the years.
That’s a tall order for a ground vehicle, especially since our budget is modest at best. And so, with much trial and tribulation, research, doubt, brainstorming and advice from other Overlanders, we purchased an old Mercedes LAF 1113B fire truck from Belgium.
The thing was built in 1971 and, having spent much of its life as a German fire engine, it is well maintained and has 60,000 kilometers on its 160 HP turbo diesel engine. It’s a four-wheel-drive with plenty of ground clearance, so hopefully it’ll be happy enough on dirt roads. Best of all, it’s huge. It’s a juggernaut, really. And we love it.
Truck construction in progress
We bought the truck in November last year, moved it to the Netherlands and got to work. First, all the firefighting equipment needed to get loose; Next we had to clean and reinforce the chassis so it was ready for the life box. Finally, we needed a competent mechanic to look at the brakes, clutch and the rest of the beast’s innards to make sure the Mastodon is ready for the road.
Next comes the biggest headache of all: building the box. Initially we were thinking of keeping the double cab and creating a small living space from the second – maybe a bit of a cafe and office type and designing a custom box in the back with a garage for the two bikes.
The problem with custom building, however, is budget. Before we even started, the Mastodon had already become an insatiable black hole for money and resources; the calculations for the custom box itself, we soon realized, were wrong. Really far.
We knew that with a project like this we had to go over budget, so we took on more and more work, but even then progress was slow. To add to the pain, the welder we hired for the job kept sending out heart attack-inducing bills while making very little progress on the actual job. This spring we reached a point where we felt like we had spent more money than we would for an entire year of travel and all we got was a rust-free reinforced chassis with exactly zero starts on the construction of the box.
Ouch doesn’t even begin to cover it, and for a brief moment we considered throwing in the towel. It was as if we had bitten off more than we could chew, and we were exhausted from all the stress of spending most of our waking hours at work so that we could cover the ever-increasing expenses.
Gather people to the rescue
Then, suddenly, our luck changed. Our mechanic who turned the beast on sent us a link to an RV box for sale; we were hesitant to even click on it – what are the chances the thing will fit our truck in the first place? — but it turned out he’d found a gem: a ready-made custom Dakar service van box with, drum roll, garage space in the back.
It was built by a Dutch rally enthusiast who had used it to chase the Dakar and attend motocross races, and it has everything we needed – a well-designed living space with two beds, a bathroom bathroom, a kitchen, solar panels on the roof, all the electrical system already in place, and a garage at the back spacious enough for two motorcycles.
And it costs way less than building our own custom design.
We will still need to add and fix a few things – a ramp for the bikes, more solar panels to be completely self-sufficient, more lithium batteries; we’ll have to get rid of the second cab, paint the truck, maybe change the wheels to bigger ones at some point, but overall it looks like our Mastodon will be ready to go in a few months. We will first test the platform in Europe and Morocco, traveling slowly and settling in, and if all goes well, we will begin our next leg of the journey – and the overland expedition to Australia – year next.
Eight wheels and slow moving
We realize the rig is monstrous in size and fuel consumption, but we will no longer have accommodation fees that will make up the difference. We also realize that there will likely be problems along the way, and finding parts for a 1971 Mercedes fire truck isn’t the same as sourcing a set of Suzuki DR650 clutch plates. And, yes, traveling in a land rig carrying two motorcycles might seem like obscene excess, but, after years of traveling by bike, we’re looking for something more – and something more comfortable in the long run.
Finally, we want to spend more time exploring, meeting the locals, and staying in one place for as long as we want without constantly having to pack our bags, look for accommodation, or rush to cover the distance. We hope we can just travel, find a cool, scenic spot, park the truck, get the bikes out and explore, then come back to our mobile home anytime.
Is this a very, very good idea or a very, very bad idea? We will know soon.