"Ten countries in max. four weeks" is the challenge to be met by the four travelers. Thorsten Knaack, Marc Pöcking, Joachim von Dörnberg and Alexander Sosna wanted to test their skills this summer and decided to take part in the annual Tajik Rally. The four young men in their mid thirties left South West Germany to travel to Munich and from there to Austria, Romania and Russia. Calling themselves "Breaking Good" they managed 13th place from a total of 25 participants at this year's adventure benefit race and drove 9,712 km! A journey without GPS, technical appliances and air-condition vehicles. At the destination, Dushanbe in Tajikistan, they handed over their donation - A very special one, as it was their own race car! A former Mercedes-Benz fire truck - 210 601 KA. Built in 1984, 2.3 liter cc, it has clocked up 43,000 km and has a stalwart 95 horsepower. How this unusual donation came about and what the competitors experienced during the rally is revealed in the interview.
Thorsten Knaack read about the rally in the local press and asked Joachim von Dörnberg what he thought about it. Both were really keen on the concept of a benefit race combined with providing aid and adventure – particularly as neither of them had ever been to Central Asia before. Next they picked the team and the van.
The original plan was to drive via Turkey, Georgia and the Caucasus. But because of the unstable political climate we decided to drive via northern Ukraine. Unfortunately the normal highway was closed due to a landslide. That was why we had to take the longer, but more beautiful route through the Wakhan Corridor. This roughly 800 km route was a thrilling experience: The roads – if they existed at all – were “catastrophic” and Afghanistan was always at our side – to the left of the driver.
How did you get your vehicle ready for the race?
We modified the back of the van to get more space, which we needed for our beds. A luggage net was installed for more safety and we attached a roof rack to the van and added some underbody protection to the oil pan. Finally we put chicken wire over the radiator to protect it against
mosquitos, flies and other small insects.
And was that necessary?
Especially for the Pamir Highway (4,200 m)! The team and the van had a lot to deal with. The road conditions – stones, mud, water – are nothing like the conditions a fire truck normally has to deal with. The road winds up and down the mountain in hairpin bends, which was a particular challenge for the engine and brakes. And the long time we were on the road – 14 hours and up to 900 kilometers a day – is pretty unusual for a fire truck.
Did you have any other unusual experiences on your route?
The traffic lights in Kazakhstan for example. Towards the end of the green phase, the green man gets faster and faster – as if he’s running. And the forest firemen in Kyrgyzstan, who wore camouflage fatigues as their uniform. And then there were the Chinese 40-ton trucks that had a false Mercedes logo on the radiator – a Q or T instead of the star. Each country we drove through had its own particular beauty and special characteristics, like the desert in Kazakhstan, the seemingly never-ending fields of sunflowers in Russia or the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. What we liked the best was Wakhan Valley, where the Pamir river is surrounded for several hundred kilometers by two mountain ranges – here the interplay of the water of the river with the mountain, changing all the time, is breath-takingly beautiful!
Part of the rally is to donate something at the end of the route – why did you decide to donate your vehicle?
It was our idea to choose a car that would make us stand out; a car that provided a lot of space and could be used well locally. The fire truck will hopefully be useful to the local fire service at the border to Afghanistan to help the people there. We picked a Mercedes-Benz as it provides the reliability, stability and ground clearance which was particularly important for the bad road conditions. We were always able to rely on our Mercedes-Benz van in contrast to a lot of the other rally contesters, who encountered major engine, chassis and tire problems! They had to spend several days at garages and even had to dump one vehicle as a write-off and fly back home.
How did the local fire service react to your donation?
Unfortunately the authorities work very slowly in Tajikistan. We were only able to give the van to the office of Habitat for Humanity. But they told us that just recently four people from the local vehicle administration office picked up the van. As the local fire service is battling against the fierce heat currently – 200 assignments in nine months – the existing fleet of vehicles is of Soviet origin, and has encountered major technical problems – our donation came at just the right time and has helped enormously.
Would you take up the challenge of the race again with a vehicle from Mercedes-Benz?
We would go for the quality and reliability of the brand with the star every single time. Our Mercedes-Benz proved to be a very reliable vehicle – perfect for the race. Nothing defeated the vehicle, not even rocks and stones or less than perfect petrol or the long time of the trip. In keeping with the Mercedes-Benz Vans motto: “Vans. Born to run”.More information on the Tajik Rally and the race team, "Breaking Good" can be found at their homepage.