How is it that in an era where the car industry is advancing at breakneck pace, an antiquated vehicle with rigid axles and truck-like body-on-frame construction can not only remain in production, but also be regarded as a highly aspirational vehicle?
The Mercedes G-Class, or Geländewagen (German for cross-country vehicle) is a head-scratching anomaly. Originally developed in the early 1970s as a military vehicle at the suggestion of the Shah of Iran, the G-Wagen continues to defy the passage of time, and it is still the go-to option for a vast array of military forces across the globe.
At the other end of the scale, a white, leather-upholstered, twin-turbo V8-powered AMG G 63 serves as daily transport for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and there’s no shortage of other buyers in the country who have similar vehicles in their driveways.
But here and now, in the middle of Australia’s vast, barren Simpson Desert, I find myself behind the wheel of the G 350 d Professional, a vehicle that is the antithesis of the luxury-stuffed, brutally overpowered AMG G 63. I have to make do with wind-up windows, a spartan, plastic-lined interior and modestly potent 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine with 245hp (rather than the 572 horses thumped out by the G 63).
This is essentially the same vehicle military forces use, and it’s designed to be a go-anywhere, withstand-anything chariot fit for harsh environs such as those in which I now find myself. Accordingly, the G 350 d Professional has unglamorous 16-inch rims with knobbly all-terrain tyres, an extra 10 millimetres of ground clearance over the standard G-Wagen and greatly improved approach/departure angles to clear large obstacles. It also gets protective mesh on the headlights and indicators (optional), low-range gearing and good old-fashioned locking differentials (front, centre and rear) that enable the G Wagen to claw its way forward regardless of what lies in its path.
The G Professional is designed as a workhorse – it can cart a 592-kilogram payload and tow up to 3,200kg. The cabin floor has an anti-slip surface with drain holes, so you can hose out the interior after a cross-Simpson dash. There’s also a roof rack and ladder so you can stash your camping gear each day after sleeping under the stars.
Given the conquer-all-terrain job description of the G Professional, who better than explorer/extreme adventurer Mike Horn to have along as a travel companion? The South African-born Swiss has literally gone where no man has gone before, having completed a solo circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle in 2004, as well as an 18-month journey around the Equator without any motorised transport. He is currently in the midst of Pole2Pole, a two-year circumnavigation of the globe via the two poles (this Australian leg is part of it).
With seemingly inexhaustible energy levels and a penchant for pranks and banter, Horn proves an inspirational expedition leader for our Simpson Desert safari, each day rousing us from our slumber (in one-person tents) with a booming “Good morning, Australia!” Unlike the usual brand ambassador, he embraces the experience and becomes an integral part of our small journalist posse.
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I and the other journos in my group have joined the safari at Mount Dare, almost smack-bang in the centre of Australia. From here, we complete a 1,000-kilometre-plus trek via Dalhousie Springs (hot springs where we boil our bodies to a near pulp), then on to Old Andado cattle station and Finke (which gives its name to the Finke Desert Race – a fast, gruelling out-and-back dash from Alice Springs to small Aboriginal community Finke).
Our ultimate destination is the red monolith known as Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) that features on almost every touristy Aussie postcard.
The daily regimen is punishing – not only for us, but the vehicles, too. Each day, we cover hundreds of kilometres, barely touching tarmac, across tracks whose surface is layered with either endless bone-jarring corrugations, fine red bulldust that’s synonymous with central Australia or deep, weaving ruts that bounce the G Professional from side to side like a fishing boat in a storm.
Our bodies take a pounding, as do the G-Wagens, yet we maintain a brisk pace – a jolting 110kph cruise for the most part. There are few sections that are technically difficult in hard-core off-roading terms because there are no massive boulders, swamp-like mud baths or waist-deep water crossings to tackle, yet the terrain is still punishing and requires maximum concentration to ensure the G doesn’t end up in the scenery while barrelling along those lumpy, loose-surface tracks.
Ultimately there are other vehicles – Toyota Land Cruiser, Jeep Wrangler et al – that could have safely completed the same trek, but it’s the unflustered way the Merc goes about its business and sheer bulletproof demeanour that has made it a favourite of military forces and the like.
Indeed, after almost four decades, it is so robust that even Mercedes-Benz can’t kill the old warhorse.