After spending several years exploring Europe we began to feel we wanted to travel further afield and with less dependence on camp site services such as fresh water, waste disposal and power. We began to explore the possibility of acquiring an expedition truck that would enable us to travel to more remote places.
After a lot of research, and a visit to a an expedition truck builder in the Netherlands we decided it would be too expensive to buy a newly converted truck. We travelled to Poland to visit Gekkotruck who had organised a number of expedition truck conversions through various specialist contractors in Poznan. We finally chose to source our own truck and have all the modifications carried out in Poland through Gekkotruck. In 2017 we started searching for a suitable used truck on the internet.
We decided that a standard truck cab, with two driving seats and limited space behind, was too small so we looked for a truck with a crew cab which would give us space for four seats and the possibility of a fold up bunk for an extra guest. The vehicle needed to be 4×4 and with an automatic gearbox (constant gear changing over longer distances gets laborious). The engine would have to be of a large enough horsepower but with minimal electronics and little in the way of emission controls because modern electronics could cause problems that were hard to diagnose and solve, especially if you were far away from technical help.
Lastly, we had to calculate the weight carrying capacity we would need. This was a simple sum of the weight of the vehicle plus the weight of the liquids in the fuel and water tanks, plus the weight of the living box with all the equipment etc etc. We quickly realised that the total weight of the vehicle would be between 10 and 12 tons. Pause for thought here – we would need to get an HGV licence in order to drive our new vehicle.
We eventually found what we were looking for – an ex fire tender for sale at a used truck specialist near Preston, Lancashire. It was a 2003 MAN 18.280 4×4 crew cab with ZF auto gearbox and only 17000km on the clock, it also had a wheelbase of 4500mm which would allow us to fit a 5500mm living box. I contacted the dealer, John Sharples, and he kindly agreed to hold the vehicle until we could travel to Preston to check it out.
The truck turned out to be everything we wanted, it had been well maintained and was in excellent condition. It had belonged to the Dorset Fire Brigade and was used to carry 3 km of flat hose to assist in fighting forest fires. After a little haggling, we agreed a price of £28,000 and were soon the proud owners of a fire tender – a vehicle that neither of us could legally drive! John Sharples kindly agreed to store the vehicle until we could find a transport company to move it to Poland on a low loader.
It was a somewhat daunting thought that that we would have to train and pass an HGV test as I was 70 and Marion 68, however it now had to be done so we located a local company and set out on the road in a 15 ton rigid truck, took a bit of getting used to but after many hours which included off road reversing through various bollards we were ready for the test or so I thought. Marion passed first time and after two fails I passed on my third attempt, oh what ignominy, however Marion was very gracious and only mentioned it thousands of times !!! This process doesn’t come cheap at circa £2,200.00 but it certainly gives one an insight to the skills and knowledge required by the truck drivers of today. Over the last 6 years we have travelled some 80,000 miles through most of Europe and Morocco in our 5ton Laika Motorhome but we learnt so much from taking this theoretical and practical test we felt the cost was justified.
The next question, if we were going to spend lots of time off grid in more remote places how would we get to explore the surroundings, in the past we had relied on electric bicycles which had been just great allowing us to cover greater distances in less time, however the future terrain would we felt be more demanding so a motorcycle seemed to be the answer but once again we didn’t have licenses to drive them. So I started on the journey to pass my motorcycle test by first passing a CBT, compulsory basic training, which allowed me to drive a motorcycle up to 125cc. Having sourced and bought a Chinese 125cc I started practising on the road to get enough experience to take a test. Before the practical test a theoretical one has to be passed which I managed to do first time. The switch from a125cc to a 650cc Suzuki supplied by the school was somewhat daunting but very quickly got used to it and found it easier to handle, I took my test on this bike and managed to pass first time. We decided on a new Royal Enfield 500cc Bullet as the motorcycle to carry with us on the truck and the hydraulic tail lift would manage this together with the two spare wheels.
The Reality of a Big Truck
we collected it in July 2019 which was almost two and a half years after buying the truck and whilst the handover was somewhat erratic with many jobs still in progress we slowly got to know how everything worked some of it quite complicated, we left Poland for the UK before it all got completed but felt we could manage to finish the detail ourselves.
Back in the UK we set to work getting to grips with equipping it with our personal gear and addressing a myriad of issues which are inevitable with a complex build like this.
We left the UK for Morocco driving through France and Spain as we had decided to spend three months in Morocco to give it a good shakedown before shipping out to Canada and the America’s in May 2020. The varied terrain of Morocco provided us with testing grounds over mountains, deserts and beaches and were to highlight some fundamental flaws.
Hydraulic Tail Lift
This was a one-off manufactured in Poland and incorporated a 10ton hydraulic winch all driven from the original engine mounted power take off hydraulic pump, whilst we were assured it all worked we never had time to see it’s operation and on trying to get it to work in the UK found it didn’t work. We took it to a hydraulic specialist and they determined the pump was too small so fitted a bigger pump, bigger pipe work and improved controls and both the lift and winch then worked well. Whilst in Zagora, Morocco we were operating the lift when one of the rams fell off its inboard pivot pin due to a flimsy retaining circlip falling off. We managed to get it back on and secure it but noticed it had bent the pivot pin which was of concern as it could be weakened and this was the main reason we decided our return trip would be via Poland to have it replaced.
We had tried to use this on our journey back to the UK but it would shut down showing an overload message after a few minutes running, it eventually went dead which we found to be a hidden fuse in the start cable from its 12v battery to the starter motor, having dispensed with this it started again. The overload turned out to be the output setting through the Mastervolt system being set at 16amps, we reset this at 10amps and all was ok.
Fuel Tank and Pipe leaks
We have two fuel tanks one at 300 litres and the larger 600 litres and we very quickly found out that when filled and running off road particularly the larger tank was spewing out fuel from the top mounted plate where all the diesel fired accessories accessed the tank, whilst not a major issue as we could fill to a lower level, it made a lot of mess that the desert sand stuck to. We also had another leak which seemed to be getting worse from around the smaller tank and this turned out to be a semi crushed truck engine diesel return pipe.