Mercedes E-Class All-Ter­rain

Eight coun­tries, 6,000 km, one of the world’s scari­est preda­tors and a Merc we made our­selves. What could go wrong?

Top Gear (Malaysia) - - Contents - WORDS: TOM FORD / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: MARK RICCIONI

TG’s Project E-AT goes on a bear hunt. A wild-look­ing E-Class in the wilder­ness just seems right, no?

Forests hold their shad­ows close, and breathe slowly.

You can sense the life, be­cause even if the con­ver­sa­tions of the trees are held an oc­tave or two be­low hear­ing, there’s a cos­mopoli­tan fizz to the at­ten­dant wildlife. Walk­ing, crawl­ing, slith­er­ing, fly­ing, hop­ping and buzzing things, all blun­der­ing about their busi­ness in the city of the trees. And while the slow-think­ing veg­etable gestalt is im­pos­si­ble to fathom, in day­time, forests gen­er­ally come across as green and gen­tle, full of won­der and the scent of Nar­nia. Pleas­ant and wel­com­ing.

It’s dif­fer­ent at night.

At night, most mod­ern hu­mans don’t get on with forests. It’s as if the lizard hind­brain still doesn’t like all those places things can hide. Where they can stalk. Forests, in the dark, have a strange habit of mak­ing you feel like prey. And I’m cur­rently on the menu. In fact, there’s enough in­dus­tri­al­strength DEET in­sec­ti­cide on my coat to melt plas­tic, and yet I’m still get­ting bit­ten, the falsetto den­tist’s drill whine of fi­nal-ap­proach mos­qui­toes a per­ma­nent tin­ni­tus that turns you into one gi­ant itch. Photographer Mark is wear­ing a

T-shirt and shorts. His ex­posed skin has started to ex­press a light bubonic sheen pep­pered with red welts like a roadmap of mis­ery, and as we vi­ciously slap at our­selves, each strike re­veals the bloody af­ter­math of a vam­piric meal. Some days you are the Hulk. Other days you are the smash.

“What did you ex­pect?” says photographer Mark Riccioni, san­guine in the face of the tiny blood­suck­ing bas­tards. “We’re in the mid­dle of a gi­ant for­est at night, and you’ve bolted the Black­pool Il­lu­mi­na­tions to your car. And switched them on.” He’s right. I’ve got enough high-in­ten­sity lamps on my Merc to light up most of this sec­tion of swampy for­est, and we are ap­par­ently the tasti­est thing ever to have vis­ited Es­to­nia. We’re tak­ing pic­tures and fail­ing mis­er­ably in our mis­sion: to see a brown bear in the wild.

It’s one hell of a for­est, mind you. We’re cur­rently some­where in the Alu­ta­guse in north­east­ern Es­to­nia, not very far from the Rus­sian bor­der. The mos­qui­toes breed in its swamps, and many other things live here, most of which seem to be crash­ing through the un­der­growth just out of sight. At least my phone still works, with just enough 3G to fran­ti­cally Google ‘wolver­ine at­tacks on hu­mans’. Over the past three days we’ve driven up from the UK across France, Bel­gium and the Nether­lands, flicked past Berlin in Ger­many, around the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion’s Kalin­ingrad out­post into Lithuania and thence to Latvia and Es­to­nia. We’re cur­rently far enough up to be on an equal lat­i­tude to Stock­holm, just across the Gulf of Fin­land from Helsinki. We have cruised the der­e­stricted au­to­bahn at 175kph av­er­ages, had two sep­a­rate – pleas­ant – chats with Lithua­nian po­li­ceper­sons (they like Mercedes), eaten many du­bi­ous sausages and slept lit­tle. It has been a long, hard grind.

The bears, how­ever, don’t care. The thing about Es­to­nia, and this for­est in par­tic­u­lar, is that it has the great­est con­cen­tra­tion of brown bears any­where in Europe – about 700 in an area of roughly 17,500 square miles. I’ve al­ways wanted to see a brown bear in the wild, but it’s eas­ier said than done, mainly be­cause usu­ally you have to have track­ing skills, know where to find bears, and be par­tic­u­larly pa­tient. Which I am not. But having dis­cov­ered that the Es­to­nian for­est is criss-crossed with amaz­ing, un­made ‘for­est roads’, and rea­son­ing that the more ground cov­ered the bet­ter, I kit­ted out a Mercedes E-Class All-Ter­rain specif­i­cally for a lit­tle for­est-based ad­ven­ture: ex­tra light­ing and car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity on a cus­tom-made roofrack, off-road tyres on smaller, more ro­bust wheels, a few tools and prac­ti­cal things, like leisure bat­ter­ies to power cam­era equip­ment. And a mini­bar made out of a jerry can. And a por­ta­ble es­presso maker. Ob­vi­ously. This isn’t hard­core off-road­ing, but enough to need all-wheel drive and a bit of ex­tra height, while also main­tain­ing a cer­tain ca­pa­bil­ity for fast transcon­ti­nen­tal driv­ing. We have proven our so-called Project E-AT’s ’bahn­storm­ing ca­pa­bil­ity in some style al­ready, but over the past 18 hours, we’ve been blun­der­ing around the for­est un­der the mis­guided no­tion that we will some­how stum­ble across ur­sine com­pany by ac­ci­dent.

As of yet, we have not found bears. What we have found is an ab­so­lutely stun­ning land­scape patch­worked with mostly broadleaf wood­land, stitched to­gether by trails and mossy roads, end­less and be­guil­ing. Es­to­nia’s favourite colour is green, in all its myr­iad Pan­tones, and it is breath­tak­ing. We have found thou­sands of birds, wood­pecker and stork, grouse and ca­per­cail­lie, and some­thing that looked sus­pi­ciously like an ea­gle. There have been rab­bits, frogs, voles, foxes and deer.

But no bears. We have driven up a lo­cal ski slope – glossed over the slag heap of a shale mining oper­a­tion – to get a bet­ter view­point, asked lo­cals, tried to be quiet and still. The All-Ter­rain has been ut­terly im­pe­ri­ous, crawl­ing and push­ing its way through the chok­ing brush, scyth­ing down miles and miles of un­made roads without break­ing a sweat. And yet we have failed. We’ve even come out at night, al­though pot­ter­ing around the for­est like a rolling ball of sun­shine is prob­a­bly not the most covert idea I’ve ever had. It’s a bit dis­heart­en­ing, to be hon­est. I have promised much, and so far only the car has de­liv­ered. Time to play my ace in the hole, then. And call in the help from the elves. Well, not quite an elf, but Eleri Lopp-Valdma is more com­fort­able in the for­est than any of us, knows its ways, and more im­por­tantly, has a hide from which – hope­fully – to ob­serve some bears. We ar­range to meet at a spe­cific set of co-or­di­nates in the for­est later in the day, and I re­main buoy­ant.

Ex­cept that Eleri turns up a lit­tle late, and there is worry. I’ve paid up front, and am left won­der­ing whether the whole ar­range­ment is an elab­o­rate joke that works it­self up to a punch­line that leaves ev­ery­one shuf­fling their feet and awk­wardly look­ing away. But then Eleri ar­rives, slightly non­plussed at our gid­di­ness, and all is good. We have to leave the car be­hind and hike into the for­est, the bears ap­par­ently wary of diesel-pow­ered, light-festooned Mercedes, and we im­me­di­ately find bear tracks. I am ex­cited, and Eleri tells me, stern-faced, to be quiet. The list of no-nos has been pre­vi­ously noted: no de­odor­ant or per­fume, no smelly foods, no noise. A stout walk later, we come to the hide: a rough chip­board shed that con­tains a com­post­ing toi­let (good for hid­ing smells), a cou­ple of old chairs and some tiny bunkbeds. Once we en­ter – it’s about half past four in the af­ter­noon – we can­not leave un­til past 8am. Be­cause bears.

The one thing that you never quite re­alise about wildlife stalk­ing is the amount of pa­tience it re­quires. But it’s pa­tience me­tered with alert­ness in case some­thing pops up – no point in be­ing here if you’re too busy sleep­ing to cap­ture the mo­ment. Which lends it­self to a kind of fever­ish wake­ful­ness. It also oc­curs to me that this is a peo­ple zoo; the wildlife is free to come and go, while we are the ones trapped in a box. It seems fit­ting – the for­est isn’t ours. It’s theirs.

We are look­ing out onto a for­est glade, a pic­ture made of a thou­sand shades of emer­ald and olive, sage and yel­low. Peo­ple al­ways stand and stare at views. Some­times it’s con­fus­ing, as if they ex­pect them to do some­thing. But this one ac­tu­ally does: as soon as the quiet comes, you start to spot the life. First the birds come back, flit­ting be­tween the trees and scuf­fling around on the for­est floor. Then there’s the flash of gin­ger fur, and a wary fox starts creep­ing ever closer, pop­ping up in ran­dom places like a game of for­est Bat­tle­ship. It’s ex­cit­ing – even though I have big­ger foxes in my back gar­den. Some time later, I think I see a bad­ger, but it moves oddly, and turns out to be what Eleri calls a ‘rac­coon dog’, which ap­pears to be just that; a cross be­tween a dog and a rac­coon. A bit of re­search later, and it turns out that these are canids also known as the mangut or tanuki – an east Asian species that got in­tro­duced to east­ern Europe a while back. There are a few of them, and they like to fight. Af­ter a de­cent amount of time watch­ing the var­i­ous rac­coon dogs jump­ing up and down on each other’s heads and scream­ing blue mur­der, I won­der whether all the noise might put the bears off. But as the sun starts to de­scend, it hap­pens.

Fran­tic hand ges­tures and choked-back ex­cla­ma­tions. A black shape through the trees that re­solves into the un­mis­tak­able tawny fea­tures of an ab­so­lutely enor­mous brown bear. Excitement first, and then some­thing clicks: the hairs on the back of your neck re­act in­vol­un­tar­ily.

But they don’t stand to at­ten­tion by them­selves – they drag your spine along to be tin­gled. This is not a zoo an­i­mal, used to peo­ple. It is not a con­tained or con­strained crea­ture. It is Ur­sus arc­tos, the same species as the griz­zly and ko­diak bear, one of the largest bears in the world. It might not be quite as ag­gres­sive as a po­lar bear or griz­zly, but it is a ruddy great apex preda­tor 30 feet from where we’re sit­ting in a sud­denly puny-feel­ing chip­board shed. The im­pli­ca­tion that this could all go very wrong lingers in the back­ground like a mut­tered threat, half-heard but painfully real.

The bear patently does not give a thing it does in the woods. It sham­bles around search­ing for some­thing, looks straight at our hut and gives a yawn and dis­missal of al­most fe­line con­tempt. Then he scents some­thing and you can see him chew­ing at a thought like a lazy cow, bench­ing up an an­swer af­ter an age of bovine con­tem­pla­tion. Turns out Eleri may have pro­vided an in­cen­tive for the bear to turn up,

and our enor­mous friend ca­su­ally lifts a huge rock to pull out what ap­pears to be a fish head from un­der­neath. He then wan­ders back into the far woods to munch, and we breathe out. Over the next hour or so, the bear re­turns four or five times to re­trieve more tasty treats, ev­ery ap­pear­ance pro­vok­ing the same re­ac­tion: won­der, ner­vous­ness, awe. As night falls, we set­tle back, still alert, but the bear never re­turns, and we lie in a hut be­ing eaten alive by mos­qui­toes in the freez­ing cold. No­body cares. We saw it. And it was mag­nif­i­cent.

Dawn is the psy­cho­log­i­cal re­set of the mind. The switch-itoff-and-on-again of the psy­che. It’s prob­a­bly some­thing to do with sero­tonin re­cep­tors. Or break­fast. Both of which I’m ap­par­ently lack­ing. But af­ter 15 or 16 hours in an out­house, cabin fever has erupted with force, and we’re all glad to be re­leased. We leave as qui­etly as we ar­rived, and set out to see more of Es­to­nia.

An­other day and night of light ad­ven­tur­ing through the for­est, and we see much more of the Es­to­nian back­woods and its busy lit­tle day-to-day. We un­pack on a beach in the Gulf of Fin­land, meet a man who takes us to a heart-hurt­ing view of a myth­i­cal-look­ing lake. A man who then pro­ceeds to drink half a bot­tle of my gin from the jerry can mini­bar, neat, as pay­ment. We break trails, wan­der down paths you’d never dare in any­thing other than a full-house SUV. We never even come close to be­ing wor­ried, never mind stopped, the All-Ter­rain packed full of kit and peo­ple, air sus­pen­sion suck­ing away the harsh­ness of the ter­rain. It feels slightly un­real, as if the wall we build be­tween na­ture and our­selves feels thin here. Yes, phones work and we have a car, but you don’t have to ven­ture far to be very alone. The bears never make an­other ap­pear­ance, and too soon, it’s time to pack up and head back to­wards the real roads, and civil­i­sa­tion.

The drive back is sim­i­larly painful, long and gra­tu­itous, but just high­lights what an all-rounder the Merc All-Ter­rain re­ally is. Even on off-road tyres, loaded to the weight limit and with a para­chute of a roofrack, we man­aged 160+kph cruis­ing on the ’bahn with 9.7L/100km av­er­age across 5,800 km, in­clud­ing a few days of mild off-road. With all of these ve­hi­cles, there’s an el­e­ment of com­pro­mise – off-road SUVs don’t tend to like mo­tor­ways, and ve­hi­cles that GT con­ti­nents can’t usu­ally rum­ble down hun­dreds of miles of for­est tracks. But Project E-AT did both, without a sin­gle nig­gle. The com­pro­mise is there, but it’s a weaker ar­gu­ment than you might imag­ine. As an all-rounder, it’s pretty hard to beat. We left Es­to­nia sur­prised, and elated. Sur­prised, be­cause some­how you for­get that we do have gi­ant Euro­pean wilder­nesses just as im­pres­sive as those fur­ther away and seem­ingly more ex­otic, and elated be­cause… well… be­cause we all went on a bear hunt.

And yes, we saw a big one.

11 Route plan­ner ev­ery day was in­tim­i­dat­ing. Es­to­nia is not close, time was short 2 And the win­ner of the ‘most Euro­pean-look­ing hol­i­day rig ever’ goes to...

2

East­ern Es­to­nia: a bit like the UK, ex­cept much big­ger forests

8 The mangut, or rac­coon dog. Noisy, in­tru­sive, not a bad­ger 9 Old shale-mining oper­a­tion 10 Life hack: don’t get into a drink­ing com­pe­ti­tion with the man in blue8

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