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?
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...
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