As I described in the blog, Magda was a superstar for us. Without a doubt we were taking a risk with a vehicle that was relatively unproven for overland travel, and had limited (or no) local support within a number of countries that we were passing through (VW doesn’t operate in Kazakhstan, Mongolia or Laos, and does not sell the Touareg in Thailand either). Added to that was the fact we were travelling as a solo vehicle for the trip, often off road, far from cities or support centres, and it is no surprise that our most excellent suggestion for VW to support or sponsor us was greeted with silence. These then are our key lessons and recommendations on car preparation:
Prevent: Avoid problems occurring in the first place, rather than being prepared for every eventuality. For the Touareg this meant an expensive replacement of the drive shaft and carrier bearing prior to setting out, purely because these have a reputation within the Touareg and its sisters the Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne. Research the known issues for your vehicle on the forums, and get anything that is known to fail out of the way. Peace of mind.
Get Electronic: It’s both a blessing and a curse: Cars these days run engine management systems that continually monitor and alert on any sensor out of range. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. For the Volkswagen Auto Group is VAG-COM, software and cable to allow you to carry out diagnostics, configuration and even rectification of engine problems. There are similar for all the manufacturers. For us it was indispensable. I already wrote about the diesel particulate filter problems, and how we resolved the problem by triggering the filter regeneration with VAG-COM, but there were other issues we resolved. Descending from the high altitude of Sichuan province the air-conditioning failed on us. A quick analysis of the error codes found the system had reported a drop of pressure in the coolant. A look online indicated that this is a common problem when descending from high altitude quickly. We wiped the error code, checked the pressure (which had returned to normal) and everything worked again.
And when the manifold triggered a check engine light, being able to look at the detail of the error meant we could see the issue was fine to drive with, giving us the peace of mind that we wouldn’t have had if we could only see the check engine light. I wouldn’t undertake a trip of this type without the computer and software.
Spares: We carried spare parts. I said to my mechanic “Can I take three fuel filters”. He said “Sure. You won’t use any of them though.” He was right. Modern diesels like the Touareg already have a bypass system built in if they detect problems in the primary filter, but they are small and light and I felt better for having them. We also carried a spare air filter, oil filter, fan belt (ok it doesn’t actually connect to a fan these days), spare bulbs and fuses.
And what did we use? 1 tail light bulb. We got the car serviced once on the trip, in Chelyabinsk, Russie, just prior to entering Kazakhstan. I got them to use some of the filters I was already carrying to save space and cost.
Navigation: As discussed in the blog, we had a GPS nav system running iGo, and maps for Europe, Asia and Australia loaded. These were pretty good, with the odd side adventure from time to time. For Kazakhstan we grabbed a cheap iPhone navigator. Mongolia was the most challenging for navigation, and we had a couple of choices. We carried some paper maps, but found these usually were too lower scale to be much use. We also trialled buying some high resolution maps online, loaded on the laptop. These were based on Russian topographical maps, and while super high detail, they came as a collection of PDFs that couldn’t zoom and scale like Google style maps do.
The best system, which we used continuously was an iPhone app called MotionX GPS. This app allows download of terrain, satellite or road maps onto the device, and also allows waypoint navigation. We would pre-download the maps for the route we were following, and mark our waypoints. On the move the iPhone would be mounted on the dashboard, and would continually point the direction we needed to travel, along with distance and ETA. This helped enormously when ever we found tracks crisscrossing the landscape, and gave us the confidence to travel where we liked, knowing where we were, where fuel was, and where we needed to be.
I’ve read some blogs from those who have travelled Mongolia without GPS, and I wouldn’t recommend it, to be frank. “Keeping the railroad on your left” limits you and your exploration, and you can bet the railroad has been built through the flattest most uninteresting landscape.
Spare tyre carrier: This topic is far more complicated than it should be, for the VW Touareg. Sure, the Touareg came with a factory carrier in many markets. But it designed for standard tyre size only, so you will quickly run into problems if you have larger all terrain tyres, so choose carefully. I used a spare carrier from USA manufacturer CBI, which plugged into the tow hitch. For those who wonder if this kind of carrier would hold up to rough roads with the weight of a wheel on the back? I can tell you it’s solid as a rock, and I would have no issues recommending it. It allows the rear window to be opened, and folds down to open the rear gate fully.
Tyres: Do a search on “best all terrain tyre” on google and you will find a million 4×4 forums on the topic. For us, the majority of our trip was on bitumen/tarmac. But I was conscious that the lowest common denominator was Mongolia, where we would be offroad for several weeks. An all terrain tyre that would perform well on the road, while being tough enough to deal with Mongolia without drama. I chose the Hankook ATM 165/65 17”. This was the largest size that the Touareg Diesel could wear without hitting the oil cooling vents, and would give us bit of extra water clearance as well. They are also cheaper than their main competitors.
However there was a bit of a failing here. We had three punctures on the entire trip, but two of those resulted in enough damage to the tyre that it was rendered useless. Both were the same: a sharp rock would cut the steel belt, causing the tyre tread to belly. In Mongolia we got around this with a large patch and an inner tube, but that tyre remains the spare, to be used for short distances only. When same thing occurred a second time in China we had to throw the tyre away and replace with another. 3 is not a large sample size I’ll admit, but there does seem a weakness to these tyres that would stop me from buying them again.
Fuel: Normally Magda would comfortably cover 1,000km per tank. Fitted with roof tent and loaded with gear this dropped to 900km at the maximum. Vehicles like the Prado carry 180 litres of fuel, while the Pathfinder only 80 litres. Whether you need extra fuel obviously comes down to the type of overlanding you will be doing – hardcore 4WD trekking away from civilisation for hundreds of kilometres means precautions.
We carried a spare 20 litre tank for Mongolia, and it was a waste of space. Looking at a map of Mongolia showing which villages had fuel, we rarely went longer than 300kms between stops. We weren’t driving direct between towns either, and still pushed out into the middle of no where to explore and camp. But knowing where the fuel was, and generally not letting the fuel tank get less than half, we had no problems running on the main tank.
Quality of fuel (diesel) wasn’t a problem, despite a Mongolian bowser coughing air like a camel having an asthma attack during fuelling That said, the mechanics still suspect poor quality diesel in China as triggering the Diesel Particulate filter clogging up, however the filter itself never recorded an issue. We rarely had any issues with availability, occasionally in Mongolia a station would be out, but there would be another nearby stocked. We saw fuel shortages in China and in Kazakhstan, but it was always petrol, and never diesel. Indeed, in both countries there would sometimes be queues for filling up, but the diesel bowser was always free.
And that’s how we rolled.