Panamericana: from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego with the LA 911 B
With their short-bonnet camper van conversion, the Schmitt family drove through 19 countries as part of the Panamericana. A trip with a whole host of different adventures, great encounters and an impressive truck.
Thorben opens the door and closes it again immediately. A black bear is on all fours directly in front of the truck. Just one more step and the young family man would have been risking his life. So it's maybe best to rejoin the wife and daughter then. In the end, Thorben decides to climb through the roof hatch of the LA 911 B to get outside – three metres up and out of danger, he can now get a better picture of the whole situation. Good job he knew in advance that bears are common in Alaska. And that's also one of the reasons he and his family are under way here.
That said the encounter with the large animal did come somewhat as a surprise. “Later, we saw so many bears that it almost became a matter of course,” says Thorben today. Incidentally, the bear in Alaska eventually went on its way pretty much uninterested by their presence.
Together with his wife Michi and their daughter Romy, Thorben
Schmitt took to the road in summer 2015 in his green truck to complete
the Panamericana. Just like their first tour to India five years
beforehand in a 319 model, their project goes by the name of “The
Hippy Trail”. The journey takes them across the entire continent, from
Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, covering a distance of almost 100,000
kilometres and crossing through a total of 19 countries.
Their Mercedes-Benz truck is a former vehicle of the German border patrol force and now goes by the name of “The frog”. “The truck didn't have a single breakdown over the entire duration of the trip,” explains Thorben about the LA 911 B. The decision to use the historic vehicle was a deliberate one by the Schmitt family: “If something should have happened to go wrong with the technology, I wanted to be able to do as many of the repairs myself as possible. On modern vehicles that's harder to do," says the 33-year-old who worked as a programmer before starting the journey.
The engine is the trump card.
A further positive aspect in favour of the old military vehicle is that it is three metres high and thus relatively low for a truck. Many passages through towns, especially in South America, would otherwise have been problematic in a higher vehicle. A decisive role was also played by the OM 352 in-line six-cylinder engine. “The engine can eat anything – it can do its job with any quality of diesel. Even at a thousand metres altitude and with a high level of sulphur in the fuel.” The vehicle had also already proven its suitability as a camper: before it came into the hands of the Schmitt family, its previous owners had also taken it to Canada, India and Nepal.
Start in Baltimore.
The Schmitt family set out on their tour from the port of Baltimore to where they had shipped their LA 911 B from Germany. From the east coast of the USA, they headed north to Canada. Niagara Falls, Trans-Canada Highway, Rodeo, … it's a country that has a whole lot to offer. “Our optimal road speed was around 70 to 75 km/h. Before leaving home we insulated the cab with rubber mats so that the noise level in the cab was quite pleasant.” A further big advantage: the power steering which the B model of the LA 911 already had as part of its standard equipment. “That made things easier,” according to Thorben.
Two years, 100,000 kilometres.
From Alaska, the journey took the family through Canada, along the
west coast of America and down into Argentina's Tierra del Fuego. The
Schmitts quit their otherwise stable jobs before leaving Germany. At
the time, their daughter Romy was just one year old. They spent two
years on the road, far away from family and friends back home. Their
overarching aim was: “To experience great freedom, to explore the
world and to be able to appreciate being a family more
It was worthwhile. The Schmitts crossed huge canyons and mountain ranges between the Bering Sea and Cape Horn in their green LA 911 B, they saw calving glaciers and they experienced lonely deserts – parts of which they had to navigate solely by compass. They passed through rain forests, crossed vast steppes, saw untouched coastlines and climbed to extreme heights in Altiplano. What's more there were some impressive encounters with the people and their cultures, not to mention with bears, crocodiles, penguins, lamas and piranhas. 19 countries, around 100,000 kilometres and two years later, the family returned from the American super-continent to Germany with some especially beautiful travel memories in their bags: including a fourth passenger, their son Levi who was born in the Mexican Caribbean.
19 countries – quite a lot for a vehicle from the German border
Find out more about the Schmitt family's adventure at: www.hippie-trail.de
Photos: Schmitt family