I remember it quite fondly - the excitement of going to Albania in Eastern Europe to drive Mercedes-Benz's X-Class double-cab bakkie. The 3.0-litre V6, no less.
It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime the people from Daimler, Merc's parent company, were eager to host us. We were two from South Africa, two from Australia, and two from Austria on the rotation we were on. The contingency was ready for action, and our bakkies were ready for the trek up the mountains outside Tirana - Albania's capital.
On the morning of our first day of driving, we met at the hotel's conference room, had quick introductions and a debrief of what we could expect. Only, what followed, no one could expect.
We set off from the hotel and made our way through what looked like chaos in motion. It was crazy as drivers ignored the rules of the road, and not even the bouldering might of five X-Classes deterred them.
In the mountain
Before our first day of driving, the tour guides had ample time to ensure that the conditions would be ripe for the picking. And they were. We traversed into the countryside, into the mountain, with clear skies up ahead. It's a beautiful sight to behold, and the lifestyle is simple here: nothing but the land to feed you.
And to think, tonight we'd be sleeping in tents under the stars in the Albanian wilderness. How lucky can you get!
We make a quick stop at a coffee shop in the middle of nowhere, where we recharged our batteries with the picnic baskets in our bakkies. We are nowhere. Literally. Above you, there are mountains. Next to you, a massive dam that's under construction. And you are on the stoep of a little house where, if something should happen, no one will hear you scream. Not even the echoes will aid your cause.
So off we go, further up the mountain and deeper into the bush.
A little house in the Albanian mountains. Image: Wheels24 / Charlen Raymond
Let's go back, guys
At around 3pm, the heavens opened up. At first, it wasn't that bad - just a drizzle. The bakkie's wipers were on intermediate because there's no need to wipe the windscreen frantically. But then, at around 15h30, things got worse.
Now it was raining cats and dogs, but we continue. The rain would stop, and the sun would shine, but then suddenly, the elements would be against us again. Still, we soldiered on. Just before 6pm, we had to cross a bridge. The problem was, the surrounding sandbanks became gruesomely loose.
A nearby waterfall was spitting mud, and our hosts were left with a decision: either continue and risk the unknown, or turn around and head back to Tirana and hope the hotel can accommodate us again. We chose the latter.
To turn around, all the bakkies had to cross the bridge, which we managed to do. But remember, we were in the mountain for almost four hours, and the darkness has descended upon us. Visibility was poor, but we had to make it out. And fast!
2020 Mercedes-Benz X-Class. Image: Wheels24 / Charlen Raymond
Did we die?!
We could not have been prepared for the stressful drive out of the mountains. We dialled the bakkies into 4x4 High to ensure optimal drive at a fast-enough speed in these trying conditions. The lead bakkie showed us the way, the three media bakkies in pursuit, with the Daimler folks bringing up the rear.
The very road we came along, was drenched in standing muddy water. The wind was howling and, at one point, blew a tree over that fell on the Australians' bakkie. It was a nightmare! But we continued. In the dark of night, we knew we had to stay close to the mountain on our right, because to our left is a significant drop-off. One wrong move, and it might be a while before your body is recovered.
It took some driving to get out of the mess, and you could barely blink, in case something happened. Then, while driving the X-Class out the death-defying conditions, I spot two rocks tumbling down the mountain! And bam! One rock hit the X-Class in front of us' front bumper, while the second knocked into the passenger door. The Austrians stopped and called over the radio "We've been hit by a rock," to which I responded, "Just keep on driving. (Explicit) the truck!" (they call a bakkie a truck.)
We continue driving and came to where the Albanian government is building a new road. It runs alongside the dam we drove past earlier the day, but now things are not as smooth as they were. The road, which has been bombed out with dynamite, is in the mountain. As we're coming, we see water raining down the roof the road, and suddenly, just meters ahead of us, another rock comes tumbling down with the water!
I swear, if I never came close to seeing my life flash before my eyes, it was in the Albanian mountains in the space of a few hours.
Albania's capital, Tirana, after torrential rain. Image: Wheels24 / Charlen Raymond
Phew, we made it!
Coming out of the mountain, one of our guides, a local from Tirana, took us on a shortcut. This proved to be quite helpful because whereas our entry into the mountain was a few hours, we exited in less than an hour. And the next morning, we saw the devastation the rain had caused.
The next day we asked the Daimler people about rumours of the X-Class' demise; that production would cease. They said everything is still on track for production to continue, but just months later, the report came in the X-Class would be axed.
It's a bitter-sweet moment because I know first-hand how capable this bakkie is; how it can take on the worst that's thrown at it. Yet, when it came down to it, the bakkie couldn't save itself. Yes, there are so many things wrong with it, and it could've been a significant success, but the approach and execution from Merc's, was wrong. And that killed any momentum it could've built up.
May 2020 is the date that the X-Class' production will end, but at least I know that I experienced the bakkie in ways few could ever imagine.
Rest well, X-Class. You fought bravely.2020 Mercedes-Benz X-Class. Image: Wheels24 / Charlen Raymond