As soon as you step into the kitchen to visit them at home in the Austrian town of Gappen in Salzburg, you instantly know that this is the home of globetrotters. A camping gas stove cooks merrily away while the conventional stove serves as a work surface. Melanie Heitmann and Stefan Krallinger need fire to cook. Real flames. Born in Austria, Stefan Krallinger is a hotel and tourism manager by training. He grew up across the street, in his parents’ former hotel between the Dachstein Massif and the Tennen Mountains. Today, the 39-year-old rents out holiday apartments and a pub that you can see from the kitchen window. Wood burns in the stove in the living room. There are no frills to be seen anywhere; even in the bathroom, everything looks ready to be swiftly packed up for the next trip. “We have very few personal things. Freedom is our luxury,” says Melanie Heitmann, explaining the minimalist home setup.
World trip in a Mercedes-Benz 190 D
Around the world in the “Baby Benz”
For five and a half years, a couple travelled around the world with their “Baby-Benz”. They covered around 250,000 kilometres across five continents: through desert and jungle, glittering cities, and mountain passes over 5,000 metres high. The two adventurers’ conclusion: “There is no better car than this!”
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For five and a half years, the 38-year-old German native and her Austrian partner lived in a Mercedes-Benz 190 D by day and a 16-square-metre tent by night, a tent they pulled behind them in a trailer almost two metres long. The world tour, during which they planned to visit 100 countries on five continents, started in January 2015 when they shipped the W 201, which had just turned 26 years old, to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital. They flew over a short while later. “Actually, we wanted to set off from Brazil, but they don’t allow older diesel models to be imported there,” says Stefan, who was eager to travel following the summer and escape colder months.
The idea of a trip around the world had been turning over in his mind for a long time. Back in 2011, he took part in the Dust and Diesel rally, a charity event. It ended with the auction of the vehicles, the proceeds of which were donated to an orphanage in Mauritania. “I started with a Baby-Benz that I had bought for cheap, and it didn’t take me long to fall head over heels in love with the car,” says Stefan, recalling his first encounter with this particular model. “We drove over gravel roads, through the desert, through water – the W 201 was indestructible.” Impressed by its robustness, he bought another W 201 from 1989 shortly after the rally and started dreaming of a round-the-world trip. “Just like leaving tyre tracks in the sand, the idea of this rally around the world was burned into my brain.”
”We drove over gravel roads, through the desert, through water – the W 201 was indestructible.”
And so the trip’s motto was quickly formed: “5 continents 100 countries”, or 5c100c – concise, just like a captain’s logbook entry. The idea was to let everyone who helped out on the journey autograph the car. All that was missing was the right woman at his side. But by 2013, less than two years later, the couple had met online and fallen in love. When Melanie heard about his idea for the first time, she was standing right next to the Baby-Benz: “Can you imagine this being our apartment in the future?” A living room with four-speed manual transmission and 72 horsepower? She said, “I certainly can!”
A hug for every signature
Today, hundreds of signatures adorn the vehicle’s paintwork. “Everyone who helped us along the way was allowed to immortalise themselves on the W 201’s paintwork,” says the North German woman. Help could be in the form of water, a few litres of diesel, fruit, a place to park, a gas cylinder or simply a hug. Some celebrities have also left a dedication: multiple entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, YouTube star Casey Neistat, boxer Sven Ottke and Dr Dieter Zetsche, former CEO of Daimler AG.
The adventurers’ trip around the world was divided into three stages, with visits to friends and family at home in between. The first leg lasted one and a half years and took them from South America via North and Central America to Alaska, the east coast of the USA, Canada, Florida and New York. They started with €15,000 in savings. When they had almost got through their money – “We needed about a thousand euros a month,” says Stefan – he turned his hobby into a source of income: photographing luxury hotels with a drone. The two bartered the pictures for dinner, a place to sleep, or sometimes actual cash.
Like a rockstar
The biggest challenge on the road wasn’t about earning money, but in many countries about the heat. “With no air conditioning in the car, you’re quicker to argue,” Melanie tells me, “and about the most mundane things.” It was particularly hot in Malaysia and Australia. Nevertheless, the thought of giving up never once crossed their minds. “We are very different. Stefan is tougher than me, but also has less patience. Sometimes I’m a bit insecure. I want to please everyone and I definitely don’t like being the centre of attention,” says Melanie, which isn’t always easy to do as a 1.78-metre-tall bright-eyed blonde woman. Many people took photos with her in China and Bali. “She was like a rock star there,” Stefan recalls. Today, she can laugh about it: “Sometimes you have to get far away from home to finally surpass yourself.”
Very rarely, the two of them attracted attention because they needed help. In Colombia, the radiator hose burst. “There was a store around the corner where we went for help. When we came back, we saw a couple of men working under the open bonnet. From a distance, we had the queasy feeling that they were breaking something,” says Stefan. A thought that proved life-changing for them both to this day. “They were just trying to help us out and took the radiator hose from their own vehicle to fix up our Baby-Benz. They wouldn’t take any money for their help; they were just grateful that we were touring their country.” This moment made the adventurers stop and think, and it still does. “Since then, even back at home, we try not to have any prejudices or preconceptions and to be more open- minded,” she says, summing up the experience. “We had heard so many negative things about Colombia before – yet we had only positive experiences there,” says Melanie, who quit her permanent job as a travel agent to see the world. Now the country holds a special place in her heart, the spot on earth that she and Stefan remember most fondly.
A world trip is no holiday
They got the biggest scare of the long trip in Costa Rica in Central America, when a drunk was suddenly standing in their tent in the middle of the night. “Luckily, he was so startled to see us there that he took off immediately. We were robbed several times over the years, but were never there when it happened,” Melanie says. “The only good thing about it was that the car was empty again and we could start from scratch,” she says, laughing. “We had too much stuff with us anyway.”
Their stay in Chile was unforgettable too: They had set an alarm to go for a jog before sunrise. From inside the tent, though, they sensed that it was not getting light. Even at nine in the morning, it was still pitch black. “So we stepped outside and noticed that our tent and the car were filthy,” Stefan says. A volcano 300 kilometres away had erupted, covering everything with a thick layer of ash. So they changed their plans for the day and cleaned up instead. “The ashes had got into every little crack,” says Melanie, who had long since come to love camper life. “On a world trip with a tent, doing anything just takes longer than it does in your own home: cooking, fetching water, heating it for showers, cleaning, tidying up. A world trip is no holiday! You don’t have a daily routine when you’re on holiday, but you do when you’re on a long trip.”
Far from civilization
Stefan often missed good bread while Melanie missed the seasons: “Especially Easter and crocuses at springtime. One thing we didn’t miss for a single second was television.” As the two crossed into Alaska, though, they suddenly longed for civilisation. “It’s totally weird that when you’ve suddenly achieved what you’ve always wanted, peace and solitude, you end up missing people. When you’re at the edge of the world, you just long for the hustle and bustle you were so eager to escape in the first place.” They laugh at this paradox as they flip through their photo albums. They rave about the Altai Mountains, the Andes, the jungle and the Punta Olímpica in Peru, the highest tunnel in the world, built at an altitude of 4,738 metres: “The air is extremely thin there,” they both say in unison.
New photo album, more endless expanses. “Mongolia seemed as quiet as Alaska. For long stretches, there weren’t any power lines or other signs of civilisation at all,” Melanie says. In Alaska they drove the W 201 through a river for the first time, the second time in Mongolia. The journey continued to China, and they show a photo of their escort. Camping trips are not allowed in the People’s Republic without an escort, so they arranged for a Chinese woman with local knowledge to be their guide. They found hot springs in the middle of nowhere, camped on the Great Wall of China and cruised through many a glittering metropolis.
A few pages further on, a young couple smiles into the camera. The four have long been friends, but the story began a few years earlier: In 2015, the two pairs met on a sailing ship to Panama, and four months later they bumped into each other in Guatemala. Four years later, in 2019, they met by chance in a supermarket in Thailand. “If we had gone shopping just a minute later, we would have missed each other,” Melanie says. “We called it travel magic. The people you meet make the countries memorable,” says Stefan. He’s thinking back to Florida: “A native Hungarian wrote to us via Facebook, asking if we’d like to join him and his family for goulash the next day.” He had tracked them down on social media via the “5c100c” on the car. So they got together for goulash. The next day they all went jet-skiing together and saw a dolphin for the first time. Simply unforgettable.
”The people you meet make the countries memorable.”
Speaking of unforgettable, Melanie points to a drone photo from Malaysia. They had pitched their tent next to a dune, the beach stretching out in front of them and not a human being for miles. “In the morning, though, we found shovel-like tracks leading from the sea to just outside our tent. A turtle had buried its eggs in the sand just a few metres from us. We were later allowed to accompany the freshly hatched baby turtles to the water together with the volunteers from an animal protection organisation.”
The 190 D now has more than 500,000 kilometres on the clock. Melanie and Stefan want to auction it for a good cause, with the money being used to help children. “We have signatures from people on five continents and most likely the world record for the longest trailer ride,” says Stefan confidently. A new old 190 D they bought after their trip around the world is parked in the yard. They took it to Italy last autumn. No signatures this time. Just a dog instead: Django. So the next trip will be more of a journey for three – and they already have a name for it: 6/6. “We want to be in the sun for six months during the European winter and then back for six months,” says Stefan. For example to the Caribbean, or to the San Blas Islands where he’d lived for a year once before. “We’ve seen the world from the car, now we’d like to explore the Caribbean. On foot.”
The article on the world tour by Melanie Heitmann and Stefan Krallinger with their “Baby-Benz” first appeared in the Mercedes-Benz Classic Magazine.