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Extreme RVs Travel Where Few Can

Source: San Jose Mercury News
Publish Date: Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Summary: For a bold few, even the North Pole. With these hulking vehicles -- built as tough as tanks -- expedition travel, long a European tradition, has finally found a niche in America.

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By S.L. Wykes

Jun. 12, 2007 (McClatchy-Tribune News Service delivered by Newstex) -- SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The brawny vehicle that Scott Petry hopes to pilot away from his Palo Alto driveway this summer represents a whole new mode of seeing the world -- especially places a traditional RV could never get near:

Like the Sahara. Or a Central American jungle. For a bold few, even the North Pole.

With these hulking vehicles -- built as tough as tanks -- expedition travel, long a European tradition, has finally found a niche in America. While some intrepid travelers, like Petry, are building their own, others can opt for the German-made Unicat, a top-of-the-line $600,000 model -- where a queen-size bed warmed by radiant heat and custom-cut, no-shake dish drawers come standard.

Think roughing it, but with no-frills comfort.

Avi Meyers, another seeker of an off-road RV, was so impressed with the Unicat that despite its hefty price he simply had to have one. Then, he said, "I figured I couldn't be the only American interested," and now he's the first Unicat dealer in the United States.

All-terrain, four-wheel-drive transporters like the British Land Rover put a new twist on the expedition camping trip, starting in 1948. Overland journeys from Europe into the mountains of Katmandu, or for an African safari, became possible and popular.

Now, with bruisingly solid Unicats, their smaller cousins, EarthRoamers, and a variety of home-built models, a fervent and expanding community of aficionados has taken shape, complete with magazines and Web sites that cater to their adventurous spirit.

Once Meyers found the Unicat, he had to persuade the company to build one that would meet federal standards. That accomplished, he shipped it back last year and took it on the road. Any interested customers will have to peek at his; vehicles like these aren't sold from lots.

All it takes, Meyers has found, is one look. In Tampa, four months ago at the largest RV show in the country, people formed long, long lines for a chance to peek inside and get the specs.

If they were expecting a glimpse of glitz, given the $600,000 price tag, they were disappointed, Unicat founder Thomas Ritter said.

"We don't spend money on fancy stuff," he said, "because people who are buying these and using them are not looking for gold-plated taps."

The idea, he said, is to build a vehicle with "amazing capabilities that you only use when you need to."

Those capabilities include hauling 35,000 pounds up a 45-degree hill -- and back down again -- fording four feet of water and racking up 2,000 miles without refueling (at 60 mph, expect 8 miles per gallon). The Unicat also comes with doubles of all its major parts and the tools needed for any spot fixes in the wild.

And then there's the desalinization unit, freezer, solar-power panels and air-suspension seats. The floors are teak, Ritter said, because it is a low-maintenance, self-oiling wood that can withstand the extreme changes in temperature and humidity demanded of it.

One of Meyers' first customers was the Loma Linda Medical Center in San Bernadino, Calif. In a territory where mudslides, fires and earthquakes can make roads disappear in an instant, the Unicat's off-road hauling capacity comes in very handy for searches and rescues.

All Petry wanted was to keep traveling the way he and his wife did before they had their three children, all of them still younger than 6. Petry, one of the founders of spam-blocker Postini, was having a hard time taking extended vacations. After all, traveling with three little kids can be a "logistical nightmare," he said.

"And I wanted to travel ad hoc but bring all the comforts of home."

Much like Meyers, another veteran of far-flung travels, Petry looked around for the right vehicle and mostly found "garbage," he said. He stumbled upon a dealer in used European military vehicles and bought a used chassis. He also discovered a whole community of do-it-yourself expedition camper builders.

With some advice from them, and some research of his own, he's devised a plan for customizing an empty shell that he wants to place on the chassis. Some elements, like its solar-power system, will be the same as a Unicat's.

Now that it's summer, Petry's kids "are ready for me to be done with it," he said. "And when I work on it, I have more helpers than I know what to do with!"

More than ever, Petry appreciates the six months it takes a crew of 24 very skilled people to hand-build a Unicat -- his inspiration.

As soon as he can, Petry wants to test out his vehicle -- if his son gets his way it'll be called the Black Pearl -- with a drive north, maybe to some out-of-the-way land in Grass Valley.

Meyers, having already done the Sahara (he shipped his Unicat overseas), is taking off this summer for a trip that will eventually take him and his wife all the way to the tip of South America.

He's become quite adept at handling his Unicat, a very necessary skill.

For, as EarthRoamer spokesman Matt Nakari points out, with the power in these vehicles, "if you back into something, it'll be mashed into little pieces before you know you did it."



With a few hundred of these no-frills land yachts in use around the world -- from the $600,000 top-of-the-line Unicat to the smaller, $200,000 EarthRoamer, plus those home-built models -- extreme RV'ing has become the next big camping thing a for adventure seekers here and abroad. As EarthRoamer spokesman Matt Nakari says, these are people who "do not want to go from one paved pad to another and plug in the satellite TV as soon as they get there."


--Unicat Americas (www.unicatamericas.com) in Palo Alto, Calif.

--EarthRoamer (www.earthroamer.com) in Broomfield, Colo.


Overland Journal, a magazine dedicated to expedition vehicle travel, published its first issue last month.

Trails.com provides detailed maps of roads and trails for off-road vehicles.

Tread Lightly Eco Tours (www.treadlightly.com.au) advises expedition vehicle travelers how to be environmentally savvy.

ExpeditionCampers.com is a bustling compendium of travel tips and vehicle discussions.

RV Extreme is another recent entry into the off-the-concrete-pad travel trend.


(c) 2007, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Visit MercuryNews.com, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at http://www.mercurynews.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): EXTREMERVS

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Newstex ID: KRTN-0036-17403891

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