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From the bottom to the top.

Lignite mining in Lusatia in eastern Germany relies on the new Unimog with its extreme off-road capability.

Digging their way through mud, slush and rain, the thick Michelins on the Unimog have done an excellent job of softening up the ground at the open-cast mine in Nochten in the last days of January. The site, situated to the west of the village of Weisswasser in Saxony, mines around 100,000 tonnes of lignite every day.

Ronny Fischer and his colleague have got the last barrel of drilling fluid on their trailer. The early mowing shift is almost over for today. The freshly prepared "soup" is needed at one of the filtering wells, of which some 1000 have been drilled here. "The wells are drilled for dewatering, because it is vital to keep the mining site free from water. There are 7000 litres in the barrel on the trailer, which now has to be taken from the central liquid treatment plant to Reichwalde, Feldriegel 30 – not a problem today, although no easy undertaking recently owing to black ice. "Without the tyre pressure control system, we would have probably got stuck all the time."

"On one occasion, I actually had to unhitch the trailer, but I could even turn it on my own, the ground was so slippery." In his capacity as "foreman for drilling equipment and stabilisation", his official job title, Ronny Fischer supplies the "drillers" with all the equipment they need – core barrels, drill rods – sometimes also a heavy press capable of exerting a force of up to 20 tonnes if there's nothing else for it and a drill rod has once again become hopelessly stuck. In addition, the contaminated drilling fluid has to be extracted from the pits. "So our 5023 is equipped with not only the loading crane, but also a rear PTO shaft for driving the vacuum pump at the site. We then take the full barrels back to the central liquid treatment plant – everything works in a cycle," he explains, as he nudges the steering column gearshift to tell the 231-hp diesel to change up to the next-higher gear. The fleet comprises over 80 Unimogs according to Frank Schroeckh, responsible at Vattenfall Europe Mining AG for process management and optimisation. Four in total, the mining sites are between 18 and 68 km apart. "The majority of our Unimogs are of the UHE model. We use them wherever a normal vehicle would get stuck."

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Legendary: the "Black Pump" – monitored by a U 5023.

Such as at the Brandenburg open-cast mine at Welzow-South, which supplies lignite mainly to the Schwarze Pumpe (Black Pump) power station. Here, no fewer than four Unimog 5023s are used as monitoring vehicles for the belt conveyors. As there are two pre-cutters working in parallel, the spoil passes over two belt conveyors, which need to be monitored and maintained round the clock. Driver Jens Reiber monitors one of the belt conveyors, which is 13 km long, covering between 40 and 100 km depending on the shift. Twice per shift, the belt has to be subjected to a close visual inspection. To rectify any problems – in the worst case, to cool down an overheating pulley – he has all kinds of tools on board: spades and scoops as well as crowbars and tow ropes. "The red crate on the platform contains the fire extinguisher together with a pressure cartridge. Fortunately, that seldom gets used." The bottom side of the belt is supported by so-called paper chains, interconnected pulley units. They wear out quickly. Jens Reiber makes a note of any suspicious components and replaces them en bloc the next repair day. "On average, we need to change around 100 pieces every repair day." Unlike their counterparts in Nochten, all four "baBs", low-user-operation belt monitoring vehicles, roll on 24-inch 445/70 Michelin XM 47s with an agricultural tread. Also, they have no tyre pressure control system.

"Two vehicles are always on the move, with the other two on standby. The braking system wears out quickly due to the operating conditions, so we use encapsulated brakes with polyurethane sealing lips. Although the service life varies, the Unimogs are ideally equipped for this kind of work. With a fording depth of up to 1.2 m, even the deepest water hole poses no threat," explains Schroeckh, who knows the area here, to the west of the River Spree near Spremberg, like the back of his hand. Driver Jens Reiber, who is over 1.80 m tall, also values his yellow diesel-engined workhorse for some of its other attributes. "It's not just the off-road capability and simple, ergonomic operation. In contrast to its predecessors, it's also convenient for taller people. Apart from that, the U 5023 is comfortable and well sprung."

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