Sausage salad. She sometimes misses this on her travels. With a lovely sour dressing. Gabriele Gerner-Haudum laughs and clears strands of blonde hair from her face. She is seated at her wooden kitchen table in Munich, which has an African leopard-pattern tablecloth, showing photos of her road trip through Asia. The travel photographer leafs through her memories from over 20 countries. She’s looking for the perfect moment, a photo that expresses the magic of 540 days on the road. The essence of Asia, so to speak. Difficult. More than half of the world’s population lives there, and at 44.6 million square kilometres, the continent is the earth’s largest in area.
Close-up: Gabriele Gerner-Haudum from Munich leans against her Bock.
River crossing: Bridges can be somewhat shaky in Kashmir.
Gaby, as she likes to be called, looks pretty hip in her home with a Buddha wall painting, exotic tiles and cupboard handles made of driftwood from faraway countries. She wears biker boots and drinks coffee. The welcoming smile is genuine, the handshake vigorous. There is a converted police truck in the yard. She calls the LA 911 “short-hood” Bock. (“Bock” means “ram” in German.)
“I certainly didn’t inherit my longing to see the world from my family,” says Gaby, whose travels were once limited to camping trips by a lakeside near Berlin with her parents, elder sister, younger brother and the family dachshund. The siblings would argue on the rear seat, the dachshund would doze in the front passenger footwell and in the tent at night, Gaby would dream of the ends of the earth.
“I love the feeling of being able to get away at any time,” says the 59-year-old, defining her own understanding of being carefree and independent. “I’m not really the type to save for a mortgage, I prefer to live now,” she adds after a brief pause, characterising herself as the opposite to her relatives, who are almost all working as civil servants and, in her view, live more organised lives.
So if she woke up tomorrow morning and wanted to drive to Cape Town in her Mercedes-Benz, or on her motorbike, she would do it. Her husband, Christian, understands. The two have been a couple for 35 years. “Christian lets me be as I am. Whenever his job in the IT sector allows, he travels with me.”
Gaby tells me about her husband, who left his permanent job at the time to go on the one-and-a-half year tour of Asia.
How did it all come about? After a world tour and a long journey through western Africa the following year, the couple decided to explore Asia. “We had dreamed of having a Mercedes-Benz truck for a long time, and I had already bought a Mercedes-Benz L 710 short-hood in an online auction. At first, Christian thought I was joking, but he came with me when I collected it at the Dutch border. I drove it all the way back home, and I felt I was queen of the world.” However, the cab was not high enough for Christian. They needed a truck that suited them both.
Challenge: one of the world’s most dangerous pass roads – “the Manali-Leh Highway”.
“As soon as we collected the LA 911, we fell in love with it,” says Gaby, who promptly set about the conversion work. The months spent converting the interior are among her fondest memories. After christening the result with sparkling wine, the two set off for Istanbul. “The first few weeks were rather a trial, and living in a confined space of only ten square metres got on our nerves. We were always looking for something: the can-opener, charging cable or rain jacket. When we arrived in Asia and entered a new continent, a feeling of remoteness and unreality overcame us. Indescribable,” says Gaby, who drives the Mercedes-Benz LA 911 as if she had never done anything else in her life.
“I always wanted to drive a truck, and when I read the words ‘man’s toy’ in the advertisement for the online auction I was so annoyed that this expression alone was reason enough for me to buy the LA 911 and briskly drive it out of the yard.” In 1959, Daimler-Benz unveiled a new generation of trucks, with the engine no longer in full length ahead of the cab, and the LA 911 is one of the light- to medium-duty trucks offered until 1995. Gaby’s truck, produced in 1980, quickly became her favourite photo motif. “Photography has always interested me,” says Gaby, a qualified graphic designer who created exhibition stands for many years.
Paddling one-handed: a fisherman on Inle Lake in Myanmar.
Record-holder: The U Bein Bridge in Myanmar is the world’s oldest and longest teak wood bridge.
She will turn 60 in November, and looking back, she does not regret one second of her life. Keep travelling and be free: “Freedom is the most important thing for me. I don’t want to live in any kind of straitjacket, with my life determined by others. On Mondays many people look forward to the weekend, and at the weekend they look forward to their holidays. Every day I prefer to be happy that I’m making the best of my life.” Whenever she tells somebody about her next journey, and is asked if she is afraid of falling ill in a foreign country, she always gives a short answer: “No.” Fear is not in her vocabulary. Which means that she sometimes gets into discussions with border guards when entering countries that are not exactly democratic: “As I have a strong aversion to arbitrary decisions, border formalities with me sometimes take a more unconventional course.
For example, I tell the officials to take off their shoes before entering my truck. After all, it’s my living room and bedroom. After a few minutes of discussion, they are usually so exasperated that they simply wave me through.”
During their 50,000 kilometres through Asia, the pair otherwise only attracted positive attention, with locals inviting them into their homes. Many wanted to see the interior of the vehicle. “Our LA 911 looks so friendly, with a front like a smiling face. For many people in Asia, this is as exotic an image as if a caravan of camels were to pass through the inner city here in Munich.” She has long lost count of how many people she has helped to come on board her short-hood.
Gaby begins to smile, and comes up with a story that gives her goosebumps. Long before she fell in love with the short-hood, she was looking for a Unimog. When she found one on the Internet, she went and inspected it. The seller lived just around the corner. “In the end, I decided that the Unimog was too small for me, but somehow I couldn’t get it out of my head.” One day, on another of her extreme tours, Gaby was sitting at the roadside in Buenos Aires observing the hubbub of people, cars and scooters. Then it drove past her – the Unimog from back then, in beige-blue with a Munich license plate. She shakes her head in disbelief and grins.
Meeting of giants: On the way, the globetrotter encounters the very same Unimog she once wanted to buy.
“I soon found out what couple in Munich had bought the Unimog, as we travellers have good contacts with each other.” Months went by, and Gaby had long since moved on: 17,000 kilometres to Cambodia as the crow flies. She encountered the very same Unimog again, this time by arrangement with the other south German couple. The bond between travellers is a very special one. “In the Gobi Desert we met up with ‘Fat Elke’ and ‘Loki’, the names of the vehicles owned by two other couples with whom we had made friends. We promptly formed the China Gang touring group, and spent the next few weeks together.”
Gaby and Christian quickly realised how interested and open-hearted the local people were. “If I have learned anything from my travels to date, it’s this: in other cultural surroundings, you should never assume that anything is the same as at home,” says Gaby, who has been awoken from sleep more than once by curious Chinese locals knocking on the door. She opened the door and a young couple wanted to have a brief look inside the converted truck. Of course, you can! Our globetrotter is also used to answering the same questions again and again: where she comes from, where she is going, how many children she has. “Somewhere along the line I invented two children, as a life without children is regarded as completely senseless in all countries east of Turkey.”
Ships of the desert: encounter between camel humps and a short-hood in the Karakum Desert.
Rice fields: lush green and great heat in Laos.
Gaby continues to leaf through the photo albums and the gallery on her laptop. No, there is no such moment, no photo that captures the essence of their road trip through Asia. “The journey was magical from start to finish,” she says, looking out of the window into the yard. Bock is standing there in his green paint finish. She quietly sighs, and closes the photo album and laptop. Later on, when she is alone, she will plan a new tour. The longing for faraway places has taken hold again. The world awaits her.