To the ends of the earth with the G-Class.
Twenty-six years to reach a goal.
Gunther Holtorf used to be a manager. Then he dropped out and decided to travel to all the countries in the world. After 26 years he has reached his goal. The story of a big adventure – and a great love.
Late one morning, “Otto” motors calmly through Lithuania towards Kamenny Log, the border town to Belarus. The September sun is shining, the road is straight as a die, and there is hardly a car to be seen. Who wants to go to Belarus?
Gunther Holtorf does. In the best of moods, he sits at the wheel of his blue Mercedes SUV that he has called “Otto” for many years: “I’ve got a good feeling,” he says, in his slightly rough voice. His white hair is cropped short and his blue eyes sparkle under his bushy eyebrows. You wouldn’t think he was 77 in spite of his wrinkles. The Belarusians have turned down his application twice before. “This time,” he says, “it’s going to be OK.”
Together through thick and thin.
Often Belarus, a former Soviet republic, is called the last dictatorship in Europe, a country where the press is as unfree as the elections. But Holtorf is not concerned about politics. Belarus is the country he still needs to finish his long journey.
The journey is an attempt to visit all the countries in the world where you can drive a car. All in the same car, note, which is now 26 years old and with an output of only 88 diesel horsepower. Holtorf has driven almost 900,000 kilometres in his car. Together they have conquered deserts, got stuck in mud, defied danger and gone through 214 countries, autonomous areas and territories. Their entry in the “Guinness Book of Records” is already in the planning.
Belarus is to be country number 215. Holtorf drives the car slowly up to the first of many barriers that are to hold him up over the next three and a half hours. “If you want to do a journey like this, you need patience, calm and especially a really deep, genuine friendliness,” he says, looking at the surly border guards.
How it all began.
The big adventure began in 1988, at a time when everything was changing. Holtorf resigned as managing director of the Hapag-Lloyd Flug charter airline. The board of directors had turned down his plans to set up an inner-German network of scheduled flights. After a long career, including as Lufthansa country director in Argentina, Chile, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Uruguay, followed by six years settled in Hanover, Holtorf had had enough for a while and wanted to get out into the wide world. And he wanted to do it properly. He bought the SUV from a dealership in Oldenburg – a demonstration vehicle for 50,000 Deutschmarks. Holtorf called it Otto because that was what he always called friends’ children.
He set off for Africa with his third wife. They married shortly before they set off in Kenya in December 1988. But being together day and night and constantly close to each other soon became a problem. In April 1989 they both returned to Germany – and divorced. Holtorf was 51.
Seeking female travelling companion.
The yearning for Africa, which still stayed with him, and the feeling of freedom he had had there. He wanted to go back. But not on his own. So in the autumn of 1989, when the Iron Curtain fell, he put an ad in the “Zeit” weekly newspaper looking for a partner to go travelling with him. He found Christine. She was an admin employee in Dresden, and she saw the advert when she was visiting Berlin – and replied.
Together they kitted the car out for the journey: they threw out the rear seats and fitted a wooden plank halfway up the load compartment in the rear. At the top they fitted mattresses cut to shape, a little cramped but comfortable. Underneath there was space for the kitchen, food supplies, clothes, tools and spare parts. Anything that was rarely needed was put on the roof in boxes. In autumn 1990 they set off on their trip and went back to Africa. This time, the relationship lasted.
At home in the world.
The two years they had planned turned into five, and when they arrived back at the Cape of Good Hope together, they simply packed the car into a container and sent it on to South America. This was followed by North America, Asia, Australia and Europe. They slept in the car almost every night and cooked on the gas stove on a plank fixed to one of the rear bumpers. They roughed it. Holtorf removed the air conditioning himself and gave it to a Kenyan mechanic. Since then a window has always been open.
The two did not need much money. They lived off their savings, his pension and the proceeds of the sale of a street map of Jakarta. Holtorf published it in 1977 with his own publishing company – with his own graphics. Eventually it was a 400-page city atlas with 150,000 copies. Every so often they would fly to Indonesia for a few weeks to update it. They only returned to Germany sporadically as they no longer had a place to live there.
A feeling of freedom.
Holtorf no longer knows when the idea of going to all the countries in the world first arose. But when even remote, isolated countries such as Bhutan, Brunei or Saudi-Arabia allowed the couple to enter together with Otto, the great aim suddenly seemed more attainable. The whim became a plan.
“We often just stood in front of the map and set new goals. That’s an incredible feeling of freedom: you look at a continent like Africa and you can go anywhere you want,” says Holtorf. His eyes are sparkling. “Plans like that were incredibly motivating. We wanted to go where other people didn’t want to go.”
A journey with hitches.
Particularly socialist countries made themselves difficult for the couple to visit: China, Cuba, Myanmar and of course North Korea. Often it was months or years before they were allowed in – and often with absurd restrictions: in China they had to be escorted by a car with two guards for months, and in North Korea they even had three guards. Also, thousands of traffic police were issued with photos. They were to be able to identify the car immediately from their checkpoints on the route which had been precisely planned and had to be adhered to to the minute. And all of that in spite of the fact that Kim Jong Il, the now late “eternal general secretary” of North Korea, had approved the trip.
The G-Class – a trusty companion.
Holtorf drove his car gently over the long distance. He did an oil change every 5000 kilometres, replaced spare parts before they wore out and rarely drove faster than 80 km/h. The engine and transmission showed him their gratitude in that they never needed replacing. “With one of today’s models that wouldn’t be possible any more,” he believes. “Too many electronic parts, too many fancy extras.” The Mercedes G-Class has been built for 35 years now with virtually no change. But the modern versions have little in common with Holtorf’s car: some have an output of over 600 hp and cost a quarter of a million euros.
If you ask Holtorf if everything went OK on his journey of discovery, he says, “yes” without a second thought. Forget bad experiences and make the most of things. That’s the sort of person he is.
But of course, those 26 years were not without their problems: a roll-over in Madagascar, for example, when a truck pushed them off the road last May. Or the eight malaria attacks which they normally fell prey to when they were deep in the jungle; the infection that almost cost him a foot in East Africa, the dislocated shoulder in Sudan that he had to drive for hundreds of kilometres with to get to the next hospital. Oh, yes, and the hyena that paid him a visit one night in his hammock, with its sharp teeth only inches from his face. “Everything went fine,” says Holtorf.
Only his wife did not do so well. In 2003 she contracted cancer. The couple interrupted their journey time and again to return to Germany for therapy, returning to where they had left off. They left the car standing somewhere around the world. But right to the end Christine Holtorf travelled with her husband. For two decades, at countless frontiers, they had sworn they were married. In 2010 they married officially, a few days before she died.
When Gunther Holtorf sits in his car now, he talks a lot about his wife. She provided a lot of the fittings. Four years after she died, he still stops to pick flowers and stick them between the fingers of a Monchichi figure that hangs from the rear-view mirror. “Christine used to make sure there were fresh ones every day,” he says. What's more: “I promised her that I’d complete the journey in her name.”
The world map – the most important piece of equipment on board.
“The map is more important than my passport or visa,” he says. He often gives copies away. He uses it to make everyone part of his project, to help him break the record: the Belarusian customs official or the corrupt chief of police in Liberia, who laughed at first when Holtorf ceremoniously gave him his map instead of banknotes. Then he ran his finger along the lines, asked to look at the car and at the end gave Holtorf a farewell hug. And then there were the nervous soldiers of the presidential guard in Cameroon, who first accused Holtorf of spying, but then relaxed when they saw the map. How could a man like that be a spy, they must have thought. He had already been everywhere.
Or almost everywhere, because in those 26 years there were three African countries whose borders Holtorf did not manage to cross: Chad, Somalia and South Sudan. All three were always too dangerous, or embroiled in civil war, or sealed off. Also, Holtorf omitted island states such as the Maldives, Nauru or Tuvalu. There were not enough roads there, even for him.
“You can go.”
The Belarusian customs official has studied the map for a long time. Then she asks some friendly questions: “Why are there two spare tyres on the roof?” – “I need them,” says Holtorf. “They’re compulsory.” She grins, because she knows that is not true. Then she places a hand on his arm confidentially and asks: “Have you got any drugs?” Holtorf, almost a head shorter than she is and bent over from all that travelling, looks up at her and says theatrically: “Oh no – and no pornography either!” Then she has to laugh. Finally, her colleague hands the papers through the window and says, “You can go.”
Holtorf presses the accelerator gently and drives across the border. He strokes the dashboard as he goes. “Otto baby, you’re in Belarus,” he says. “Well done.” He has grown as fond of the blue SUV as if it were human. He has spent more time in it than with his daughter from his first marriage, who lives in Frankfurt. And more time than with Martin, Christine’s son, whom he has adopted. Martin went to boarding school while his parents were travelling. “That was pushing it a bit,” Holtorf admits. All the same, the children have a good relationship with their globe-trotting father. After his mother died, Martin travelled with him through East Asia and the south Pacific for a long time.
The end of an unforgettable adventure.
The next day, the car drives on sandy tracks through little Belarusian villages. Here and there, Holtorf stops to take photos of particularly pretty wooden houses. Immediately the local people run to meet him: Victor, Wanda, Sergei – they all bend over the map in fascination and offer him tea and food. Holtorf has experienced it before: in most villages, his car with its expedition trunks and patina of distant countries is like a spaceship landing there. The local people take photos, tap on the metal bodywork and gesture to wish him luck. Everyone who listens to the story Holtorf has to tell starts to travel with him in thoughts. There are countless reports in the local media about him, the German who has travelled so far with his Otto. He is better known abroad than back at home.
At the end of a day travelling in Belarus, Holtorf says something unexpectedly that shows just how he is feeling: “Otto hasn’t got much longer to live,” he says, referring to the fact that the car’s last journey will be to the museum. On 11 October he is planning to hand the key to the Head of Daimler, Dieter Zetsche. For Holtorf, it is an honour, yet he still knows it will be the end of his journey. The man from Göttingen who has seen the world will move into a house on the Chiemsee.
How about the Crimea?
But the car has yet to get to Germany. Holtorf looks at the map spread out in front of him. It extends from Belarus in the west to Vladivostok on the Pacific. “I think I’ll go back via Kiev,” he says. Short pause. “And I fancy going to the Crimea.”
Jan Boris Wintzenburg has been in contact with Gunther Holtorf since the beginning of 2012. He was fascinated by the stories Gunther had to tell about his travels. At the end of September the Stern reporter travelled to Belarus with Holtorf – and slept in the SUV himself for a week.