A Trip Around The World : 26 Years, 884000 Km And One Unbreakable Car

Photos: Gunther Holtorf | Source: www.bbc.co.uk

Gunther Holtorf recently completed a 26 year long tour around the world; a fete that has him pegged as one of human history’s greatest individual travelers. For the most part of the journey, he was accompanied by his fourth wife Christine in a Mercedes G-Wagen they had named Otto. What started as an expedition into Africa developed into an 884,000km journey that took him to over 177 countries.


Of the 884,000km an estimated 250,000 kms were off road as the 4×4 was taken across 410 borders outside of Europe. It went in 41 ocean shipping containers and boarded 113 deep-sea ferries. A few breakdowns were inevitable, but nothing so bad that Gunther couldn’t fix. He carried about 400 spare parts in aluminum boxes on the roof of the car just to be sure. Unlike most modern cars, Otto was manufactured before cars went electronic.

“Otto is nothing but nuts and bolts that means I can unscrew the nuts and pull out bolts to repair anything that comes up myself,” he said in 2013. “In any modern car you cannot touch the brakes because it’s all electronically controlled.”


As a result, even after nearly 900,000km Otto still did not consume oil, the engine cylinders had never needed re-lining and the pistons had never been replaced. They were inspected once, in 2004, and found to be fine. After that, the engine was left undisturbed – only the gaskets were changed.

Having spent three decades working in Luftansa he had to travel to over 20 offices overseas. Gunther had always dreamt of traveling the roads that he pondered over at on his trips, and in 1988 he quit his job to do exactly that. Because they began the trip at a time before the internet and social media, Gunther and his wife were under the radar for the majority of their trip.


Initially, the plan was to spend a 18 months traveling the African continent, spending as much time in the wild as possible. With the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Schuman playing from the cassette player of the Mercedes G Wagen, they started by heading for the Sahara desert. They crossed Algeria and Niger from north to south, before taking a right at Zinder and heading for Mali.

After driving for more than 100,000kilometers across the African terrain and suffering 5 bouts of Malaria, they moved on to the Americas.


Growing up in Germany after the end of the second Great War, Gunther never had things come easily and making do with things was a way of life. Surviving off of stuff they bought in the local markets and sleeping in their truck was not an issue. The couple paid for most of their trip themselves. Although sponsorships were offered, they did not take them.

For the last three years of his working life, Gunther had been boss of the air transport division of the Hamburg-based shipping firm Hapag Lloyd. However, once he began his journey, his main source of income was a map of Jakarta.


Holtorf had begun mapping the city as a hobby shortly after taking over as Lufthansa’s Indonesia country manager in 1973. At the time the city was even without street signs. A map was clearly much needed, and after three years’ work in 1977 he published one, the first of its kind. He and Christine added on to the map as they revisited Jakarta for months at a time throughout the 1990s. Eventually, the map became a 450-page atlas. In the mid-1970s four million people lived in the city and surrounding villages. Today Greater Jakarta has a population of 28 million.

Up until 2000, Gunther’s journey was regularly interrupted. Otto spent the entire year of 2000 and much of 2001 in storage in New Jersey. But things picked up from 2005, when for the first time, the car was almost always on the move. They began the year in Libya, the 69th country on the tour. By September they had reached Kazakhstan, their 100th country, and the first in Asia. This was also where Otto clocked in the 500,00km mark.


Christine first encountered health issues in 2003, when doctors diagnosed a benign tumor on the facial nerve. The left side became partially paralysed and the hearing in her left ear deteriorated. She continued to travel. Later, it became clear that the tumor was malignant. This meant that Christine had to spend more time at home, but she urged Gunther to continue. In 2007, Christine’s 27 year old son Martin, who was 10 when she left, joined Gunther on the trip from Jakarta to Europe, via northern Iraq (country 125) and Turkey.

She did make a comeback when Gunther entered the Caribbean. After the Caribbean, Christine mostly stayed at home in Bavaria. She wanted to be alone during courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The last trip she made was to the UK (country 149) in May 2009.


Knowing that Christine wouldn’t be there for long, the couple was able to have honest conversations about what to do after her death. Christine made sure that Gunther continued the trip.

“It was her wish. She asked me to please continue, not forgetting her and to do what I did on her behalf. I am sure that she will be happy to see it – and I do it, for sure, also since she asked for it,” Holtorf said in August 2013, as his journey seemed to be approaching its end.


They had always intended to marry but never got to it, so they tied the know two weeks before Christine passed away. Gunther had adopted Christine’s son many years earlier.

Getting into some countries was difficult, but Gunther always got some help. Entering Cuba might have been an issue, but one of Fidel Castro’s sons worked for the Mercedes distributor, so he signed off the permission with his initials. In St Lucia the matter was discussed in the country’s cabinet, before the green light was given.


Throughout the journey, Gunther faced a lot of obstacles and for each one, his strongest weapon of choice was patience. Instead of bribing his way through he chose to smile and wait, producing a printed copy of his world map, showing the innumerable countries him and Otto had visited over the years, with the roads they had taken drawn in red. He also made sure his papers were always in order.

Every now and again, though, a border presented problems. Crossing from Sudan into Ethiopia, on one occasion, the officials didn’t want to accept the carnet, and the man in charge had gone awol. It took three days to sort out, with Holtorf and Christine eventually agreeing to give a man a lift in return for permission to enter the country. This strategy was occasionally repeated. Once, three soldiers were squeezed into the passenger seat, each carrying a Kalashnikov. On other occasions passengers stood on the rear bumper – but Holtorf always refused to have people sitting on the roof.


Since the start of 2012, Holtorf had been travelling alone, but in Japan he was joined by Elke Dreweck. Holtorf came to know about her husband’s death who was the son of an old friend. After some contemplation, she agreed to join Gunther. Dreweck ended up taking a year off work and journeying with Holtorf across Russia and down the west coast of Africa, culminating in a difficult route on sand from Angola (country 174) into Zambia, with only a map, a compass and a primitive GPS for a guide.

After Dreweck’s return to Germany in mid-2013, Holtorf continued picking off missing countries, including Myanmar (176) and Madagascar (177). In Madagascar, Gunther was involved in his first ever major accident with Otto. While trying to avoid an oncoming vehicle in a narrow path, Otto slipped into a slope that was covered with vegetation. It took a spin and a half before ending its roll pegging itself on its side to a tree.


Gunther was unhurt and crawled out of the upturned G-Wagen. He waited for some help until a French priest, who was passing by, came to his aid. The priest called a policeman and gathered a group of men to guard Otto overnight. In the morning the tree that halted Otto’s fall was chopped down, Otto was allowed to roll on to his wheels. After checking for leaks, Holtorf put the key in the ignition, and turned. Otto started first time.

The body of the car was tilting slightly to one side, apart from that no damage could be seen. Although the end of the journey was close, Gunther decided to have it replaced. He shipped the car back to Europe, where the body of an old G-Wagen was painted and attached to the chassis by only six bolts. The chassis and the engine, the interior of the car, the bonnet and the front section of the body (everything in front of the windscreen) remain just as they were before the accident.


This new, rejuvenated Otto, visited the last two countries of the 26-year tour – Ireland (178) and Belarus (179).

Of the 195 countries recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records, only 16 countries are missing from Otto’s itinerary. Three of them – Chad, Somalia and South Sudan – were not safe enough to visit when Otto was in the vicinity. (South Sudan, of course, only came into existence in 2011.)

Because of logistical reasons, principally time and cost, he was unable to reach three others – the Bahamas, Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe – while the Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda, refused entry.

The remaining nine countries, from the Comoros Islands to Tuvalu, were tiny atolls with barely any roads, so there would have been little point visiting in a car.


The world record for the longest driven journey is held by a Swiss couple who set out in a Toyota Land Cruiser in 1984, four years before Otto was built. But it’s likely that Holtorf and Otto will be awarded the Guinness record for the most countries visited in a single vehicle.

It was only after Gunther’s triumphant arrival to Berlin that he started gaining publicity. It was never his aim to publicize his travels, he felt safer that way. Otto will in due course take pride of place at the Mercedes museum in Stuttgart, with a fee exchanging hands that is likely to reflect the sum Holtorf estimates he has spent on the car over the years – 450,000 euros.

But parting with Otto won’t be too hard. He has another Mercedes at home – a right-hand-drive E class, which he bought in Indonesia in 1978 and took on long journeys in South America in the 1980s.


Friendliest Nation: Holtorf hesitates, and says “Ghana”, then adds, “and Australia”. If it weren’t for the need to sterilise one’s car on entry (at considerable cost in time and money) Australia would be “perfect” he says.

Worst Roads: The worst roads he experienced were in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the potholes were “big enough to swallow Otto whole”, he says.

Worst Toilets: “We have found various degrees of toilet quality on earth,” Holtorf begins. “The worst one was and still is Russia. And the reason is quite straightforward. One of Russia’s social problems is vodka. The male population is just consuming too much vodka and after an extensive consumption of vodka, the toilet control might be a little bit out of control and for those reason toilets particularly public toilets in Russia are in very bad shape.”

He then adds: “Number two is China.”

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