When Gunther Holtorf set out on an 18-month road trip to Africa in 1988, he had no idea his journey would go on for almost three decades. Gunther ended up traveling a whopping 556,000 miles spanning 215 countries in his trusty old car – a Mercedes Benz G Wagon nicknamed ‘Otto’. That’s the equivalent of making two trips from the Earth to the Moon, and then some!
It all started in 26 years ago, when Gunther quit his 30-year service at Lufthansa, met his fourth wife Christine, and together they braved gravel-covered, pothole-ridden roads from their hometown of Bavaria, all the way to Africa. After driving over 62,000 miles across the continent and suffering five bouts of Malaria, they decided to just keep going.
The couple removed the two rear seats in the car in order to make room for a mattress and storage space for clothing, food, tools, spare parts and utensils. After that, there was just no looking back. They made their way through South America, North America, Asia, Australia and Europe, always taking Otto with them wherever they went. In fact, they looked upon their beloved car as the third member of their family.
The couple managed to afford their travels using the little money they had saved up – they purchased food from local markets and slept in their truck. “A sponsorship was always offered, but a sponsorship is never free of charge,” Gunther explained. “I don’t go to hotels or restaurants. Not at all. We shop in local markets and prepare our own food.”
“I met so many people who said they want to do what we did, but when we discuss details, they say: ‘I need my bread rolls and hot coffee in the morning and a private shower and my newspaper.’ We weren’t tourists; we had to bear down and restrict ourselves. Sometimes we lived in very miserable conditions. It requires a hell of a lot of patience.” They had no mobile phones, no blogs, no Facebook or Twitter pages to document their epic journey.
When Christine passed away from cancer in 2010, Gunther decided to carry on, with her picture hanging on the truck’s rear view mirror. “She asked me to please continue, not forgetting her and to do what I did on her behalf,” he said. Interestingly, although Gunther and Christine wanted to marry, they never found the time – they were too busy traveling. They only managed to tie the knot two weeks before Christine died.
A few months after her passing, Christine’s son Martin joined Gunther on a long journey to Sri Lanka, China, and North Korea. In 2012, Gunther found a new companion – 45-year-old Elke Dreweck, who took a year off work and joined him for a trip to Japan. Gunther, now 77, finally ended the epic journey this year at the Brandenburg Gates in Berlin before heading back home to Bavaria. “The more you have traveled, the more you realise how little you have seen,” he said upon his return.
But Gunther insists that Otto is the real hero of this story. “A lot of people have tried to travel everywhere,” he said. “I’m just another traveler, but the car, the car is special. Otto is the most traveled vehicle on earth.”
Out of the 556,000 miles, approximately 155,000 were off road – across 410 borders outside Europe. The car has been inside 41 ocean shipping containers and has boarded 113 deep-sea ferries. Otto has endured temperatures as low as -27 degrees Celsius in Serbia and as high as 50 degrees Celsius near Alice Springs, Australia. It has also gone as far as the Mount Everest base camp, 5,200 meters above sea level.
Otto is a celebrity in its own right, and its final resting place will now be at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. Apart from reinforced suspension, the car is completely standard and still has the original gearbox, engine and axles. Its three-liter diesel engine develops a modest 88bhp. “I promise there will be a G-Class in the future,” said Dr Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz Cars. “Will there be more characters of Mr. Holtorf’s ilk in the future? I hope so.”
“It’s not about me being remembered,” Gunther insisted. “I want Otto to be remembered, and so would my late wife. The car belongs in a museum. The car will continue to live – that’s what I want to see. It’s not me that’s special; it’s the car.”
Photos: Gunther Holtorf