The trip of a lifetime: the man who traversed the globe in a Mercedes G-Class
One car, 26 years and 899,592 kilometres. Allow those numbers to sink in for a second. They represent a staggering achievement by a German called Gunther Holtorf and his Mercedes-Benz G-Class, affectionately known as Otto. Holtorf and Otto have, literally, travelled the globe on one of the greatest modern adventures.
I meet up with him in Dubai while he’s appearing at the Traveler’s Festival, an event that celebrates the spirit of adventure, and where Otto and his former owner are just two of the fascinating attractions. I say “former owner”, because Holtorf’s exploration days are over, and his hardy G-Class, a diesel-powered G300 built in 1988, has been bought back by Mercedes-Benz, to be used as a publicity tool to show off its engineering capabilities.
After covering the best part of a million kilometres, Otto is still running on its original engine, and has never needed any major work, save from the replacement of a few battered body panels after a rollover in Madagascar.
“There is no way you could do that kind of driving in a new one,” says Holtorf, as he shows me around what was once home to him and his wife, Christine. “This car was built in the late 80s, and is as simple as it gets. With all the electronics and computers in today’s vehicles, it would be impossible to maintain it yourself while in the middle of nowhere.”
Holtorf was born in 1937, in Göttingen, and for a man rapidly approaching 80, he’s remarkably sharp and agile. He has spent his life dedicated to travel in one form or another, having spent his career in the aviation industry. He worked for Lufthansa for 30 years, 20 of them as country manager in key global locations such as Argentina, Hong Kong and Indonesia, before heading up the Hapag-Lloyd Flug shipping company – positions that allowed him to amass the kind of money needed to undertake such an ambitious round-the-world trip after he quit his day job in 1988.
He hands me a map of the world, covered in red lines that outline not only the countries he has driven through in Otto, but the basic routes, too. He hasn’t been everywhere, with notably red-line-free areas including Greenland, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan and Central African Republic – places he says would have been either too dangerous or logistically not feasible. But taking a car to places such as Tonga, Fiji, the Caribbean and even North Korea, must have taken unimaginable sorting. Did he, I ask, have absolutely everything prepared before he set out?
“Not really,” he smiles. “A lot of the time we [he and Christine] made it up as we went along. Having worked in the aviation world for so long, I made a lot of friends and contacts in government bodies all over the world, which helped enormously when it came to getting permissions to enter countries, some of which had never allowed a foreign car across their borders.”
Africa was first, as a trial tour, with Holtorf accompanied by his third wife, Beate. On their return, the couple parted company, and Holtorf refitted Otto to be more accommodating, with extra storage space and a comfortable bed that took up the luggage compartment and rear-seat space. He then placed an advertisement in the personal column of the Die Zeit newspaper in the hope of meeting a like-minded companion. Christine, a single mother from Dresden, replied. They hit it off, and he soon asked her if she fancied doing some exploring.
In November 1990, they set off, again for Africa, with Holtorf having turned 53 and Christine 34, with the intention of spending a few years touring the vast continent. “We always maintained that we wanted to see the reality of every place we visited,” he recalls. “We spent as much time as possible in the wild ... exploring areas that probably had never seen a car before.”
The Sahara was their first destination. “Only 13 per cent of it is sand,” he says. “The rest is rocks, gravel and dry land – there is nothing there; just silence, emptiness. It’s like nowhere else in the world – a magical place.” From there they headed for the reservation parks of West and Central Africa. Holtorf says he never really felt that they were in danger from the wildlife, although they had a close call with an elephant he thought might crush them and the trusty Merc, and a nocturnal visit from a hyena as he slept in a hammock.
What of the dangers posed by armed militia? He says that most of their journeys through countries that today would be impassable were made in more peaceful times. He did, however, experience some hostility from gun-toting nasties, but always managed to get on their good side by virtue of his advanced years and the fact that he always talked and joked with them.
The other pressing danger was illness. “I’ve had malaria five times – I took the pills, and applied a positive mental attitude. You have to when you’re all alone, otherwise you make matters worse. You have to stay positive and focused. But there were some instances when I needed specialist treatment, and we always managed to get that sorted in time.
“We had all the time in the world, you know? We meant to spend two years in Africa, but ended up taking five.”
They did return home, sporadically, but their appetite for seeing the world remained stronger than ever once it was all over at the end of 1995, and South America beckoned. Holtorf was familiar with that part of the world, having spent years there with Lufthansa.
By the time 1997 was drawing to a close, they had visited “everywhere south of the Amazon”, and in January 1998, Otto’s odometer passed the 200,000km mark. “The gauge only reads in five figures,” he says, “so a sticker had to be added to the left of it every time we covered another 100,000km.”
As for spares, he carried “about 400” items that he knew would need replacing either through regular, preventive maintenance or simple wear and tear, most of them in specially made storage boxes carried on Otto’s roof. “I knew the G-Class was extremely well-engineered – that’s why I bought it. The engine is diesel, and yes, it has had its cylinder head removed [in 2004] to see if anything needed repairing or replacing, but everything was perfect. It was pieced back together again, and hasn’t been touched since.
“I filtered fuel before putting it in the tank if I thought the quality was low. I greased all the hinges and locks regularly, and I never went faster than 80kph, always putting the engine under the least amount of stress. I treated it as though it was my grandmother.” From South America, they went to the United States and Canada, before returning to Brazil four years later to complete a 200km section of rainforest that beat them first time around.
Funding for their escapades came from consultancy work that Holtorf carried out on an ad hoc basis. Australasia, Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Europe, were all traversed. Having toured a great deal of the planet, the couple decided to fill in as many gaps as possible on Otto’s global map, which meant the logistical nightmare of getting through places such as the Caribbean. “We managed to get entry permits from the highest government levels. For instance, one of Fidel Castro’s sons worked for the Mercedes distributor in Cuba, and Raúl Castro himself initialled our paperwork.”
During this time, Christine was fighting cancer, and had to spend more time at home in Bavaria. She insisted she wanted to be alone while undergoing treatment. “It was her wish that we carried on the tour, so her son Martin took her place.”
Christine’s final trip was to the United Kingdom in the summer of 2009. She died a year later, in June 2010. After visiting Ireland and Belarus in 2014, Otto’s travelling days were over. Only 16 countries out of 195 remained unvisited. Mercedes bought the car for an amount that Holtorf says matched what he’d spent on it over the years (€450,000, including fuel, spares and ferry costs), and it’s to be exhibited at Mercedes’ museum in Stuttgart.
And what does Holtorf drive now? An E-Class Mercedes he bought in Indonesia in 1978 that he says is reliable and simple to work on. Sometimes that’s all you really need in life.
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Updated: January 14, 2016 04:00 AM