Gunther Holtorf has been living in his car for the better part of the last 23 years. He has driven 823,000 kilometers, a quarter of that on unpaved roads, all in a 1988 Mercedes G Wagon he calls “Otto,” across 172 sovereign countries, 17 dependent territories, six special territories, and five de-facto states. He’s driven to Tibet, Mt. Everest, Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan during periods of conflict, and became the first Westerner to drive in North Korea last year. He’s never been robbed and insists he’s never paid a bribe.
Holtorf travels without a suitcase and has no mobile phone, no blog, no Facebook or Twitter pages—no electronics of any kind. He has rebuffed potential sponsors because he doesn’t want logos on his car. Holtorf doesn’t patronize hotels or restaurants; he sleeps in a makeshift bed in Otto’s backseat and cooks food he buys in local markets.
On January 10, Holtorf, 75, will leave his native Germany for his final voyage, which will take him to nine of the 10 countries in the world he has yet to visit. But when asked if his final voyage will confirm that he’s the world’s greatest living traveler, he scoffs.
“A lot of people have tried to travel everywhere,” he says. “I’m just another traveler, but the car, the car is special. Otto is the most traveled vehicle on earth.”
Holtorf says that Otto has never had a breakdown and still runs on its original transmission. But his travels haven’t been without a cost. Holtorf and his late wife Christine left their son, Martin, then 10, with an aunt for what was supposed to be an 18-month trip across Africa in 1989.
“But the more we traveled, the more we realized how little we’d seen,” he says, and so they kept going, putting Martin in a boarding school.
And Holtorf continued to travel, even after his wife was stricken with cancer and became too sick to continue because that’s what she wanted. On his final voyage, Holtorf is traveling with a lady friend who is also a widower. We caught up with Holtorf from his home in Gollenshausen, Germany, just before his departure to ask him about his life on the road.
What did you do before leaving home on this remarkable journey back in 1988?
I represented Lufthansa in various countries as a country director. At the end of my professional life I was the CEO of an airline based in Germany that had 25 aircraft. I was 51 when I quit my job. I lived overseas for 20 years in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina.