The World’s Greatest Traveler: A 1988 Mercedes That Has Been to 172 Countries
Gunther Holtorf, a 75-year-old former airline CEO who has driven more than 820,000 kilometers over the past two decades, doesn't care if you remember his travels. But you better respect Otto, his G Wagon that will be placed in a museum if it makes it through this final leg.
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.
The airline was becoming too big to be run by one person, so I said to myself, “I can continue doing this 24/7 kind of job until the end of my life, or I’ll do something else.” I also produced the first-ever city map of Jakarta back in 1974 and it has grown into one of the largest street atlases on earth.
What was your original plan when you quit your job and hit the road?
My (late) wife and I left Germany in December 1988. The plan was for us to just cross Africa from north to south, for a year and a half or two years.
That was the plan. This was before mobile phones, Internet, and email. It was pretty basic. Soon enough we realized that a couple of years would not be sufficient. So with a couple of short interruptions, we stayed in Africa for five years.
Five years in Africa? And then you just kept going?
Then we decided to take the car down to South America to have at least a basic tour through the continent. Step by step it grew into a world tour. We never planned it, we just grew into it. We zigzagged around South America and then considered taking the car up to Panama by ship, because there is no road.
So we did that and then continued from Panama through Central America, into North America, all the way to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, into Canada, and up to Goose Bay, the port city of Labrador and beyond.
So far, you’ve traveled more than 800,000 kilometers?
Yeah, 823,000, with more than 200,000 of that on unpaved roads—off-road, shitty gravel, corrugation, whatever you have; 200,000 kilometers—that’s five times the equator.
How many countries have you visited?
So far 200 countries and territories. If a territory has it’s own currency our legal situation, like Hong Kong, we count that.
Where haven’t you been?
I’m missing a few countries in West Africa, which we could not visit because of civil war or landmines. We want to visit these countries now on the way back to Europe before the car enters the museum. We have about 10 more countries to go.
What’s your route for this last big voyage?
The car will be shipped to South Korea and then to Bangkok, Thailand. And hopefully, get the permit to enter into Burma in early January. Over the last 15-20 years, there haven’t been any foreign vehicles in Burma. After Burma, we’ll return to Thailand, driving to Singapore via Malaysia and then shipping from Singapore to Mauritius, then Madagascar, and from Madagascar into South Africa, and then Namibia, Angola up to the north, finishing in Germany. The plan is to finish by August 2013.
You must have a ridiculous amount of stamps in your passport?
Passport? I have four active passports in use at the same time and I just applied for a 5th. One is full, one has one or two pages free, another one two or three pages free. The last one I got last year, it has 42 pages and it’s also nearly full. I have a huge stack of old passports, 12 or 15 of them at least.
How have you financed all these years on the road?
My backbone was the mapping business. I always tried to save money, so I was able to accumulate quite a bit to be able to travel. But I told you, I don’t go to hotels or restaurants. Not at all. We shop in local markets and prepare our own food. By doing that we spend much less than we spend in Europe.
So what kind of budget are we talking about?
In the early ’90s, when we were traveling in Africa, our monthly budget was 1,000 Deutsche Marks, which was about 500 Euros, covering everything—fuel for the car, visa charges, and any side costs, food everything. Fuel was much cheaper then than it is now.
Driving through Siberia and all these places, your cost is fuel, it’s not food. When I travel in Africa now I think I will spend about 800 Euros per month, not counting visas.
And how much do you spend on bribes to get the car from one developing country to the next?
I have never paid one penny or one centavo in bribes. Never, never. But you need to invest a lot of patience. Patience is number one. Number two you have to keep your documents clean. And number three, I use my world map as a door opener. With that map, people realize that the car they are dispatching at the border is not a normal tourist car. It opens many doors.
Tell me about your car, Otto?
The car was built in July 1988. It cost 30,000 Euros. I’m still driving it. It’s not only the same car; it’s the same car with the same components. It has the original gearbox—never touched, never opened. The original transfer case—never touched, never opened. And also the original axles and differentials. It now has exactly 823,000 kilometers.
The aim is to continue now and complete the tour with the car in its original shape. Mercedes Benz wants to take the car and put it in their museum in Stuttgart after the journey is over.
So are you being sponsored by Mercedes now?
Mercedes would have been the prime sponsor but other companies have approached me also. But I never considered accepting these opportunities because they all wanted something in return. Normally they want to plaster the car with stickers like a Formula One car. Which would not be appropriate for security reasons.
But Mercedes is going to buy Otto to put it in a museum when the tour is over?
Certainly, but I’m not sponsored by them; I’m a private man doing a private tour. It’s only a liaison with them.
So you haven’t made any money from your travels?
No, not at all. I’ve paid for every spare part at the normal price.
How do you transport Otto from one continent to the next?
Shipping has been the biggest problem, the biggest headache and most expensive part of the tour. It’s been in a shipping container 36 times from one corner of the world to another. That’s a pretty abrasive exercise each time.
For the first 15 years of the tour, we had to continue with my Jakarta mapping business, so we’d have to put the car in storage and go to Jakarta to work on the mapping business, and then go back to get the car again and continue. So during those years, we traveled for at least two-thirds of the year.
Did you ever ride with Otto on the cargo ships?
A couple of times I got the chance to join Otto as a paying passenger on these ships, but most of the time they don’t accept passengers.
And did you keep your home in Germany?
We kept a home—it isn’t owned, it’s a rented home. My son lived in it at times. Friends stayed there, too, but normally it was empty.
Tell me about your style of travel?
The way we live, the way we drive is adventure style. We do not stay in hotels or eat in restaurants. We sleep in the car or in hammocks. Africa was mostly hammocks. The last few years I’ve mostly been sleeping in the car. We do our own cooking. And normally we stay overnight somewhere in the bush, the wilderness.
Doesn’t that get old?
The advantage is that you sleep in the same bed every night. It’s that same peculiar smell you have each night. Our mattress in the back of the car is the size of a French double bed. People always ask, “How can you sleep in the car?” because it looks quite small from the outside. But since it’s a boxy car, you can use all the space inside. It’s much bigger than you’d assume.
We keep the hatchback open to get breeze, and there’s a sliding roof. We keep it open depending on the security situation. Last year, after my wife passed away in June 2010, my son joined me in China and in Tibet. We were at 17 or 18,000 feet to the Base Camp at Everest. At night it was down to minus-10 centigrade. That’s about 15 Fahrenheit. The water containers were solid frozen ice, so it was pretty cold, but we have sleeping bags, blankets. We are prepared for the heat; we are prepared for the cold. That’s no problem.
So when did you arrive back home in Germany?
I arrived back in Germany on September 2. I drove from Tokyo to Hokkaido and from there to the east Siberian Russian island of Sakhalin, to the mainland of Russia and then all the way back home. It took exactly one month. It was about 15,000 kilometers. I’ve done that route west to east before and now I did it east to west. I wanted to get the car to Europe to give it an overhaul for the last leg of the tour.
What’s the point of spending years on the road? Why did you keep going?
The plan was just to travel to Africa, nothing more. But step-by-step, we grew into it. But the more you travel, the more you realize how little you’ve seen. And the more you’ve seen and experienced, the more you want to continue seeing and continue experiencing.
But what it is you’re searching for?
It’s difficult to say. I’m not addicted to it; I’m definitely not. I’m very glad to be at home. I like the place where I live. I realize now how good I have it at home after having seen all the shitty, negative places, all the overpopulated places all around the world. The unbelievably big cities where people don’t live next to each other but right on top of each other. I’m glad to be back here in Germany where we have space, security, oxygen, and peace.
In the small village I live in, in the state of Bavaria, people have their milk farms, they are hippies, they don’t want to travel anywhere and they don’t envy me. They’re happy. They’re settled and happy with what they have. They don’t want to travel because they realize they live in one of the best places on earth, aside from the bad weather.
When I talk to them and tell them my stories they are even more convinced that they are living in the right spot on earth. They respect what I’m doing, but they don’t envy me. They are rooted where they are.
Travel really always inspired me. I like to travel. I like to meet people. I’m curious to see different countries. But I also very much appreciate and I’m happy to be at home. I’m not a man who likes to join a tour group. My wife and I always said, “We like to go where other people don’t go.”
Is that your traveling philosophy?
The world is overpopulated and the tourist industry has sent too many people to too many places. We go to the famous places—Niagara Falls, the Taj Mahal—but exploring the globe means you have to look behind the curtain. You have to visit the small villages. Big cities all over the Third World are very much alike. But in the countryside, it’s a different world.
Traveling in the developing world can be exhausting though. How did you maintain your desire to keep going?
German people, they like to strive for perfection. So when we started, it was just Africa. Then we put our noses in South America and North America. Then we said, Well, we have the car, we really should see Australia and New Zealand, so we did that, and we grew into it. Then we kept saying, Well, why should we miss this or that? So last year my son and I even went to the South Pacific.
I had never been there. To travel with your own vehicle, the shipping is difficult, but you have a great deal of flexibility with your own car. We have been in every country on earth except a few in West Africa, plus Burma, Mauritius, and Madagascar.
What about Afghanistan and Iraq?
We visited Afghanistan four or five years ago during the war. Also Iraq. We entered Afghanistan from Tajikistan. There was a ferry across the river, we were the only car on it and we entered into Kunduz province, Mazar e Sharif. We toured the north, went to Kabul, stayed a few days, then crossed the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and then continued.
I wasn’t concerned at all. There were lots of soldiers and strange people but there and even in Iraq, they are big countries and even during war they are living normal lives. They have to use the toilet, the telephone, do their shopping in the morning, and so on. Normal business is continuing there and that’s not being shown on TV.
You traveled for years with your wife. Did she continue to travel after she got sick?
Christine was my second wife. She suffered from cancer for seven years and she really suffered near the end. During the first couple of years it was difficult, but we could still travel and she could enjoy it, but over the last 10 or 12 months it really went bad and she was unable to join in.
Were you traveling when she was diagnosed or were you back in Germany?
The diagnosis we got over the years. It starts slowly, so the diagnosis was initially misleading. The real diagnosis came about three to four years before she died.
And you kept traveling during this time?
Oh, yes. She died in June 2010 and we traveled the whole Caribbean during the first months of 2008, and even after that in 2009, we traveled to Europe and a few other countries but it was a little bit on and off.
And then she had to stay home?
She had to stay home temporarily starting in 2008, but even after that she got treatments and the forecast wasn’t too bad, so she joined in here and there.
Did you keep traveling alone?
She stayed in Germany and underwent treatment and I stayed with her, and once the treatment was nearly complete, I continued traveling. I couldn’t leave the car unattended somewhere on the outskirts of the world, so I had to go back. She asked me to do it, she wanted me to go back on the road and she planned to join in again. It was a little bit back and forth up and down situation but at the end it was down, down.
You keep her photo in your car?
Certainly. When you live in a car for nearly 20 years, it’s not a normal situation of a couple living in a home. Living in the car, and doing all that travel over all those years is like living as Siamese twins. When you travel like that, you can’t say, “I’m going to go read a book in the garden.” You are stuck together, 24 hours a day. The only splits would be if one of us went shopping, or if you go behind a tree to use a toilet. You are bound to be together.
And who else has traveled with you?
There are four names on my world map signifying who has been on the tour. Me, Christine, my son, Martin, and the fourth name is Elke Dreweck. She joined me in Tokyo and spent a few weeks with me. She will join me for the last leg of the tour.
Is she a friend or a girlfriend?
She knew my wife. It was by coincidence that our tracks crossed. Her husband passed away about a year ago, so we are sort of in the same boat. She’s German, and she has unpaid leave now for nine months from her job. So we’ll do it together.
How old was your son, Martin, when you left for your trip in ‘89?
He was pretty young; that was a difficult situation for him, but we managed. He stayed with family members and later on went to boarding school. But in the end, it was good for him. He was nine or 10 when we left. My wife’s sister took care of him with some other friends.
Would you advise people to wait until their kids leave for college before setting off on this kind of voyage?
It’s very hard to say. We met many couples traveling with small children. Education is a problem. Legally, you have to send your children to school in most countries. But of the couples with children I met, they found a way to make it work.
What do you cook on the road?
Nothing fancy. We have a very straightforward gas cooker, with two gas bottles that last about three to four months. We prepare a real dinner every night. No canned food or fast food. We shop in local markets.
Where did you shower over the years?
It’s always behind a tree. Nature is the best toilet, especially in Third World countries. In Russia, the toilets are unbelievable. We have plastic bottle containers, three-gallon plastic containers that we hook upside down outside the car. We open the wells and have running water we use to take a shower. You find a quiet place somewhere in the forest or wherever, every day.
How many suitcases do you travel with?
No suitcases. When you open the rear door, I have a small table and keep the cooker there. We cook outside.
You don’t travel with suitcases?
None. The car is equipped; on the mid level there is a board we installed. The car has only two seats. We have a plank in the back, two meters long, we have a double bed there and, underneath that plank, we have storage boxes, plastic ones filled with all the clothing and things we need, spare parts, and so on. Plus aluminum boxes on the roof rack. The car is full, but we don’t use suitcases.
Have you ever been robbed or felt you were in great danger sleeping in your car?
Never. We’ve been very fortunate. No incidents, no accidents, no hold ups, no robberies. But you have to be very careful, very alert. You have to avoid unnecessary risks.
You never felt scared or threatened?
A couple of times we parked the car, made our bed and food and one of us said, “It doesn’t feel safe here.” And we’d move somewhere else to sleep. Maybe 10-15 times that happened over the years.
What’s a typical day like for you when you’re traveling in a developing country?
We go to bed early and wake up very early. We live with the daylight. We might get up at 5 a.m., and by 6 p.m. we are looking for a place to park overnight. And we might be in bed by 8 p.m. We sleep nine hours per night. Some days we don’t move about at all. We might stay three, four, five, six days in the same place. Other days, like when we drove through Russia, it was traveling, traveling, traveling. Everything is possible; every day is different.
Why do you use film cameras instead of digital?
I have two Leica cameras; both have super lenses that are very expensive. For that reason, I keep these cameras. At the end of the tour, maybe I will switch over to digital. But I’m finishing my tour with film. Everyone agrees that film is still the best quality.
Do you travel with a mobile phone?
No. No iPad, no iPod, no iPhone. No electronics at all. I don’t need it. Why do I need a mobile phone? When you travel, whatever happens, you must take care of yourself. If you are in the center of the Sahara desert, a satellite phone might work but only to tell someone you have that problem, but they can’t help you anyway. And mobile phone coverage only works in some places. And with roaming, it’s too expensive.
Most world travelers like to have a blog so they can brag about their travels. Why don’t you have one?
I don’t need it. It’s a modern way of life, but I don’t do it. I’m not a member of any of these sites—Facebook, You Tube, Twitter. I’m not going to use them. If I could gain something from it, I’d be the first to join in, but there is no advantage from it. I see no reason to do it.
Are there some countries that you absolutely hated?
I don’t want to say that. Certainly there are countries that are very difficult. Like, India is very difficult, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to go back. Each country is peculiar in its own way and I have to accept it as it is. You cannot Americanize or Germanize a foreign country and I don’t want to.
What are your favorite places?
I’d love to go back to Virgin Africa. Not one specific country but those parts where nature still prevails. Parts of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola. Just to be with the animals—only animals. I’d like to go back to the southern part of South America. Chile, Brazil, Bolivia—I want to go back to those places. And I’d like to go back to Australia and New Zealand—those are perfect countries.
Which country has the filthiest toilets?
Russia. Russia! In the real Russia, it is unbelievable. It’s better to make use of nature there. Russian men, they spend half their lives with a bottle of vodka. That’s the main problem. They can’t make use of a toilet in a decent manner.
How did growing up during and after World War II in Germany affect who you are today?
The situation during and after the war—‘46, ‘47, ‘48—those were very difficult years. I don’t know only the word hunger, I know what hunger means. We weren’t biting our fingernails but we had a very difficult situation in my town; everyone was in the same boat.
Money was tight and even people who had money, there was nothing to buy, nothing in the markets until June 1948—until that time it was very, very difficult for everyone.
What did your father do for a living?
My father was a chemical engineer and a higher-level government official.
That was during the war or after?
Before the war, during the war, and then after the war.
So was your family comfortable or not?
The situation was very difficult. Money was available, but you couldn’t get anything. The diet was American cigarettes—Lucky Strikes and Camels.
You grew up with the war but had no hesitation to go to Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, Somalia?
Somalia, no. It wasn’t possible at that time, we were near there in ’93, ’94, during the unrest there. There was no way. We can’t go there now either; it’s like Russian roulette.
Sudan is OK; the northern half of Sudan is no problem. They are the friendliest people in Africa in northern Sudan and Eritrea. Sudan is a perfect country, but they have a negative image. Iran and Sudan have a negative image, but are great places for travelers. Very friendly people.
What about Iraq?
I could only travel in northern Iraq, Kurdistan; there was no problem there. I wanted to go to Baghdad too, but the Americans wouldn’t allow it. On the end of this tour, we may try it again. This was four years ago.
You also traveled to North Korea?
Otto was the first-ever foreign vehicle to enter North Korea. It was a special arrangement from the late Kim Jong Il, the so-called Great Leader. That was together with my son last year. We were official, paying guests of the government. We paid heavily. Even the German foreign ministry couldn’t believe it happened.
How did you set it up?
A few years of preparations. The German ambassador to North Korea filed an application with the government for us. After many months, they responded positively.
Did you have to travel with a government minder in your car?
Even up to toilet visits, everything was pre-planned and scheduled. There was an escort car, and I had an escort in my car and my son was in the escort car. It was 100 percent controlled. Even the watchdogs had their own watchdogs to watch them; nothing was left to chance. No one trusts anyone there—typical of all communist countries.
Was North Korea the only country to restrict your movements?
China did also. You needed an escort to drive in a foreign vehicle. We were lucky to get into Tibet; now it’s closed for foreigners. And now we hope to be able to enter Burma as the first foreign vehicle, but the escort is very expensive. When you drive through North Korea it’s different than being a passenger on a bus. Driving your own car, you get a different perspective. I could very openly talk to these escorts. They were fluent in German—they were high-level people in the foreign ministry. We had very open talks. But you can’t talk about the military.
In even the most remote corner of earth, you don’t see poverty like there is in North Korea. It’s difficult to describe. You cannot compare it to Africa. People are poor in Africa, but the climate is good; North Korea has winter weather. They are not free, even neighbors are afraid of each other because the neighbor might be a spy. The poverty is beyond imagination.
The government has everyone on the shortest possible reins. They are totally blocked off from the outside world. Even the high-level escorts we met, they know hardly anything about the world, even China. They have no ability to get information about the outside world.
Do you care if Guinness and others recognize you as the greatest traveler, or do you not care?
I travel for myself, nothing else. I don’t care about communicating with the world and I don’t do anything to please the world. It’s a private undertaking and that’s it. Many travelers, backpackers especially, they undergo all this stress and strain to find an Internet connection. And they sit there for hours typing stories about what they ate for breakfast or whether the customs officer smiled at them or not. Who cares about reading things like that? That’s their world, but it’s not mine.
Do you think you are the world’s greatest traveler?
No. It would be correct to say that the car, Otto, is the most traveled vehicle on earth. Otto has been to more countries than any other car in automotive history. But there are many people who have traveled more than me.
I don’t know their names. A lot of people try to travel everywhere. Every little island, every dependent territory. But they don’t have a car that has been where Otto has been.
Some travelers, though, just want to tick off the box that they went to a country. Every country that we’ve been to, we traveled through it, toured, and spent time.
When you finish this final tour, will you continue to travel?
No, I won’t continue traveling like this. I’ll go back to Argentina and Uruguay, Australia. I’ll go there in the winter but I’ll be very happy to spend time here at home enjoying nature. I don’t want to repeat what I’ve done.
How do you want to be remembered?
It’s not about me being remembered. 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 is special; it’s the car. This car has been in so many countries all around the planet.
Do you hope that your example will inspire people?
Hopefully people will try to look behind the curtain. Don’t just get your information from TV and the Internet. Do it on your own. And that doesn’t mean going from one air-conditioned hotel to the next. If you go from the Hilton to the Sheraton and so on, you won’t understand anything. The point is to look behind the curtain and see the real country, the real life.
Would the world be a better place if more people traveled in this way?
There would be more understanding for sure. In America, some people don’t even leave their state, let alone their country. And then some people travel, but they have to wait until they get back home and look at their photos to see where they were.
People will read this story and say they want to do what you did.
Most people are tied down by their jobs. 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.