When Gunther Holtorf looks at a map, memories immediately pop up in his head: memories of past visits, encounters and adventures. Pick up any country –he has been there. Or at least every country you can get to with a four-wheel drive car. He has visited 215 countries, autonomous territories and regions over the last 26 years. His Mercedes off-roader served him as a mobile home all the time.
“Otto”, as Gunther Holtorf began calling his car at some point, now has almost 900,000 kilometres on the clock. He has crossed 411 borders outside the EU, been shipped 41 times in containers and travelled on 113 sea ferries. Together with Otto, Gunther has crossed rivers, lakes and straits on innumerable, mostly rickety river boats, pontoons and even fishing boats, in order to travel further than any other vehicle has done before.
For the majority of the journey, Gunther Holtorf was accompanied by his fourth wife, Christine. They first met in 1989 and after only a few months set off for Africa together. They travelled for 22 years until Christine Holtorf died of cancer in the summer of 2010. Shortly before her death, Gunther promised her that he would complete the journey that they had begun together. He was often accompanied by Martin, Christine's son, whom he adopted. In 2013, Elke Dreweck, a friend of the Holtorf family, travelled with Gunther for a long period.
Gunther and Christine Holtorf spent five years travelling all over Africa with Otto. Then they made the spontaneous decision to visit South America, which Gunther knew well. He had worked and lived there in the past and wanted to show his wife. After this, they moved on to North America, Asia, Australia and the countries of Europe. But Europe was more of an afterthought, because Gunther wanted to visit countries where other people didn’t want to go.
Gunther Holtorf can't recall when the idea to visit every country in the world came up. But when he created and updated his large maps of the world, which, as he says, “are more important than my passport”, one thing became clear: this was also all about a record which would be entered in the Guinness Book of Records. The world maps show routes past and future and a list of all the countries Gunther has visited. The list has so far succeeded in bringing round every grumpy customs officer or difficult chief of police. Gunther Holtorf makes them participating in his project, as helpers on his record attempt.
But the key factor behind the success of the journey is Gunther Holtorf himself. He has the patience of a saint, an almost childlike curiosity, rugged charm and enough technical knowledge to change the car’s axle bearings almost 5000 metres up in the Andes. He is the original globetrotter. He has the ability to focus only on the positive and to put negative experiences behind him. He doesn’t take everything seriously, but has a feel for when things are getting serious.
He is also a fascinating, modest and intelligent man who can tell a good story. The fact that he is the former managing director of the charter airline Hapag-Lloyd Flug gave him a financial cushion for the start of his journey. But he funded the main part of it by means of another project that was almost as exciting. During his time as a Lufthansa agent in Indonesia, he began drawing a rudimentary map of the rapidly growing city of Jakarta, which is home to millions of people. Until this point, no maps of the city were available either from shops or from the city authorities. Gunther travelled around, collected building plans, compared aerial photographs and made his own drawings.
By 2005, the first modest folding map that he produced in 1977 had become a 400-page atlas of the city where 30 million people live. It meets the highest cartographic standards and some of the editions ran to as many as 150,000 copies. The Holtorfs visited Indonesia regularly over the years and took a meticulous approach to maintaining and updating the map. The commercial success of the map only came to end with the rise of the Internet and the creation of pirate copies. But the Jakarta city authorities still use Holtorf’s map today.
Gunther Holtorf’s unbelievable journey finally came to an end when he handed over Otto’s keys to the Daimler chairman Dieter Zetsche on 11 October 2014. These weren’t the original keys, which had long since worn out. The ignition key was cut in a suburb of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The door key was made in a small town in North Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. Otto will now have a place of honour in the Daimler museum in Stuttgart as the car which has covered the most countries in the world.
Otto, the record-breaking car, is a long wheelbase Mercedes 300 GD with a 3-litre, 5-cylinder diesel engine that produces 88 bhp. It was manufactured at the Magna-Steyr factory in the Austrian city of Graz, where the G Class has been produced almost unchanged for 35 years. Otto has selectable four-wheel drive and largely standard equipment. Gunther Holtorf designed and constructed the interior of the car himself. He removed the rear seats and replaced them with a shelf made of wood fixed halfway up the sides of the luggage compartment and rear part of the car, which has two tailor-made mattresses on top. Below the shelf is space for storing clothes, food, tools, spare parts and cooking utensils.
Gunther cooks on a gas stove. The two gas bottles are in the back of the car. The stove stands on a board fixed between the bumper and the car body when the back door is open. The burner is protected by a home-made windbreak. The car is not a comfortable place to live. The central locking system has been disconnected for safety reasons so that the doors do not automatically all unlock when someone gets out. Holtorf removed the air conditioning system after two years and gave it to a mechanic in Kenya. Since then one of the windows has always been open. “What isn’t there can’t break” says Holtorf.
On the solid roof rack, which withstood a rollover in Madagascar almost undamaged, there are two spare tyres and, depending on the region that Holtorf is visiting, two or three large metal containers for luggage and canisters for oil, diesel and additives. On some parts of the route, two 60-litre underfloor tanks and a 60-litre diesel container fixed to the bonnet were also used. The bonnet is one of Otto’s few special parts. It was made at the Graz factory for the Canadian army. It is a walk-on bonnet with non-slip steps that allow the 77-year-old Gunther Holtorf, who is still very agile, to climb up onto Otto’s roof and put things away in the luggage containers.
From the beginning, the car has been fitted with a GPS device which shows only its position and direction of travel and has no map function. Instead, Gunther has paper maps covering all the regions of the world. Otto is not fitted with a winch, but Gunther carries a mobile portable winch and a long steel rope on board, together with sand ladders and a shovel. As a result of all of these items, including the 400 or so spare parts, Otto was permanently overloaded by about 500 kilos during the journey.
However, there were very few mechanical failures, because Gunther Holtorf’s background in the aviation industry meant that he was used to replacing wearing parts before they went belly up. This was more expensive, but saved him a great deal of trouble: “We never really broke down,” he says. The only major problems were caused by the front axle, which had its bearings replaced eight times, because they couldn’t withstand 250,000 kilometres of off-road driving.
Whenever Otto returned to Germany, he was loaded with long-life food, including up to 30 kilos of muesli, dozens of packets of potato granules for making potato cakes, mashed potato and dumplings, dried soup and tins of liver sausage. Over the years, Gunther has also collected a wide variety of international products. On the route through Belarus, the last country on his journey, he took with him rice from Myanmar, salt and mustard from South Africa, matches from Cameroon, milk from Madagascar, butter from Ireland and curry from Thailand.
|The Online Project|
When stern reporter Jan Boris Wintzenburg first spoke to Gunther Holtorf on the phone, he knew immediately that he would be working on “Otto’s Journey” for a long time. This was in the autumn of 2011, when Holtorf was en route to the South Pacific. He described his visits to North Korea, China and Hong Kong so vividly that it soon became clear how special his story was.
The two men stayed in contact and Holtorf sent photos and details of his experiences. The next call came from Japan in the summer of 2012: “I’m heading for Vladivostok,” he said. “And on my way home I can pass through Hamburg.” Way home? Hamburg? “Yes, I still want to go up to Sakhalin and then I’m coming home via Russia. I’ll be there in four weeks’ time.”
And when a blue Mercedes off-roader parked in the courtyard of the publishing company Gruner+Jahr in Hamburg four weeks later, with impressive looking luggage containers on the roof and covered with Siberian mud, the decision had already long since been made: Otto’s journey is a story that needs to be told on a larger scale. And that story is best told by Gunther Holtorf himself. It also needs to be accompanied by a lot of pictures. It’s a subject that’s simply made for online presentation.
But it also became clear that publishing the story too early could jeopardise Gunther’s goal of visiting all the countries in the world. The world has become a different place and information can be sent in a fraction of a second to its furthest corners using digital media. Gunther could have been the victim of crimes. They could even have become political pawns or a bargaining chip for the rulers of some of the countries they had yet to visit, such as Myanmar, some African states or Belarus, the final country. It was decided that “Otto’s Journey” would only be put online after the journey had finished.
In the spring of 2014, when Otto entered the home straight, work began on the interactive version of the 26-year-long journey around the world. More than 8000 photos were chosen and scanned by Gunther Holtorf at home from colour negatives to produce the highest quality results. Around 30 hours of interviews with Gunther covering all the countries he had visited and many details of the journey were recorded in the stern studio in Hamburg. On several occasions, stern camera teams met up with Otto, for example when the car was unloaded from a container from Mauritius in Bremerhaven. The result was a series of impressive snapshot descriptions of the countries, some of them combined with pictures, and a unique presentation of an adventurous journey.
On the last stage of the tour, Jan Boris Wintzenburg went with Gunther Holtorf and Otto to Belarus, which included 30 hours waiting at the embassy in Berlin for a visa. The journey took six unforgettable days. On 9 October 2014, the story of this last stage appeared in stern magazine and Otto’s journey went live on the Internet.