Gunther Holtorf tours Sri Lanka in 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300 GD

Thursday, 16 December 2010 00:08 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Having clocked up more than half a million kilometers around the globe in a Mercedes-Benz G-Class, one of the world’s great travelers has now arrived in Sri Lanka, continuing a journey that he started in 1990.

After two decades of driving around and with more than two-third of the world covered, Gunther Holtorf is finally coming to the pearl of the Indian Ocean along with ‘Otto,’ his faithful 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300 GD.

This modern day nomad actually started his journey in 1990 with his wife Christine and usually dedicates some six months per year to his trips and spends another couple of months in his home town, near Munich, Germany.

He arrived in Sri Lanka on 13 December and is expected to travel to Kandy, Jaffna, the East and South of the island within 14 days.

An overseas representative of German airline Lufthansa and then Managing Director of Hapag Lloyd, 20 years back at the age of 53, Gunther W. Holtorf made up his mind to do something different with his life and embarked on an around-the-world trip.

The travel bug bit him while he was working in Argentina as his time in South America allowed him to travel extensively. Later on he moved to Indonesia and during his time in Jakarta, he went onto explore every last corner of the country.

Holtorf does not know precisely how many passports he has used up in 20 years of world travel but he has entry and exit visa stamps from over 200 border crossings from around the world.

Starting from Frankfurt, he and his wife have travelled through Africa, shipped the vehicle to South America and driven to the southernmost tip of South America and up the North American continent to Alaska.

One Christmas the couple and ‘Otto’ celebrated in a Brazilian jungle mud-hole, while at other times they found themselves negotiating 5,000 meter high passes in Bolivia, facing unending desert wastes on the way through Tenere in the heart of the Sahara or being ferried across jungle rivers on rickety rafts.

With the aim of reducing everything to bare essentials, Holtorf removed the air-conditioning system of the G-Class and deliberately dispensed with other modern creature comforts.

He is a strong advocate of preventive maintenance and carries a collection of around 450 large and small spare parts which have proved indispensable on the around-the-world trip. Additionally the vehicle carries recovery equipment, ropes, a winch, tools and several other items.

Holtorf also gets by without the use of an expensive navigation system and finds his way around the globe with his aging Garmin 75 GPS unit, a compass and maps. What may count, however, it that he is able to use these devices better than most, perhaps because of what lies behind the third career of this former Lufthansa official.

Even during his time as the Lufthansa representative in the Indonesian capital, he started making his own maps of the city home to more than 18 million people which, until then, were virtually non-existent. Today, he is the publisher of a local street atlas for Jakarta which is now into its 13th edition.

Since the demise of his wife, Mr. Holtorf has carried on his world travels with his son Martin who has taken to the family business like a duck to water. At present, some of the countries still listed on his itinerary are not among the world’s safest travel destinations and according to Holtorf Sr. the most important aspect lies in not arousing the envy of the locals.

He says that “on the road, we live as simply as the local population. In 17 years of travelling, we have only once stayed in a house, and that was with a friend in America, otherwise we sleep in the vehicle or our hammocks.” This is even on occasions when ‘Otto’ is undergoing inspections in a workshop in some far corners of the world. Holtorf’s travels, it’s worth mentioning, have been completely self-funded, so there are neither sponsors to please nor corporate messages to spread.

It is interesting to note that the Holtorfs sleep, cook, eat, drink and even shower, in or around the car. In kind weather, they sleep outdoors on hammocks with one end slung to the vehicle and the other to a tree. The other available alternative is the cosy “double-bed” built into the cabin of the Merc which springs into action when the rear seat and cargo area are combined.

Naturally, there have been harrowing moments along the way. Mr. Holtorf has talked his way out of a confrontation with gun-wielding extortionists in Ethiopia, come face to face with a spotted hyena in the middle of the night and encountered many potentially explosive situations, and taken it all in his stride with the familiar, beaming smile that’s ever-present on his face.

The Holtorfs are hoping to pull the handbrake for the last time once they complete a tour of China next year. Thereafter they are hoping to make a final journey into Stuttgart, hand ‘Otto’ over to the Mercedes-Benz museum and simply call it a day.

For over 20 years, Holtorf has been traversing the globe taking one small step at a time, first with his wife and now with his son, and has accumulated enough experiences and tales that will last both of them for generations to come.

After all the long years of driving through some of the most inhospitable places in the world, Holtorf has left nothing to the imagination and has been there and done that and is a very happy and satisfied man with no regrets and a lot of stories to tell.