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GUNTHER\'S ODYSSEY - A MODERN DAY MARCO POLO
 
(2012 - Fall Issue)

Writer: DAVE LEMKE



Throughout human history, there has always been room in society for the adventurer. 

While one can argue that those migrating out of Africa across Eurasia in search of new places to settle about a million years ago were the first great adventurers, people such as Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus are best remembered. However, although their journey began two decades ago, the people who stand atop this pantheon of great world travellers today are not household names.

Gunther and Christine Holtorf left Germany in December 1988 in a Mercedes G-class wagon. Their goal was simply to drive the length of Africa and return home. They finished a test drive of the car in East Africa in five months, taking an additional two months to explore southern Africa. After shipping the car back to Germany and completing some final improvements, they started the trip in earnest departing from France in late 1990 to spend the next five years circumnavigating Africa. And at some point, standing on the shores of South Africa, staring at the deep blue of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, an odd idea occurred to them—why not just keep going?

A Series of Firsts

From this idea spawned one of human history’s most astonishing expeditions. For the last 23 years Gunther and, until her passing in 2011, Christine, have travelled the world in the same car. Presently, “Otto” (their pet name for their automobile) has been to 199 countries, and ranks as the first foreign car ever to be admitted to North Korea, Cuba, Haiti, the Solomon Islands, Iquitos, Abkhazia, Transnistria and the first ever driven through the Caribbean. Otto was also the first foreign car admitted into Afghanistan and Iraq after their respective wars had started, the first to ever cross Guyana, the first to travel the length of the Amazon down to the three-country corner, and the first one admitted after 20 years of closure in Ethiopia.

No other car has ever travelled through this many countries, earning the Holtorfs a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. But to Gunther and his wife, this was never the goal. “All we wanted to do was to see as much of the world as possible. The more we saw, the more we realized how little we had seen.” Gunther recollects, “Up until 2007 all we kept was a hand-drawn map we started in 1995. We only had guessed at the number of countries we’d visited. When we stopped and looked at what we had done and listed all the countries, we were just as shocked as anyone.”

Under the Radar

What is even more shocking, considering the technology boom that has occurred since they started, including the rise of the Internet and the interconnection of world regions by social media, is that the Holtorfs have accomplished this massive journey completely under the radar. Gunther carries no laptop, has no personal blog or Facebook page, nor does he have a mobile phone. He has also resisted all sponsorship offers, relying totally on his own savings to travel. It may seem crazy to not draw attention to one’s record-breaking journey, however Gunther has very clear reasons for doing so. “A lot of places we travelled to are not the safest ones and in every country, there are always a number of people with questionable motives. So if we arrived with media fanfare and gave daily updates as to where we would be, then I believe the likelihood of us being attacked would have been much greater.” Gunther’s precautions have certainly paid off, for despite visiting countries ravaged by war, or rife with internal conflict, Otto has not once been robbed or suffered any violence. 

“We have been lucky,” Gunther states, “even more so when you consider the places we visited before tourism ruinedthem.” Gunther remains a staunch opponent of commercial tourism—something he believes has destroyed the beauty and magic of many of the world’s most historical, natural and man-made destinations. “The world has gotten smaller,” says Gunther. “Now anyone can hop on the Internet, book a ticket through a tour company to some adventure destination and, in a week’s time, be there and have all their needs met. What I have done, and where I have gone, oftentimes there were no maps. I had to make my own! Our route was created from the knowledge of local people we met. The problem is there are too few real adventures left. Kids can look at a website, read about what’s on the other side of the world and that’s enough. They think they’ve been there.”

Special Memories

Gunther’s opinion may be well-founded, especially after being to some of the places he’s experienced as a sole observer. “On one of our trips to Sudan, we drove the car to one of the ancient Nubian pyramid sites and camped out there. There was no one else, just us, falling asleep beside this rarely visited spot. They are beautiful and were largely unknown at the time. We felt as if we were going back in time.” Gunther continues, “When we visited the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, we actually spent a whole week in the middle of the salt lake and no one else showed up. It’s a freeing experience to be alone in one of the Natural Wonders of the World.”

Being part of one of human history’s greatest epics, Gunther is looking forward to settling down by mid 2013. Otto will be retired in the Mercedes Automobile Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, while Gunther hopes to relax by a small lake near his house in Germany.

A testament to his humility, Gunther does not believe he has done anything special. In his eyes, he just followed a dream to its conclusion. However, it would be remiss to allow his accomplishments to fade into the murky waters of forgotten history. The great adventure traveller is dying out, and therefore we should pay homage to the few that remain.

 
 
 
 
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