Gunther Holtorf wasn’t out to set any records; he just wanted a new life. In 1988, the then 51-year-old German airline executive left his job at Lufthansa and bought a rugged Mercedes 300GD wagon, which he nicknamed Otto. His only plan was to drive around Africa for a few months. “I always liked to be on the move and be where other people don’t go,” he says. “And in the early Nineties, Africa was pretty safe.”
During that first trip, he explored the Sahara desert in Algeria, Niger, and Mali. “There is no grass, no animals, no insects, no wind,” he told a reporter after the trip. “You can listen to the silence.” Two years later he returned to the continent with the woman who would become his fourth wife, Christine, for more driving. Neither expected they would end up on distant adventures together for the next two decades.
Holtorf steered Otto into China, Iraq, North Korea — where soldiers monitored his progress at every turn — around the United States, and into the jungles of South America. Eleven years ago in Australia, a group of American tourists asked him how many places he’d visited: Holtorf didn’t know. “We just enjoyed traveling and experiencing the countries,” he says.
By the time Holtorf, who is now 77 years old, decided to conclude his pursuits last fall, he had traversed 549,000 miles, driving Otto in 177 countries — the most ever visited by the same vehicle.
Otto was shipped overseas 41 times, at a cost of over $160,000, and each destination came with its own set of challenges. Many of Holtorf’s travels took place off-road, and he got stuck in the mud a number of times, though never worse than in the Amazon rain forest. Once, while in Zimbabwe, an elephant stuck its trunk through the passenger-side window to devour a bag of oranges. Another night on the same trip, he woke to find a hyena two feet from his head. “The animal was as shocked as I was,” he says. “It assumed I was a dead body ready to be eaten.”
In 2004, Mercedes offered to sponsor Holtorf’s trips, but he declined, fearing that a car festooned with decals would draw too much attention. For most of the trips, he had no cellphone and no laptop. Instead, Christine kept a diary with pen and paper. The couple cooked their meals on a small gas stove and slept in the back of the truck or in a hammock. (Holtorf contracted malaria eight times.) For safety, they tried to stay near police stations, and usually only for a night in each locale — “before people realize where we are,” Holtorf explains. They skipped dangerous spots like Somalia and South Sudan, though trouble couldn’t always be avoided: In Papua New Guinea, someone broke his back window in an attempted robbery.
Before last fall, Holtorf considered ending his journeys only once, when, in 2010, Christine passed away after battling cancer. But among her final wishes was that Holtorf go on. “She had a great sense of humor,” he says. “She said, ‘I’ll be sitting on a cloud, monitoring what happens on the ground.’ ” For the next four years, a photo of Christine hung from the rearview mirror.