Mercedes-Benz G-Class Driver on 17-Year Round-The-World Trip
10th July, 2007
One of the world’s great travellers is currently visiting Singapore, having chalked up more than half a million kilometres around the globe (and still counting) in a Mercedes-Benz G-Class, a journey that started in 1990.
Now, 17 years on, and with more than 130 countries covered, Gunther Holtorf is in Singapore with his faithful “Otto”.
“Otto” is actually his 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300 GD, bearing the serial number 460333-17-061564, which is mechanically standard and has a diesel engine output of 88 HP.
German Gunther W. Holtorf and his beloved G-lass is certainly a “Mercedes & Me” story.
Mr. Holtorf’s story is a true celebration of the unique and enduring relationship he has with his Mercedes-Benz G-Class.
This globetrotter actually started his journey in 1990. He usually dedicates some six months per year to his trips and spends another couple of months in his home town, near Munich in Germany.
Seventeen years ago, at the age of 53, Gunther W. Holtorf made up his mind to do something different with his life.
"Either you do your 9 to 5 job until you can’t do it any longer, or you give up at the right time and that is precisely what I did," he remembers.
He set off on a round-the-world trip.
He was the overseas representative of Lufthansa and then Managing Director of Hapag Lloyd. Holtorf saw much of the world without, he says, really enjoying it to the fullest. The travel bug bit him while he was working in Argentina. His time in South America allowed him to holiday in a Mercedes-Benz W 123-series, driving through jungles and more particularly, crossing the river that divides Brazil from Guyana. He then moved to Indonesia. During his time in Jakarta, he was able to explore every last corner of the country. But, he recalls, there was never time enough to travel at leisure.
Gunther Holtorf does not know precisely how many passports he has used in 17 years but they have entry and exit visa stamps from over 200 border crossings. Small wonder, when you consider where he and his G-Class have travelled. It is no longer a question of following the route on a road map – you need a globe of the world.
"After my time with Lufthansa in South America and other countries, the first logical alternative to flying was something rooted to the ground.”
Starting from Frankfurt, he and his wife travelled through Africa, shipped the car to South America and drove through Argentina down to Tierra del Fuego and up the North American continent to Alaska.
"After my experience with my much loved W 123 (which he still owns), it was clear to me that power is a secondary requirement. A journey of this nature calls for off-road capabilities and, above all, durability."
“Otto” had proven to be adequate in both. The vehicle covered 200,000 km on the American continent in five years alone and all without any special treatment.
One Christmas the couple and “Otto” celebrated in a Brazilian jungle mud-hole, while at other times they found themselves negotiating 5,000 metre 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, all of which the G-Class took in its stride.
What kept it going?
In the words of Gunther Holtorf, “The G-Class is old but mechanically it is simple and totally reliable. From my experience in the aviation industry, I have learnt preventive maintenance, meaning to replace any wear and tear parts according to a schedule rather than wait for them to fail. Over the years, it has hardly given us any problems. Almost everything about our G-Class is original. The only modifications we have made, being stronger springs and, at a later date, heavy duty shock absorbers, to cope with the all-up weight of over three tonnes.”
With the aim of reducing everything to bare essentials, Gunther Holtorf removed the G-Class's air-conditioning system and deliberately dispensed with other modern-day requirements.
"What use is a satellite phone if no one will come to where you are. It is more important to have everything with you so that you can help yourself,” he declares.
During the Sahara crossing, “Otto” was burdened with an additional load of 400 kilogrammes on the roof. In addition, he carries a collection of around 450 large and small original spare parts which have proved indispensable on the round-the-world trip. The smallest part is a sealing ring for the brake calipers, the heaviest and bulkiest a set of shock absorbers.
Additionally the vehicle carries a recovery harnesses, ropes, a nine-tonne grab winch, a high-lift jack, tools and several other items.
Gunther Holtorf has also got by without an expensive navigation system. He has always found his way using an aging Garmin 75 GPS, 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. For thirty years he has also acted as Jakarta's cartographer.
Even during his time as the Lufthansa representative in the Indonesian capital, he started making his own maps of the city (population over 18 million) which, until then, were virtually non-existent.
"First, that friends could find our house more easily, but later for the reason that it was a project no-one else would take on," Gunther Holtorf explained.
Today, he is the publisher of a local street atlas for Jakarta which is now into its 13th edition.
"Three German names are household words in Jakarta – Aspirin, Mercedes and now, my map on Jakarta,” says Gunther Holtorf.
He concerns himself with the business in Indonesia whenever he takes a break from travelling.
Thus, in the summer of 2003, he left “Otto” behind in Melbourne and flew to Germany for three months, taking with him the G-Class gearbox.
"There is nothing wrong with it but, since we wanted to traverse China, Mongolia, Russia, India and Pakistan, in the next two and a half years, putting it through a general inspection was no mistake,” he explains.
At present, some of the countries still listed on the itinerary are not among the world's safest travel destinations.
"When things get hot, we bypass the area. In the last fifteen years, we have never taken unnecessary risks but neither have we done anything that might scare us," says Gunther Holtorf.
The most important aspect of his philosophy lies in not arousing envy.
“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 car or our hammocks."
This is even on occasions when “Otto” is undergoing inspections in a workshop in some far corners of the world.
For these most seasoned of world travellers, their extravagance is listening to Beethoven.
"It’s also about no longer living to the constant ticking of a clock but in accordance with climatic zones."
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 alternative is a cosy “double-bed” built into the cabin of the G-Class. The Holtorfs combine the rear seat and cargo area into a bedroom which can easily sleep two.
Having followed the Holtorfs’ exploits closely over the years, Mercedes-Benz has expressed interest in acquiring “Otto” for the new museum in Stuttgart, sometime in 2009, when the Holtorfs plan to pull up the handbrake for the last time.
Three years ago, Mercedes-Benz had the Holtorfs’ vehicle shipped back to Germany for ceremonies to mark the 25th anniversary of the G-Class, which has earned an impeccable reputation for capability and reliability in both civilian and military service all over the world.
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