Monday, 18 November 2013

Off to see the World

The Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen (German for "cross-country car) better known as G-Wagen and recently renamed the G-Class, is a legend in the 4X4 world. Originally designed as a military vehicle, it quickly became popular among civilian users as well, albeit only the well-heeled half.
It is one of my dream cars, and remains an unrealised dream to this day. I did, however, get to meet one owner who has lived out his dreams, and then some. This is a story I wrote for The Star, published on June 17, 2007, about how a G-Wagen should be used. Though written seven years ago, I believe much of it still holds true. As of June 2012, the Philippines became the 200th country visited, and the G-Wagen showed 799,783 kilometers on the odometer. 

Gunther and Christine Holtorf relaxing on Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt lake
 in Bolivia, 100km by 120 km of pure salt, some 6 meters thick, at an altitude of 3.500 m.
 - Photo courtesy of Gunther Holtorf

I go to work, I go home. Day in, day out, week in, week out, you go to work, then you go home. It’s neither a complaint nor a lament but a fact that we accept, as do billions of people.
For over 30 years, Gunther Holtorf accepted that, too. Then, one fine day in 1989, as the big 50 loomed, he decided he wanted to see the world. As a high-flying executive for the German airline, Lufthansa, Holtorf had already travelled to more places than most people but jetting in and out of foreign cities wasn’t enough. No, he wanted to really see the world.
Loading everything they would need aboard a 1988 Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen 300GD, Holtorf and his wife Christine set off to explore exotic Africa.
After crisscrossing the huge continent, the couple were having such a great time that they decided they might as well continue driving on to as many countries as possible.
Oceans, seas and rivers would prove no obstacle, that’s what ships and ferries are for.
After 17 years, well over a hundred countries on every inhabited continent and 587,779km (and counting), Holtorf and the trusty diesel-powered Gelandewagen (German for off-road vehicle) are still on the go, stopping only briefly to have a chat with journalists.
“I have not really been living in my car for the past 17 years,” Holtorf, now 67, confesses modestly with a chuckle.
“My wife and I would normally drive around several places for, maybe, six months, then we park the vehicle and fly home to Germany. Then, a few months later, we return to the car and continue the journey.”
This time around, illness has kept his wife Christine at home so Holtorf has brought 27-year-old son Martin along as his co-driver.
Gunther Holtorf (right) and his son Martin with 'Otto', the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen that has travelled nearly 600,000km across every continent.
In the past couple of months, they have driven from Pontianak, Kalimantan, across the border into Sarawak, where they spent a few days exploring Kuching before motoring north-east to the Niah caves, on through Brunei and into Sabah.
After enjoying a memorable visit to the Sepilok orang utan sanctuary near Sandakan, the Holtorfs returned to Miri, Sarawak, where the 4X4 vehicle they have christened “Otto” was loaded into a container to be shipped to Port Klang.
Now that Otto is safely ashore on the peninsula, father and son are on the move again, heading towards the East Coast before turning north towards Thailand and, eventually, Cambodia. After visiting Angkor Wat, they will head back to Singapore, from where the vehicle will be shipped to Dubai for the next chapter in the odyssey.
The boxy 19-year-old Mercedes plays a major role in the Holtorfs’ adventures, serving not only as a reliable means of transport but also their home away from home. At any moment, their address is a set of co-ordinates spelled out by their GPS (global positioning system).
How Gunther sleeps in Otto.
“The G-Wagen is old but, mechanically, it is simple, and totally reliable,” Holtorf relates. “From my experience in the aviation industry, I’ve learnt preventive maintenance, meaning I replace 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.”
The vehicle is nearly completely stock standard, with the only major modifications being a pair of 60l “belly tanks” that, together with the 100-litre main fuel tank, give a range of around 1,500km, heavy duty springs and shock absorbers to cope with the all-up weight of over three tonnes.

Even Garmin's museum curator doesn't
know much about this device.
Holtorf's faithful navigator is an old Garmin GPS 75, a unit so old that he says even the manufacturer's present staff don't know much about it.
The list of must-have items stowed away on the G-Wagen include around 400 spare parts that weigh around 350kg.
The rest of the weight comprises everything the Holtorfs need to sleep, cook, eat, drink and even shower in or around the car.
In kind weather, they sleep outdoors on hammocks with one end tied to the vehicle and the other to a tree. The alternative is a cosy “double bed” built into the cabin of the G-Wagen.
“We don’t stay in hotels and we don’t eat in restaurants,” says Holtorf, who politely declined an offer by DaimlerChrysler Malaysia to put them up at the posh Saujana Kuala Lumpur hotel.
Having followed the Holtorf’s exploits closely over the years, Mercedes-Benz has expressed keen interest in acquiring Otto for the famous automotive museum sometime in 2009, when the couple plan to pull up the handbrake for the last time.
By then, the Holtorfs will have driven across so many countries that it’d be easier to name the few they miss out – “Vanuatu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands … those tiny islands in the Pacific that are so remote it’s not feasible shipping Otto there just to drive on the few kilometres of road they have.”
One notable absentee on the list is Timbuktoo, the one place that anyone who has been to can claim to have been everywhere.
“We were in Mali some years ago but the Timbuktoo area was not safe for travellers then,” Holtorf said. “But we plan to return to the region before we end our travels in 2009, and we hope to visit Timbuktoo.”
Three years ago, the company had the Holtorfs’ vehicle shipped back to Germany for ceremonies to mark the 25th anniversary of the G-Wagen, which has earned an impeccable reputation for capability and reliability in both civilian and military service all over the world.
Aside from that, Holtorf insists on paying for everything out of his own pocket.
“I don’t want sponsorship because sponsors will want something in return, such as publicity,” he explains. “In some of the rougher places we’ve been to, we don’t want to attract attention … that’s why Otto is not plastered with stickers.”
While the slab-sided G-Wagen has long been respected for its ruggedness and offroad prowess, it has never been regarded as a thing of beauty.
Even by the boxy standards of its G-Class siblings, Otto is plainly, well, plain. Its drab paint job is best described as an insipid, pallid blue and, Holtorf says, the dull colour was deliberately chosen with that in mind – to keep the lowest profile possible.
Anonymity and humility is the best way to avoid trouble in areas where trouble tends to find you, Holtorf learned from his years in Africa.
He recalled one of their scariest experiences in a lawless part of Ethiopia “where everyone carries a Kalashnikov (rifle)”, when their vehicle was surrounded by a band of rough-looking tribesmen who seemed intent on making trouble.
“I just stayed calm, and tried to get them to calm down … after a while, we gave them some money and they were satisfied and went away,” recalls Holtorf.
So, if one has 17 years of free time, what else does it take to go see the world?
A rugged, reliable, mechanically simple 4X4 vehicle is a good start. You’d need money for a carnet – an international passport for a vehicle – which costs Holtorf a deposit of 5,000 euros (RM23,000).
“The biggest expense for us has been fuel,” said Holtorf. “Aside from that, living costs vary … it’s very cheap in Africa, about 400 euros (RM1,840) lasted us a month, expensive in Australia, and most expensive in Europe!”
Now that I know, I’ve got to get back to work and start saving up.

Latest: They're still at it, 800,000km and counting ...

Catch up with Gunther & Otto, if you can

Don't modify it, replace parts BEFORE they break, and you should not have any breakdowns.