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Life is a highway

23 October 2017

German adventurer Rainer Zietlow has spent his life behind the wheel, having toured 110 countries by car and setting several vehicular records. He recently set a new world record by travelling from Dakar to Moscow in three days, four hours and 54 minutes.

Rainer Zietlow has spent his life doing crazy things with cars. In 1988, when he was 18, and just six weeks after getting his licence, he set off on a road trip with some friends. They travelled from Germany to Niger, where they sold their Mercedes-Benz 230E and headed home. He was immediately hooked. This was what he wanted to do with his life. In 1996, he undertook his first round-the-world vehicle tour, and these days he spends his time setting new vehicle records. He has partnered with Volkswagen and Goodyear for these record attempts, and he supports the international charity organisation SOS Children’s Village by always visiting one of their villages along his record routes.

How did your partnerships with Goodyear and Volkswagen come about?
My partnership with Volkswagen started in 2004, during my first world-record attempt. My team drove to Ojos del Salvador in Chile’s Atacama Desert, which is situated at 6 081m, with a standard Volkswagen Touareg. It took some convincing to get the brand on board, but it has proven to be a great partnership, and I’ve used VW vehicles ever since. My partnership with Goodyear is newer. It started in 2014.

What do you view as your greatest adventure/accomplishment to date?
I would probably have to say my 2011 Panamericana expedition. The Panamericana (Pan-American Highway) is the longest road in the world, running from the southern tip of South America to the very top of the North American continent. It celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2011, and to commemorate this, I tried to set a new time record for the road. Along with two other adventurers, I drove 23 000km in 11 days and 17 hours. That was a long journey, but a tougher expedition was probably my 2013 Amarok Polar Expedition. We spent 10 weeks in the eastern territories of Russia. It was winter, so temperatures dropped as low as -500Celsius. We drove where no vehicles had ever driven before.

What has been the scariest situation you have found yourself in?
It was definitely during the Amarok Polar Expedition. We were hit by a terrible blizzard. We couldn’t see a thing – a complete whiteout – and our vehicles kept getting stuck. We spent two days travelling through a storm, never quite knowing what was going on around us. Not being able to see the horizon, or even what’s happening right outside your window, is scary when dealing with rough and unknown terrain.

What has been your most memorable experience?
It was that first record with the VW Amarok in Chile. Not only was that my first record, but it was also something that had never been done before. Being the first to accomplish something is always special. Standing at the top of Ojos del Salvador and knowing that our feat would appear in the Guinness Book of World Records was surreal.

Any large and ambitious projects you’d still love to complete one day?
There are quite a few, but I couldn’t mention them. You don’t want to give anyone any ideas…

What are some of your favourite countries that you’ve visited?
My favourite countries are South Africa, Australia and Argentina. The people are friendly and the scenery is spectacular.

Are there any specific adventurers that have inspired you?
Back in 1996, during my first trip around the globe, I met Sir Edmund Hillary in New Zealand and got to sit down with him for quite a while. That was a special experience, and I found him to be an inspirational man.

Text: GG van Rooyen Photos: Supplied