Wednesday, April 12, 2006 | Four years ago, Grundeger and Helga Herberstein started driving.
They left Johannesburg, South Africa and headed north in their old, white Land Rover. Mozambique and Malawi followed South Africa, and then the couple swung into Tanzania and Zanzibar, en route to Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. From Kenya, they started heading west across the impossibly wide expanse of Africa. Ethiopia followed, then the Sudan, Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Togo, Ghana and Burkina Faso.
Then it was back to Mali, north through Mauritania (across the Sahara Desert) and up to Morocco. From Morocco, they got the ferry to Spain and drove across Europe to finally arrive in Paris.
Driving the entire continent of Africa would have been enough for most people.
But the Herbesteins continued. They shipped their trusty car to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and for the last couple of years they’ve been driving all over South and Central America.
Just recently, they passed through San Diego, which is where I spotted them and flagged them down, fascinated by the maps and country names they had drawn all over their vehicle.
Grundeger Herberstein explained over a large cup of coffee that he and his wife had always wanted to travel the world’s roads. A few years ago, when Grundeger sold his business and retired, the native Austrians decided it was time to live out their dream. They rented out their house in Paris, flew to South Africa, and got started.
“We said, now we can enjoy life and do what we like. We prefer traveling and having new adventures every day, rather than staying at home and spending our time going to birthday parties or cocktail parties or weddings,” Grundeger said in his thick Austrian accent.
The Herbesteins’ adventures have taken them across the Amazon Jungle on a flat-bottomed boat, across the Pacific Ocean on a cargo ship and from the coast of Columbia to Panama on a sailing boat (they’d shipped their car ahead).
Grundeger said he never plans ahead. He likes to wake up every morning with no idea where he and his wife will end up sleeping that night. On each trip, the couple has a rough route sketched out, he said, but traveling is not traveling without some spontaneity.
Despite traveling through some of the world’s most dangerous places, including a couple of African countries that are currently – officially at least – in the middle of civil wars, Grundeger said he has never felt threatened, never felt scared in his four years on the road.
“Everywhere we were, people were extremely nice and helpful,” he said. “We never had a problem.”
They had been warned that the border would be a problem crossing into the United States, Helga said, but in the end the crossing was a relatively benign process. They were back on the road in two hours after simply unpacking the contents of their vehicle for the border agents to inspect.
Grundeger said the key to surviving such mammoth trips is all psychological.
If confronted by an unbelieving police officer or a road block in a strange land, he said, the trick is to get out of your car, smile, and begin to chat with the official. They will always ask two questions, Helga added: Where are you from? Where are you going?
“You must be kind with the people, with the officers,” Grundeger said. “Road blocks are boring, borders are boring, but if you start to argue with them then you are lost.”
One must also be prepared, Helga said, for a more sedate way of life in many countries around the world.
“Europeans and Americans, I suppose we are under constant stress, everything must go fast and quick and be done immediately, but these people, they have time. They live in a different way, where time means nothing.”
Sitting in a café in La Jolla, the couple looked up around them at the shiny cars and cappuccinos of another continent. This world looked strange, Helga said – manicured and perfectly clean. She could tell it was a rich area, and she couldn’t believe the contrast from Mexico to the United States.
The Herbesteins are currently somewhere between San Diego and New York. They plan to drive across the United States, from west to east, then up the eastern seaboard to Canada. Then they’re off to Alaska and back down the west coast to return again to San Diego before heading back to South America. In a couple of years, when that’s done, Grundeger said, they might have a go at driving across Asia, from China back to Europe, or maybe Australia, he’s not sure yet.
Standing in the parking lot at WindanSea beach, Grundeger and his wife took in the surfers and the sparkling sea. They said it was as beautiful a beach as they’ve seen, but I think they might have been exaggerating to be polite. Then, almost as an afterthought, I asked Grundeger how old he is.
“Sixty nine,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “And I’m not supposed to tell you, but Helga is 64.”
Then they both climbed back into their Land Rover and started off up the street.
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