Photo courtesy of Thomas Rahn and Sabine Hoppe
I met Thomas and Sabine when they wandered into the dimly lit front room of The Orange Elephant Backpackers near Addo Village in South Africa, where I was working reception in exchange for room and board. It was a shivery winter’s night in mid-July, a night when you could see the ghostly clouds of your breath and the Milky Way spindled through the inky sea of sky like the luminous remains of some otherworldly supernova. They didn’t have a booking but they needed a place to park their camper for a night, or maybe two.
I found each of them startlingly beautiful and I sensed a hint of magic about them, as if they had strayed into the homespun lodge from the pages of a storybook full of strange characters or the depths of some unearthly dream. I wouldn’t learn why until the next afternoon, but my impression wasn’t far from the truth.
Thomas is an extraordinarily tall, svelte fellow with long, sepia dreadlocks that nearly reach his knees, a playful hazel gaze, and a face that seems to smile with a quiet trace of mischief even when he’s not exactly smiling. Sabine has the porcelain glow and winsome dimples of a charmingly rendered Renoir ingénue but despite the sweet smile and the warm, gentle temperament, she has none of the coy naiveté. She has lustrous red hair that she braids across her shoulder and far-seeing sapphire blue eyes.
When I learned they were from Germany I was already impressed that they had driven all the way to South Africa. And driven they had, but not the way I thought, by heading due south from Europe. First they drove east, all the way across Asia to the southeastern tip of the continent. From Singapore, they shipped their truck to Tacoma, in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
They drove across North and then South America, shipping their ride across the Darién Gap, a 90-kilometer stretch of swampland that separates Panama from Colombia. They drove through the southernmost reaches of Patagonia to Ushuaia, the city at "the end of the world,” before shipping the truck again, this time from Zárate, a port near Buenos Aires, to Durban, South Africa, 900 kilometers northeast of Addo, before checking in at The Orange Elephant.
The goal that unites every continent they cross is to drive to the ends of the earth, to pilot themselves and their mobile homestead to the furthest reachable points of each landmass.
Thomas and Sabine left their hometown of Amberg, a Bavarian stadt in southeastern Germany, in November of 2009. Over four and a half years, they have covered five continents, forty different countries, and something close to 95,000 kilometers. They’ve met others who are also crossing continents by car, been amazed by the hospitality of strangers far and wide, and discovered that the world is not the hostile, fearsome place that we imagine when we listen to the news.
I am expecting harrowing tales from South America—drug cartel crossfire and guerilla warfare, bandit-riddled highways and attempted robberies. When I ask, Thomas says, “Oh yes, there’s nothing in Colombia but drug lords and guerilla warriors everywhere.” I am so trained to listen to the State Department warnings that it takes me a second to realize he is joking, to see the silent laughter in his eyes. They never felt endangered there, never encountered conflict, never ran into guerillas with guns.
In all of their 4-plus years of traveling overland, they have never even once been attacked. You are safe, Thomas says, precisely because you are simply not looking for trouble. “Your job as a traveler is to avoid places where there’s trouble. You find your way around it,” he says.
Their truck is a hulking, white, sturdy-looking machine that they’ve painted more often than they’ve washed. The wood-paneled interior is cozy, colorful, and decorated with photographs of the world. There’s a double bed, cupboards, a tiny kitchen, and even a toilet and shower.
Their method of finding places to rest for the night differs widely from region to region. In America, they often asked farmers and roadside diners for a temporary place to park. In a year and a half of traveling across Asia, they used only one designated camping facility. That was in Turkey and the rest of the continent was notably empty of campgrounds. So they would simply find a place to pull off the road and park themselves for the night.
While crossing the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, they stayed in yurts with the natives. They didn’t share a language with their desert-dwelling hosts, who had never even seen a camper truck. But still they were welcomed, served traditional food, and regaled with stories and games. The Mongolians were happy that someone was passing through the vast, empty landscape of their homeland.
They spent a whole evening with one Mongolian family singing songs, showing pictures of their travels, and drawing with sticks in the sand. The natives managed wordlessly to teach the traveling couple a game played with the bones of sheep.
Thomas says you don’t need words to communicate. “If you’re willing to communicate, you can,” he says. “Even without language.”
When it comes to routing, technical issues, and finding overnight accommodation, the couple says they come by their best information through networking with other travelers. To cross China, drivers must hire a guide who accompanies the party on the road. So they formed a caravan with other overland travelers, allowing everyone to share the cost.
I ask Sabine to describe her favorite place and she speaks of the moonscapes of Bolivia—the otherworldly salt flats, the crumpled white plains that seem to stretch to the ends of the earth; the kaleidoscopic lagoons, some the color of emeralds, some cerulean, some turquoise, some scarlet. Those prismatic waterways are occupied by hundreds of South American flamingoes. It’s a high altitude region surrounded by volcanoes, some extinct and some active.
Thomas and Sabine occasionally fly back to Germany for visits during their travels. They present public slideshows of their travelogue photography to raise funds for further adventures. They’ve sold photographs to magazines and they import handicrafts acquired during the course of their journeys, which they sell during winter visits back home in the German Christmas markets.
Sabine is also a working artist. She studied painting and has continued her craft while traveling by painting for people she meets along the way. She takes an open-minded, collaborative approach to a project that now spans the breadth of the globe. Her clients give her their idea for a painting and she actualizes their vision. “You get really fast into a deep conversation if you ask people for a painting they would like to have,” Sabine explains. “Otherwise they will not feel a deep connection to the painting.”
In the end, the client keeps the creation and Sabine exhibits photographs of her work. She’s completed seventeen paintings so far, in eleven different countries around the world: Germany, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Malaysia, Mexico, Colombia, the United States, and Peru. Visit the Art Project page on Thomas and Sabine's blog to see several of the paintings in their native habitats and read about the visions that inspired them. (Click on the British flag under the Google Translator heading for English translations.)
Now in South Africa, where they’ve been for about two months, Thomas and Sabine are heading for the Garden Route, a verdant stretch of lake-dappled land sandwiched between the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountain ranges and the Indian Ocean along South Africa's southeastern coast. Their plan for this year is to drive from the southernmost tip of Africa up the eastern coast of the continent and all the way back to Germany, where their 100,000+ kilometer circle around the world will at last be complete.
Afterward, they plan to settle down for awhile but they don’t know how they’ll feel in three or four years. For now, they are looking forward to a break from the ever-present labyrinth of logistics. It can be challenging spending every day grappling with what Thomas calls “orientation mode”: the constant search for petrol, water, food, and sleep that dominates life on the road.
A few weeks ago, during the course of the World Cup, they resolved to find places to watch the games each night, whenever and wherever possible. This mission led them to some unlikely places in a region that often has no running water or electricity, let alone taverns or sports bars.
They were in remote Lesotho during the World Cup finals, but they finally found a place to watch the game. It was just a tiny pub on a hill, the first place in days that had power. People had gathered from miles all around to sit in the diminutive, pitch black room with one TV, a paraffin heater, and a small generator. It was five below zero degrees celsius out and and the place was crowded with about three dozen people who had come to watch Germany play Brazil. Many members of the gathering were shepherds. “We still smell like sheep!” Thomas laughs amiably. “We’ll never forget that game, not because of the seven goals of Germany, but because of the funny place.”
Thomas and Sabine spent March and April of 2010 driving across Iran. It’s difficult to name the most welcoming place on earth, but as they experienced it, Iran was unquestionably one of the most hospitable countries in the world. Sabine, who covered her hair and wore long sleeves during their visit, felt that Iran must be one of the safest countries she’s ever experienced.
This is because the people feel responsible for their visitors. They would stop the couple in the streets just to welcome them, to offer their phone numbers and advice. The travelers left Iran with a long list of telephone numbers from natives who were all eager to help them. Two or three times each day they’d be given one, along with a heartfelt invitation to call should they need any assistance at all. One gentleman called the couple every day to check on them and make sure they were well. Once, a community sent a delegation of neighbors to knock on the camper door, bearing smiles, well-wishes, and the gift of a watermelon to welcome the travelers to town.
Sometimes, it was almost too much hospitality. They would ask for directions and whoever they had inquired with would insist on paying a taxi driver to guide them, just in case they got lost. Often, they had to start drinking before noon because their hosts were so eager to share alcohol. Drinking isn’t legal in Iran, but the people are keen to demonstrate their defiance of the law. Thomas and Sabine said the first thing Iranians will tell you when they meet you is, “We are not our government. Please understand there is a difference between the people and the government.”
“Whatever we expect, it’s totally different when we get there,” says Thomas. Another country that surprised them was America because it was so different from the images in the news. The variety of landscapes was breathtaking and the people were mostly amazing. “The news is always about politics, international affairs, nuclear weapons,” Thomas says. “But when you travel, you have nothing to do with that. You meet people and people are different from the government. A lot of countries changed our mind totally.”
They started their trip to America couch surfing in Tacoma, just south of Seattle. They asked for two days and ended up staying a week because they got on so well with their hosts. They didn’t expect the wide variety of mind-blowing landscapes all packed into a single country. They spent a lot of time in the national parks. They saw beaches, mountains, forests, grasslands, deserts, and busy cities. They felt the U.S. offered a huge variety of environments to explore in a very comfortable way.
For Thomas and Sabine, travel is education, a way of learning new things about the world. They say that when they talk to people from other cultures, the connection always changes their perceptions. They have learned not to arrive with too many ideas of a place, of how things will be.
“If you have been in Bombay, eating their daily food in the street markets, you have a better idea of their life, of their culture,” says Thomas. “Europe is quite mixed but the people are still afraid of the different cultures coming in. But if you’ve been there, there’s no need to be afraid any more. You see [immigration] as an enrichment.”
“You can never understand a culture where you have not lived for a very long time, but you can get some ideas,” he continues. “Sometimes we spend three, four months in a country so we have some kind of impression. But we can’t say, ‘Now we know this country.’ We don’t want to know everything perfectly; we just want to get some more ideas. That’s the reason that drives us.”
Having crossed the globe together in such close quarters, they tell stories as if of one mind. They finish each other's sentences, communicate in glances, and help each other find the right words. Their connection seems relaxed, cosy, and contented, yet full of that vibrant, inscrutable mystery that travel provokes and sustains.
“We never know what happens tomorrow,” Sabine smiles. “And that’s not so bad actually.”
To read more about Thomas and Sabine's adventures and for all kinds of logistical information about traveling overland, including road conditions, drinking water availability, fuel prices, visa requirements, and more, all organized by country, visit the couple's website at www.abseitsreisen.de.
Get lost in their exquisite travel photography at instagram.com/abseitsreisen.
See more of Sabine's otherworldly artwork at www.sabine-hoppe.de.