Volkswagen Magazine

LIVE SMARTER

the big party.

Forty years ago, five men subjected the Golf I to its longest endurance test: they drove more than 18,600 miles from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in the car that had just gone into series production. The photographer on that tour reminisces.

Text & Photos Frank Müller-May 

Vastness. Nothing but great, endless vastness. When I think back on that journey we made four decades ago, the first thing that comes to mind is the beauty of the landscapes. The Rocky Mountains, the shimmering steppes of Nevada and Chile, the Andean highlands in Peru and Bolivia, and the Pacific stretching before Tierra del Fuego. Rarely in my life has the force of nature moved me so much as in these three months when we were on the road with two Golfs and a an iconic campervan (for supplies and spare parts). Our group consisted of journalist Fritz B. Busch, Volkswagen mechanics Bernd Ott and Alfonso Barcelo, as well as engineers Peter Färber (Alaska - Mexico) and Wolfgang Peschke (Mexico - Tierra del Fuego). So we were six men, five of whom were constantly on the road together. Together we repaired tyres in the back of beyond, searched for sleeping quarters in the swamps, negotiated with border police, and recovered from risky evasive manoeuvres. Last but not least, we met a variety of wonderful people, some of whom I am still in touch with today. Back then, a trip like this was a real adventure – for the most part, the roads were neither signposted nor surfaced. Reliable maps were scarce, and navigation systems still a dream of the future. Despite all this, our two Golfs somehow managed to get to Tierra del Fuego unscathed. As the photographer, I was more than happy. A lot of my travel photographs have been published in books and magazines. Some of them can be seen here for the very first time.

Frank Müller-May

was born on 20 December 1939, in Berlin. At the request of his father, he studied mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Berlin before he moved to Hamburg and took up photography. In 1959, he began working as a laboratory assistant at Stern magazine, and a few years later, he became the youngest Stern photographer. His coverage led him to all continents. In Ethiopia, he met Emperor Haile Selassie and helped initiate the Save The Starving! campaign, raising around 20 million Deutschmarks (over £8 million). From 1983 to 1989, he was in charge of the Stern photographic editorial department and later became a correspondent in London and Paris. He has been living in the south of France since 2008.

It’s 18,960 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world: the tour at a glance.

Alaska.

We flew from Hamburg over the North Pole and arrived in Alaska at the beginning of October 1974. The three cars were waiting intact and in containers for us. The first challenge: 1,550 miles of Alaskan Highway in five days, from Fairbanks to Dawson Creek. The majority of this was on black ice, often coming close to the abyss, and with no crash barriers and no gritting salt on the road. Somehow we managed it, thanks to the Golf's front-wheel drive.

Canada.

Arriving in Dawson Creek, the end of the Alaskan Highway, we are already in the middle of the second largest country in the world. Then follow stations in Nordegg, Calgary and Lethbridge. In between lie endless coniferous forests, dangerous river crossings and white peaks. When we enter the United States at Coutts, we are glad that the snow and ice will soon be behind us.

USA.

I love the United States – it’s a crazy country, and since this trip I love it even more. In the US, we cross the magnificent Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks, drive very close to the steep banks of the Grand Canyon, race against the speedometer along the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, meet bona fide cowboys in Tucson, Arizona and real rattlesnakes in New Mexico. As I said before: I love the United States, with all its shady sides.

Mexico.

Nowhere on our tour have we seen so many Volkswagens as in Mexico City, where nearly every taxi was a Beetle with the front passenger seat removed – that's how they make space for passenger luggage. And nowhere else was our Golf so curiously eyed – be it from police officers on the lookout for fines, or the ubiquitous street musicians. Whether expert Volkswagen fans or students, people were very happy to pose for a group photo with us. All in all, it's been great.

 

Central America.

It got strenuous after Guatemala. Scorching heat and stark climatic differences between dusty roads and jungle. We pass through El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica as quickly as possible after frequently exhausting skirmishes with border bureaucrats. In Panama, the primeval forest swamp finally brings us to a halt. We take the ferry to Colombia.

 

South America.

After weeks of wrangling, we finally find a ship that will take us safely to Colombia. The steep roads en route to Ecuador are in terrible condition, but in the country itself we receive a much warmer welcome. The formalities at the border take five minutes. Great sigh of relief. The rest of the route to and through Peru is often rough, often deserted, but for the most part beautiful.

 

Chile.

After all the tough steep roads across the Andes, we are badly in need of our five days relaxation in Santiago. In between, we make a detour to the copper mine of Chuquicamata, a huge open-pit mine with the largest lorries I have ever seen. In Santiago, we celebrate New Year’s Eve in an earthquake-proof hotel. Disturbingly, the earth shakes twice during our time out.

 

Tierra del Fuego.

The last stages turn into a fight against rockfalls and potholes. On the mercilessly steep roads in Argentina, we suffered a broken silencer, a slipped timing belt and a leaking tank. However, the Golf copes well with such misfortunes after some quick repairs on the open stretches. In high seas we safely cross the Strait of Magellan, which separates Tierra del Fuego from the South American mainland. After 94 days on the road, we finally made it.