The journey is its own reward—three teams, three routes, across half the world. The British travel writer Bruce Chatwin once wrote, “Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road.” Indeed, there are countless reasons why so many of us are drawn to the road—the irresistible prospect of thrilling long-distance drives, extraordinary encounters, and unforgettable experiences.
What is it exactly that inspires people to attempt the extraordinary? To take uncalculated risks? To test—or even exceed—their limits? Are they moved by restlessness or a desire to set new records? Do they want to prove to the world what they can achieve? Or is their motivation simply the adrenaline rush from extreme situations?
“All of that applies to a certain extent—or at least it applies to me,” says Jan Kalmar. For the Denmark native, long-distance drives are part of a journey named “The Longest Drive,” a quest to test limits, break records, and, of course, to escape from daily routine. In the heart of Africa, Kalmar’s expedition has led to some perilous situations, which he brushes aside with a mischievous smile. “I’d be more anxious about having to spend my vacation sitting around on a beach for a week.”
Modern psychology describes personalities such as Jan Kalmar’s as “high sensation seekers”—people in search of a thrill. Studies have shown that the desire for extreme stimuli and experiences outweighs any fear of the attendant risks. A sensation seeker’s pulse remains comparatively calm in stressful situations. Scientists debate whether this special trait is hereditary, as well as what motivates this behavior. After all, these motives vary as much as the people who seek adventure.
For long-distance drivers, the fascination begins with selecting the route. For some, it is the pure pleasure of driving a classic
This endurance race dates back to 1907, when the Paris newspaper Le Matin challenged European car manufacturers to demonstrate the performance of their automobiles. That first race was won by Scipione Borghese and Luigi Barzini of Italy, who crossed the finish line after just eight weeks. However, due to subsequent political developments in China and Russia, it was not until 1997 that the next race was held, as a vintage car rally. In June 2016, over one hundred teams from twenty-five nations started their engines in Beijing and roared off toward Paris, aiming to cover 8,509.68 miles in around five weeks. Lebanese driver Charbel Habib and his codriver, Walid Samaha, were the first team from the Middle East to take part in this race.
A relaxed Charbel Habib is sitting in his office in Beirut. The forty-six-year-old engineer, founder and CEO of a successful construction holding company in the Middle East and Africa, shows every sign of being a happy man. “People here are proud of our achievement,” he says. Habib and his codriver, Walid Samaha, drove a faithfully restored 1964
“A classic car fan like me views the Beijing to Paris endurance rally as the ultimate challenge,” Habib confesses. For the sixth edition of the vintage car rally, more than one hundred teams from twenty-five nations lined up at the starting line last year. Habib and Samaha, who had never ventured to enter a long-distance race of this caliber before, scored an outstanding result: twenty-fourth place in the overall standings and second place in the category for vehicles in the under-two-liter engine class that were built between 1945 and 1965. Habib notes contentedly, “We didn’t miss a single one of the more than one hundred time controls and we were awarded a gold medal for this success.” And what makes him even happier: “Not one of the Ford Mustangs in the field managed to beat us to the finish on Place Vendôme.”
Why did you decide on a
We wanted to use a special classic vehicle—even if this gorgeous
Do you recall any particularly odd incidents?
The race was about half over, and we were in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Russia. We had to work on our car late into the night to have it ready for the next stage. We were so exhausted the next day that we didn’t pay much attention to the roadbook but simply followed in the tracks of a competitor. It wasn’t until he made a sudden turn that we checked the roadbook and realized that we had left the route far behind. We switched on the GPS, but it wasn’t working. So we overtook the other car, stopped it, and asked the driver if he was sticking to the roadbook. “Nope,” was his answer. “I’m not headed for that destination, I’m driving somewhere else.” That caused us to lose an incredible amount of time, but we still made it past the time control with thirty seconds to spare.
What was your greatest challenge?
In Mongolia, we had to contend with pouring rain, but the dust was even worse. Our 356 was fitted with the original air filters. The extreme vibrations on the uneven roads—including 1,864.11 miles of off-road driving—caused the filters to become loose. As a result, an unbelievable amount of dust entered the car interior, with an even more serious aftermath. That’s because after we changed the filters, the engine suddenly developed problems. Fortunately, a transfer passage enabled us to take a longer break. And after two nights of working on it, we were able to get the engine up and running properly again.
Did you ever consider quitting?
Definitely—right at the beginning, in fact. Thanks to our utter inexperience in navigating through a desert, we had already completely lost our way. Then we were tempted again near the end of the rally because we were so exhausted. If we hadn’t been so close to the finish line, I’m sure we would have given up. But Paris was almost in view by that time, so there was no way we were going to quit.
In the summer of 2016, teammates Nidhi Tiwari and Neha V. Sadananda of India traversed twelve Himalayan mountain passes in a standard
Nidhi Tiwari can hardly contain herself and bursts out: “Just try to picture it: there they are, the twelve cabbies I passed on the road up to Khardung La. They’re marveling at the
At 18,392 feet—according to the locals—Khardung La (la is the Tibetan word for “pass”) is the world’s highest mountain pass that is accessible by motor vehicles. It was part of the Himalayan XOL that Tiwari completed in eighteen days in the summer of 2016: 2,485.49 miles in a
The thirty-six-year-old mother of two sons lives in New Delhi and embarks on extreme driving tours such as this one under the auspices of the organization she founded, Women Beyond Boundaries. She is committed to improving the social circumstances of women in India, and mobility is a key factor in realizing this change. Half of the Indian population is female, and yet women rarely sit behind the wheel of a car. “If a woman cannot move freely, she will not be able to realize her potential,” says Tiwari. “And extreme overland drives are a good way to raise public awareness of this imbalance.”
Women who undertake extreme driving are still few and far between—and not just in India. What motivates you?
It may sound surprising, but it all began for completely pragmatic reasons. Before I became a mother, I spent a lot of time in nature as an outdoor guide. And that wasn’t something I wanted to give up when my children were born. So I thought about how I could travel with my sons to the Himalayas, for example. 2007 was the first year I set off for the Himalayas in a 4 × 4 vehicle—with my mother, her sister, and the kids. My younger son was barely a year old at the time. The experience of making this trip counts as one of the major turning points in my life.
In what way?
Since then, I have repeated this tour at least once a year, including on my own, without my family. On one occasion, I got stuck in the snow high up in the mountains—that was before I had the
How many fellow campaigners did you have to start with?
None. It was just me. But I wanted to give other women in India the tools that would help them to fulfill their drive for freedom and adventure. I wanted to enable them to tackle extreme tours on their own without having to rely on a man. And it’s working: our numbers are growing.
Now that you have several 2,485.49-mile Himalaya tours behind you, your next goal is a long-distance record for your organization, which is still relatively new.
That’s right. This year, I plan to set off with five other women on the first Indian Arctic expedition: 21,747.99 miles in eighty days—that should be quite exciting!
From the North Cape to the southern tip of Africa, behind the wheel of their zebra-striped
“Preparation?” Jan Kalmar flashes a grin on this sunny day in Copenhagen. “Forget it.” Kalmar knows all too well from previous trips with his team on The Longest Drive that unpredictable events are par for the course—keeping as fit as possible is the most he can do. One preparation worth mentioning, however, involves sleep: for any long-distance event, such as the North to South 2.0, you don’t want every team member to be on the same sleeping schedule. According to Kalmar: “The more tired you are at the start of the drive, the better. It is very important not to have all three drivers nodding off at the same time—that’s a recipe for failure. There’s an advantage in falling asleep sooner.”
Kalmar and his team members, Shaun Neill and Vitoldas Milius, know from personal experience how even a minor incident can jeopardize an entire endeavor. While planning the long route from the North Cape to South Africa, the team located a gas station in Ethiopia where they could refuel with high-quality diesel. En route, however, tire damage caused them to run out of time. They forgot about the gas station, refueled somewhere else, and ran into significant difficulties with the lower-grade diesel. They could see their dream of achieving a record time slipping further and further away.
You don’t take breaks on your record-setting journeys. How does that work, and above all, how and where do you sleep?
There were three of us on our two North to South trips. While one of us drove, the second team member would relax or doze on the front-passenger seat. The third driver slept in a bed that we put in by removing the backseat of our
You opted for a shortcut during North to South 2.0—why was that?
The ongoing war in Syria prevented us from taking a route through there. Instead, we flew from Istanbul to Egypt, where we took a mandatory break for around nineteen hours, which is how long it would have taken driving at an average speed of roughly 56 miles per hour on the Syria route. From Egypt, we continued our drive.
And then there was trouble in Tanzania …
Oh, right. Well, someone gave us the wrong directions there, which unfortunately took us on a 186.41‑mile detour. That made us fall so far behind schedule that we had to take the car to its limit. But the
What is the actual tank capacity of your
Strictly speaking, there are two tanks: a 13.2-gallon tank for washing and emergency drinking water and a 56.8-gallon diesel tank that gives us a range of 1,553.43 miles. This tank is comprised of several subunits, which enabled us to mix an ideal proportion of high-quality and lower-grade fuel. And that kept the engine happy.
When do you start your next attempt to break a record?
This year, five of us will be setting off in two
By Thomas Lötz
Photos by Charbel Habib, Nidhi Tiwari, Jan Kalmar