“We wanted to explore the world on our own terms. As East Germans, we already had a great talent for improvisation, which would come in handy.”
The Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989, the German Democratic Republic had been dissolved a year later, and Germany had become a new country.
While they were having incredible experiences with their bikes, history was being made back home in Europe. Axel and Peter had cycled off to explore the most remote parts of the globe. Meanwhile, the eyes of the world were on a reunified Germany, where a new era was beginning.
Axel and Peter didn’t meet until after the Wall fell, but they already had a great deal in common – not least a shared passion for rock climbing and traveling, not to mention some mutual friends. As teenagers, both had resolved to see the world.
Born in Thuringia, Axel worked in a children’s home until 1990. Peter was born in Saxony in 1968 and trained as a metalworker. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, they had their first (often illegal) travel experiences in the countries of the Eastern Bloc.
After the Wall fell, Axel took a job in Frankfurt working for the founder of Jack Wolfskin, Ulrich Dausien. When Dausien heard about Axel and Peter’s plan to travel the globe by bicycle, he surprised them with a going-away gift. This would mark the beginning of many years of friendship and collaboration with the outdoors experts.
At the time, I was working in a Jack Wolfskin shop. When Ulrich Dausien heard about our crazy plans, he sponsored our gear, which we hadn’t expected at all. It was amazing! You can see the wolf paw in all our photos from the time – even after five years of traveling. It was the beginning of a close personal and working relationship.”
As Axel and Peter needed to work while they traveled, they got to know people in everyday contexts. In other words, they didn’t just pass through or visit as tourists; instead, they temporarily became part of the societies they visited.
“When you have nothing, you have nothing, no matter where you are. Like many people, we didn’t have much to our name. But working brought us closer to people in the places we visited, and they, in turn, respected us for rolling up our sleeves. Of course, our poverty was a hobby we chose for ourselves. But in that moment, we were all equal.”
Axel and Peter’s professional relationship with Jack Wolfskin grew stronger over the years. One of the highlights was the Wolfstock Festival, an event that established Jack Wolfskin as a sponsor of other festivals and occasions. In addition to partying and enjoying live music, visitors to Wolfstock could try out climbing, mountain biking, and canoeing. There were also fascinating talks, including one by the wolf expert Christoph Promberger. Visitors could even visit the original ship from Arved Fuchs’s Shackleton expedition, which was moored in a lake. Plus Axel and Peter gave a talk in an original yurt about their cycling adventures. Made of sturdy felt, the yurt had been specially flown in from Kyrgyzstan. When it started to rain at the festival, the yurt was rapidly converted into a party tent.
As well as cycling, Axel and Peter sailed on a junk and a raft, both of which they had built themselves. As far as they were concerned, the journey was more important than the destination. They both wanted to experience the elements directly. And they wanted to meet the inhabitants of the distant lands they visited, not just rush past them. Real life is made of personal encounters – and these take time. Unable to speak the local languages, they managed to communicate by means of body language and eye contact.
Their shared adventure lasted around 30 years and led them to the most remote corners of the world. By the time it was finished, they had visited 163 countries (of 195 official countries today), covering over 125,000 miles by bike.
They certainly had plenty to talk about, as well as countless photographs to illustrate their stories. For example, following the route taken by Marco Polo, they crossed desolate deserts and wild oceans. They explored the mystical rainforests of the Amazon and cycled across the Australian desert. They followed steep Inca trails amid the breathtaking beauty of the Andes and canoed down emerald-green rivers that still probably don’t appear on any map.
There’s no question that the world is incredibly beautiful. But Axel and Peter were most moved by the people they met along the way: their lust for life, their hospitality, and their humanity. They encountered reserved indigenous people, dangerous pirates on the high seas, and many wonderful strangers who quickly became friends, sometimes even family. Many of those friendships continue to this day. Axel and Peter discovered freedom and life in all its facets, including fear, poverty, and pain. They were even thrown in jail at one point in their travels. But they were determined to experience real life.
“We gradually grew up. We were troubled by the degree of poverty we encountered, in particular among street children in places such as Bolivia, Indonesia, and India. We didn’t want to just travel, we wanted to help too.”
So they did. Axel and Peter established charities, and they continue to fundraise to this day. Since their cycling tour of the world, they have supported three children’s homes in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, among other initiatives. They always work with local volunteers to ensure that their assistance reaches the people who really need it. Around 24 years ago, they established the Weltsichten-Festival (Worldview Festival) in Thuringia. A very recent project of theirs is a travel museum in a former forge, where schoolchildren can attend engaging workshops about the world of adventure while also learning about social responsibility. Peter has been enjoying a quieter life with his family in recent years.
“We got so much from our travels and adventures. Eventually, we felt the need to give something back to nature and to people.”
Axel has been creative during the pandemic, founding Sofareisen (Couch Surfing) with dedicated friends from the cycling organization Radzelten e.V., which is a website where travelers, adventurers, and photographers can share their experiences online. The website has already hosted 40 online presentations and has raised a considerable amount of money for charity.
Axel talks about his experiences with the wisdom of a world traveler and the fascination of a child. Listening to him, you suddenly get the sense that we can all feel at home anywhere in the world. Borders certainly exist, but perhaps our job is to overcome them, maybe even tear them down – peacefully, of course. And even at the end of the world, Axel says, you’ll always find a house where someone lives. All you have to do is knock on the door.
“There’s always a way. You just have to be prepared to wait. Our secret has always been being patient.”
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