Jan 30, 2022
An Unbroken Journey to Every Country on Earth
After a 700-day detour from his record-breaking adventure, Thor Pedersen is back at sea, on the journey to visit every country in the world without catching a single flight.
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Last week, Pedersen boarded the good ship ‘Kota Ratna’, a 472 foot long Pacific ocean liner. The 25-year old cargo ship can carry a load of 13,504 tons – which is as much as 2,250 African elephants. On the way to his first new country in two years, the ship will pass Taiwan, Guam, Saipan, and Yap on the 2,857 nautical mile journey to Palau, the closest country to Hong Kong on his unbroken journey.
To visit every country in the world in one single journey without catching a single flight is something that has never been done before. (Follow Pedersen´s journey on his travel log).
On October 10, 2013, Pederson left his home in Southern Denmark with the pledge to not return until he visits every country in the world. Thus far, Pedersen has reached 194 countries in an unbroken journey completely without flying.
“I left home in 2013 and the world has changed a lot.”
Kilometer for kilometer, mile for mile, flying is the most harmful way to travel for the climate. A round-trip international flight can produce more than double the CO2 emissions of a family car over an entire year.
There are three cardinal rules for Pedersen’s record-setting project he calls Once Upon a Saga: 1) no flights, 2) he must spend more than 24-hours in each country, and 3) he cannot return home until the project has been completed.
Pedersen operates on a $20 a day budget, which must cover transportation, accommodation, food, and VISA. Pedersen never takes first-class couchettes or private cars. He travels like a local, which gives him more chances to become fast friends and he receives kindness from strangers in abundance. [Listen to Pedersen on The Outdoor Journal Podcast.]
“It’s amazing what you can get used to in life.”
Pedersen admits that he has wanted to quit several times but so far, he continues on. The Saga was initially thought to take between 3.5 and 4 years based on approximately seven days per country. However, it has proven far more complicated than initially thought.
During the journey, he has suffered from both cholera and cerebral malaria. He traveled through Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia during the height of the Ebola outbreak and also through Angola during a mass Yellow Fever outbreak. Then Covid hit.
Pedersen’s 24-hour rule got stretched to the limits due to Covid – causing a 700-day detour in Hong Kong, where Pedersen took advantage of his extended layover with ultra-endurance hiking challenges.
THE 24-HOUR CLUB
During Covid, Pedersen faced a daily dilemma, quit the project and fly home, or stay stranded in Hong Kong. He decided to make the best of his situation by challenging himself to summit Hong Kong’s 20 highest peaks, which accumulate to the height of Everest. Among his many hiking accomplishments over his two-year stay, he joined the 24-hour club by hiking the MacLehose Trail, which runs 100 km, in less than 20 hours. The trail covers much of Hong Kong’s new territories and was named after the longest-serving governor of Hong Kong, who established the Country Parks.
Pedersen also tackled all four of Hong Kong´s ultra-distance footpaths, including the 78k Wilson Trail, the 70k Lantau Trail, and the Hong Kong Trail which measures 47.5km from Victoria Peak to Big Wave Bay on Hong Kong Island, in under six hours.
“A lot of people don’t know how much nature there is in Hong Kong. They think of skyrises and shopping and big businesses and maybe the port. But I’ve been reporting it, again and again, Hong Kong is 75% nature. It came as a big surprise to me and it’s been a refuge for me as well. It’s been a place where I can go work out my demons and get a bit more healthy.”
THE FINAL NINE
Before embarking on Once Upon a Saga, Pedersen had already traveled to 54 countries on four different continents, so culture shock is not a factor on this journey. But he has experienced otherworldly introductions when traveling to different island nations via cargo ships.
“Countries bleed into each other. You cross a border and recognize familiarities. But there have been a few countries where I crossed the border and it felt like a new planet.”
“A stranger is a friend you’ve never met before.”
If he could do it all over again, Pedersen would have traveled the Pacific nations in a different order. At the outset, he dotted the islands nations by proximity to each, but he later learned that he should have first looked at how the shipping lanes work to figure out which hub would be more expeditious.
The final nine countries are Palau, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.
He’s already determined the final country – the Maldives – and you would think that would be the best place for a romantic getaway, to look back and reflect, but no, it’s all about logistics.
“I’ve seen the photos, but I wanna go home. I would much rather see my home country than to see the most perfect beach in the world.” Unlike most people on a holiday, on this unbroken journey, Pedersen has been missing that element of going home in between trips to truly digest it.
A STRANGER IS A FRIEND
Over seven years, Pedersen hasn’t had any experiences that threaten the motto of his project, which comes from a Danish song, in fact, it has only been reinforced.
With everyone he meets, Pedersen approaches them with an open attitude and a trust that they are potentially a friend.
“There’s a huge amount of strangers in this world that have helped me with what I’m doing. I’ve been astonished. Sometimes I step back and think, ‘Would I ever help anyone in the way that I just received help? Do I have that within me to go that far for someone that I have never met before in my life?’ Maybe receiving all this help has changed me to go that extra mile in the future but certainly, I wouldn’t have before I left home.”
Pedersen’s mission is to promote every country and the world in a positive way.
“I went to Guinea and Sierra Leone and Liberia during the huge Ebola outbreak and no one said anything nice about those countries. I had hardly been in Sierra Leone for an hour before someone invited me to a wedding.”
As a tall Danishman, Pedersen also shatters stereotypes of visitors in the eyes of the people he meets in less popular tourism sites like Yemen or Syria.
“When you go to these places, people don’t expect to see a westerner who is not an NGO or military or a government official. It’s the furthest thing from their mind that someone shows up with a strange hat and a backpack and just wants to go to the market and take some photos and meet some people. It’s really strange for them. In many cases they’re delighted. They suddenly see their countries as worthy of having visitors again. They also have things that they can offer the world that doesn’t make it on evening TV.”
Before getting stuck in Hong Kong, Pedersen reached a new country every 11 days on average, which tended to give him enough time to secure a visa and travel arrangements to the next destination.
With flights off the table, he travels between continents via cargo ship and his longest cargo ship journey was 25 days on the way to Fiji. That’s a lot of time to think, especially knowing that he could have gotten there by plane within a day.
On a cargo ship journey, moving from point A to point B, Pedersen’s life is simplified. Transportation, accommodation, and meals are covered. He gets fed, saves money, daily logistics are taken care of, and theres’ no internet so no distractions. Pedersen can sleep all day if he wants to, take long showers, or go up on the bridge and watch the ocean for hours. His most recent vessel was designed for workers, not travelers, but Pedersen did have his own room with a bed, desk, sofa, closet, and his own shower/toilet.
“When people say it’s a small world they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s a big world.”
Pedersen’s 12 years in shipping and logistics did familiarize him with the names of the shipping companies, but at the start, he didn’t know whether it was even possible to catch rides on these types of vessels. However, his background prepared him with the perseverance and confidence for finding quick solutions.
“I think it has helped me but not in the way that most people would imagine it would. Anything you do in life, if you do it long enough, it becomes a part of your DNA and your fabric. Within shipping and logistics, you need to seek out solutions constantly.”
Pedersen represents the Danish Red Cross as a Goodwill Ambassador. His mission is to raise awareness and funds for the largest humanitarian organization in the world. However, he has pledged not to use this affiliation as an unfair advantage in acquiring visas or attaining passage on a ship.
“I try not to use that in my favor. I want to keep the Red Cross clean and pure.”
Pedersen has traveled more than 307,000 km (190,000 mi) by bus, train, and boat, and has not once paid a single bribe.
“I think bribing and corruption is a cancer on this planet. It destroys communities and civilizations.”
SLEEP WHERE YOU CAN
Pedersen travels with a hammock and sleeping arrangements are rarely glamorous. Although many complete strangers offer to let him crash on their couch wherever he goes, Pedersen does have to resort to sleeping on the ground from time to time, but the locations might surprise you.
The first time was in New York City’s Central Park because he arrived by bus at 3 am. The site of a man sleeping on a park bench in the early morning hours probably surprised no one. After dozing off for a few hours, Pedersen cleaned up in a nearby birdbath.
The next time Pedersen camped out on the ground was at the Vatican. In a stealthy and possibly illegal maneuver, Pedersen spent his 24 hours at the Vatican against the rules by following sneaky tips like stashing food in the cloakroom.
Another time in Honduras, Pedersen slept with one eye open at a seedy bus station. If he happens to wake up covered in cockroaches, he simply brushes them off and goes back to sleep.
“It’s amazing what you can get used to in life.”
Pedersen’s record-setting journey has granted him many meaningful interactions and new friends, but it has also come with a sacrifice to his own friends and family in his life before the project.
“I have friends and family back home that don’t understand why this is so important. Why this should take up so many years of my life.”
Pedersen’s fiance, who lives in Denmark, has been able to join him periodically throughout these seven years. In an ironically romantic gesture, Pedersen grew out his beard between each visit, which could be as long as 15 months, even though his wife is not a fan of the look. The couple became married over an online ceremony in December of 2020 from across the world.
Pedersen balances family life with this project, which inspires and motivates people around the world by showing the world in a new light – a more positive reality to what people see in the news. He has successfully raised awareness for the Red Cross and built a foundation for a life of motivational speaking when he returns home.
[Listen to Pedersen on The Outdoor Journal Podcast.]
In this episode of The Outdoor Journal Podcast, Pedersen discusses where in the world you can find the best street food, how he manages to keep his sanity on cargo ship voyages for weeks at a time, and which country he would choose to live in if he had to stay put for an entire seven years.