Danish adventurer Torbjørn (Thor) Pedersen set out 10 years ago to visit every country without flying — on a $20 US per day budget and the simple guiding motto “A stranger is a friend you’d never met before”.
His adventure took him to 203 countries and earned him a lifetime of stories from some of the most remote places on the planet — from traveling on cargo ships, to sleeping on the streets and marathon running — he’s done it all.
Meet Thor Pederson — the first person in the world to visit every country without flying (Instagram)
Thor finally completed his adventure this year — so we invited him to a live interview on the Slow Travel Network to learn more about his amazing story and how he did it. Here’s some highlights from the interview.
The short answer is because I found out it had never been done before!
A bit of a longer answer: I grew up near forests and I would venture into these made up adventures as Robin Hood or Indiana Jones. Later on in my life, I started reading about real adventurers and explorers – the ones that went to the North Pole and to the South Pole for the first time in history, or the first people to reach the highest mountains or the deepest seas. I slowly realized that almost everything has been done many, many times.
Back in 2013 I found out that no one has gone to every country in the world completely without flying. It just struck me like lightning and I couldn’t shake it out of my body.
I was 12 years into a career within shipping and logistics, I had a wonderful woman in my life, I just bought an apartment and there was nothing that pointed in the direction that I would go out and do a thing like that. But I just couldn’t shake it out of me and eventually I started planning.
It was a hard decision to leave everything behind and start this big adventure. Also, because I didn’t know it’s going to take almost 10 years – the plan was to take only about 4 years which was already a big commitment on my part.
I was worried that I would leave and there wouldn’t be anyone when I came back home. I was also curious to see if I had the strength, if I had the creativity to find the solutions, and if I had the skills to do all the networking that I had to do.
I lined out the route country by country so I knew that I was going from Denmark to Germany, from Germany to the Netherlands and so on all the way to the very last country.
It was a really demanding project. Because I wasn’t flying, I felt that I really needed to have the logistics in place. Where are you going to sleep and what are you going to eat and what kind of transportation are you going to go with and how are you going to get to it. I left some room for improvising and open to meeting people and changing the plans slightly.
On top of all the logistics, I was doing a lot of interviews and speaking engagements in many countries as a Goodwill Ambassador for the Danish Red Cross to raise funds and awareness, and update social media regularly.
Visiting the Red Cross society in Vanuatu (Instagram)
I started preparing for the trip roughly 10 months before I head off but the actual planning started 3-4 months in advance - the structure of the trip, the budget, the packing, the insurance, the name of the project, where the money was coming from, etc.
I had several fixed rules from the beginning.
To spend a minimum of 24 hours in each country. I wouldn’t recognize a visit if it’s less than that, but I was free to spend as much time as I wanted. Of course, the more time you spend in one country the more time it’s going to take before you get back home. For example, 7 days per country based on roughly 200 countries that’s close to four years of your life. If you spend a month in every country in the world then it’s close to 16 years of your life. So there is a difference between a week in a country and a month in a country. So you have to be very conservative in terms of time management.
Absolutely no flying. If I got on an airplane or any form of flight then the project would be over.
No return back home until I reach the final country.
The project budget was going to be 20 dollars per day on average. if I spent more than twenty dollars, I had to save it another day somewhere along the route.
I didn’t want to pay any bribes.
I didn’t eat at McDonald’s. That just happened naturally. I enjoyed local food as much as possible.
I was aiming to use public transportation as much as possible and to go for the cheapest option. As my budget was 20 US dollars per day, I had to fit into that all the transport, accommodation, food, visas, etc. so it’s quite limiting. I used buses and trains or ferries as much as possible even if the journey was three days longer than the more expensive option that would take half a day.
Traveling the Suez Canal via cargo ship (Instagram)
The objective was to have a place to sleep. If someone invited me and I felt I had enough time to be social, and it was someone I trusted, then I definitely would stay with a family somewhere. I did this in many places around the world. I would stay in a lot of hostels, they’re usually very cheap. You probably get Wi-Fi, and sometimes breakfast or at least tea. I’ve met people who have been able to put me in contact with 5-star hotels.
And sometimes I slept on the streets, because I had no options. I traveled with a hammock and whenever I had the opportunity to put up my hammock I did that to save a bit of money. It’s really been everything in between staying on the street and suddenly in a 5-star hotel.
In reality, maybe 80% of the project was straightforward and easy when there was transportation, and no checkpoints. 20% of the trip was extraordinarily hard.
I’ve been held at gunpoint a few times. One time it was very, very serious, and I thought it was the end of the line for me. I had cerebral malaria. There was a global pandemic, too!
It was difficult to find a route across the North Atlantic in the winter time. I went with seven different vessels, with container carriers, trawlers, and fishing boats, to negotiate and get permission to come on board. We were caught in the storm somewhere near where the Titanic sank. I was traveling on board the “soul sellers,” which is a nickname for vessels that are in such poor condition that it’s guaranteed they’re going to sink, you just don’t know when. Three of those soul sellers that I was with are confirmed today to be at the bottom of the sea!
The global pandemic kind of threw a wrench in the machinery for me. I got stuck in Hong Kong which was a blessing because Hong Kong is absolutely amazing. I made some of the best friends there. I saw incredible things and had amazing food and did some fantastic hiking and there are so many beautiful beaches, and culture, and history. I absolutely love Hong Kong.
But, it wasn’t fun being stuck, and I was stuck for 2 years which meant the whole project was on hold.
Competing in the HK50 ultra trail race (50km) in Hong Kong in 2021 (Instagram)
I got stuck in Hong Kong with 9 countries left! I think that many people probably think that this took almost 10 years because I love traveling so much and I just wanted to see more and meet more people. But, the reality is, I couldn’t do it faster. It took almost a decade because I couldn’t get the visas, or I couldn’t get on board ships.
I was pretty tired and ready to go home after about two years of travel time, living out of a bag, and sitting in buses and trains and applying for visas. After two years I felt, ‘okay I’ve seen a lot and I’ve done a lot and now I actually want to go home.’ But, I decided I was going to keep fighting because I wanted to finish the project. I wanted to have it completed, and I wanted to complete it successfully. Then it went on to three years, four years, and five years. I got more and more tired, and then six years, and seven years, and then the global pandemic happened and I only had 9 countries left. It was not easy but I decided to keep going.
Hong Kong and China stayed closed for a long time, and they were very strict compared to Denmark where I’m from. Denmark was actually the first country to open up and I was stuck in the last one to open up.
In terms of visas I would say Equatorial Guinea which is a small Spanish-speaking country in central Africa. It was really rough getting the Visa – took me three months. And then when I had the visa, it took me another month before they would allow me to cross the border.
Saudi Arabia was really really hard to get a visa for at the time when I went. Today in 2023 they have a tourist visa but when I was trying to visit Saudi Arabia they didn’t have a tourist visa and they didn’t have a tourist visa for 40 years before that. So I was at the very end of their 40-year streak of not issuing tourist visas. It took me 7 months to gain entrance into Saudi Arabia. There are many smaller countries around that I could visit meanwhile.
I left Denmark on the 10th of October 2013 with the motto “A stranger is a friend you’d never met before”. Within a couple of weeks I had so many stories that I could use to prove that strangers are friends you’ve never met before.
A really good start is to be humble. It’s very helpful to smile and be kind.
I think it’s always good to listen, give people space to talk and share their story.
It’s good to learn bits and pieces of the local language. You don’t need to speak the entire language but if you can just say a few things then that’s helpful in establishing a deeper connection already. People always appreciate it.
You have to be able to laugh about yourself, you have to be ready to make mistakes and not get too embarrassed and run away but just laugh about it and then hopefully whoever you’re meeting they will also laugh too.
If I would have to do it again (not that I would!) I would definitely get SIM cards everywhere I went. Because of the small budget I decided that I wasn’t going to waste money buying SIM cards, I was just looking for free Wi-Fi everywhere and that made everything so much more difficult.
I left home with an iPad so in 2013 iPads were new big thing and I was used to working on a laptop but I decided that an iPad was more lightweight and smaller and durable and good for social media.
While it was a good tool for those exact reasons, it wasn’t very good for work – there was a tremendous amount of work and Visa applications and blogging. I would leave with a laptop.
Another thing I would do differently was I would make sure to sit down with all the project partners in advance and have a conversation about the partnership, set out a specific agreement and make sure everyone knows what to expect.
People have been very helpful and very supportive all around the world so in that sense I didn’t do it alone. But I didn’t have a team working with me on this project.
For the most part I was doing the bookings and buying tickets and managing getting up in the morning meeting people and doing all this but in reality I feel that this was a group effort.
Thor blogged about his travels for 10 years at onceuponasaga.dk
I feel that I had support from someone in every country no matter which country you mentioned and someone in that country helped me, gave me a cup of tea, gave me a place to sleep, gave me some contact or drove me to a station.
I left home as a Goodwill Ambassador of the Danish Red Cross so they were with me from the beginning. There was also Ross Energy which was helping finance the project and supporting me in so many different ways.
Another partner that came over time was Salomon – a French sporting company that makes skis and running equipment and all sorts of stuff. They’re amazing. When I left home in 2013 by chance I bought a pair of Salomon shoes and then I stayed loyal for so long. So I kept contacting Salomon – I said “ look at me, look at me”. They wore out, I bought new ones which also wore out and so on.
After I reached about 170 countries they finally said “Okay, we’re looking now”. So we had a conversation and they gave me some gear, and featured a short story about my adventure on their Salamon TV channel on Youtube. Once they learned more about my trip they wanted to do a full length story and they’re now behind the Once Upon a Saga documentary that’s coming out in 2024. So that is an exciting development from buying a pair of Salamon shoes in 2013, and today I’m a Salamon Brand Ambassador.
I’m writing a book together with a good friend which should be ready in 2024. I do speaking engagements, I’m going on a tour in Denmark to seven different Danish towns and cities talking about the project.
The documentary is also coming in 2024 so I’m excited about that.
I have my lovely wife we’re in our new apartment and we’re trying to start a life together, make ends meet and find a rhythm within our everyday lives.
I have friends in so many countries around the world that I eventually want to see again. Whenever I have the opportunity, I’d love to travel to Galapagos, I’d also love to see Easter Island, go to Alaska, Antarctica, and to go back to Hong Kong and see my friends there.
– A big thanks to Thor Pedersen for sharing his incredible story and insights with our community!
If you enjoyed reading this article, you can watch the full interview with Thor below:
Thanks to our moderator Lucia Prieto from IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature) and MEET Network, our producer Maria Stoyanova, and everyone who tuned in to participate during the LIVE show.
This interview was made possible by UnTours — the world’s first B Corp certified company paving the way for slow travel and responsible tourism experiences in Europe.
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