Many of us dream of seeing as much of the world as we can. With access to more transportation options than ever before, it’s easier to get to wherever we want to go, and quickly.
Then there is Torbjørn “Thor” Pedersen - a traveler with the goal to become the first person to visit every country in the world without flying. By using buses, container ships, trains, and more, he has ventured to 195 countries thus far. The journey, which is chronicled through his social media accounts and website, Once Upon a Saga, hasn’t been an easy one - and has lasted longer than originally expected. Thor has been traveling for over 8 years, working around the challenges of visa applications, alternative transportation options, and, for the past two years, a global pandemic. He’s also doing this with a budget of roughly $20 per day.
With less than 10 countries left to visit, the project is estimated to be complete in 2023, almost a decade after it began. His weekly newsletters recap updates on his journey and process.
We talked to Thor about the idea for the journey, how the last 8+ years of continuous travel have made an impact on his life, and what he hopes others take away from his experience.
Can you talk to us about how you initially came to the idea of traveling to each country without flying, and how you prepared for this journey?
It all began with an innocent email from my father which contained a link to an article about world travel. I was fascinated and soon learned that nobody had yet managed to visit every country in the world completely without flying. This intrigued me, and to make a long story short, I decided I was the one who could do it or fail trying. I involved three friends (Parth, Ann-Christina, and Soeren), forming the project team. We looked at the logistics, secured partnerships, generated a website and its contents, discussed project values, organized funding, etc. The departure date was set for October 10th at 10:10 am for no other reason than to write: 10/10-10:10.
How have you been traveling to each country?
It has mostly been public transportation: buses, trains, shared taxis, and ferries. Wherever there are people, there will always be transportation. In some cases, I have sailed with private sailboats, fishing boats, and container ships.
What do you usually try to experience in each new country that you arrive in?
This is not a holiday or a vacation. It is in a way more comparable to running a marathon: the goal is to cross the finish line, and during a marathon, you don’t have time to visit museums and coffee shops. With close to 200 countries in the world, time management becomes important. Seven days per country would amount to 4 years, and 30 days per country would amount to 16 years. A lot of this project consists of solving bureaucracy and logistics, visiting the Red Cross (I’m a goodwill ambassador), speaking at schools or companies, conducting interviews, and spending time in transport. When I do get the chance, I do my utmost to experience food, culture, meet people, and see the environment. However, the experiences are often limited and time-restricted. Also, after eight years, the “spark for new experiences” has been drastically reduced.
Now that your journey is coming closer to the end, are there any expectations about it that changed for you from when you first set out on it?
Well, I certainly did not expect the workload to be so high. And I didn’t expect completing the project would be as complicated as it has proven to be. In reality, most countries have been easy to reach, but the ones that have not have been nearly impossible. I obviously did not expect the world to get struck by a global pandemic. Another thing is that when I left home, I thought I had set out on a country project, but I soon realized that I was, in reality, on a people project. It is people who make up this world, and without them, countries would just be lines in the sand. I have genuinely been positively surprised by the overwhelming kindness and support from people all around the world. And furthermore, it has been eye-opening to discover how peaceful and ordinary most places are.
Is there anything that was easier about this experience than you might have initially thought?
No – not really. Well, not compared to my expectations before leaving home. But years into the Saga, I was surprised about getting a few visas easily, which I had been warned would be difficult. This has always related to people I met who helped out. But I got the visas for Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan effortlessly – that was surprising.
Has there been any part of this journey where you’ve felt like stopping? If there has, how have you pushed through it?
When we reached the end of 2015, the weight of everything hit me hard, and I was ready to give up and go home. I was very close but somehow found the strength to fight a little harder for what I believe in. I have in large been wanting to go home ever since the end of 2015 – but I have always thought that if I just pushed a little harder, then things would clear up, and we would reach the final countries. A part of my motivation stems from how I see myself and who I want to be. I would not want to be the man who quit. A part of the motivation comes from all the wonderful people I have met as a goodwill ambassador of the Danish Red Cross. And a large part of my motivation comes from the many people who feel inspired and motivated from my efforts and results. But sometimes I can’t find any motivation to continue… and then I wonder what still drives me?
You spent over two years in Hong Kong due to the pandemic. How has that extended time impacted your overall experience?
It has been good and bad. Without the pandemic, we would surely have reached the final countries and I would be home again. So in that regard, the extended time has been a huge blow to me. But I have tried to make the best out of my time in Hong Kong and feel like I have succeeded in that. I have made friends, I have challenged myself physically in the mountains, the Saga has gained massive attention, I got married, I’ve expanded my knowledge on Hong Kong and the region, and I have had a chance to explore the food and culture.
What are some of your favorite memories that you have made along the way?
I love telling about Maria from Poland who took me into her house during a cold winter night and treated me like family although I was a stranger. Also, I asked my wife to marry me on top of Mount Kenya, which provides great memories. In the Solomon Islands, I spent some time in a small village with no running water and no electricity. The villagers enjoyed a movie on my laptop, and more than seventy villagers huddled around my computer. I’ve seen a rocket launch. I’ve seen whales jump out of the ocean. I attended a huge wedding in Sudan. I have made friends for life. There are so many memories.
What do you hope people take away when they hear about your story?
I hope that people will get to see the world through my eyes and realize that it is not on fire and that strangers are not enemies. Around the world, people are just people who take selfies, go to school, attend work, get stuck in traffic, enjoy BBQs, hang with family and friends, love sports, dance to music, and value safety. And I hope that people will be inspired to fight for the things they want in life. There are too many people who did not learn how to play an instrument, did not learn a new language, did not go to places they dreamed about, did not finish educations, did not lose weight, did not realize their dream. Nothing of value comes easy – there is only one way forward, and that is to keep on keeping on.
To learn more about Thor, and to keep up-to-date with his journey, visit his website.