Our world is awesome - you already know that’s the whole reason why we’re celebrating it with our awesome maps. But, it’s also home to so many awesome people. Adventurers who push themselves every day, through sport, through travel, through following their passion or making an impact in their community. That’s why we’ve started the #AwesomePeople series, to celebrate their achievements and inspire all of us with their journeys! This is the first story in a series of more to come. Come along and meet Thor…
Torbjørn Pedersen (who goes by Thor!) is a Danish man with ambition. Five and a half years ago, he set off from his northern viking land with one mission in mind: travel to every country in the world without taking a single flight. And not return home until the journey’s over! Point in case, he’s now travelled more than 265,000 km over land and sea and, on top of it all, on a $20/day budget - no small feat! We caught up with him while in country #178, Japan.
You’ve named your project “Once upon a saga”. Why?
It was hard to come up with a good project name. I felt that “expedition” had been overused. I come from Denmark, which is sort of a fairy tale country. It’s the world’s oldest monarchy, with a history of princes and princesses and it’s also home to author HC Andersen (of ‘The Little Mermaid’!). We all know that fairy tales often start with “Once upon a time...”
Denmark also has a Viking heritage. When the Vikings returned from exploring the seas in their wooden ships, they would write down stories of discovery and adventure in what was called a “saga”. So, “Once Upon A Saga” is a direct reference to my home!
That’s really interesting! So where did the inspiration for your trip come from?
In 2013, I discovered that nobody in history had ever reached every country in the world completely without flying. In our time, it’s pretty hard to find anything that hadn’t already been done. I’ve always been intrigued by great adventures, like reaching the South Pole for the first time in 1911. Yes, airplanes exist and every country has definitely already been visited - but it’s a momentous task and a challenge of proportion!
Thor in Ivory Coast in 2015, country #87
This can’t be your first adventure, though. Tell us a bit more about your background and previous travel?
I had a number of minor adventures as a child and often ran away from home, although I was usually back for supper. On one occasion, though, I had made it so far that my dad had to come get me in a car. I finished business school before the military drafted me and I eventually ended up spending 3 years serving as a UN peacekeeper in Eritrea and Ethiopia. I then became a shipping trainee and worked 12 years within shipping and logistics, which took me to Libya, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, the Arctic Circle and a number of other interesting destinations. Alongside my work, I began kayaking, hiking and motor biking. I once went on a 7-day kayak trip around an island and I’ve completed a 4-month motorcycle journey from Asia to Europe. I’ve also made it to the summit of both Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya and I have hiked up to the Mt. Everest base camp.
Yep, definitely a convinced adventurer then! How do you keep track of your travels?
I take a lot of pictures and I blog about the Saga every Friday. I also log down the amount of transportation, distance and my location day by day.
What’s the first thing you do when you get to a new country?
I smile! At this point, it’s been hard earned. Then, I get to work. I have social media which needs updating and care. I meet with the Red Cross in every country. I’m often invited to make motivational speeches at companies. I often need to apply for a visa and secure onward transportation. There’s plenty of research which needs to be done and somewhere in between, I also need to eat, sleep and experience something.
That sounds like a lot. What’s the most interesting fact you’ve come across about a place you visited?
Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt. And to go once around Africa is equal to the distance around the equator.
I really like the quote you use “A stranger is a friend you've never met before” - did the inspiration for that come from a particular story or is it just what you live by?
It comes from a Danish song called “Rejsegramofonen”, which can be translated to “the travel gramophone”. It was performed by Peter AG from the Danish band Gnags. They sing: “en fremmed er en ven du bare ikke har mødt endnu”. I thought it sounded nice, so I translated it to English and made it the project motto. A few weeks after leaving home I knew it was true!
What’s the most touching interaction you’ve had?
I made friends with Adel in Yemen. It’s a magnificent country, which is going through really trying times. On the day I left, Adel accompanied me in the taxi to the border. Not long before I crossed the border back into Oman, we discovered that Adel and I were born within days of each other. We had a moment of realization: I was born in Denmark and he was born in Yemen. The lottery of life.
One of your project requirements is to be in every country for at least 24h. Do you find that difficult? Or in general moving around, maybe after you’ve just made a connection with someone and already need to leave?
My shortest stay was in the Vatican. I was there for 24 hours and 17 minutes and I was happy to leave. My average time per country is 11.4 days. My longest stay in any country has been 102 days. One of the hardest parts of this project is always meeting people and few days later having to say goodbye. It’s very tiring constantly being on the move.
I’m sure not every part of your journey is always as idyllic as it seems. Do you have any nightmare travel stories?
For the first year, this project was 80% adventure and 20% work. Today it’s the opposite. What I do is highly demanding and often not appreciated. The greatest challenges lie within solving logistical and bureaucratic challenges that often seem impossible. The risk calculations are not always in my favor. I’ve had some hostile encounters, which I thought could have been the end. But, If I had to choose, a nightmare story was reaching Mongolia from Russia at the end of last year.. I had my visa for Pakistan, which is not an easy one to get while on the road. The Karakoram Highway had not closed with snow yet and all I needed was a Chinese visa, so that I could quickly cross China, pass the Karakoram and reach Pakistan before the visa expired. Then the Chinese didn’t give me the visa, but told me to wait for a month without providing any further reason. I was devastated and at first did not know what to do?! Then, I quickly reorganized myself and made the arrangements to travel back across Russia, into Ukraine, across to Georgia, into Armenia, through Iran and made it to Pakistan after 14 days and a detour of 12,000 km through countries I’d already been to before. That’s as much as going a quarter around the planet!!
What’s your most valuable possession, seeing as you’re living your life on the road?
My passport is always with me. I always have a pen in my pocket. I carry a scarf wherever I go and my smartphone is essential. Basically I could do with my passport alone.
Thor speaking at a school in England in 2013, country #7
Other than for your own personal learning and experience, what else do you hope your project will achieve or contribute to others?
People say they get inspired, educated and entertained from the project. Some feel a strong sense of motivation because I haven’t given up and gone home at any point and I’ve had plenty of reason to do so! I really hope that people will learn that the difference between failure and success is often the point where you either give up or not. And I really hope that people will see that the world is far safer, a lot more normal and in many ways doing better than what we are led to believe.
You’re now reaching the end of your journey, it’s likely that you’ll be returning next year (2020) - are you looking forward to it? What’s the biggest learning you’re taking with you?
I’m very much looking forward to it!! I suppose my biggest learning is that humans around the world truly have far more in common than what separates us.
Do you plan to do anything with the project once you’ve returned? Perhaps publish a book?
It is my intention to write a book and maybe several! I hope that I can live a life as a public speaker and motivate and inspire people in life. I have already spoken on 86 occasions across this project and it has been well received.
Follow Thor's journey on his website and on Instagram.