It's the trip of a lifetime, but Gunnar Garfors did it all before turning 38! The "hobby travelling" Norwegian explains his inspiration for visiting every country in the world, and reveals his exclusive travel tips
Norwegian new media specialist Gunnar Garfors is the guy that makes fellow globetrotters envious. Not only is he the youngest “hobby traveller” in the world to visit all 198 countries*, he did it all while maintaining a full-time office job, using just the weekends, plus his five weeks of annual paid holiday!
His book, 198: How I Ran Out Of Countries, was released to acclaim last year, and we caught up with the world-record holder in a rare moment in-between travels to get the low-down on his inspiring journey across the globe.
When did you start taking a serious interest in travelling?
I was lucky to start travelling from a young age with my family, and then went InterRailing on my own when I was 17. But it started properly in 2000, when I went on my first trip outside the Western world for a wedding in India and then China to be with my girlfriend who was studying there.
Then, in 2004, I visited Kazakhstan. That was something totally different for a Norwegian guy like me. I was originally invited for a conference and I decided to take a week extra with my brother to explore the region. After that, I just decided I was going to visit the remaining Stan countries – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan – because I was fascinated by the history and the generosity of the people I had met. This took up until 2008, and afterwards I decided to travel to every country in the world.
I didn’t have much money, but everything I earned I spent on travelling. I’m glad I did. I don’t have any expensive art, I don’t have a car, I don’t have a dog, I don’t even have a CD collection. Everything I earned went towards travelling as it is, for me, the most important part of life: exploring!
How did you manage your time and travels?
I actually did it all in bits while having a full-time job, often flying out somewhere on a Wednesday night, taking Thursday and Friday off as holiday time, then returning back for Monday morning in the office.
This is better, too, I think. When people go away for extended periods of time they tend to plan too much, meaning that any hiccup along the journey can have a domino effect on the rest of your travels. Separating the trips also allows you to really sink in to an individual country, rather than feel like you are always hopping from one place to the next.
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With only a limited amount of time in some places, how did you make sure that it was well spent?
My main priority when travelling is to experience life as the locals live it, so I tend to just jump in and meet them, rather than go on recommendations from others who may have visited the place before me.
I love maps, and always make sure I have one with me when I travel, but otherwise I don’t do too much pre-planning. I talk to local people. I don’t speak many languages, but you can really get by almost anywhere with English. Otherwise, I have always been surprised by how many talented translators you will find just on the street, greeting you with open arms and willing to help.
Beyond the language barriers, there is one thing that everyone can do when travelling to a new place – smile! It sounds obvious, but a welcoming smile can really put unknown situations at ease. I have been able to discover many differences between cultures and society while travelling, but this is something that remains a universal language all over the world, and we need to learn to do it more.
What is your favourite place in the world?
It is literally an impossible question to answer, especially because it’s so personal: your travel experiences will only be as exciting as you yourself make them. Don’t wait for the good or even unforgettable experiences to come to you: you have to find and seize those moments. One thing I can say is that my experiences in both Ireland and Brazil were fantastic, and that the people there were extremely social, open and inviting.
If I can shine the light on my home country, I always love travelling to my cabin in Northern Norway just outside of Narvik. Up there, you are north of the polar circle, so during the summer you have the midnight sun, you have this incredible scenery, with incredible mountains, fjords, glaciers, islands, bountiful fish in the sea, and everything smells alive and fresh.
If you then go back in the winter, the sun is gone – it’s 24/7 darkness, with just a small amount of blueish light. At night, you have the incredible, dancing northern lights. It’s one extreme to another. It’s incredible and unlike anywhere else I have travelled to.
Do you have an ethos/perspective on how you can keep an open-mind while travelling?
Start by travelling small and closer to home, it will give you a good sense of perspective of where you want to go, what kind of traveller you are and where you want to go next. Don’t rush, and take one trip at a time. That will all boost your curiosity about the world, make you more creative, motivated to save money and eager to explore.
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How can you get the most out of travelling alone?
Well, there’s two type of travellers: Those who can go at it alone, and those who can’t. Ultimately, it is all about balance. It is a good idea to do a bit of research in terms of safety and ease of travel. In some places, travelling in a big group can seem intimidating or even threatening for locals, while being on your own means you are more easily able to blend in.
Also, it’s easy to forget how likely it will be that you’ll meet people along the way, both locals and like-minded travellers. Stay positive say ‘yes’ more and you’ll be making friends in no time.
What are your tips for budget travelling?
Try to go against the stream – don’t travel when everybody else is expectedly travelling, like around school holidays. Playing around with alternative nearby airports while booking can also end up saving you a lot of money, too.
If you have to do a stopover, you should maybe consider doing one for longer than four or so hours, and instead look out for flight deals that have a layover of 24 or more hours. These are often cheaper, and it ends up feeling like you have a holiday within your normal holiday. It’s much better to get out of the airport, if possible, and explore where you are.
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What was the final country you visited and feelings once you arrived?
That was in May 2013 and I visited Cape Verde. It was an amazing feeling touching down on the runway there, and it was great to share with some of my family members who accompanied me on the trip.
After that, I came home and felt like something was missing. I thought I would have this overwhelming sense of accomplishment but I realised that what I had done – travelling to all 198 countries of the world – was just the beginning. There was so much more that I had to explore, both places I had to return to, plus new cities and regions of those countries. It will take a lifetime to do, but I am up for the challenge.
To find out more about Gunnar and his travels, visit his very own blog.
*Gunnar credits the 198 countries of the world as the 193 UN members, plus 2 UN observers – the Vatican, Palestine – and 3 other countries (Kosovo, Taiwan and Western Sahara) that are recognised by a number of UN countries.