Sitting on a small minibus and traveling at full speed along a highway in Nigeria, Graham Hughes from Liverpool, England, practically feared for his life. It was 2009, and Hughes—surrounded by passengers filling every seat—was on his way to the city of Calabar from Lagos during his quest to visit every country in the world.
Out of his window, Hughes saw upcoming traffic jams resulting from a series of accidents, yet the minibus didn’t come to a halt. Instead, the driver steered the bus across the highway’s central reservation onto the other side of the road, battling oncoming traffic at 70 miles per hour. Other buses were doing the same thing. All the while, a Celine Dion soundtrack blasted at maximum volume on the stereo in the background. Hughes asked the driver to slow down—a surprising action for somebody attempting to break a world record!
“It was like something out of Mad Max,” Hughes says. “It was the maddest journey I’ve ever had.”
This experience is one of the many Believe It or Not! moments Graham Hughes had during his four-year and one-month journey to visit all of the world’s countries—what he dubbed the Odyssey Expedition. And he traveled without flying a single time. In total, he went to 193 United Nations member countries, plus Kosovo, Western Sahara, Taiwan, Vatican City, and Palestine. He counted the four nations of the U.K.—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—as four separate countries.
“I had to get around the world just on buses, trains, taxis, cargo ships, and the like,” he says—no planes, no helicopters, no driving himself, no hitchhiking. Hughes ultimately reached his goal, having spent on average about a week in each country. He did have to return to Russia in early 2013 to officially set the world record for fastest time going to every country with no air travel because he hadn’t gone through an official border post the first time around. Overall, he says, the length of his visits varied widely. For instance, he spent just a few minutes in Vatican City, Somalia, and North Korea.
During the first year of the trip, Hughes recorded many of his adventures on camera, and the compilation of that year was broadcast on National Geographic around the world and the Travel Channel in the U.S. Hughes was also featured in the 2015 edition of Ripley’s annual Reality Shock! and has since published a book, Man of the World, about his experiences, with more in the works. Here’s his story.
Plotting a Complex Journey
Upon starting his trip, Hughes set a goal: to raise money for the charity WaterAid. He also wanted to prove that traveling to every country could be done without flying. And maybe, he thought, his experiences would help illustrate that the world isn’t such a bad place after all. The whole trip cost him about $40,000, but he luckily saved up some money, including from when he was paid to create the show about his travels. Hughes found additional support from family members and friends.
He had to adhere to specific guidelines to break the world record. First off, he needed to enter each country legally and at an official border post—he couldn’t wade across a river or sneak across the street. Hughes also had to prove he had been to every country with a passport stamp or a photograph of him standing next to a country’s welcome sign. He was required to step foot on dry land—being in territorial waters alone didn’t count. These guidelines presented unique challenges.
The expedition started in Uruguay in South America. He decided to save the Pacific Island countries for closer to the end. Without access to air travel, Hughes had to travel to several island countries by cargo ship, and knew that part would be challenging.
“When I went into my plan, it was very, very detailed up to that point, and then it kind of got a little bit fuzzy because trying to travel around the Pacific Ocean…without flying is one hell of a challenge,” Hughes says. Hughes finished the main part of his journey in South Sudan, which hadn’t yet been a country when the expedition began four years earlier.
Aside from when taking cargo ships, Hughes devised unique ways to travel to and enter certain countries. When it came to North Korea, he says, he had two options: enter on the Young Pioneers tour via Beijing, or travel to South Korea and go to the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries. The area, Hughes says, has huts accessible to tourists that are half in North Korea and half in South Korea, with a table connecting the two across the border. He was allowed to walk around the table, Hughes says.
For Hughes overall, careful planning and common sense were key to staying safe.
“Obviously I did my research before I started this, and I wasn’t going to be just wandering into a war zone with my backpack,” Hughes says. He chose to visit the safer areas of war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, for example. But situations could change quickly and unexpectedly. While he narrowly avoided being in the Middle East during the Arab Spring—a wave of protests and demonstrations that began in 2010—he was in Nigeria at the same time a massacre broke out in the northeast part of the country, which marked the rise of the Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group. In that situation, he altered his route.
Navigating the Waters
Hughes’ says his most difficult country to get to was Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Seychelles is located in what Hughes describes as “slap-bang in the middle of the high-risk area for Somalia piracy.” At the time he was traveling, the pirate situation by Somalia was “really bad” in the Indian Ocean, Hughes says, and most cruise ships and yachts avoided the area. A number of times, he tried talking to captains on ships at ports in various cities. None would bring him on board in part because that would invalidate their anti-piracy insurance.
Hughes waited for months, and he eventually had a stroke of luck when he came across a cruise ship traveling from Europe to Australia for the winter season with stops in India, the Maldives, Seychelles, and Madagascar.
“I thought, if I can get onto that ship, then I can take two of the last three countries off my list,” he says. “And so that’s what I did.”
Believe it or not, Hughes spent months living on 12 full-size container ships, traveling to many island nations and across the Atlantic Ocean. His longest journey on a ship was 34 days, from Australia to the Republic of Nauru, an island country, with stops along the way, and back to Australia. In his interview with Ripleys.com, he laughed as he recalled just how slowly the cargo ships moved. “The maximum speed is about 20 miles per hour,” he says. He found it ironic just how much fuel these ships burned. One of his reasons for not flying, he says, had been the effect of air travel on the environment.
Moments of Anger, Moments of Fear
There were times during his expedition to every country in the world when Hughes was reasonably frightened about what he experienced. He says he was put in jail a few times in Africa—including once when he was traveling to the Cape Verde Islands, located to the west of the continent. He encountered 10 fishermen from Senegal and asked if they could help him get to his next destination via their 40-foot boat, Hughes says.
But their journey in Atlantic Ocean waters abruptly ended when they were all accused of “people smuggling,” Hughes says, and detained on the Cape Verde Islands due to a gap in communication about Hughes’ reasons for entering the country. The 11 of them were crowded in a tiny cell that could have been designed for a single occupant and had to sleep on the concrete floor. Six days later, the case was put before a judge, who let them go.
What was even scarier, Hughes says, was a few months later in Congo. Hughes says it was unclear why he was arrested—he hadn’t broken any laws, and his visa and other paperwork were all intact. Yet for some reason or another, he spent another six days sitting in a jail cell by himself—shirtless without pants, shoes, socks, or his glasses. While he was frightened to a certain degree, Hughes says he was angry more than anything else. Eventually, he was released after the British Embassy in the Democratic Republic of Congo intervened. His friends had gotten in touch with the British Embassy in Kinshasa on Hughes’ behalf after he tweeted for help using his cell phone, which hadn’t been confiscated by the police.
“Looking back, I think I should have been more scared at the time; that was a very scary situation,” he says. “I don’t think in the moment you think that way.”
This story illustrated how even in situations where the outcomes seemed uncertain, Hughes had loads of support from those who cared about him most. In his book, he thanks a long list of individuals—everybody from his parents and brothers to those who helped him during the expedition itself to the teams involved in the creation of his book and TV show.
The Goodness of Humanity
In some cases, Hughes was surprised at the kind-heartedness of the folks he encountered. On a bus in Iran, traveling alone, he sat behind a Persian grandmother, likely in her 80s. She was speaking Farsi on her cell phone when she suddenly handed it to Hughes. Speaking on the other end was the elderly woman’s grandson, an English teacher in Iran. He told Hughes that his grandmother was concerned about him. The bus was scheduled to arrive very early—around 5 a.m.—and she feared Hughes would have nowhere to go and no one to make him breakfast, the grandson told him. The elderly woman wanted to ensure that Hughes was well fed. Hughes accepted her invitation.
“It was one of those moments where you just think, actually, the vast majority of people on this planet are all right. They really are,” he says, adding that “you really can’t judge people by their governments.” Hughes says he essentially wasn’t really treated with hostility anywhere; he didn’t get into fights, and he had nothing stolen from him. “I didn’t even get ill for the whole four years of the journey. So either I’m the luckiest person in the world, or the world’s not quite as bad as it’s often made out,” he says.
Hughes says it’s difficult to say which country he visited is his favorite—after all, he did visit more than 200, based on how he counted. Along his journey, Hughes stayed with locals in completely unfamiliar places and witnessed aspects of cultures he didn’t expect. Of all the countries he went to, his most valuable lesson came from Iran, one of his favorite countries, which he described as hospitable, beautiful, and “surprisingly friendly.” The inquisitive, selfless nature of those he encountered there, he says, led him to pick up a mantra that sticks with him to this day: “Always be good to strangers,” Hughes says, “because one day you might be a stranger. And I think that’s a wonderful sort of philosophy in life.”
“Now,” Hughes recalls, “when I meet people from other places and other cultures and things like that, I’m a lot more open to wanting to hang out with them and find out where they’re from and what their life’s about, and what their dreams and aspirations are, than I was before I left.”
By Jordan Friedman, contributor for Ripleys.com