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Globe-trotting Brit sets a new ‘Guinness’ record for itchy feet

by Greg Cormack

If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing under ludicrously difficult, not strictly necessary, self-imposed rules. Such was the thinking of 31-year-old Graham Hughes when, stewing on the details of a long-dreamed of plot to visit every country on Earth, he decided to add a bit of hot sauce: He would visit them all in one continuous journey, and — to hell with it — he’d also do it without flying. Why not?

More than a few folks told him it was impossible, or stupid, or that “because it’s there” no longer flies as a valid motive for adventure. But at the time of writing — 17 months after he pushed off from his home city of Liverpool in northwest England — Hughes has visited 155 of his targeted 200 countries, entering the “Guinness Book of World Records” along the way.

Consequently, every nation in the Americas, Europe, Africa and the Middle East now bears his footprint. If he makes it to the end, he’ll be the first person in history to visit every single country on the planet without using air transport.

“The no-flying thing, it’s been tremendously tricky to reach places like Cuba, Comoros and Cape Verde,” Hughes said via Skype from Kuwait, where he is currently awaiting resolution of the latest of many visa snafus before he can continue eastward, hopefully reaching Japan in a few months.

“I just have to find some way to get on whatever boat is going. I figured out early on that the last thing you do is just front up and ask a complete stranger for a lift across international borders. Instead, I explain what I’m doing and hopefully it gets them excited enough to want to help.”

Watching Hughes’ YouTube channel, where he posts regular on-the-road video updates of what he has branded “The Odyssey,” it’s easy to imagine this kind of chutzpah working for him. Grinning through ginger whiskers and nearly always wearing his black leather cowboy hat (it must be comfy because it looks appalling), Hughes is a natural raconteur, the kind of charismatic windbag whose companionship would strike plenty of people as a reasonable replacement for the cash fare.

Of course, there are also those — “mainly officers of African police forces” — who couldn’t care less about the travel ambitions of some red-bearded Brit.

“The first time I was thrown in jail was after a boat ride to Cape Verde, a group of islands off the coast of West Africa,” Hughes recounted. “I’d arrived on a fishing boat with a bunch of Senegalese fishermen, and naturally the policemen at the port assumed I was a people smuggler. No talking them out of it. I ended up sleeping on the floor of a tiny jail cell with 10 other people for five nights before I was freed without charge.”

He’s so far been arrested 17 times, and thrown in the slammer twice (the other time was in Brazzaville, Congo, where he spent six days in a cell, stripped of all clothing bar his jeans, before being freed — again without charge). “But,” he said, “I haven’t been sick a single day! Not bad going.”sk

Hughes’ dream of “going everywhere” had made scant progress over the years until, in late 2008, everything came together in a rush. First, the BBC acquired the Lonely Planet operation. Hughes, a filmmaker in his civilian life, smelled synergy! He pitched a TV show documenting an every-nation, no-fly trip around the world. Lonely Planet and the Beeb were in, then National Geographic signed up, too.

Hughes chose WaterAid, which provides clean water and sanitation in developing countries, as the show’s beneficiary charity, and there it was — by November 2008, because he had thought to ask, Hughes had a commission for a TV series and was filling a bag with a new camcorder and a week’s worth of undies.

The Guinness world record, certified in March, cites Hughes for “the most countries visited in one year by scheduled ground transport” — 133, between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 last year. In anyone’s book, that’s a lot of distance in 12 months, and inevitably purists have accused him of allowing insufficient intervals to inhale fragrances of floral origin.

“People say I’m only whizzing through these places and that I’m not really ‘experiencing’ them, but I disagree,” he said. “I spent a good seven months traveling through Africa, for instance, and most countries I’ve visited I’ve stayed in for days or even weeks waiting for visas, ships or other transportation. I travel with local people, and I stay with local people. Traveling overland, I get a much better feel for a country than if I just flew into the capital city and then flew out again.

“But to be honest, it’s just (self-gratification) isn’t it? I’ve used the build-your-own-adventure toolkit and set my own rules to create a brand new world record that’s never been done before. I make the rules, and I’ve stuck to them rigidly. A visit is a visit.”

The list of highlights Hughes then offered from the top of his head — too long and varied to be recounted here, but footage or photos of most can be seen on “The Odyssey” YouTube channel or Web site — certainly doesn’t provoke images of a blinkered obsessive passively collecting passport stamps.

The other point on which Hughes is constantly pressed is more a humanitarian concern than technical challenge. He said many people wonder, nearly always aloud and often bluntly, whether someone who voluntarily takes on such an absurd task might not have something very wrong inside their head.

“It’s fair enough. I think if I didn’t harbor certain personality traits, I couldn’t actually do this,” he conceded. “I’m stubborn and fairly arrogant, but I’m also friendly and jovial with pretty much everyone I meet, which goes a long way. To be able to wake up with a smile on your face after two days of travel hell along a dirt track is a gift, I think. I have to say, though, it’s not like this whole thing has been a nightmare — most of the time I’m having nothing but fun.”

Hughes is clearly self-aware. Does he fear becoming that most irritating of figures, the seen-it-all travel bore?

“How many music snobs does it take to change a lightbulb?

“It’s an obscure number, you won’t have heard of it. But seriously, folks!

“There are two phrases I have never — and hope I will never use. One is ‘yeah, but you haven’t seen the real X.’ Aaaargh! And the other is ‘yeah, X is good, but Y is better.’ You could visit the coolest place on the planet but if your travel companions or the weather or whatever are against you, you’ll have a crappy time. Or you can go to a distinctly crappy place and have a riot. Every person’s experience of the world is incredibly subjective, and I think the last thing it should be is a pissing match.”

From Kuwait, Hughes will travel east to Pakistan and then India, eventually arriving in Japan via ferry from South Korea. Then it’s south for the remainder of the Asian states, and the mighty challenge of the remote Pacific island nations.

“A mixture of cargo ships and hitching on private yachts is what I have in mind. The Pacific will probably take a long time.” It all culminates in New Zealand, where Hughes will pop the champagne cork with his heroically patient girlfriend, Mandy.

And then? What else but more travel. Hughes will take his stories to the one place he’s always wanted to visit but was unable to include in the “The Odyssey” itinerary: “Hollywood!”

For more info about the trip, check out theodysseyexpedition.com/