200 countries. One year. No flights. No private transport. One strikingly ambitious man.
When most of us feel the urge to break a world record, we join a particularly large Facebook group, start growing our toenails, or attend an oversized pillow fight. Not Graham Hughes. While the world was still shaking off its collective New Year 2009 hangover, Graham was setting off across Argentina, hoping to cross a few borders before teatime. His main concerns this year have been things like ‘Am I going to get arrested for my out-of-date visa?’; ‘How do I convince the government of an African island that I’m not a human trafficker?’ or ‘Why does every backcountry bus’s resident goat gravitate towards me?’. His record attempt is gritty, multi-national and logistically outrageous, and it’s taken the best part of a decade to get off the ground. Graham’s seeing the entire world, and he’s doing it his way.
The aim? To drop in on every one of the 192 UN member states (plus eight assorted others, in the interest of a nice even number) all inside a single calendar year. With a lot of money and a good grasp of flight schedules, though, setting foot in all those countries – an average of one every 43 hours – would be far too easy, and go totally against both Graham’s philosophy and his budget. So the audacious adventurer came up with some rules to make things more interesting: no flying, no private transport (a rule enforced by the Guinness Book of Records race regulations, which can’t condone a public race – even a year long one – in private vehicles) and no sneaking into tiny backwater territories and counting them as visiting the motherland. That ought to make things suitably complex.
Years of planning concluded when, on the first of January, an otherwise innocuous border crossing from Argentina to Paraguay was accompanied by an appropriate mental fanfare and the start of a solo round the world charge. Only four days later Graham found himself curled up in the back of a bus across Bolivia with a nasty case of altitude sickness, no doubt wondering what on earth he’d let himself in for. Things weren’t to get any easier, and though Graham’s an experienced backpacker, the intensity and pace of this particular trip was another thing entirely.
It takes a particular kind of personality to attempt this kind of adventure. Liverpudlian Graham describes himself as “a total fruitloop” and “hyperactive”, while his philosophy is “to have a good time, all the time” as well as showing a healthy disregard for modern materialism: “on your death bed, do you want to look back on the stuff you bought, or the stuff you did?” It’s the same kind of outgoing thinking that had seen Graham become a central figure on the Liverpool Indie scene, where he shot videos for the likes of Arctic Monkeys and The Coral with his film company Hydra Studios, as well as winning the Liverpool 48 Hour Film Challenge. He also teamed up with Mark Bowness, the founder of the off-the-wall ‘The Beach’ inspired island adventure ‘Tribe Wanted’ (www.tribewanted.com).
The first half of the year went swimmingly: Having negotiated the Americas, Graham even had time to drop in on his family in Liverpool, before flitting through Europe in little more than a fortnight. Then came Africa. Graham’s been arrested in Cameroon, Cape Verde and Congo, for things like filming a nuclear bunker cunningly masquerading as a roundabout, or pushing his visa blagging a little too far. He’s had to re-route to avoid Somalian pirates, struggled with ferry routes to Mauritius and then Madagascar, been sent on 4,000km round trip to replace a slightly out of date visa… and then the worst happened, and the West African island of Cape Verde – which Graham’s own rules dictate he can’t fly to – nearly ended it all.
Having paid an extortionate sum to a Senegalese fisherman to acquire a lift, Graham was arrested on arrival, held in 3m2 cell for six days with eleven other men, and not even given the right to meet with a lawyer. When his case did come to court – and Graham was eventually set free with just a fine – he found getting off Cape Verde almost as difficult, and ended up staying for a total of just over six weeks. The record was still on, but the 200-country target had gone. Unsurprisingly, Graham rates the country as his second least favourite on his website’s ‘League of Nations’, accompanied simply by the word ‘No’. Cape Verde was country number 89, a number that, incidentally, has gained him so many stamps in his passport that the Moldovans were convinced it was fake.
There has been the occasional break in Graham’s manic schedule. He (intentionally) paused for breath in The Dominican Republic, Florida, Halifax and (less intentionally) Gabon, but when he’s on the move, things pass by ludicrously fast. Russia and Belarus were so quick they only involved a walk up to the border post, where Graham – having technically entered the country – was turned around and sent on his way. Plenty of other countries have flown by so fast that Graham confesses that he really doesn’t have anything to say about them.
Logistical problems are a nightmare. With two passports on the go, Graham had to obtain a visa for every last corner of Africa before he left, only to have the entire trip thrown out of whack by his jail time in Cape Verde. West Africa then became a case of blag (or pay) your way through, while Graham’s long suffering girlfriend Mandy and the rest of the Odyssey team hung around at home trying to fix it all up. The Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries have proven awkward, too, with personal invitations from residents needed for every visa.
On the ground, things are a lot more fun. In Gabon, Graham sampled Iboga, a hallucinogenic tree root that the local tribes use to liven up the evenings, but managed to avoid the full tribal induction. A good thing, too, since it involves taking so much you vomit, and often having the root inserted up your bum to top it off. In Venezuela he sat quietly and pondered amongst nerve-jangling maps laying claim to Guyana, a long time British (and never Venezuelan) territory. On reaching Columbia, Graham experienced America’s ludicrous forest-destroying anti-cocaine policy first hand, and responded by blogging “fair trade cocaine is the way forward”. Later, in a single day in Europe, he visited Liechtenstein and Switzerland by 5am in the morning, before mistakenly taking a train to the tiny and inconveniently named Italian village of San Marino, and having to turn round to check off the better-known principality.
Mind-bogglingly, the total budget for the entire trip is less than £18,000, which works out at under £90 per country, meaning – if you have Graham’s flare for a budget – you could see the entire world for the price of a mid range car. This works partly because of Graham’s insanely fast pace of life (he covered most of Europe in days, and England, Scotland, Wales, the North and the Republic of Ireland in just 24 hours), but it’s largely because experience has taught him how to travel on the cheap. Couchsurfing, sleeping on trains, eating street food and hitching lifts are all part of the fun, and keep Graham’s hard earned cash stretching to plenty of new horizons.
The madness all has to be documented somehow, and Graham plans to turn his adventures into what will no doubt be one of the more off-the-wall travel books. He’s gained the (non-financial) backing of National Geographic, Lonely Planet and the BBC, too, who plan to make a documentary on his efforts, while all the man himself wants from the experience is to enjoy the lunacy and set a seriously hard-to-beat benchmark. So will he make it? Well, Graham’s latest estimate puts him at around 170 countries by the dawn of 2010, 30 short of his original ambitious target. That’s still an average of very nearly a country every two days. He blames Cape Verde for falling short, but he’s far from bitter. If he makes it as far as Australia (country number 188) for New Year, our gallant explorer has promised to head for Cairns, watch the fireworks whilst quite phenomenally drunk, and throw himself naked into a billabong.
As Graham’s attempt is the first of its kind, however it goes he will finish up with a record. It’s going to be a seriously hard mark to beat, too, but should you have the guts to make your own attempt, Graham’s been kind enough to throw us some tips: “Have your own yacht, or know how to sail. Get to Cuba from Mexico, not the US. Don’t turn up in Cape Verde with a bunch of Senegalese fisherman. Wear your safety belt. Smile, and the world will smile with you”. Go on, we dare you…
To catch up with Graham, you can find his blogs, video diaries and witticisms on every country to date at www.grahamdavidhughes.com, or catch up with the day-by-day madness on Twitter at @TheOdysseyExp.
As published in AU Magazine, December 2009.