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Torbjorn Pedersen (left) and Daniel Herszberg met up at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Central, Hong Kong, to share their experiences after both had to abandon attempts on world travel records due to the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Jonathan Wong

World travel records for visiting every country were within their grasp – then the pandemic struck

  • Torbjorn Pedersen vowed to visit every country in the world without flying or returning home, but he’s stranded in Hong Kong, nine countries short of his goal
  • Daniel Herszberg was aiming to be the youngest Australian to visit every country

Torbjorn “Thor” Pedersen and Daniel Herszberg were closing in on world travel records when the coronavirus hit.

Pedersen was nine countries shy of visiting every one in the world without flying and Herszberg had just another 14 to go before claiming the title of the youngest Australian to visit every country. They expected to be celebrating by now; instead, their travel is on hold and they’re reassessing their next moves.

The pair had not met, but they’d heard of each other thanks to their social media followers. Having interviewed them both, and with Herszberg passing through Hong Kong, I thought that now might be a good time to orchestrate that meeting.

We all meet in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Central – masked and socially distanced. There are elbow bumps and as we get down to the nitty gritty of what it’s like to have a Covid-19 spanner thrown into your plans, the difference between the challenges becomes apparent.

Pedersen in Cienfuegos, Cuba, in 2015. The Dane had hoped to visit every country in the world without flying or going home. Photo: Torbjorn C. Pedersen

Pedersen left his native Denmark almost seven years ago and one of his “cardinal rules” is that if he goes home before the challenge is completed, the game is over. Herszberg is completing his challenge piecemeal, with the longest stretch having been less than a year on the road. But they bond over the challenges of social media and the tick-tock of looming deadlines.

I first interviewed Herszberg in April 2019. He had visited 158 of 197 countries and was preparing to pack in his job as a lawyer in Hong Kong to spend a year visiting the remaining 39.

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“I had it all planned out. I’d finish in September [2020] with a big party in Tonga and swimming with the humpback whales,” says the 28-year-old. “My whole family were going to come, nothing could go wrong – except for a global pandemic.”

He left Hong Kong in September last year and headed to Afghanistan, then Yemen and Somalia. In January, he reached Western Central Africa and was in Equatorial Guinea in mid-March, when the world shut down. His plan had been to go on to Gabon or Cameroon, but when those countries closed their borders, he began to worry. He rescheduled his flight to Angola but then heard that Equatorial Guinea was closing its borders.

He realised he had to act fast or he would be marooned in Equatorial Guinea, which is expensive compared to neighbouring states. The airline offices were packed; he tried to book a flight online but the internet went down.

Herszberg relaxes at Mungo National Park in New South Wales, Australia. He was aiming to be the youngest Australian to visit every country. Photo: Daniel Herszberg

He called home to Sydney, woke his father in the middle of the night and asked him to book him a ticket out. After 62 hours of flying – via Frankfurt and Thailand – he landed in Sydney and prepared to home quarantine for two weeks, but there was more drama to come.

“My family all got Covid-19. They’d attended a wedding the week before with someone [Covid-19 positive] from New York,” says Herszberg. “I shifted from keeping away from them to taking care of them.”

The family recovered well, and he spent the next few months scratching his travel itch by driving from Sydney up the east coast and visiting the Torres Strait Islands. It was a chance for some deep thinking, and he decided to do a master’s degree in cultural heritage at Cambridge University in the UK, beginning in October.

Herszberg enjoys dim sum in Hong Kong. Photo: Daniel Herszberg

“As long as I can reach my goal before I turn 30, in 2022, I’m happy,” Herszberg says. “When I’m in the UK I’ll be close enough to Africa and am hoping to get in some exciting travel. I’m trying to stay optimistic.”

I first met Pedersen in February, as he was waiting for a ship from Hong Kong to Palau. “I was on the home run, I was also going to complete [it] in October,” he says.

Pedersen was just nine nations away from being the first person in history to set foot in all the countries in the world without flying or returning home between visits. Pedersen counts a total of 203 nations, because he splits the UK into individual constituents and does the same with the Faroe Islands and Greenland, rather than counting them as part of Denmark.

When the Palau route fell through, he made a plan B, then C and D, discussing routes through South Korea and Singapore and connections to Australia and Fiji. The former shipping and logistics professional says he is a master at problem solving, but the pandemic had him beaten.

Pedersen and Herszberg spoke about their travel experiences at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Central. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“I was out of options. It wasn’t about who do I need to meet, what do I need to do, what have I not researched. You can’t leave Hong Kong on a ship right now unless you are a seafarer or have business on a ship,” says the 41-year-old.

When he set out in 2013, he expected the challenge to take him between three-and-a-half and four years, but now it’s looking like it’ll take a minimum of eight. He’d hoped to marry his fiancée, Le, this summer in New Zealand.

“It’s a lot of weight on my shoulders. There is stress because of the timeline, I have a fiancée and we want to start a family,” says Pedersen.

I would so much rather be the guy who succeeded than the guy who threw in the towel
Torbjorn ‘Thor’ Pedersen
Staying with friends of friends and fellow Danes, he has kept himself busy exploring Hong Kong, giving talks when social distancing allows. In August, he organised a “crazy step challenge” to raise money for the Danish Red Cross.

When he visits the increasingly familiar Immigration Department, the staff high-five him, he says. “They say, ‘Hey, your beard is longer.’”

All this is weighing heavy on him and two weeks ago he saw a psychiatrist for the first time.

“I don’t think it can hurt,” says Pedersen. “To express oneself in a safe environment with another human being is a good thing.”

Pedersen is stranded in Hong Kong, nine countries short of his goal. Photo: Pavel Toropov

He is determined to complete his challenge, marry his fiancée and begin a family, but he is not pretending it is easy. His blog, Once Upon a Saga, shares a frank account of the current challenges and is a lot meatier than the usual traveller Instagram accounts.

“I would so much rather be the guy who succeeded than the guy who threw in the towel,” says Pedersen.

“I’m trying to convey that life is generally not easy – it’s not easy to lose weight, finish your education, meet someone and fall in love and marry – and if you give up too easily you will never get anything you want.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: records on hold as adventurers remain in Limbo