The man who visited every country in the world without taking a plane finally returned home

On October 10, 2013, Torbjørn “Thor” Pedersen left his job, girlfriend and family behind in Denmark to embark on an epic journey. His goal? To visit every country in the world without flying.

Pedersen set a couple of rules for himself: he would spend at least 24 hours in each country and resist returning home until he was done.

He would also do his best to keep expenses low and live on a budget of about US$20 a day.

On May 24, that day finally arrived. After almost ten years of travel, Pedersen successfully visited the 203rd and final destination, the Maldives, and set off on his long-awaited journey back to Denmark.

It would have been easier to fly, of course, but Pedersen wanted to close it in another way. “The boat ride home makes historical sense: people can see it on the horizon and wave to me when I come down the gangplank. And it seems to me an appropriate way to complete the project,” Pedersen, who has traveled as an ambassador for his country’s Red Cross, tells CNN Travel.

After celebrating in the Maldives, Pedersen, 44, returned to Malaysia via Sri Lanka to board the massive MV Milan Maersk, a container ship about 400 meters long, or the size of 3.6 soccer fields, and embark on the 33-day journey home.

“In my cabin, I looked out the porthole in Malaysia and realized that every day the view would gradually change until it finally became Denmark. Even if I broke a leg at that point, I would make it home. No more snakes, wild dogs, malaria or visas to get: I just had to avoid falling overboard!” says Pedersen.

An emotional homecoming

On July 26, Pedersen walked down the gangway at the port of Aarhus, on Denmark’s east coast, where some 150 people were waiting for him. Among them were his wife Le (Pedersen proposed to his girlfriend on top of Mount Kenya in 2016 and they married in 2021), his father, his siblings, friends, project partners and many followers of his blog, Once Upon a Saga, and his social media.

“I’ve seen a lot of teary eyes since I’ve been back. People have come to hug me sobbing. I’ve also received a lot of gifts – Danish beer, milk, food, and I’ve been able to meet people who have been following my social media from Colombia, Australia, Norway. It’s been amazing,” says Pedersen.

While receiving a barrage of calls, messages and interview requests, Pedersen has been catching up with her family at her father’s house.

She’s also savoring all the little things, like the clean, fresh Danish air, morning runs with Le and ice-cold Danish milk every chance she gets.

“My family is very proud. There is a lot of love. Going home is something I’ve been focused on, something I’ve wanted to materialize for a long time. But I’m still processing that the trip is over and thinking about what comes next,” Pedersen says.


Pedersen disembarking from the cargo ship in Aarhus. Credit: Port of Aarhus.

Ten years of travel

Before embarking on the journey in 2013, Pedersen worked in shipping and logistics, which proved to be invaluable experience when planning the complex route and adapting on the road.

In fact, he didn’t deviate much from his original plan, apart from a few surprises. For example, he bypassed Equatorial Guinea, one of the most difficult to access countries in the world. After four months and many failed attempts, Pedersen finally got a visa. Although the land borders were closed at the time, he was able to cross thanks to a chance encounter with a stranger who worked in Equatorial Guinea and offered him a ride.

Later, Pedersen thought he could acquire a Chinese visa at the Mongolian border and then travel to Pakistan. But because of the long processing time, he had to backtrack nearly 12,000 kilometers through several countries to reach Pakistan before his visa expired.

In the meantime, the time began to add up. He had originally anticipated that it would take four years to reach 203 destinations (the UN recognizes 195 sovereign states, but Pedersen included partially recognized states as well), but the world had other plans.

During his years of travel, Pedersen endured months-long visa delays in places like Syria, Iran, Nauru and Angola.

He also overcame a severe bout of cerebral malaria in Ghana, survived an intense four-day storm while crossing the Atlantic from Iceland to Canada, crossed closed land borders in conflict zones, and had to reschedule many trips due to ship breakdowns or grueling bureaucracy.

The most significant delay was the covid-19 pandemic. In early 2020, the intrepid traveler suddenly found himself stuck in Hong Kong for two years with only nine countries left to visit.

“I look back at Hong Kong and it’s a bit of a paradox. It was the worst time of my life and the best, in a way. I had to cope with the situation: it was a big struggle to decide whether I should abandon this project with nine countries to go,” Pedersen recalls.

“I had to ask myself, ‘How much of my life am I going to devote to this?’ But while I waited for the world to open up, I made my life in Hong Kong and forged many special relationships.”

Pedersen kept his sanity by cooking dinners with friends, hiking the city’s many trails, working with the Red Cross, giving motivational speeches and working at the Danish Seamen’s Church.

After obtaining a work visa and residency in Hong Kong, Pedersen married his fiancée, Le, who was back in Denmark, through a U.S.-based virtual wedding service.

It wasn’t how the couple had imagined their big day, but the decision allowed Le to become a resident and visit Pedersen (Hong Kong then prohibited travel by foreigners).

“We spent 100 days together, it was wonderful,” Le recalls, adding that it was the longest period they had spent together since Pedersen left Denmark in 2013. “She was able to meet my friends and understand my life. We love hiking in Hong Kong and did the 100-kilometer-long MacLehose Trail, more than half the elevation of Mount Everest, side by side in one go.”

Resuming the journey

On January 5 last year, Pedersen was finally able to leave Hong Kong and continue across the Pacific.

His first stop was Palau. Behind the scenes, it took six months of negotiations with the Palau government before he was allowed to arrive on a container ship, he recounts.

After 15 days at sea, Pedersen spent eight of his 14 days in Palau in quarantine in a hotel due to an outbreak on the island.

He then embarked on a 16-day journey back to Hong Kong, where he again spent another two weeks in quarantine in a hotel.

About a month later, he continued on to Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga, but not without immense effort.

“I had to plead with almost every government. For Tonga, we were in contact with the Ministry of Health, the Navy and the Army. No one wanted to say yes and go against the prime minister [because the country was in a state of emergency due to covid],” Pedersen says.

“Finally, one night, I got an e-mail from the prime minister that simply said, ‘Okay, let him in.'”

After Tonga, Pedersen went to Vanuatu, where Le rejoined him so they could marry in person. Their wedding planner invited all the guests and resort staff, who made incredible decorations with palm fronds and drew huge hearts adorned with seashells in the sand. “It was beautiful, the staff was very sweet and attentive, and they made it really special,” says Pedersen.

The last three countries

Pedersen set off for the last Pacific country, Tuvalu, wary of the logistics.

Tuvalu, with nine islands and a population of just 11,600, is one of the smallest and most remote nations in the world, so spare parts for boats can be hard to come by.

“It’s beautiful. The surf is incredible, the sky is beautiful and the people are very friendly and helpful. But I didn’t expect to be there for two months. The boats kept breaking down. One of them had a leak in the hull. I tried to get on another boat, but it would never leave,” says Pedersen.

Finally, Pedersen made it back to Fiji on a tugboat. Since there, a 24-day trip in a container holder took him to Singapore, where he joined him to devour food in the centers of ambulant sale, explore the National Museum, travel to walk the natural path MacRitchie and run to the river banks Singapore.

Once you turned to Denmark, Pedersen crossed the land border to Malaysia and took a boat to Sri Lanka before zarpar towards the last country: Maldives.

When Pedersen arrived at the port in Malé, the capital, he saw a group of people waving small Danish flags alongside one of his sponsors, Ross Energy, and friends like record-breaking Norwegian traveler Gunnar Garfors (the first person to visit every country in the world twice), who came to help him celebrate the feat.

“When I was in the Maldives, the hustle and bustle was enormous and I had no time to reflect. I was mentally exhausted: it’s been a roller coaster of emotions,” says Pedersen.

“There is uncertainty when I travel, but I’ve been in operational mode for so long that I feel safe. When I get home, the uncertainty will be of a different kind. I’ll be free to do what I want, go anywhere or go nowhere,” Pedersen says.

Purposeful travel

From start to finish, Pedersen tallied some incredible statistics during his travels: 3,576 days, 37 container ships, 158 trains, 351 buses, 219 cabs, 33 boats and 43 bicycle cabs.

He traveled 358,883 kilometers, the equivalent of nine times around the Earth, not counting the long trip home.

But it’s not about numbers, Pedersen says. It’s about celebrating the goodness of people and sharing a positive view of the world. “I set out on this journey with a motto: ‘A stranger is a friend you’ve never met,’ and I’ve been shown time and time again that it’s true. If you engage with people, they usually agree,” he says.

Pedersen says he has met warm, kind and helpful people all over the world, many of whom offered him tea, meals, translation support or simply gave him directions.

“I’ve stayed in the homes of many, many strangers during my travels, and I’ve gone through every country in the world, those with armed conflicts, those with virus outbreaks, unscathed. Either I am the luckiest man on the planet, or the world is in a much better place than most people are led to believe by the terrifying and dramatic news on social media and news channels,” he says.

The journey is also a testament to Pedersen’s perseverance. He came close to giving up several times, but refused to throw in the towel.

“Someone wrote to me today that I won the first, second and third prize for stubbornness,” Pedersen laughs. “There has always been a solution. I’ve just had to look hard for it sometimes.”

His mentality of dogged determination stems from a desire to prove to fans that they can do anything they set their minds to. “I had the craziest goals. And if I could do this, you can lose weight or learn to play an instrument, learn a language, get an education, get a job…whatever you want.”

Into the future

His last voyage aboard the MV Milan Maersk crossed the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, the English Channel, Germany and Denmark.

“I have not yet processed that this project is over. They say if you want to incorporate a new habit into life, you have to repeat it for 30 days. I’ve been doing this for over 3,500 days. So this is very much who I am now,” says Pedersen.

When he has rested and regained his balance, Pedersen plans to change his life of perpetual travel and move on in other ways. For starters, he wants to spend more time with his wife and start a family together.

“We have a lot of things to celebrate. While I was traveling, she accomplished a lot: she got her medical degree, finished her doctorate, started working at a pharmaceutical company, got a promotion, completed two full Ironman [triathlons]…she’s a superwoman.”

As she embarks on a new chapter, Pedersen is also working with Canadian filmmaker Mike Douglas to wrap up “The Impossible Journey,” a documentary about the project, and plans to write a book about the journey.

Going forward, he hopes to channel his experiences into lectures, a skill he has honed over the past 10 years. “I realized I wasn’t comfortable on stage when I left home. But now I can get up on stage in front of 300 people smiling,” he says.

“The trip helped me identify my strengths, and dealing with people is one of them. Hopefully, through speaking engagements, I can make a living making people laugh, making them learn and inspiring them to never give up.”


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