"The most important thing to me about travel is to challenge and expand my own mind – not to travel would be an insult to my intellect, my curiosity, my creativity and my understanding of other people, cultures, mindsets, backgrounds and faiths."
Gunnar Garfors has visited every country in the world. Twice. And knowing this self-proclaimed "restless" traveller, a third time could very well be the charm. The Norwegian national's first visit to each country took place between 2000 and 2013, and he published a book about those travels: 198: How I Ran Out of Countries. He has always worked full-time, and for the most part, visited only one or two countries at a time from his base in Norway. By December 2018, he had visited all 198 countries a second time and, in April 2019, his second book, Ingenstad, was published in Norwegian.
Ingenstad is about Garfors's travels to the 20 least-visited countries in the world. "It had to be done," he says. "Very little data exists on tourist numbers to countries with extremely few visitors, so I had to dig that up myself, by revisiting countries and countries that I suspected would make the list." He ascertained that the five least-visited countries in the world are the Central African Republic, Tuvalu, Libya, Nauru and Yemen.
He admits that his competitive nature bolstered his desire to be the first person to visit every country in the world twice. "I have now stayed overnight and slept in every country in the world – all 198 of them – and I have spent a week in each country through my travels." In the process, he has notched up 10 world records.
It was Garfors's father who first inspired him to travel. He worked on a cruise ship in the Pacific Ocean and would send the family cassette tapes detailing his experiences abroad and at sea. "I like to say that travelling is in my blood," says Garfors, his eyes glistening as he recounts some of the stories his father shared. "We listened in awe. And I promised myself that I would travel like my dad when I grew up."
He laughs as he recounts the number of times he has been asked what his favourite country is. “There are just way too many amazingly special countries, cities and other places in the world for me to make a winner or even a shortlist.”
He prefers to stray from typical tourist routes and take recommendations from locals. “My visit to the Door to Hell in Turkmenistan stands out as one of the most iconic. It is a crater with gas sifting up from the ground; there are no people there and no lights or sounds in the distance.”
Garfors's travels have taken him from his native Norway to some of the most remote locations in the world, including a visit to a pygmy village two hours from Bangui in the Central African Republic. It is these encounters with lesser-known destinations that fill Ingenstad. "These countries are virtually unknown to most, and if they hear anything about any of them, it is usually for all the wrong reasons: bombs, grenades, war, starvation and other misery."
He wanted to give those who live in these oft-overlooked countries a voice, and provide a new perspective on the places they call home. “Often they have nothing, but their hospitality is absolutely world-class,” he adds.
Ingenstad is brimming with enlightening insights. Did you know it is illegal to own a black car in Turkmenistan? That in Kiribati, they claim to have 250 words for coconut? And that, in Mauritania, slavery was banned as late as 2007, making it the last country in the world to outlaw the practice?
The Norwegian passport ranks as one of the strongest in the world, and this has aided Garfors's adventures in countries that are more difficult to enter. "I am certainly lucky and privileged. I have now totally overdosed on bureaucracy, which is way too prevalent in many embassies, but every difficult visa is a small victory, so those little upsides helped," he adds.
He lives by the mantra "experiences over things", and no longer collects memorabilia from his visits. "I previously collected kitchen magnets, but the last five to 10 years, I have rather focused on taking photographs that help me remember the people and places."
As much as he may be a "citizen of the world", he has no plans to move from Norway. As an author, he gets to stay in various places for extended periods of time to carry out his research. "That gives me a refreshing taste of what it is like living in various places, and for now that is a good start.''
Over the course of his travels, Garfors estimates that he has taken “probably between 2,000 and 3,000 flights”, but when I raise the issue of carbon emissions and their impact on the environment, his response is a surprising one. “Travel helps reduce conflicts, and reduced conflicts means a need for fewer weapons and smaller armies. Currently there is an increased number of troops and weapons, causing more pollution than any other sector.”
Not only has his penchant for travel given him multiple passports, it has given him plenty of time to reflect. “I have learnt a lot about myself, grown more confident and realised that I am extremely privileged, and most people are not.
“If travel doesn’t humble you, nothing will,” he says definitively.