Torbjorn Pedersen is a man on a mission. The Dane has decided to visit every country in the world, in one single journey, without catching a single flight – something that's never been done before. This journey, or "saga" as he calls it, began in Copenhagen in his native Denmark on Thursday, October 10, 2013, and he hasn't been home since.
Thor, as he is commonly known, is navigating the globe only by land and sea. When we spoke, he had been to 186 countries, with 17 to go. He has spent days on end on-board ferries, buses, trains and container ships. He opted to eschew flying because he wanted to make the trip "unique and ambitious", he says, but this has certainly come with obstacles.
There have been moments when he was not sure if he would survive. "It's a tie between being on-board a container ship in a storm for four days near where the Titanic sank and being on a dirt road in the middle of the night in a Central African jungle, while being interrogated by three very drunk, very armed, very hostile soldiers," he tells The National. "Every second felt like it could have been my last."
He insists, however, that there are more positive experiences than negative – like the woman named Maria in Poland who invited him into her home during a snowstorm. She cooked and offered him a place to sleep without knowing who he was. The next day she drove him to the bus terminal and wished him a safe journey. It is small acts of kindness such as these that illustrate why Thor's saga slogan is "a stranger is a friend you've never met before".
Thor's thirst for adventure can, perhaps, be traced back to the fact that he moved around a lot as a child due to his father's work, or because his mother was a tour guide. Or it could be because he spent time in Libya, Greenland, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan for work. The former logistics professional has always had a penchant for adventure, and has climbed Kilimanjaro and backpacked around Asia. But the "saga" is not a backpacking expedition, he is quick to point out.
"I find it peculiar when people think I'm a tourist, a backpacker or someone on a gap year. Who the heck stumbles into 180 countries on an unbroken journey completely without flying by accident? Sir Edmund Hillary wore a backpack. That did not make him a backpacker," he says.
Clearly, Thor is hoping to earn a spot in history books, but he also wants to show people that the world is not necessarily what we believe it is. "The mainstream media is showing us the sensationalised part of the world, so we end up hearing a lot about terror, corruption, conflicts, natural disasters," he says. His experiences – even that one encounter with Maria in Poland – highlight something very different, he believes.
Thor's saga is made possible through personal funding, sponsorship,
crowdfunding and by assistance from the Danish Red Cross. He sets aside $20 (Dh73) a day, on average, for spending. This goes towards meals, transport and, in some countries, accommodation and visas. "Sometimes I get to sleep somewhere for free, and I do not need to buy a visa daily, so those costs are minimised over time," he explains.
The trip was sponsored for its first 30 months, but Thor has since depleted his personal funds, and has had to borrow money twice to keep the mission on course. “There is a Patreon [a crowdfunding platform] account and I earn a little from writing articles. It’s not a lucrative project for me at this point,” he admits.
Thor's background in logistics helps when it comes to planning the best routes in order to visit all 203 countries in the world (as listed by the Montevideo Convention). However, acquiring visas while constantly on the road can be a nightmare.
For example, he recalls a time in Gabon when an immigration officer granted him access, but for two months after Thor's intended visit. This incident in 2015 coincided with his phone being stolen and fuelled both a physical and mental breakdown, making him want to quit the saga altogether. "I was broken," he says.
“I felt like I was crying, but not a single tear crossed my cheek and everything collapsed in my head. My body was so tired and I was falling into a deep void,” he says. “I was done.”
Except he wasn't. As it stands, he is expected to complete his journey in 2020, with the Maldives as his final destination.
While he has made many friends in various countries over the course of his travels, Thor has also shared parts of his more than 250,000-kilometre journey with loved ones, including his fiancee, who has visited him 20 times since he left Denmark. The pair got engaged when Thor proposed on top of Mount Kenya in 2016.
Nonetheless, he admits that the relentless emotional and psychological ebb and flow can take its toll. “I also feel lonely. I’m essentially alone, although I often meet new people. I am far away from home and haven’t seen many of my friends and loved ones for many years. It makes me wonder if this is all worth it.”
It seems it is. Thor recalls a particularly special memory of being on a container ship in the North Atlantic after a four-day storm. “The waters were a deep blue colour and extraordinarily calm, with whales and dolphins everywhere,” he says. “We moved across the mirror-like sea and suddenly I could smell trees, but there was no land in sight. Five hours later we could begin to see Canada. The wind was blowing in our direction and that is why I could smell trees long before I could see land.”
While moments like these make him appreciate our planet, the biggest lesson he has learned as a nomad is that people are people, no matter where they are from. He found North Korea, for example, poor but friendly. “I feel that while the population is subject to some degree of manipulation, we outside of North Korea probably are subject to far more manipulation regarding North Korea,” he says. “The food was good, the people I spoke to were kind and hospitality was high.”
All in all, the journey has been both sobering and reflective for Thor. “Now that I have seen and experienced so many countries, it has been life-changing to truly understand that the pale blue dot we all share is truly more peaceful, friendly and safer than what anyone could hope for.
“Even in the most conflicted countries, people still fall in love, get married, take selfies, play games, enjoy food and live normal lives,” he says.
It is a "normal life" that Thor is most looking forward to on his return to Denmark. He hopes to become an author and motivational speaker – and travel will be purely for recreational purposes.