February 17, 2023 18 min read 1 Comment
Originally from Liverpool, Graham is an adventurer, filmmaker, travel blogger and TV presenter whowe had the pleasure of interviewing. In 2009 Graham embarked on The Odyssey Expedition: The first official Guinness World Record attempt of visiting every country in the world without setting foot on a plane. That’s an incredible total of 193 UN member states, plus Taiwan, Palestine, Vatican City, Western Sahara and the four home nations of the UK. It took him four years to complete his journey, all whilst raising funds and awareness for the charity WaterAid. Graham also filmed and hosted an eight-part TV series for Lonely Planet, National Geographic & The BBC, covering the first 133 countries of The Odyssey Expedition.
The rules were: no hitch-hiking, no flying, no long-distance private taxi rides, Graham was not allowed to drive a vehicle or ride a motorbike, and he must set foot on dry land in each country. We caught up with him to discuss The Odyssey Expedition including imprisonment, travelling by cargo ship, eating live octopus, and much more. His infectious warm energy made him an absolute delight to interview!
Graham in Gabon
Thank you so much for joining us, Graham. First of all, how would your friends and family describe you?
Crazy, irrepressible, driven. Someone who when I put my mind to it I can achieve most things.
It sure seems like it! When did you first find your love of the outdoors?
Well, as a kid, I used to go on camping adventures with my mum and dad in our camper van. We’d go to Wales a lot because we’re from Liverpool so Wales was kind of next door. We’d also go around Scotland and Europe back in the 80s, before the Berlin Wall came down. Some of my memories are setting up camp and navigating as well. It really gave me a love for maps, being able to sit up front in the van and direct where we were going was quite exciting for me, and I never lost that love of cartography.
Graham in Palau
That’s awesome. You made history by being the first person to visit every country in the world without flying, which is an absolutely incredible achievement! What inspired you to undertake this mammoth feat?
One of the big inspirations was Around the World in 80 days, not just the book by Jules Verne, but the TV show in the 1980s with Michael Palin. Now, he was already a bit of a hero of mine growing up with Monty Python and things like that. I remember watching the show and one of the things about Around the World in 80 days with Michael Palin, which came out in around 1989 so I would’ve been around 9 or 10 at the time, was that he couldn’t fly. It was all overland transport, and there's an episode where he takes a Dhow boat from I think the UAE over to Pakistan or India, and it is just madness. It instilled in me that love of the great age of travel, you know, when travel was actually travelling, travel was part of the adventure instead of just being a means to an end.
I'm not a big fan of airports and I'm not a big fan of hotels, I find them very impersonal, but I love to travel. So yeah, Around the World in 80 days had a huge influence on me. And I think that that was a huge influence on me around the world these days. So many people told me this adventure would be impossible, I actually pitched the idea to a British newspaper first to do it as a newspaper column each week, about me travelling around the world. They told me it was going to be impossible, it just can’t be done and you’ll die. And there are two, it's just like, it's impossible, it just can't be done, you'll die. However, when I took the idea to Lonely Planet, when they asked me the inevitable question of do you think this is actually really possible? I said, according to your guidebooks it is because I had used the information from their guidebooks. So they couldn't really argue against that.
I had it all planned out, particularly until Papua New Guinea, and then the Pacific. It was kind of like, I'll just make that bit up as I go along because there is no scheduled transport around the Pacific, and it's so far from island to island, it’s not like the Caribbean where the islands were like 100 miles apart. These are like 1000s of miles apart and they often only have one supply ship that goes every six weeks or something.
Graham in Vanuatu
I can imagine this expedition must’ve been such a tough physical and mental challenge. How did you prepare for it, both physically and mentally?
It does sound like a tough challenge doesn’t it, but do you want to know a secret? It wasn't that physically demanding. I would spend hours sitting on a bus or a boat. It wasn't like I had to hike for miles every day, climb up mountains, I got to go to the pub and I got to see places! I think it depends on your attitude a lot and the way that you interact with people, and the way that you feel about a place comes a lot from your attitude while you're there. If you kind of expect to get hassled, for instance, you take it all in your stride. Whereas if you're not expecting it, and it comes out of nowhere and you feel like you're being attacked almost, then it can be quite a stressful experience. I travelled a lot before I went on this trip. I knew what I was getting into to a large extent, I'd already been to a good 70 odd of these countries before and had travelled across them. It wasn't just that I went and sat on the beach for two weeks, I actually travelled around when I was there so I knew about getting around.
So I think that the preparation was basically for over 10 years before I started this journey. I had been backpacking, I've been travelling, I've been going to a lot of music festivals. If you want to learn how to rough it, Glastonbury in the mud, that's a good way to do it! I think that's how I prepared physically. Also doing all the practical stuff like getting all my vaccinations. I got vaccinated against pretty much everything I could get a vaccination for. While I was travelling, I didn't get ill. I didn't have a single day off. I had some hangovers but I didn’t get ill, that was because I was vaccinated and I took sensible precautions. For example, I didn't drink the water, I tried to avoid salad, and I tried to only eat food that was cooked. In a way, now this might sound quite conceited, but I think it sounded more difficult than it actually was. Trekking to the South Pole for example is a lot more physically demanding than going from bus station to bus station. A large part of the prep work was working out how to get from A to B. I had to be certain in myself that I pretty much was sure that I could do it before setting off. It would only take one country to knock me back at the border or one country that I just couldn't get to for whatever reason and I couldn’t have done the challenge.
Was this a solo expedition for the most part?
Sometimes I had a travel buddy with me for a little while, but most of the time it was a solo journey and I was travelling on a shoestring budget. The thing about travelling on your own is you're never alone for long because there are always other people, and usually, you're the only foreigner on the bus or the train, people will come and talk to you and have a chat. Most people are lovely so that was really nice. You tend to get adopted a lot more when you're a solo traveller.
How did you find the motivation to keep going?
Well, there were a couple of things. First of all, going back to the whole travelling on a budget, I wasn’t allowed to hitchhike, but I was taking the cheapest form of transport that I could most of the time. That meant taking a knackered old bus, or a bush taxi and things like that. I was also couch-surfing so I saved a lot of money that way. I was staying with local people everywhere I went, which was fantastic and an amazing experience. Everyone that I stayed with, I said, I'm doing this trip, I'm doing this journey. I also said that to everyone that gave me a lift on their boats, for instance, or a yacht or even a cargo or cruise ship. I told them I'm going to every country in the world without flying. I felt I owed it to the people who helped me along the way, to finish this thing. I said I was going to do it, and it felt to me that if I just stopped I’d be letting those people down because they believed me when I said I was going to do this thing.
But then at the end of the second year of my travels, my sister was diagnosed with cancer just before Christmas. I was in Papua New Guinea at the time when we got the news, and we didn't know what kind of cancer it was, and we didn't know how aggressive it was going to be. So at that point is when I had a break in my journey. I'd spoken to the Guinness World Records before, obviously, starting the journey, and they said that if I needed to fly for a family emergency or medical emergency, you can fly, as long as I go back to that exact spot where I left off, I could continue the journey. I could take a break, but the clock wouldn't stop ticking. They wouldn’t pause the clock just because I wasn't actually travelling at that time. I ended up coming back to the UK and unfortunately, the cancer was very, very aggressive and my sister died a couple of months later. At that point I had been to 184 countries, I only had 16 left to go, which became 17 because South Sudan became a country. I took a few months off from travelling as I had obviously been hit emotionally by the loss of my sister. But also, I was a bit burnt out by all this. I only had these few countries left, but they were some of the most difficult countries in the world to get to because they were nearly all islands. Before she died, my sister said to me, please don't give up your journey because of me, and I promised her that I wouldn't. So towards the end of the journey, the reason why I got back on the horse and finished off those final few countries was because I promised my sister that I would. So basically, a lot of the motivation came down to wanting to keep my promises.
Graham with locals in Central African Republic
I'm really sorry to hear that, but well done for persevering, that's really incredible. What was your favourite country you visited?
I’ve got loads of countries that I love, and if you said to me I’ve got a ticket to XYZ today, I would just say let’s go. Egypt, Bolivia, and Thailand are definitely always near my top. However, the most surprising country that I went to was Iran. I wasn't expecting such a warm, friendly country, but everywhere I went, people just adopted me. To this day, I still have warm, happy memories of the time I was in Iran. My favourite story of the entire journey was when I was on an overnight bus from a place called Shiraz to Khorramshahr on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and from there I was going to get a ferry to Kuwait which was going to be my 153rd country or something. On the overnight bus, there was a little Persian grandmother sitting in front of me, and she was talking on a phone in Farsi and she gives me her phone. I pick it up and say hello, and the guy on the other end says, ‘Hi, my name isHossein, I'm an English teacher here in Iran’ in perfect English. He said ‘you’re sitting behind my grandmother, and she’s called me because she wants me to speak to you. She says the bus gets in very early tomorrow morning at 5am, and she’s concerned about you because at 5am there's going to be no shops open, you'll have nowhere to go and no one to make you breakfast. So she wants to know if it's okay with you, if she takes you home with her and makes you breakfast.’ I ended up doing that, and unfortunately she passed away last year because I’m still in touch with Hossein who is now living over in New Zealand. But you know, what an experience! The generosity there is just amazing. They have an expression that I heard while I was over there, which was “always be good to strangers because one day you might be the stranger.”
Graham in Iran
On the other hand, what was the scariest country you went to and why?
This is a tricky one because I was in some pretty hairy predicaments in certain places. However, I think the country where I was probably most on edge, and this is probably why Iran was such a breath of fresh air in comparison, was Saudi Arabia. They have very strict rules over there and you've got to be very respectful of the rules. I think that was the country where I just couldn't relax because it always felt like I might do the wrong thing, or might say the wrong thing. Before I went there I made sure to wipe everything off my laptop and changed all the passwords on all my social media and things like that just to be extra sure there was nothing on there that could potentially get me into trouble. In saying that, the people were really lovely as well, but I didn’t get to meet too many women in Saudi Arabia unfortunately as you can imagine. Obviously, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, I was vigilant, I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t going to places where there was active fighting going on or anything like that. Going back to some of the places that I've been to now might be a bit difficult because of the changing geopolitical landscape.
What was the worst place you slept in?
I’ve got a selection! I could say when I was in jail in Cape Verde in a holding cell under a police station. I was in a room with a cement floor that was the right size for one prisoner, and there were 11 of us in there. There was a squat toilet in the corner and it absolutely stank and I slept there for five nights. Then in Congo, lightning struck twice! I was actually arrested in Congo and detained for six days there as well, and that was also five nights on the concrete floor which again, was not too great. I also experienced sharing the front seat of a bush taxi in Guinea. One of my buttocks was on the handbrake for the whole journey and the journey took two days! So I had to sleep literally with one butt cheek on the handbrake. There was a bus that I was on in Kenya and the police came on board and they wanted to arrest me or wanted a bribe because I was asleep in the aisle of the bus. I have to say the worst was one that cost me a lot of money. I paid to get on this boat called the Shissiwani-II, god knows what happened to the Shissiwani-I. It was this rusted old boat from the 1960s or something that was probably a pleasure cruiser going to Cyprus or something that somehow ended up in East Africa taking people over from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Comoros. I paid to have my own cabin, but it was a joke, there were no cabins. There was quite a dirty, metal rusty floor and I managed to wangle some cardboard off one of my fellow passengers. We all slept on this floor with animals, there was cattle on the same floor that we were on. It was really unpleasant, and it was really stinky. Because we were on a boat it was really hot and there was obviously no air conditioning so I was feeling nauseous the whole time. I think it was worse than being in jail because at least in jail, it was free, I had to pay for that experience on the boat which made it worse.
Graham in China
Are there certain things you now have a greater appreciation for, such as having a comfortable bed?
Tea. You can’t get a decent cup of British tea pretty much anywhere! If you like green tea you can get that in China and if you like Chai, which I do, you can get that in India and it’s fantastic. But when it comes to a good British cup of strong tea with milk it’s so difficult to get anywhere but here, and I never really appreciated this. I actually gave up trying to find it, I just had coffee instead because people make coffee all over the world, so I appreciate tea a lot more now. Cheese is another thing. You can obviously get good cheeses in Europe, but once you get out of Europe it’s hard to find decent cheese, especially in America, they don’t know what cheese is.
I still like waking up somewhere new each day. Because of lockdown and everything we've kind of been stuck in the same place now for quite a long time, but I miss that aspect of the journey. So having a comfortable bed is not that important to me, it probably will get more important as I get older, but for now, it’s not an issue or my top priority.
What was the weirdest food or experience in general that you encountered?
There are a few things. When you’re in Thailand as a backpacker you've got to have some sort of deep-fried bugs, because it's part of a rite of passage. But that wasn't that weird, I mean it tasted horrible it tasted like dirt. When I was in South Korea, I had what they call Dancing Octopus, and even though the Octopus isn’t alive, the tentacles are still moving on your plate and as you’re eating it. It was like eating a bowl of worms, but they also had suction cups that can possibly stick to your oesophagus so you have to try and eat them in a certain way. You put them in a sauce first and then swallow them down and they wiggle as they go down. That was a bit mad but it was interesting. The absolute worst thing I've ever put in my mouth was when I was in the Philippines I had something called Balut. It’s a hard-boiled fertilised duck egg and it’s got a little bloody duck foetus in it! I’ll never complain about a kebab again.
Do you have a shortcut for getting to know new places quickly or easily?
Yes, locals. Just to go back to the couch-surfing thing, staying with locals was brilliant, it was sort of like a cheat code. If you want to go anywhere in the world and you want to find out about the place as quickly as possible, obviously, do a bit of research before you go don't turn up like an idiot and insult everyone with bad manners, but once you’re there, you’ll have the most up to date and reliable information by staying with someone who’s from that place. So yeah, I recommend just getting in the locals wherever you go.
Graham with a local in Fiji
Did you find that language was a barrier during The Odyssey Expedition?
No, I mean, when people ask me how many languages I speak I say I’m from Liverpool, I hardly speak English! I spoke a little bit of French and Spanish to get by. But generally speaking, there's a lot of language you can get across just by how you gesticulate. I think the only country where I found the language barrier particularly difficult would be somewhere like Russia. There were very few English speakers, a lot of the signs are just in Cyrillic. I first went to China about 20 years ago, and I found a lot of the signs were just in Chinese characters, which made it a little bit difficult, but it was also kind of fun, trying to decipher what the characters could mean. But since the 2008 Beijing games, a lot of the signage now in China is in Chinese, but then it's got Roman letters underneath so it makes it a bit easier to get around. And generally, if you learn a little bit of the language wherever you go, like just some pleasantries, people appreciate that a lot. So yeah, I didn't find languages wasn’t really the barrier that I think a lot of people worry about before they go travelling.
What advice or tips would you give to someone who wants to take on their first big expedition?
Don't wait. That's my best advice. A lot of people will wait until they feel they've got enough money saved up, which is fine, but don’t go mad. The biggest expense you’re going to have if you go somewhere like Southeast Asia is probably your flights. Once you're there it's pretty cheap, especially with the cost of living in this country at the moment.
Also people wait to find someone else to go with. And sometimes I feel like as long as you're not going anywhere particularly dangerous, if you can't find someone to go with just go on your own. Like I said earlier, you're never alone for long when you travel. Even if you’re staying on the banana pancake backpacker trail people will just adopt you, and you’ll get invited out to parties and events just by virtue of being there. So yeah, try not to get into the thinking that you have to be a trust fund baby in order to go and visit these places. Having said that you do need to be prepared to rough it a little bit in order to see these places. Try not to let worries about language barriers, or who to go with or money set you back, as long as you have enough money to get there and get back you should be fine. As long as you are covered by travel insurance which I really recommend, then the world is your oyster.
Do you have any other big adventures on the cards?
Currently I’m pitching some ideas for travel-inspired TV shows that I want to make. I can’t really go into what they are but essentially it’s going to be celebrating travel, and I want to get people to go travelling again especially after Covid-19, and travelling in a sustainable way, so I might not necessarily be flying places and staying in top hotels. One of my big things of doing the Odyssey Expedition in the first place was to raise money for charity and to inspire people to get out there and see the world. There’s a great quote by Mark Twain which was “Travel is fatal to prejudice”, in that the more you travel the more difficult it is to be small-minded and petty and racist.
Graham in Australia
Now for some quick-fire questions…
Thank you so much Graham for sharing this with us! Check out his viral 'One Second Every Country' video here:
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