Daniel Herszberg is currently en route to become the youngest Australian to visit every country in the world. The 27-year-old has ticked off around 160 countries and, with that achievement, has collected some incredibly rich experiences along the way that he would like to share.
From swimming across the mouth of Victoria Falls to reach Devil’s Pool in Zambia/Zimbabwe, to tracking orangutans in Sumatra, to breaking iftar on the rooftops of Xinjiang — Daniel delves into his wealth of travel experiences in this inspiring Q&A interview below.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up and what sparked your love of travel?
I’m 27 years old. I grew up in Australia but haven’t spent much time there in the past few years. My family travelled a fair bit when I was younger, so I got a real taste for the world around me and a general curiosity for other cultures. I spent a long time at university (around 7 years), studying law and languages.
As a kid, my room was filled with globes, flags of the world and travel books. I don’t think there was ever a particular “spark” – I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember!
Naturally, I made the most of every break I had from university and hit the road. I have previously studied and worked in Shanghai and Beijing, China, Florence, Italy and New York. In 2016, I moved to Hong Kong to begin a new job and to take advantage of a more strategic geographic position in the world.
What inspired you to take on the challenge of becoming the youngest Australian to visit every country in the world?
The real answer is that I’ve always been intending to visit every country. Recently, I went on an island-hopping trip through the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. When one of my friends asked how I planned which islands to visit, I answered that I had this trip mapped out by the age of 12.
Only about 200 people have visited every country on Earth (that’s almost a third of the amount of people who have been to space). Once I realised that I could potentially become one of the youngest people to ever visit every country, it became a slightly more pressing goal!
What have been some of your favourite travel journeys this year?
2019 has been a great travel year so far (and the best is yet to come). Some of the highlights this year have been diving Japanese WWII wrecks in Chuuk, Micronesia, experiencing the diversity of tribal life in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and climbing some of the largest sand dunes in the world in Mongolia!
The most unique experience this year would certainly have to be Turkmenistan. For some context, after independence from the Soviet Union, the first president (I’ll just call him President 1, as they have terribly long names) cemented control and declared himself ‘Turkmenbashy’ (‘father of the Turkmen’), creating a cult of personality par excellence.
To visit Turkmenistan is akin to visiting a living breathing shrine to President 1, who named the days of the week after his family members, made his mother into some sort of saint and used the country’s wealth to cement his God-like status.
Ashgabat is replete with statues of him in gold, almost everything is named after him (President 1 Theatre, President 1 Highway) or his family members (Mother of President 1 high school).
His face is on most things and some of the statues are quite epic (there is a famous one where he looks like Batman on top of a rotating arrow so that his gold face always faces the sun; whilst another one has him as a baby in gold on top of planet earth).
What are your favourite countries and why are they special to you?
I can never say I have one favourite country – but here are my top 5 (at the moment). This list proves to be very flexible!
1) Mexico: Normally when I say this, the standard response I get is ‘surely no, Cancun?!’ But indeed, there is a world well beyond Cancun. My feelings towards Mexico are somewhat difficult to clarify. After every visit, I can’t help but leave completely enchanted by this country.
I think I just love how Mexico’s great history has been imbued in every aspect of daily life. The streets abound in mythology, legends and the smells of ancient recipes. Every town has a story, every street-corner has a piece of history and every wall has an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
2) South Africa: My mother is South African and I was raised on stories of her youth in this foreign land. Everything about these stories would excite me, from her school excursions to Kruger National Park to life under apartheid. I certainly feel a special connection to South Africa and this aspect of my background has significantly impacted my travels in Africa through the years.
3) Indonesia: Java was the first destination where I traveled alone and having returned many times, Indonesia has really become somewhere that will always be special to me. This was the country where I realised the virtues of solo travel and its ability to facilitate a complete cultural immersion.
This might sound totally strange, but there’s a certain scent that I associate with Java, perhaps it’s the steam and humidity mixed with traffic and street-side nasi goreng. Whatever it is, every single time without fail, it gets me excited and triggers a big giant kick of travel nostalgia.
4) Venezuela: The kind nature of Venezuelans was different from anything I have experienced in recent trips. Canaima National Park must be one of the most beautiful corners of South America, if not the world. The huge concentration of large parrots and macaws, the abundance of waterfalls – and of course, Angel Falls, is an incomparable experience.
The colonial cities, like Ciudad Bolívar, are desperately awaiting tourism, with beautiful cobble-stone alleys and colourful little houses. I am eagerly awaiting the day when the situation stabilizes and the country is truly able to share its beauty with the world.
5) Papua New Guinea: PNG was an overwhelming experience for me. Growing up in Australia, PNG is literally our next door neighbor. And yet, I knew almost nothing about this country, let alone that a whole other world existed there!
The tribes, the colours, the landscapes were unlike anywhere I had visited. It’s crazy to think that only 2 hours from Brisbane there is an entire civilisation almost completely disconnected from the modern world. I plan on returning to PNG many times in the coming years.
Could you give us an overview of how you like to travel?
I love researching before my trips, so I generally have a very clear picture of what I want to see and/or experience. In some countries I will spend a few days, while others I will spend a few months – there is no hard and fast rule for me.
I always prefer to travel solo, as I feel that so much of the cultural experience and immersion is enhanced by being alone and forcing yourself to speak to people on the ground.
In terms of transport, I prefer to travel overland where I can (although this obviously isn’t always an option). This sometimes presents real challenges (see the next question and answer below).
As a vegetarian, food also presents quite a challenge! Whilst some countries are amazing culinary destinations for vegetarians, in much of the developing world it proves to be a real challenge and I’m often stuck with some empty carbs and a plantain.
That being said, seeking vegetarian food has led me to experience things I almost certainly wouldn’t otherwise – like, for example, an ashram in the middle of Quito, Ecuador.
What country has presented the most challenges on your travels?
The most challenging experience from my journey to visit every country was probably traveling (or attempting to travel) overland through Africa on public transport – where I’ve done various routes through the years (Senegal to Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire to Benin, Uganda to the Congo, etc.).
In this part of the world, getting between two points is not a matter of getting on a simple bus with a set departure time. Google Maps will “estimate” about a third or a quarter of the time actually required.
Whilst the types of cars, amount of the bribes and number of passengers may vary, the story remains more or less the same: the adventure normally starts at the chaotic-yet-somehow-functioning town garage, where all the minibuses (called sept-place/matutu/bush taxi/car rapide/etc., depending where in Africa you are) to every small town in the region wait to fill up.
In getting to the town garage in these places, you can normally expect some sort of drama. For example, the taxi to the garage will break down, or the President of Gambia will be blocking all the roads for four hours.
Most cars are simply shells, with everything in the interior having been removed, and often replaced with wooden benches or some other particularly uncomfortable form of seat.
Forget a road-safety certificate, because the car/van/pick-up truck usually won’t have a key and is operated by various wires held together. Arriving at a garage can be one of the most overwhelming experiences in Africa, with tens of people swamping you, screaming destinations, grabbing at your bags (in the hope you will tip them) and a large number of street kids asking for money (or sussing out your pockets).
Once you finally identify the car/van heading in the direction for where you want to go, the next thing to do is wait for it to fill up! I normally would try and get to the garage at 6 or 7 am (or even better, on a market day), as your odds of the car filling up quickly are slightly better. Normally, it will take anywhere from one to four hours for the car to fill up, and then you are on your way!
There are real pros and cons to waiting at the garage. The pros: you will get the best seat – and this can be very important (see details of the trip below). If you arrive when the car is leaving, you are normally stuck in the trunk or in the middle of five people. The cons: the wait is long, hot and dusty, and the garage tends to attract characters who are not the most pleasant in town.
Once you’re off, this is the part that gets extra fun! The general rule is that no matter where you are going, it’s a full day (or day + night) of travel. This means that to cover, say, 200 km, it will take around eight hours. The reasons behind this are:
- Terrible roads (mud, potholes, or simply no roads)
- You are constantly stopping to pick up and drop off passengers at every village
- The driver might decide that halfway into your journey is the perfect time to stop and buy oranges at the market, or perhaps he has spotted a friend, or he wants to visit a relative. This just means more waiting!
- Checkpoints (and being le blanc in the car, I can always expect some extra-special treatment)
The list goes on! If you’re trying to cross a border, make sure to add another hour or so for the classic bureaucratic, dusty and unfortunately very corrupt formality, with a number of goats, chickens and children who wish to witness the spectacle.
You might think that being in a car for eight hours could be a nice, relaxing and romantic road trip during which you can witness the African wilderness. The reality is that a 10-seater van will normally hold around 16 people. Your feet will be up against bags of goods (or, I even once had the special honour of sitting on top of an open crate of fish in Malawi).
You will generally be given a baby (or chicken) to hold, at certain points. The weather is sitting at around 38 degrees Celsius with 100% humidity, the windows are open and you are quickly covered in a nice crust of dust and sand.
Despite all these challenges, this is also the most rewarding way to experience Africa – to engage with its people, to improve your French/Portuguese and see its challenges firsthand. The small discomforts I have experienced have paled in comparison with everyday life on the continent.
Which country, would you say, has the friendliest and most welcoming people?
So many strong contenders here and off the top of my head: Ghana, Malawi, Venezuela, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, Papua New Guinea. Venezuela is probably a stand out simply given its current circumstances.
People I had just met would insist that I stay with them, eat with them and visit them often. Every meal Venezuelans would approach me and insist I sat with them rather than eat alone or suddenly someone would walk over with a plate of tequeños and insist I try some Venezuelan food.
When I visited the museum in Ciudad Bolivar and the museum guide was so excited to practice his English that he took me around town for the rest of the day. When I tried to pay him, he refused because he was just so happy to see a foreigner (the last one had come almost 8 months before).
What are your three favourite experiences that you have ticked off your bucket-list?
Picking my three favourite experiences from my journey to visit every country is hard. So, I’m going to try and group my favourite experiences!
1) The might of the world’s great waterfalls. Some highlights include: trekking for hours to find Angel Falls (Venezuela), descending by plane into the upper-limits of the Amazon until it opens unto Kaiteur Falls (Guyana); swimming across the mouth of Victoria Falls to reach Devil’s Pool (Zambia/Zimbabwe); riding underneath Iguazu Falls and literally feeling the power on your shoulders (Argentina/Brazil).
2) All the phenomenal wildlife encounters: getting smacked by a gorilla in Uganda, tracking orangutans in Sumatra, snorkeling with whale sharks in the Philippines, spotting lemurs in Madagascar, walking amongst zebra in Botswana and all the safaris!
3) Engaging with the diversity of our world’s cultures and religions: voodoo ceremonies in Benin, breaking iftar on the rooftops of Xinjiang, having pineapples thrown at me during the Guelaguetza festival in Oaxaca, Mexico, sitting alongside chanting Sufis in Pakistan, and of course, the numerous songs and dances of the Pacific nations.
Could you give some advice for aspiring travellers who want to visit every country in the world?
There is certainly an adrenaline rush from being on the road on a journey to visit every country in the world, but once you move beyond the 100 or so countries that are prepared for travellers, and have the requisite tourist infrastructure, things get very difficult and very expensive!
Corruption, visas and monopolised flight routes make this all the more challenging. But truthfully, the only thing you can’t prepare yourself for is seeing the world that we know exists, but often choose to ignore. Visiting refugee camps, seeing people so weak from hunger that they can barely raise their hands or just a dead body lying in the streets of a crime-ridden capital.
In saying all of that, none of this should deter you. There is nothing to be afraid of – the world is inherently a good place. No matter where you are, you will find good people that will want to help you. I know this sounds romanticised and cliched, but it really is the truth.