For Lee Abbamonte, the last stop on the quest became the most dangerous. With Libya embroiled in civil war, he arrived at the border amid a storm of bullets. He inched into the country through the firefight and, in doing so at the age of 32, became the youngest American to visit every country in the world. The list of 193 United Nations member states was finally ticked off, and a modern-day Phileas Fogg-esque challenge was completed.
An entrepreneur who has worked in finance, travel writing and TV commentary, Abbamonte says he picked up the travel bug while at university. “It got to the point where I realised I’d been to about two-thirds of the world. But the mission only became a conscious thing after I found there was a record for being the youngest person to do it.”
Abbamonte’s country collecting hurtle around the world is perhaps an extreme take on something many travellers do. Few would honestly deny the thrill of landing in a new country for the first time, and for years Facebook has been awash with ‘Where I’ve been’ maps created through the likes of Travbuddy.com.
It’s arguably just a physical extension of having good geography trivia knowledge in a pub quiz or being able to rattle off ‘Central African Republic’ and ‘Tuvalu’ with indecent haste while watching quiz show Pointless.
There is, however, a slight difference between keeping a vague count and joining an organisation such as the Travelers’ Century Club (TCC). Founded in 1954, and now with over 2,000 members, you can only join if you’ve been to 100 or more of the world’s territories.
The TCC list is more extensive than the UN’s, including territories such as the Cayman Islands, New Caledonia and Puerto Rico, which aren’t fully independent nations. Inclusions that are integral parts of other countries, such as Tasmania, Alaska and Corsica, are somewhat more controversial.
Abbamonte, who is a member of the club, says he doesn’t necessarily agree with the list — but he’s aiming to be the youngest person to visit all 324 entries on it anyway.
“I vehemently disagree with some inclusions,” he says. “The TCC list can get a bit ridiculous if we’re counting random rocks in the sea.”
There are a few constants when talking to people who rack up the countries in this way. One is that nobody can agree on what counts as a country — those who go by Olympic or World Cup representation will have leapt for joy when Gibraltar gained full UEFA membership; others will insist that the likes of the Faroe Islands, Wales and Northern Ireland are anomalies that shouldn’t be allowed to count as separate entities.
Quality or quantity?
Another point is that no one can agree on what counts as a visit — some are happy to accept a foot over the border or an airport stopover, while others have more stringent definitions.
The third, and perhaps most surprising aspect, is that very few people who bag countries in this way regard collection as the prime motivation.
Abbamonte says: “I don’t really consider myself a country-counter. I do it for my own enjoyment. Most people have their own rules. If I’m satisfied with a visit, then it’s a visit.”
Mike Kendall, a 54-year-old from Ascot, who is also a member of the Traveler’s Century Club, says he can’t stand the ‘country-tickers’ term.
“I’m not one of those people who do it to tick places off a list. I try and spend some time in each country,” he says. “I’m genuinely interested in them — and there’s never a ‘right’ amount of time to spend in each.”
Kendall, who says he’s so far been to 146 countries on the UN list and 77 of them more than once, concedes that some countries are of more interest than others. “Thirty-three of the ones I haven’t been to are in Africa, including most of the Sahel [west and north-central African region/Sahara borderlands]. And, if I’m honest, there’s a reason for that. Mauritania was tense — I was keen to get out as soon as I got in.”
Lee Abbamonte agrees that an element of superficiality creeps in. “Let’s be realistic, there are some countries you don’t want to go to. Going to Niger, Chad, Sudan etc, you find yourself spending money and time in somewhere you don’t want to be. So, yes, that’s superficial, but it only becomes that way if you let it. In Libya, for example, there was a real human element. I was taken in by a family and learned a lot more about the history than I would have imagined.”
At some point, it seems, a personal preoccupation kicks in. Mike Kendall admits there is an element of obsession in there somewhere. “I’ve also been to all 92 football league grounds,” he says. “I think it’s human nature to collect. There’s a gene somewhere in us all.”
For Kendall, the obsession started with a couple of European trips, then flying with Laker Airways to the States in the 1980s. “I decided I wanted to go to all the countries in Europe. Then it was one country in every continent and it went from there. I started travelling in earnest in 1995. My wife and I spent the best part of 16 months away, and came back in debt. We had to look for work.”
Finances are an obvious limitation. Kendall, who retired at the age of 52, says he was lucky to have a well-paid job as a financial controller while his wife’s job at a travel company allowed them to receive concessionary fares on flights.
“But after a while, it becomes a lifestyle. In general terms, we could probably live on the road cheaper than we could live at home. I still stay in hostels every now and then, and I’m not averse to camping.”
The biggest barriers
The costs of reaching some countries — particularly the Pacific Islands, which are only served by a few heavily over-subscribed flights a month — can be prohibitive. But politics can be an even bigger barrier.
Kendall says: “The most difficult obstacles are visas. I’m struggling with Equatorial Guinea. They won’t give visas to British citizens after the Simon Mann/Mark Thatcher thing [failed coup d’état].”
But when the country-collecting becomes truly hardcore, sheer geographical isolation becomes the major enemy. Pitcairn Islands — on the Traveler’s Century Club list and with a 67-strong population mainly descended from the Bounty mutineers — can only be reached by the occasional boat from French Polynesia.
Pitcairn is by no means the Holy Grail, however. Charles Veley runs the Most Traveled People website, and its inventory of 875 ‘countries, territories, autonomous regions, enclaves, geographically separated island groups, and major states and provinces’ makes the TCC list look like an easy-going, back-of-a-beermat sketch.
Veley — who has made it to 834 of the places on the list [at the time of going to press] — cites Bouvet Island in the Norwegian Antarctic Territory as the most remote (uninhabited) island in the world. It’s also one of the most difficult to reach — even the really expensive cruises that occasionally venture there offer no guarantee of landing by its daunting rock cliffs among humungous waves.
“However, the increased notoriety has resulted in a handful of landings over the last 10 years,” says Veley. “Other islands, which I think are more difficult, are Scott, near Antarctica, and Howland, where Amelia Earhardt’s plane was expected to land when she went missing.
“Also, the Nicobar Islands have frustrated me over the years [non-Indians are not permitted to go there], and I’m not aware of any foreigners who have legally visited them.”
The Most Traveled People’s site ranks locations in order of the fewest travellers who have been there, and Marie Byrd Land, a chunk of Antarctica so remote that no country has ever staked a territorial claim, is top with just four visitors.
For Veley, however, the most Herculean effort involved reaching Peter I Island, which lies 400 miles off the coast of Western Antarctica and is usually inaccessible due to its being surrounded by pack ice.
“I joined a ham radio expedition, which took five years to plan,” says Veley. “They raised $750,000 (£460,000) for the expedition, then had false starts for two years running, before finally and successfully reaching the island in 2006. We lived aboard the Chilean Antarctic supply vessel, DAP Mares, which sank unceremoniously later that year.
“That expedition was the time I most feared for my life. I began working with the helicopter crew, preparing sling loads of cargo to remove from the island. The weather closed in, and the helicopter pilot bugged out, leaving us stranded on the island with no shelter and supplies. We were trapped for nearly 24 hours, and I was fearful of freezing to death.”
But as more country-collectors join groups such as Traveler’s Century Club and Most Traveled People, the more accessible some of the trickier places become. Sharing the cost turns the unfeasible into the possible, particularly when it’s a case of having to charter a yacht to travel there. Lee Abbamonte tells of groups banding together to hire boats in the Maldives, then mooring in the Chagos Islands in a bid to reach the otherwise military-only Diego Garcia.
Mike Kendall says: “Country-collectors do tend to travel together, especially to places where you need to charter a yacht. I’m possibly going to Somaliland with a few of them later this year.”
And, ironically, it seems that attempting to tick off as many of the most remote and obscure places on earth has a social aspect to it. Many of the country-collectors know each other, and the various chapters of the Travelers Century Club meet a few times a year. One-upmanship seems oddly conspicuous by its absence.
Kendall says: “When I joined, I thought I was well-travelled, but I quickly felt like I’d only been round the corner. People were intelligent and well-educated, not there to brag and show off. I often feel like I can’t talk about travel to my closest friends — they’re just not interested. But it’s good being among like-minded people.”
Charles Veley feels that he’s gained the same benefits that anyone would gain from travel. He cites: “The discovery of new experiences, the satisfaction of imagining a plan and bringing it to reality, the incorporation of new and complementary — or surprising — information into an ever-evolving worldview.
“Yet backing this up is knowing that there remains, and always will remain a set of locations yet to visit. That’s the simultaneous comfort and irritant of ‘The List’.”
Lee Abbamonte’s blog, documenting his record-breaking travels around the world, can be found at leeabbamonte.com
Most Traveled People, which has over 12,000 active users, is free to join. mosttraveledpeople.com
Travelers’ Century Club membership is only open to people who have visited 100 or more of the territories on its list. Initiation costs US$100 (£61), and annual fees for non-US residents start at US$85 (£52) a year. Provisional membership is available for anyone who has visited 75 or more countries. travelerscenturyclub.org
Foreign Office travel advice: gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
Books: Where The Hell Is Tuvalu?: How I Became the Law Man of the World’s Fourth-Smallest Country, by Philip Ells. RRP: £9.99. (Virgin Books)
Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Islands Revealed, by Kathy Marks (Free Press). RRP: £12.97.
Antarctica (Lonely Planet). RRP: £18.99.
South Pacific (Lonely Planet). RRP: £19.99.
Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)