In 2019 Jørn Bjørn Augestad finished visiting every country in the world as the youngest Norwegian (then aged 29).
He grew up on the small southern Norwegian island called Finnøy where his parents still live (and where his grandfather used to farm tomatoes but was unable to pick them himself since he was red/green colourblind!).
During his upbringing, many exchange students lived in Jørn Bjørns house – including his two ‘Afghan brothers’ that his parents helped to foster. This further fueled Jørn Bjørns desire to learn more about other cultures – and Afghanistan still retains a special place in his travel heart.
With my family (Charlotte and kids) I was fortunate to stay for three nights in Jørn Bjørns inner city apartment in Stavanger in the summer of 2020. This interview is based on our visit and subsequent written correspondence.
This interview is part of a series of interviews with well known travellers – read more here.
What or who do you think inspired you to become a traveller?
I remember hearing in school about Norwegian expeditioners and explorers such as Thor Heyerdahl, Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen and was thinking how adventurous lives they must have been living. Hearing their stories made my mind drift, and I was told by my teachers that they often would see me staring out of the window and daydreaming during their classes.
How did you start and when did you find out that you wanted to become a world traveller?
My parents hosted several international exchange students and I always thought that when I would be 16 I would move to another country for a year as an exchange student. I liked to snowboard so my choice fell on Austria. This is where my traveling started, by skipping classes to go for long weekend trips to Slovakia, Slovenia and Czech Republic or simply within the country. I failed nearly half of my classes there, and had to repeat them when I came home, but the same year I did my first interrail trip and caught the travel bug.
You managed to visit every country in the world before your 30st birthday – thus becoming the youngest person in Norway to visit every country – how did you manage that?
Just like my exchange year in Austria I have also spent a semester in South Africa and in the US, and then I also stayed one summer with a host family in Costa Rica studying Spanish at a University in San Jose. These became my “hubs” that I used to explore neighboring countries, where I also used my weekends and holidays to see more of the country, I was living in. Working as a travel agent helped me with the logistical side of traveling and staying one year in a campervan and one year living in my tent in Norway helped me save up money for my travels.
How many days have you approximately travelled?
I have spent over 50% of my time the last 12 years outside of Norway, but as mentioned a lot of this was through my studies. In total I have spent over 5 years traveling, broken up into 4, 6, 12, 16 and 18 month single journey trips and then shorter trips while I was studying and working.
Do you have a rough estimate of how much money you totally spent visiting every country?
It’s hard to say, as I don’t keep a budget or any records of how much money I have spent. Every time I lay out on an open-ended trip, I just travel until my money runs out. I usually spend less than 10.000 Euro a year, so totally I think it has cost me less than 50.000 Euro to visit every country.
How did you earn this money?
I’ve worked multiple jobs when I was at home, in healthcare, in shops and other jobs that I think have paid relatively well, they were easy to get and easy to leave whenever I wanted to go traveling again. My father was running a shop and let me help out and do small jobs there already when I was 14, but my parents have never supported my travels. On the contrary I think they want me to go broke again, as this is the reason why I would normally return home.
What are your next projects after visiting every country?
Right now I want to arrange trips on every continent and I have already done “Vikings in Africa” which was a 3,5 month road trip from Norway to Ghana and then I arranged a road trip called “Vikings in Australia” earlier this year. At the moment I am in driving into Iraqi Kurdistan. With a group of people and a car I drove all the way from Norway on my current “Vikings in Asia” trip. Next year I will start my America and Antartica trip where anyone is welcome to join.
Do you think you will be able to ever settle down and get a family and a normal 9-5 job?
I will do my best to not give in to the conformity of a family life and a routine job, but who knows what will happen. I have a girlfriend and could rather see myself doing seasonal jobs and traveling most of the year with her, or to live in different places which we can explore together.
A journalist called you a “naïve and reckless tourist” when you couch surfed in Afghanistan what are your comments on this?
It was a story which got twisted out of proportion and ended up in around a hundred newspapers around the World such as Fox News, Euronews and the Telegraph. The story did not represent the same information as I had wanted to convey so ever since this I have asked to proofread the articles from my interviews before they are published.
Which of your visas was the hardest?
For me it was Equatorial Guinea which took me visits to 5 different embassies over a time span of two years. At the end I finally got the visa at the same embassy I had started at in London.
What are three of your 3 favorite countries?
My favorite countries are Ethiopia for its diversity, Pakistan for its mountain and good food, and Madagascar for its uniqueness.
What are your 3 least favorite countries?
Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Monaco – they have little to offer.
Which country did you find the most dangerous?
The most dangerous when I was there would be Central African Republic. There was massive protests and violence breaking out in the capital, and when traveling outside of the city I didn’t know who to trust as there was no police.
What is the closest you have come to dying on your travels?
It was probably from Malaria. One time I got it in the countryside of Nigeria where I could not go to the hospital at night, and when I finally got to the hospital the next day I found out that all the doctors had been kidnapped. But luckily there was a nurse who helped me get a test and treatment. Having 41,8 degrees fever and limited options to get treated was not a very pleasant experience. Driving off a bridge in Morocco was another close call.
Do you have some advice to someone else trying to do what you have done?
I would say don’t rush it. Right now, I am traveling back to so many countries where I only saw a few places while there is so much more to see. If you want to visit every country on earth then I would also advise to group them together for your trips so that you don’t have to go back to places like West Africa, the Pacific or the Caribbean for a country or two that you are missing there.
What are the worst places you’ve stayed?
One time I stayed at a brothel in Niger which was pretty loud, dirty and very unpleasant. I’ve also spent a few nights staying in the slums of Liberia, but except for the fact that I got malaria there, I thought of it more as an interesting experience.
Who are the tree kindest people you have met on your travels?
Naser was a guy I met through couchsurfing who let me stay at his place in Kabul, Afghanistan. I have him to thank for staying safe during my visit there in 2018.
Noura was a girl I met by coincidence in a shared taxi going from Beirut in Lebanon to Damascus in Syria. Although her family had litte space and money they offered to share everything they had with me when I was there.
Mohammed is a guy here in Iraq who reached out to me on Instagram. He has been helping me get the visa for Iraq which is one of the hardest/most expensive ones to get. I trust him with my life and look forward to traveling the next weeks with him through Southern Iraq.
What is the most interesting person you have met during your travels?
On the boat from Jordan to Egypt I met this Chinese lady who didn’t speak a word of English. She was probably over 70 years old and showed me glimpses of her extensive travel career after she had retired as a teacher back home. We travelled together for a couple of weeks and it seemed to me from the places she had been that she was not afraid to die. I found her to have a really fascinating attitude towards living each day, not limiting her travels because of safety or the lack of speaking English.
When have you been most surprised on all your travels?
When I came to Madagascar and realized that most people there were not tall black men, like I had expected, but instead they were small Asians, who apparently were related to the Indonesians.
Is there some country that you will never go back to?
No, I just like to travel, and it doesn’t matter much where I am as long as I am on the move, so there is no place I would not want to go back to.
What are three of your favourite travel moments?
My favorite travel moments are moments where I have gone out of my comfort zone, and honestly some of them are moments where I have felt a bit scared.
My number one would be riding on top of the iron ore train in Mauritania way before it became “a thing”. We were four guys who had to spoon each other hard to keep warm.
My second favorite experience was swimming all alone with humpback whales in Tonga. These creatures are gigantic, and I did not know what to expect from them.
Third might be to go on top of the Mount Yasur volcano on Tanna Island in Vanuatu. I snuck in from the back and could see lava shooting up in the air next to me. These experiences made me feel alive and I am also happy to be alive afterwards.
What are your worst travel moments?
I have felt pretty pathetic sometimes when I have been hungry, tired and wet. Setting up my tent and maybe freezing in those nights is not so nice, but I’ve found that whenever you are at the bottom, anything can cheer you up, like the sun warming you in the morning, the simplest meal and even just sleeping under a roof. Also, I’ve had many situations with embassies where I have felt frustrated to the point where it has drained me of all my energy and made me question the whole point of traveling. One example of this was when I was waiting one month for my visa to Eritrea in Sudan during the summer heat and Ramadan – without ever getting it.
In which country you think the girls are the prettiest?
I think beauty depends on the eye of the beholder, but the prettiest girls would be a mix of European and Asian like the ones you will find in Khazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In Europe I think Belarus and Ukraine have the prettiest girls.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Don’t prepare too much. As long as you have a passport and a credit card most things can be arranged along the way.
Pack light. For longer travels with different climates and seasons, I just bring a set of clothes for one season and change them along the way to adapt to the environment.
Smile and be friendly. Most people will be nice to you if you are nice to them.
If four touring cyclists contacted you for lodging on a rainy day in your hometown of Stavanger and your two Airbnb apartments were already full – what would you do? (see end of interview for explanation)
Haha, my home is always open to those who need a place to stay. I once had eight couchsurfing guests from three groups – who all managed to fit into my small student apartment and my campervan which was parked outside.
Presently you are on your “Vikings in Asia”-trip. Tell us a little about that trip and how corona is affecting it?
My original plan was to drive five months from Norway to Kyrgyzstan, starting in May 2020, but at that time it was not possible so I decided to cancel the trip and instead go on a road trip, mostly by myself to Asia. Right now I am in Kurdistan in Iraq which I reached after driving just two months from Norway.
You have planned an epic 16 months road trip from Alaska to Ushuaia and back to Montreal starting in July 2021 – tell us about this project?
Hopefully 2021 will be a year when it once again will be easier to travel, so I’ve put together a 16-month itinerary of a trip I want to do from Alaska to Patagonia and up again. Just like the trip I did in Africa, Australia and now in Asia I will be driving with cooking gear and camping gear where anyone who wants is welcome to join.
Listen to his TedX talk in Stavanger 2020.
Buy Jørn Bjørns book (in English, Norwegian – and soon in French).
Thanks to Jørn Bjørn for the interview and for a great stay this summer. We had two great BBQ-nights at Jørn Bjørns girlfriends place and on our third night we visited Jakob Urth (Danish Mountaneer who also lives in Stavanger).
On the second of the three days four touring cyclists suddenly contacted Jørn Bjørn. They needed a place to stay and a shelter from the supposed rain. Since my family were already occupying Jørn Bjørns Airbnb apartment he instead offered them all to sleep on the floor in his girlfriend’s tiny city apartment. In this way they could all join our amazing BBQ-night (and the celebrating of Charlottes birthday).
I think Jørn Bjørn is one of the kindest and most welcoming travellers I have ever met. According to himself however it’s just a tiny payback for all the hospitality he has received throughout the world.
Interview posted: December 2020.
(private photos kindly provided by Jørn Bjørn)