It was a gradual process: I always liked travelling and counted countries more or less "en passant". I mean, I picked my travel destinations for their touristic, sightseeing appeal. I was happy about visiting new countries, but didn’t make travel choices based on that. However, at some point, I realised that visiting all countries was indeed possible. I have to admit I was a bit naive, thinking that the second 100 countries would be as easy as the first 100. But, like with every other addiction - you slide in and then can't stop anymore.
To be more specific, there are, travel-wise, five phases in my life: Until the late nineties (I was born in 1978), my parents travelled with me around Western Europe by car, with some North America thrown in here or there, yielding around 30 countries.
The next few years, till the mid 2000s, I "reaped" some "low hanging fruits", easy travelling countries in Eastern Europe, the Far East or the Caribbean, like Bosnia, Malaysia or the Dominican Republic, bringing my count to 70, more or less.
Next, I started working, which gave me the financial possibilities to go and see destinations which were expensive but still not difficult to travel - for example the Seychelles, Paraguay or Ethiopia. So, by the end of the decade, when I was around 30, I had been to 100 countries. And that was probably the point when I decided to go for the rest.
This "going for the rest" (sounding more harmless than it was) took me another four or five years, until 2013, when I was 34: The very expensive, "dangerous" or hard to reach places, the Bhutans, Congos and Naurus of this world.
Right now, I'm presumably in the last phase - real holidays at destinations picked for their touristical attractiveness rather than "scoring points", really seeing countries which I "unfairly" just ticked off the list and of course waiting for new countries to emerge (potentially Bougainville, New Caledonia, Niue...)
I guess I would have to mention the only one that (initially) denied me a visa: Belarus. The embassy staff wanted to make me stay in the transit area of Minsk airport. For a whole day...
Physically hardest to get to were Nauru and Tuvalu with their extremely limited air connection. Was it worth it? Not in the classic sense, as far as sightseeing is concerned, no - many places weren't, in hindsight. But I'm glad to have seen them, if only to be able to assess them based on my own experience.
Iceland, in 2013. Seems like a strange last country, when everyone else's last one is Afghanistan, North Korea or Equatorial Guinea, doesn't it? Well, I purposely left Iceland out, as a kind of last highlight - and made that trip a honeymoon. Which kind of answers the question about the celebration - the whole trip was one.
Well, I could quote the basic numbers - 1344 flights with 528 airlines to or from 780 airports. But that's just quantity (and a high level of efficiency, probably), which is not that relevant. What counts are the different aircraft types, the exotic, old or rare ones, especially when you have "hunted" them for years or flown with them shortly before "extinction". But, like any positive experience, that's hard to quantify or press into statistics. It's "only" plain fun and great experiences to remember.
Coming to think of it, some things are quantifiable, especially in the context of "country collecting": I may be the only person who has flown in every UN country. Yes, including Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco and San Marino, and yes, that involves chartering helicopters. I'm currently trying Vatican which is obviously not a UN member but, like Kosovo and the Cook Islands, recognised as a country by my native Germany. However, the "Portus helicopterorum Civitatis Vaticanæ" is not particularly easy to fly into, if you're not a Pope.
Other country-related flight stats would be the 137 countries where I flew a local airline, the 74 countries where I took a domestic flight and the 26 countries where I flew on a locally built aircraft type. I do not, however, strive for completeness in these fields.
I don't really have a favourite airline. Airlines have cut back their service levels considerably and view passengers not as a valued guest any more but just a cost factor. So I do the same and take every emotion out of the equation and treat airlines just as a provider of a random service.
I will, however, be eternally greatful to Air France for a wonderful Concorde ride, and I have to mention a couple of airlines whose operations staff were very helpful when I was trying to fly on a specific type or specific plane: TAME for the B727-100, Fly540 for the DC9-10, Mahan Air for the A300B2 and B4 and Asian Spirit for the CN235, YS11 and Dash 7. Their staff really went out of their way when I waltzed into their respective offices with a 'Hello, I am crazy, does the DC9 have any flights to visa free destinations today?' on my lips...
The most obscure airline would be Malu Aviation: They used to fly a Nord 262 from Goma to Kisangani on combined passenger and cargo services through the East Congolese jungle - long after the plane's manufacturer, or rather its successor Airbus, had withdrawn the type certificate. I was taken by moto-taxi right to the plane's door, had to give the captain a couple of hundred dollars in cash and took a seat between tyres and onion sacks in the cabin which doubled as a cargo hold. That, and the intermediate stops at some dirt strips with minimal infrastructure but lots of heavily armed guys in fantasy uniforms, was one of my most impressive aviation-related travel experiences.
Do you still fly a lot? Do you have any 'aims' when it comes to your statistics for flying, that you have yet to achieve?
I have a To Do list, yes. It's built around types of aircraft, certain aviation "adventures" (landing on the beach on Barra, the one-minute-hop between Westray and Papa Westray or the ice runway of the Russian North Pole hub Barneo) but also around normal sightseeing.
Fortunately, I have flown on most, probably all old aircraft types that are in the danger of being withdrawn from service in the near future, for example due to the imminent lifting of sanctions on Cuba or Iran, which will make flying there more boring and bland - and safer and more economically friendly. So I don't have any last minute scrambling to do in that respect.
Which country exceeded your expectations, and which one was a disappointment?
Uzbekistan is a really great destination. I went there just for a ride on the Ilyushin 114 and old Tupolev 154 (the B2 series) and ended up in a totally amazing country - Samarkand and Bukhara are absolutely stunning, and the Aral Sea (or rather the site where it used to be) is pretty impressive - in a negative way, of course, but seeing it helps you understand the impact man can have on a fragile ecosystem.
On the other side of the spectrum, I couldn't really single out a big disappointment: While there are many countries that are not beautiful in the classical sense of the word, I didn't go there with any expectations, so I can't say I was disappointed. Plus, there might have been something nice in some remote corner that I just didn't see.
Travel-wise: The neolithic cave-paintings of Laas Geel in Somaliland. In just about any other place of the world, they would be bombastic tourist attractions drawing millions of tourists. But there, I was the only visitor, accompanied by an entourage of a driver, a guy from the tourism ministry, an assault-rifle-toting policeman and two groundskeepers. The whole merry lot of them high on khat, of course, which was kind of unsettling, because one probably shouldn't mix drugs and automatic guns, but hey...
Totally surreal, and really mind-blowing pieces of art: The colours look so fresh as if they were painted yesterday and not thousands of years ago.
The most negative "adventure" was during the "Arab Spring", when I was stuck in Sanaa for two days during the uprising against the then-president. The city was shelled by mortars, fire, smoke and shots were everywhere, there were roadblocks, and people with RPG launchers on their shoulders were walking around. A real war experience that I don't want to repeat...
As you said before, you got recently married. Has that changed the way you see travelling?
Not the way I see travelling, no. I still want to see as much of the world as I can, and travelling still is a diversion from everyday life. It continues to widen my horizon and gives me other perspectives on things at home.
Being married and the perspective of parenthood have, however, changed the way I travel: Shorter trips, more often, more complex combinations of destinations - call it last-minute panic if you will. Because, once kids are entering the picture, priorities will shift - "I'm off to Tripolis, Bangui and Zanzibar for the week, see you honey, love you" just won't be possible any more. In fact, I expect to be more or less grounded for a certain time. Which is totally okay, but the anticipation of this has made me cram in more travel and aviation experiences in the last couple of years.
What are your next travel plans?
Believe it or not, I currently don't have so many big plans. Most are aviation-related, like Sky Greece's island hopper from Heraklion to Lemnos via four other Aegean islands or a newly established scheduled seatplane flight between Northern Germany and a Danish Baltic island. Also, I'm contact with operators of Austrian-, Slovak- and Egyptian-built aircraft types in order to hitch rides on those.
Country-wise, I might go for some places on TBT's "UN+" list, like Svalbard, Greenland, Western Sahara or Transnistria. But not necessarily this year. We'll see...
I already have the superpower of time travel: Whenever I board a several decades old aircraft, I am immediately back in the 60s, 70s or 80s: open hat racks, curtains instead of window shades, exaggeratedly colourful (and slightly psychedelic) soft seats and screaming, smoking engines - that's all I need to go back to the Golden Age of aviation in the blink of an eye.
The photos in this article are from the private collection of Daniel Kahleyss