William Baekeland
William Simon Baekeland is not your average 23-year-old. Having already travelled to almost 160 countries and 600 TBT regions, arranged a number of ship expeditions himself and planning to go ‘everywhere’, he is most probably the youngest of the world’s truly global explorers. You may remember we already featured him 3 years ago in one of our early issues. He has since blossomed into a very experienced traveller.
William, tell us something about yourself.

I was born in the early 90s and grew up in London, but spent a lot of time in my early years in other countries, such as South Africa, the United States, Switzerland and Spain. Now though, I live in Ireland and, apart from travelling, I am busy writing a book about Norwegian Antarctica. I graduated in politics and economics and as part of my studies spent 6 months on exchange in Finland and 4 weeks in North Korea. So, as you can see, travel has always been a big part of my life.

What is your motivation for travelling?

I want to see everything, everywhere. When I was 10, my family and I went by ship to Australia, so we passed the Mediterranean, Suez, then India and Southeast Asia, and I thought I had already been everywhere. Then I realised that there was much more to the world, the world is huge. So I have an interest in everywhere. I do have a special interest in polar regions or geographical extremes in general, and also islands, especially those with a disputed status.

Many of my interests have led me to travel widely. My motivation for this has always been to give myself the first-hand understanding of the things I wish to learn about. Living in Europe has made it easy to do this. It is never far away or complicated to go and visit an exhibit in France, a gallery in Spain or an opera house in Czech Republic, for example. I really enjoy seeing things come to life which I know and understand about only from theory. After reading several books about the influence of emerging powers doing business in Africa, for example, I found it fascinating to then go to Angola earlier this year and see the Chinese at work. There are few things I find boring, or not worth having or cultivating an interest in. Travel really does intensify this process and experience many-fold.

I do differentiate between travel and a vacation. In terms of a vacation, I feel St. Barts is probably the best place in the world, you get the best of the Caribbean without the worst. Hawaii is also up there for the number one spot, and I visit every year. Nevertheless, when it comes to travel, everything fascinates me.

Do you keep note of your travels? Do you have a blog or something of the sort?

Since I was young, I have kept a personal diary, but this is not only about travel. I do keep an archive of what I do travel-wise, and where I have been, but I am not very systematic to be honest, and I’m in the process of upgrading it. It is never simple to introduce some sort of systematic record keeping, it’s something I work on. I don’t have a blog, no.

How do you prefer to travel?

I try to avoid air travel when possible, I don’t like flying. I have flown an awful lot, but I really don’t like being in the sky, it’s too much of a physical toll, whatever the cabin. That having been said, it is often by far the best way to get to a destination, and this is something I readily accept and tolerate. Travelling by ship is what I much prefer, it’s more relaxed, there is more space and you can take it easy. As a child, I travelled around Europe a lot by train, I still enjoy that today and do it where possible. It’s probably the best way to get around in Europe.

It is no so much a preference, but I have many times realised I want to reach a place where there is no way to simply travel there. To get around this, I have had to charter either a plane, yacht, ship, train, helicopter, 4x4 car, even hot air balloon and horse. If all else fails, as has been the case, some places I can walk to. Remote regions oftentimes call for extreme methods.

As for hotels, I prefer to stay in historic heritage hotels wherever they exist. I like few things less than a charmless, standardised hotel. Sometimes I am in backward places where no such places exist, and that’s ok as it’s all part of the process and is unavoidable in many parts of the world.

We understand you have organised or participated in a number of difficult boat trips. You have been to Aves island (ed.’s note: a tiny island under Venezuelan sovereignty in the Caribbean), you attempted to visit Scarborough Shoal, you are organising a 4-month journey to Antarctica. How do you go about all this?
Every trip is different. Usually I start with a location and then I must find a boat or a means of transportation and then the negotiation begins. A lot of companies or boat owners are not willing to go to extremes or they may not take the request seriously. It’s a case of negotiating the details but I usually give a schedule, yet sometimes they say it’s not possible…. I more or less do this exclusively via a broker, it’s the only way to do this properly and professionally. Everyone is good at different things, and this is a field which requires expertise, even if it looks simple on the surface. It most certainly is not. And then of course one is dependent on the weather. I have travelled both alone and with others on these expeditions and find I enjoy both, though it’s better to share the trip as being in the middle of nowhere all alone can be rather boring if there are endless sea days. Isla de Aves was so beautiful and interesting I went back a second time for a more comprehensive visit and was granted permission to visit the military base there also.
What do your friends and family think of all your travels?
My friends are understanding but they generally don’t get what it is all about. My family have also travelled extensively, especially my mother who has been to almost all countries of Africa and Oceania. My grandmother went around the world in the 1930s, so you could say it is in the blood, my desire to travel is not a surprise to them. In general, they do think it’s a bit extreme, perhaps. Everyone around me understands my motivations and desires, even if they are not shared to the same level. I never had a problem with any of this.
What are your travel aims in terms of countries? Do you want to complete the list of TBT or, say, the Travelers Century Club? Do you have a timeline for your travels?

I have about 40 United Nations countries left to do. So far, I don’t really have a precise timeline, nor have I thought of which one I should leave last, but probably within a maximum of 2 years I expect to have done every country, as that is just how my mental planning is working out. I have repeated some countries, by design and also by chance. I have been to 218 countries on the TCC list and I also find the MTP list interesting because of its focus on islands, even though it’s not at all systematic in its listing. TBT is a good list for its own reasons. I don’t travel to complete any of these lists for the sake of completing them, as I have my own. There is plenty of cross-over of course, so yes, I can say that eventually, I shall get around to completing all of these lists, as they are integrated into my own in one way or another. My own list has its own unique set of locations.

Such as?


Kapinga what?

Kapingamarangi. It’s a rather isolated atoll in Micronesia which has a population of about 500 people and in theory Spain still has a legal basis for claiming its sovereignty. I already tried to go there but my attempt fell through. I’ll try again.

Can you tell us of a travel experience that really stands out?

I was on the Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker doing the Northeastern passage from Anadyr to Svalbard this past summer. This was my first time on an icebreaker, a Russian icebreaker, and for sure it was a unique experience that may not be easy to do in the future. This trip exceeded my expectations not only in terms of the landings, the wildlife, the desolate locations, but just the whole experience itself.

Are there any locations that have had a particular impact on you?

I have been to Chad twice and I’m planning a third trip, I still haven’t been to the capital Ndjamena strangely enough. I think it’s the best place in the Sahara to have a pure desert experience. It’s not difficult to travel to compared to places like Congo, it’s just a case of time and endurance. The first time I was in a group with a French tour company and the second time it wasn’t a group but we went to the Zakouma national park, I was expecting nothing but they have funding from the EU and they have repopulated elephants, and it’s a truly special place.

The Hawaiian Islands also stand out, I’ve been there several times – it’s a good place because you can do whatever you like, it’s a pleasant place which offers a lot of diverse experiences. Niihau, the westernmost of the main islands, is called the forbidden island but it’s not forbidden at all, even though you don’t meet the locals really. It’s the last place where the locals still speak Hawaiian.

Recently I was on Sable Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s not easy to get to, I had to charter a Britten Norman Islander airplane from Halifax and land on the beach there. You never know for sure if you can land there safely until after you’ve actually done it. The island is such a geographic oddity, and as the name suggests, very sandy. The wild horses of the island were majestic to see, I never saw groups of horses running through the water at the shoreline before, it was certainly very memorable and a sight I’ll always remember. What also left an impression was seeing gas rigs right by the island, you don’t expect to see that sort of thing there. It all made for a very interesting trip.

Do you think you will still be travelling so intensively in 10 years’ time?

Not as intensively. I won’t have the need. Once I’ve been everywhere, I will be more selective and travel to the places I enjoy and some areas I want to visit in a lot more detail such as Russia, Central Africa and the polar regions. Also closer to home, there is a lot to experience in Europe. Its such a pleasant and easy place to travel around.

What are your travel plans for the next few months?

I will be in South Sudan and then North Sudan and Darfur, after that I will go to South America to visit Chile and Brazil and a few islands around there, and then over to Africa, and the Himalayas to reach a number of the highest mountains by helicopter including the remote Kingdom of Lo Manthang, then it’s back to the Americas. In January I’m going to Clipperton island (ed.’s note: an uninhabited French atoll in the Pacific, the smallest of all TBT points) and then some more of the islands of Pacific such as Tokelau. In March I’m off to the Victoria Falls, then go on the Rovos rail ‘Pride of Africa’ train to Pretoria and then drive across Lesotho to Durban from where I’m taking a cruise on a luxury French ship from Durban to the Seychelles via the Iles Eparses, Madagascar and the famed atoll of Aldabra.

And finally, if you could invite any four people to an imaginary dinner, who would your guests be?

Five is already too large a group for dinner for my own preference! I would much prefer fewer close friends, enjoying the nicest mushrooms available in Llivia. It is better to meet the people that interest me in their fields, in situ. There is a lot more to gain this way. 

The photos in this article are from William's personal collection and show him in: Sable island, Luanda (Angola), Palmyra Atoll, Lüderitz (Namibia), Sable island again, St. Kitts, Karbalia (the smallest of the exclaves of Gagauzia in Moldova) and with fellow TBT member Don Parrish in Kauaii, Hawaii.

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