Michael Runkel is a German travel photographer and one of the most travelled people in the world. He has visited all the world’s countries and more than 700 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As a child, he travelled a lot within Europe with his parents, while his first trip outside Europe was to Morocco as part of an interrail trip at the age of 18. In the following year, he did his first flight when he flew back from an overland trip all the way to Damascus.
Since 1988 he has travelled at least four months per year, while he sometimes travelled for the whole year. He financed his travels by working as a photographer and other jobs such as doing advertisement for Adidas, and he has a master in economics, photography and geography. He has travelled more than 5,000 days in his life, and most of the time, he is working as a full-time travel photographer.
What are three of your favourite countries and why?
My favourite country in the world is Yemen. I’ve been several times to Yemen, and the last time was actually just before the civil war broke out in 2014. My wife and me were on the island of Socotra for a whole week all by ourselves. We also visited Sana’a for a day to show my wife one of my favourite cities in the world. It’s extremely varied, still very authentic and traditional. The culture of the people is absolutely fascinating. It has beautiful scenery and a lot of history. It really has everything that I really look for to photograph and experience.
Very similar to Yemen. I had the opportunity to see all the south of the Sahara. I’ve been pretty much everywhere in the Sahara, and for me, Jebel Alakus, Ubari lakes and Erg Murzuq are the most beautiful desert scenery I’ve seen in the entire Sahara. Compared to the rest of the desert, the Sahara is just the most stunning and fascinating place to see and photograph. It also has a lot of great cultures up in the north. So I’m absolutely fascinated by Libya as well.
Beautiful scenery, animal life, friendly people, and gorgeous beaches. Untouched again. It’s a really nice country to travel to where the only requirement is that you have to speak French. Definitely, a place I would highly recommend.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Meeting the wife
My most favourite travel moment was meeting my wife on an icebreaker in Antarctica. She is a pop singer, and she gave a concert there, and after the concert, she came to me while I was sitting at the end of the lounge and tried to talk to someone. That’s how I met her, and from this moment we travelled for the next nine months around the world. We got engaged in Iraqi Kurdistan, and we are happily married with two great kids. We have already done two around the world trips with our children together.
Angkor Wat right after the war
March 1993, when I entered Angkor Wat as one of the first people right after the war. Having the real deal, before all the tourist, having an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider moment there was absolutely fascinating. Every morning going by the motorbikes through the minefields where they were fighting at nighttime, only when the sun came up, they stopped fighting there. Really absolutely memorable trip.
Around the world-trip with daughter
The third moment was actually a whole trip. When our daughter was born, we travelled with her around the world. It was in 2015, and we went to a lot of tribal people. One time we stayed with the Himbas in Northern Namibia, and they had never seen such a small child before, and they just wanted to take her in their hands and hold her up.
My wife, my daughter and me were at a camp and my wife needed to breastfeed the child. She sat down, and all the women came together with her, sitting in peace and harmony together. That was absolutely breathtaking to witness such an incredible moment. With the different cultures completely exchanged in the same procedure, no matter where you are, and what colour you have. That was just a very nice and unique moment to experience.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
I have many, haha.
Cambodia 1993 in an active minefield by mistake
I was in Cambodia in 1993, the aftermath of the war, and I went to see a temple in the south of Siem Reap, which was set between two peaks of a hill. I couldn’t find the entrance and decided to crawl up to the top of the first one. What I hadn’t seen from below was active artillery that had recently been in combat. From there was a footpath, and I could see about 100 meters ahead, a few signs in English and Khmer that read “Danger! Mines!” on them, draped with skeletons. I tried to calm down my pulse and knelt down to the ground. I knew that mines only exploded when you release their triggers, so I crawled on my knees, ever so slowly across the field, avoiding the triggers as I saw them. After I’d made it through, I just remember lying on the ground and looking up at the Cambodian sky.
Surviving earthquake in Bam, Iran
In 2003, I survived the earthquake in Bam, with the death toll amounting to 26,000 officially, but unofficially 85,000 people. I was in the guesthouse at nighttime, and because I had been in an earthquake before, I had this feeling and was just fast enough to get my, and my friend from England out and then absolutely everything was completely collapsed around us.
For the next 15-16 hours, we were digging other tourists out of the guesthouse, one died in my arms. We were able to rescue most of them. It was absolutely disastrous, just devastating—something I would never wish to anyone. Every single person on the street was dead.
I was in Cameroon on the way to the Central African Republic on the Sangha River, and the boat was very filled up with water. Then the guy who was running the engine tried to pull out water from the little boat, and while he was standing up, the boat collapsed. We knew there were crocodiles and probably hippos there as well. The boat flipped on my side, and I was just able to have my feet underneath a wooden plank keeping my camera and backpack on top of me over the water, but my whole body was under the water, and I had no clue where the crocodiles were. Then my guide and the boat driver tried to reflip the boat. It was just an absolute nightmare because we had no idea if any animals were running around us. I always had to gasp for air as my whole body was under the water.
Once we made it, we came to the other side, and just the next day, we were going to see the forest elephants. The local guide threw stones at an elephant because he was standing in our way and to basically get him out of our way because there was no other option as we had to walk through this creek. Then the moment when he didn’t pay attention the elephant started running towards us and I was filming while he was throwing stones at the elephant and we had to run for our lives into the jungle hiding behind trees so the elephant wouldn’t kill us. It was really a very unfavourable time to be in Dzanga-Sangha National Park.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Check the weather forecast
No matter where I go, anywhere around the world, I will look for any weather forecast, and when I see it, I will decide if I will go there. For example, if you decide to go to Paris and it’s rainy and completely bad weather there, you will just walk around in the rain, which wouldn’t be much fun. Also, the whole experience will be completely different if you have a clear, nice summer day there. Therefore it’s quite essential in my opinion to have nice weather when you go to any destination.
Don’t go where the marketing goes
I definitely would never go where Condé Nast or all the magazines lead you because that will for sure be completely overrun. Especially when normal tourism comes back, it wouldn’t be much fun to go where everybody else is. Look for other destinations. There is a lot that is much nicer and better, more valuable experiences.
Put your mobile away
It is not always important to capture everything in every moment, constantly looking at the screen. If you travel, you want to experience something. Don’t always look at your telephone, because you can do that at home. What I miss from the past and what was a much nicer experience was that you actually met other people. Put your phone away, put your camera away. Just see what is around you and talk to other people.