Sepp Kaiser is one of the most travelled people in the world. In 1985 he left his family’s farm in Austria and did not see his family again until he had visited every country in the world (190 at the time), around ten years later in 1995. You can follow Sepp on Facebook and YouTube.
What are three of your favourite countries and why?
Difficult question, as I have quite a number of favourite countries really. But of course, it is the very question mostly posed to me in connection with my extended wanderings: “Which is the best country in the world?” I always feel the need to point out that any judgement – naturally – is based on personal experiences and as such a very subjective matter. And your personal experiences will also be influenced greatly by the way you travel. Rambling around on a very low budget, hitchhiking as long as possible and surviving on odd jobs, those countries left the most positive impression on me, where people were openhearted, helpful and hospitable.
The standard of touristic infrastructure did not affect me or my few on a country at all. I did not even care too much for the touristic sights. My main interest was life itself, or should I say, a life that was different from the one I knew in Austria. I was lured by the exotic, the unknown, not the familiar. My reason for travelling was simply to see and experience as many shades of life as possible, and to meet the people.
More than twenty years ago, I swopped this vagabonding life with the job of a tour guide, since then I am taking tourists abroad, and the focus is a different one. The standard of hotels, the touristic services, the amount of outstanding sights, which all used to play just a little role during my back-packing years, are relevant to my opinion of a country nowadays.
Anyways, my first real favourite country was Chile. When I arrived there for the first time at the end of the 1980s, all I had heard about Chile was the terrors of the Pinochet dictatorship. Then I was stunt by the geographic diversity and many incredible natural sights. Plus, the infrastructure was the best in South America at that time and yet, the people were as warm and hospitable as in the rest of the continent. And with Latinos, I share some kind of brotherhood ever since I, for the first time, ventured south of the Rio Grande.
Japan has been outstanding to me as well. Again, because I did not expect much of the country before getting there (I must admit, I knew little about the ‘Land of the Sunrise” except that it was a very industrious nation). In fact, I went to Japan only in the hope to earn money somehow. Then Japan, or more accurately, the Japanese, turned out to be so different from what I expected them to be. And I never got tired of observing their peculiar ways and always discovering new characteristics. Arriving completely blank without a single dollar to my name in the middle of winter and having to go for any odd job gave me enough opportunity to dive somewhat deeper into Japanese society.
Myanmar or Madagascar
I want to mention two more countries that impressed me a lot, Myanmar and Madagascar. Both are very contrary, of course, but very interesting. Myanmar, with a unique culture based on its deep Buddhistic religiosity, flooded with golden temples, shrines and Stupas, Madagascar is boasting fantastic endemic wildlife. But what lets them stand out to me, both still preserve quite authentic rural life. And in both countries, people are so genuinely welcoming and friendly that it warms your heart. It is so refreshing. Yes, after all these years, it’s still the inhabitants that leave the biggest impressions on me!
Are there any countries you didn’t enjoy?
I was appalled by the hopelessness of Bangladesh due to its catastrophic infrastructure, its economic prospects and doomed chance of development due to its uncontrolled birthrates. I should mention here that most of the dramatic problems our world faces today are rooted in fact, that our planet is hopelessly overpopulated!
Similar bleak and deceived for their future, I experienced a number of war-torn Central and West African countries, foremost the Democratic Republic of Kongo, Liberia and Nigeria, to name just a few.
What are three of your favourite cities, and why?
I really love Cuzco, nestled in an Andean valley at an altitude of 3400 m. Not only is Cuzco full of remarkable Inca- and colonial architecture, Indian culture is still so much alive in its picturesque alleys. Plus, the needs of all sorts of travellers, from the budget back-packer to the millionaire, are met today in the former Inca capital. There is so much to do in and around the city.
Singapore has impressed me in the 1980s and 1990s for its futuristic appearance, both in architecture and in its management. Bustling and vibrating but never chaotic and – so unusual to a huge Asian city – no traffic jams at all.
And absolutely contrary to Singapore, but really impressive, I found Sana’a. Usually, the capital is the most cosmopolitan and modern city of a country, but not so in Yemen. Sana’a was the most traditional one. With its need architecture that reminds you of sugar icing, the narrow alleys, the masses of small mosques and the vibrant Islamic life. Yes, Sana’a is quite outstanding as cities go, and I felt as in a story of “One Thousand and One Nights”.
What are the three worst places you’ve stayed?
Cairo in 1985
I still remember the sanitary facilities of the third-class section of the public railway station in Cairo in 1985 – and probably always will remember. No detailed descriptions needed!
Borneo in the 1980s
Roughing it as a back-packer, constantly trying to minimize the cost of accommodation – or better avoiding to pay for lodging altogether – I have slept in many uncomfortable places. I have managed to go by for many months in a row without buying a bed for the night. And when I did, it usually was the cheapest room in town. Always carrying a thin inside sleeping bag with me, it was ok. Yes, I can cope with sleezy rooms. However, a few years ago, I ended up in an extremely dreadful longhouse in Sarawak. Not by myself with my backpack, which would have been less problematic but as the leader of a tourist group that was used to very good middle-class hotels.
Now, in the 1980’s, while rumbling through Borneo by myself, I quite often got invited into such a traditional longhouse of the Dayak people to spend the night. They were simple, of course, but usually kept need and tidy, and I thought it would be a unique experience for my clients to spend one night in such a traditional longhouse. But as it turned out, that longhouse booked by a local agent turned out to be the home of a completely degenerated bunch of Dayaks, and the sanitary state of the whole compound was beyond comparison. I wanted to commit to Seppuku on the spot before getting lynched by the members of my group.
Hot night in Oman
I also will forever remember one hot night in Salalah, the South of Oman, squeezed into a tiny jail room together with two of dozens of sweating Indians, with not even enough space to lay down.
Do you have any favourite hotels or restaurants?
During my backpack time, the “Travellers Friendship Hostel” in Hong Kong was an outstanding place, at least for budget travellers. It was located in a skyscraper on the 16th floor, consisting of several apartments, that had been connected to a single guesthouse by a young local. In the 1980’s it was the cheapest place for a bed in Hong Kong and a hub of information. Almost every backpacker that went through Hong Kong – and Hong Kong being an important gateway at that time – they were many, stayed in the Travellers Hostel. Therefore, you met at any time travellers who recently arrived from all corners of Asia and additionally there were books, in which anyone could leave hints and useful addresses for fellow backpackers. Naturally, with the internet, this kind of information exchange has lost its significance. But at that time, it was really precious. There, for instance, I had gathered an address in Tokyo, where half a year later, I could buy cheap pictures to sell for a very good price on the streets of the Japanese capital, earning really good money.
My favourite hotel, in fact, they are two next to each other, owned by the same family, is nestled in the middle of nowhere within an archaic landscape of granite hills in the south of Madagascar. The Jardins de Roi and the Relais de la Reine are built of granite, perfectly fitting into their surroundings. They are furnished with precious local woods, all craftmanship being outstanding, more so, if you consider the fact that all have been built by locals, locally trained by European experts. But not just the interior decoration was created with impressive skills – the service is contacted the same way, with discreet natural elegance, love and dedication. To find such a remarkable hotel in that corner of Africa simply is incredible.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
That is a very tough one. It was so hard to single out just a few of them, as I had so many of them, indeed. I guess, what really touched me over again, was meeting people under the most unusual circumstances and turn from stranger to friend almost immediately. To spend time with all kinds of people who mostly led a life very different to the one I grew up within Austria and to find out, in the end, we all have so much in common.
However, if I must point out a few outstanding travel moments, I should mention the Aconcagua. Reaching the top of the highest mountain of the Andes all by myself (after one ill-fated attempt a year before), despite having hardly any experience in mountaineering and then yodelling with my guitar at the height of 6959 meters, definitely has been a special and very queer experience.
Another ear-piercing moment was, when I reached the Austrian border in June 1995, coming home after more than ten years and realizing – after all the hardships and against all odds – I really had done it, I have achieved this ambitious goal and – as the first person in history – I had visited all the countries of the world in one single journey.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Drugged and pickpocketed on a train in China
In 1987, I woke up on a train somewhere in the middle of vast China, after having been drugged, only to find out that all my valuables had been pickpocketed. Passport, all the cash and my traveller checks. There I stood in a nameless train station in China that was still very communistic then, completely frustrated with nobody speaking English around me, not even rudimentary.
Later the local policemen tried to push me onto a train heading back for Beijing, just to get rid of me, while the conductors pushed me back down, as I had no train ticket (and no money to buy one). This was going on back and forth while the train started to move and pick up speed. In the end, the policemen won, and the conductors let me tumble onto the carriage but banned me from entering the compartments. There I sat on the floor in the gangway, freezing for 24 hours and feeling anything but in a great mood.
Hepatitis B on São Tomé
Another very tough time I had in West Africa. After having caught twice Typhus, I fell quite ill with Hepatitis B on São Tomé, a small island in the Atlantic Ocean. Hoping for better conditions, I flew to Angola but ended up in a public hospital in Luanda. It is difficult to describe this hospital to any European. No food (it must be provided by relatives), shortage of medicine and Oxygen (with teenagers infected by tuberculosis fighting for every breath and their lives) and all around me smoking nurses and dying patients. In the end, I fled the hospital.
Oldest brother died and himself almost getting killed in Kenya
However, the most critical situation I encountered in East Africa, in Nairobi, towards the very end of my record journey. (And looking back at it now, very lucky I was to be still alive today.) I just had succeeded to travel through all of mainland Africa, despite quite a few bad setbacks. And now, just 11 countries remained in this world, which I had not visited since I left Austria 10 years before.
The five newly independent states emerging from former Yugoslavia (but I knew that would be easy sailing in front of Austria’s doorsteps), Yemen and Qatar (both I had not managed to get into despite a lot of efforts and illegally trying to cross the border several years earlier) and the four African island states in the Indian Ocean. But I began to run out of time. I had just a few months left to my youngest brother’s wedding in Austria. Some two years before he had announced his wedding date, to give me enough time to complete my journey and I had promised him to be back in Austria at his wedding, come what may. Thus, my record journey had turned into a race against time.
I booked the final flight route of my journey, Nairobi – the Seychelles – the Comoros – Mauritius – Madagascar – Yemen – Qatar – Athens. But when I wanted to pay for the ticket, I realized all my money had been stolen from my cheap hostel room. I called my brother to transfer my last savings in Austria (originally intended as a little start-up upon my return), and I learned that my oldest brother had suddenly died one month ago. I was shattered and wanted to quit my journey immediately. However, my brother urged me not to give up now, so close to my big goal. Going home straight away would not bring my oldest brother back to life.
Thus, after receiving the transferred money, I bought the air tickets and started out to the Nairobian airport on a rainy Sunday in the still-dark morning. But just after leaving the sleazy hotel, I got attacked by two robbers with a pistol and a huge knife. To make a long and dramatic story short, I did what you never – really never – should do in such a situation – I fought for my belongings, realizing so clearly, if I were robbed of my valuables now, there would be only one option left for me, to go to the Austrian embassy and beg them to get me home somehow, I would have the strength, the time and the money to finch my journey.
I lost my backpack during that fight but somehow managed to save my passport, my tickets and my last money at the cost of a deep stabbing wound in my right-hand wrist. The policemen told me later that I was very, very lucky, as this two very peculiarly dressed criminals had stabbed to death several people shortly before just around the corner.
Probably, it was the most foolish and most dangerous thing I ever did in my life, but in the end, it saved my record journey, and three months later, I reached Austria just a few days before my brother’s wedding, and after having visited all the country in the world in one single journey.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Always travel as a pupil, not as a teacher
Try to learn at least a few words or phrases in the language of the country you are in
Don’t take it for granted that the locals must be able to speak your language or even English. It makes a difference.
To experience the last relatively authentic Africa, I can recommend Southern Ethiopia, around the Omo-Valley. I already hat visited all of Africa when I got there for the first time, and I was really stunned. I definitely did not believe that such an Africa still existed today! Unfortunately, Chinese sugar cane projects and political unrest bring so much change to the region now.