Jonny, you are the man behind the website ‘Don’t Stop Living’ which you advertise as ‘the longest running one man travel guide to all seven continents’. How did the website come about and what was your motivation in creating it?
I have always been a writer, long before the internet was out. I wrote and edited football and music fanzines back in the 1990s and I continued to write about football as well as poetry and creative writing. It was a natural progression from the paper and pen to the internet for me. Early on, I had no idea how to start a blog or even what a blog was though! Then I was backpacking in Toronto, Canada in 2007 and in my hostel were the first two travel bloggers I had ever met – Lee and Mike. Both of them were English guys who had been travelling around the world and had blogs. Every night I was writing my story into my diary so from Toronto onwards, I set up a blog on Blogspot and started writing my stories online. It wasn’t until August 2007 that I actually launched the site and started putting up an article every day. The reason it is called “Don’t Stop Living” is just my passion for life and living every day like it is your last. I stole the phrase when I saw it graffittied onto a High School Wall in Toronto. So a lot of my blog’s inspiration comes from Toronto, Canada.
Only my friends and family were reading my stories in the early days, but my travels were taking me on a crazy journey. I had visited about 30 countries by the end of 2008 and had written about most of them. I ended up touring Taiwan in 2009 and this trip was a big inspiration to make the blog better. I was going to cities nobody had heard of, and loving it. Still nobody read my stories or cared, but I buzzed off backpacking through Chiayi, Taidong, Hualien and Xinying. I lived in Australia and Hong Kong after that and had visited all seven continents by the end of 2010.
In 2012, I finally changed my website from Blogspot and WordPress.com to be self-hosted. This was when the blog became professional and I started to earn money from it, it’s been four years on the current platform and I never looked back.
You describe yourself as a ‘professional travel blogger’. Can you tell us what this entails? To what extent does being ‘professional’ take away the fun/spontaneity of the travel experience?
In short, I started blogging for a hobby in 2007, and was travelling non-stop for 7 of the last 13 years so I have always had a lot to write about. Through my blog, I changed from being a hobby blogger to become a professional travel blogger. This means all my income now comes as a result of me being a travel blogger. There are many ways in which I make money now – planning itineraries, doing travel apps, advertising on my websites, writing for companies, copywriting, sponsored posts, selling e-Books, affiliate marketing etc. I also do work in exchange for free things. For example, I’ll promote a hotel that gives me a free night, same with hostels, restaurants, hotels and spa complexes. I work closely with tour companies too and I help review their tours. Often I am invited on sponsored trips, most recently in Poland and in Senegal.
It doesn’t take away the spontaneity of the experience at all, as I am my own boss and I go where I want to go. I don’t respect the travel bloggers who are only in it for free trips and freebies dictate where they go – that’s not travel blogging, that’s taking advantage of companies and not being passionate. I am passionate about my writing and my travels and that shines through. I’ll go where I want to next and won’t be dictated by others.
Having said that, when I get to a hotel, restaurant or new city, sometimes I spend a lot of time taking photos, making videos and hash-tagging about it. That is the nature of the job, so I definitely lose some of the time and the experience to that. But I can’t complain about that as this is the path that I have chosen in my life.
If we understand correctly, you are the ‘backpacker’ type of traveller. What are the pluses and minuses of this for you?
Yes I class myself as a backpacker. I’m just not a fussy person so I will sleep anywhere, eat almost anything (except mushrooms) and travel anywhere. I rarely set limits. Hitch hiking in Iraq, sky diving in New Zealand, night bus through Ethiopia, I rarely turn down opportunities. I always carry a backpack so yes I am a backpacker. My definition of a backpacker is just anyone who travels with a backpack. So I stay in 5 star hotels, I go camping, I share dorms. I eat dear food, I eat cheap food. I take flights, I overland, I get visas, I meet locals, I meet tourists. I do everything as long as I have a backpack on my back. I like to have my hands free, so I detest “suitcasing.”
The pluses are I can go anywhere without limits, I get to see the world and I get to tell other people about it. The minuses are I don’t have a home, it wears me down. Plus I am never settled and sometimes it feels I have no real friends. Plus it makes me depressed often, so there are many negative side effects. I don’t see this job as any different to anyone else’s job. It has ups and downs.
Obviously you can’t backpack to all 7 continents! Tell us about your experience in Antarctica!
I did wear my backpack a few times in Antarctica and we did a hike to the top of Cuverville Island so I did some backpacking there too! But yes, I got there by boat from Argentina. Antarctica was always a dream for a small-town boy like me. But I worked hard in Australia and I was earning over $1000 a week cutting broccoli, so I used that money to book my trip, 6 months in advance.
Overall Antarctica was amazing, it would be a surprise for anyone to go there and not love it. I was single at the time and had split up with a girl about 18 months before my trip. I fell in love again in Antarctica too, but I didn’t quite know it then.
You are originally from Northern Ireland. How have different peoples reacted when you tell them where you are from? Does any story stand out?
Most people have never heard of Northern Ireland and most are very ignorant to it. Most people think I am from “United Kingdom” or “Ireland” but to me – I am from both or those but also not from either of those as I am much more nationalistic and proud to come from Northern Ireland. We are a country in our own right with some heroes like Rory McIlroy, Carl Frampton, George Best and Van Morrison. We are a small nation. I fly my Northern Ireland flag when I travel. I guess one story that stands out could be from the Philippines when I had my flag out and a guy breathed fire and did a crazy dance around it while my girlfriend captured it on camera. It was on Panglao Island.
Do you travel alone or do you have company? Does it ever get tiring? Do you have a ‘home’?
I travel alone, I travel with friends, I travel with family and before, I also travelled with my girlfriend. So I do all of them. But mostly I have been alone. It gets tiring and lonely, yes. I don’t have a “home” but I feel at home every night. Having said that, when you read this I will have a settled base in the city of Gdansk in Poland. This is a surprise for me. Previously I was sharing flats in Hong Kong and Australia but I never really settled down there.
Let us in on one of your travel moments which stands out.
There are so many moments that could fit this bracket. I could be really obvious and say Christmas Day in Machu Picchu, the day I visited my 100th country, the fireball fight in El Salvador or the Northern Ireland v. Turkey football match, but there was one moment however recently when I was backpacking in a town called Starograd Gdański in rural Pomorskie in Poland. When I looked it up online, no other backpacking blog or travel writer had covered it in English and I knew I was going to do it and be the first. It felt like a great moment. I compare this also to times when I visited places like Karakalpkastan, Gorno Badakhshan, Podjistan and Adammia when I was often the only tourist in sight. My best travel moments are undoubtedly when I am the lonely tourist.
Which countries have surprised you compared to what you had expected before visiting them (positive or negative)?
Thailand – everyone raves about it yet I hate it. I can’t stand it, and I think the same about almost every over-rated destination. If it wasn’t for stop-overs in Bangkok to save time and money, I would never visit Thailand again.
Afghanistan – not the over hyped media warzone you would believe. A beautiful country – lots of sights to see – warm and friendly people. Plus you will most likely be the only tourist you see so everything around seems so much better.
Many TBT members have been to every country in the world. Is that something you are also eventually planning to achieve?
I won’t achieve it and neither will anyone at The Best Travelled in my opinion. The reason is, I am so nationalistic that I count countries that most people haven’t heard of. In my eyes there could be 500 – 600 countries in the world. I am the only backpacker to have visited the countries Adammia, Austenasia and Podjistan – I was the first tourist to all those countries and I fully recognise them (eds note: they are generally considered micronations). They are all real countries, undetesed by their neighbours. Even countries like Nagorno Karabakh, Macau and Užupis go unrecognised, but they are all legitimate countries to me!
In terms of FIFA or UN countries, then yes it’s possible to visit them all and a few of my friends have done that. But I have little or no time for any lists that don’t include Užupis, Northern Ireland, Taiwan, Transnistria, Palestine etc. as countries. To me – if the people in an area deem it to be a country, then it is a country.
So, where are you today? What are your travel plans for the next few months?
Believe it or not I am staying put in Gdańsk in Poland for a while. In the last 9 years I have travelled to around 135 countries (recognised or not) and over 800 towns or cities, so it was time for a short break. Here in Gdańsk I do some side trips to Kaliningrad and to the Kashubian region but nothing hard-core as I am finishing my book at the moment and ready for my next challenge in life!
Finally, here’s a quirky one – if you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
This is an easy one – to make sure that any girl I fall in love with is also in love with me. That’s the dream. Then we can get married, make babies, travel the world and live happily ever after.
The photos in this article are from Jonny’s personal collection. They show him at the Tatev Monastery (Armenia), Jingdezhen (China), working as a steward on the Car Ferries, feeding a hyena in Harar (Ethiopia), doing the Sibhaca dance in Swaziland, in the Republic of Užupis and finally in Pyongyang (North Korea).