Q: Kolja, you have a blog called Gentleman Adventurer. Can you explain how the name came about? What are your aims with this blog?
I like to travel on the rough roads, but always in style, staying in top hotels and dressed like a relaxed businessman. I want to combine the best of two worlds: supposedly rockbottom, remote and dangerous terrains with the creature comforts of sophisticated gastronomy. It’s not so much about modern 5-star-chains, but more about charismatic “grand dame” hotels where history has taken place, where the walls have stories to tell and where the guests themselves are the most valuable amenity. I have met some fascinating politicians, warlords and industry moguls in such hotel lobbies, often by coincidence.
My perfect time to live would have been the rough expeditions of British colonialism through Africa or Asia. Those travels were a classy combination of aesthetics and adversity. Today, when a new conflict zone pops up somewhere or a heightened travel warning, I quickly pack my gear and go check the facts on the ground. Most of those dangers are exaggerated anyway, by our Western propaganda, for political purposes. As an example, the whole ISIS thing is almost like a bad joke, in order to fuel the war against terror, which only exists to grease the tax-payer-bill for the military and surveillance state, and to rule the world by divide-and-conquer, in this case to inflame Christians against Muslims. For similar gains, mad-cow-disease, swine flu and tamiflu and of course ebola were blown up out of proportion.
One of the reasons for my blogging is that I want to be transparent as a bona fide traveller and not lose too much time with some corrupt border official for suspicion of having a hidden agenda. As one can imagine, I’ve been grilled many times by local security services, because of my “unusual travel patterns”. But hey, have a look, I have nothing to hide.
I also want to give something back to the traveller community, because I know how hard it is to find reliable, on-the-ground info, even in times of the internet. Most of the online forums like Flyertalk, Horizons Unlimited or Wuestenschiff are frequented by couch potatoes, trolls or even disinformation agents who give a lot of inaccurate info, especially about so-called danger zones, and are a waste of time for the big boys. Admittedly my style of travel is not shared by many, and I get a lot of penis envy from the brainwashed sheep who can’t read between the lines and think I’m just a rich rogue who loves the dark side. Not at all, I’m a gentleman and an adventurer, and my great idol is the German-French world explainer Peter Scholl-Latour.
Q: Give us a brief overview of your travels in the past year, so we get a sense of how far (and often) you are on the road.
In my student years, I took several sabbaticals, like one semester in the Caribbean, one in the South Pacific and even a one-year sponsor-financed “surf around the world” trip. It was the typical low-budget travelling, slow motion, searching for the perfect wave, hanging out at the beach.
Nowadays, I have a totally different style. I do about six or seven speed trips a year, lasting just a week or two. I travel very quickly, never more than one night in the same place, and I often sleep in the airplane, or drive all night without sleeping at all.
My last trip took 13 days, by plane from Monaco to Samoa, with stops in Dubai, Singapore, Jakarta, Bali, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Hongkong and even four Australian airports. I was 60 hours total in the air, thereof 45 hours in lie-flat seats, such as the perfect business class of Emirates in the Airbus 380, or that of Air Niugini, by the way.
Before that I was on a crazy road expedition from Grozny, Chechnya through Georgia, Armenia, Karabakh, Iran, North Iraq, and then along the 500km-long Turkish-Syrian border including seeing the war-torn town of Kobane. Only five nights in hotels, one sleepless in the car, and one on the floor of the ferry back from Igoumenitsa to Bari. It definitely helped our average speed that I was with my best buddy, Harald from Austria, in his Porsche Cayenne.
We had both organised the Extreme Traveler International Congress in Grozny in October 2014, but on the way there we inserted a quick offroad trip in a rented big-foot Landcruiser, connecting Altai and Tuva Republic through the remote Khakassia track which had never been done, or at least not described, by a Western traveller.
Before that we drove a ten-year-old Mercedes M Class on export plates from Austria through Western Sahara and Mauritania to Mali, dumped the car there, then flew back with several African airport stops, including being detained for 24 hours by corrupt police in Gabon.
Before that I hitch-hiked alone on “Stalin’s Dead Trassa”, a cold Siberian winter road between the closed oil-cities of Novy Urengoy, Nadym and Salekhard, along the Arctic circle, which is also very rarely travelled by Westerners.
And my highlight of the last year, or maybe of all my travels, was participating at the North Pole Marathon, flying from Spitsbergen to the drifting Russian Ice Camp Barneo, right on top of the world.
It may all sound a lot for one year, but besides that I still did my normal business travel, and trips with my wife to Austria, Switzerland and Italy.
Q: You are involved in professional car racing. How is that linked to your travels?
I’ve been in sports media and sponsorship for 20 years. For 15 years I attended almost every Formula 1 Grand Prix, many Offshore Powerboat races, and the America’s Cup. This alone led to some massive country collecting, plus I also used every event weekend as a hub for interesting side-steps. This high-powered world also gave me the opportunity for quite a bit of private jet and even yacht travel, for example with the racing drivers.
Q: You recently published a successful book in German, ‘Ich war Uberall’ (I was Everywhere). Tell us something about writing it, publishing it and what makes it special.
My close friends kept pushing me to put my travel adventures on paper. Then I met a big German publisher by coincidence in the Kempinski Vier Jahreszeiten lobby in Munich, one of my worldwide favourite hotels. After three minutes he shook my hand and said “You have a contract”. I was lucky. Otherwise it’s so difficult to publish a book professionally. Their expertise helped with PR-exposure, which is what you really need to sell a book. I got featured in all major magazines like Focus, Die Welt, even Playboy. After an appearance at a famous German late-night show, called Stefan Raab’s TV Total, my book jumped in the Amazon Top 50 and became a bestseller in the travel category for several weeks .
It may be the first book that covers in depth the phenomenon of travel collecting, some of the key players in the scene, like Charles Veley and Don Parrish, and the three leading travel collector clubs TCC, MTP and of course TBT.
I also describe my techniques of travelling with minimum or no luggage at all, wearing merino wool, jacket-come-luggage-container, galoshes over my shoes, cutting my toothbrush in half and so on.
I think what makes my book special is that I describe unheard-of-places like Karakalpakstan or Transnistria, and my unusual meetings with warlords like Ramzan Kadyrov, Prince Johnson in Liberia and even Donald Rumsfeld. In addition, I am positively politically incorrect, meaning I describe things how they really are, and not following the prescribed vaccinations of our mainstream media. For example, I cover a lot of positive aspects about Russia, Iran, even North Korea. Sometimes the audience needs to read between the lines, but I am frank enough to say that nowadays we can find more freedom in the countries of the East, whereas communism and the surveillance state rise dangerously under the Western regime.
Q: You especially like overland travel on difficult roads. Why?
It’s absolute freedom. I can stop where I want, smoke big cigars continuously, and follow the change of nature, architecture, geography, populations through my open window. With the exception of my home country, I usually have a good rapport with policemen, border guards and other street robbers. I love it when the road gets really tough or when there is a threat of bandits. To reach the safe haven of a nice hotel or lodge late at night, after a day of such hardship, is an incredibly rewarding feeling. I’m talking about self-drives to the Somali refugee camps in Dadaab, or through the Ilemi Triangle into South Sudan, crossing the Pamir from Kirgistan to Tajikistan, the Eastern corner of Mauretania and Mali, Congo’s war city Goma, or recently along the ISIS front in Syria.
Q: What fascinates you about war zones and areas of conflict? Do you think ‘disaster tourism’ has a future?
There is a rush of adrenaline beforehand, no doubt, and the feeling of accomplishment afterwards. More important for me is to beat the fear, and to learn the facts. In general, locals are rather friendly to foreigners, they don’t want to harm you, and the more remote they live, the prouder they are to host you. And even the occasional dodgy character will always respect your courage. If he really doesn’t have friendly intentions, god forbid, he may have to fear me more, than vice versa.
Even when I drove from Cairo to Benghazi in May 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring uprising, with a bulletproof vest, I kept a bit of a distance from the fighting front. I’m not the one who gets a kick from seeing blood on the battlefield, or other human misery, or the carnage after natural disasters. There may be some degenerates who do so. For me that’s sick.
There is a lot to be learned however from travelling to Chernobyl or other abandoned cities in the former Soviet Union. There are a number of interesting disaster travellers out there, some have blogs like The Wandering Scot or The Velvet Rocket. There are even one or two disaster travel agencies, but I doubt it will be a sustainable business case. It shouldn’t be. That’ll remain the domain of the few self-organised, freethinking, responsible citizens.
Q: Last year you organised the first Extreme Traveller gathering in Grozny, Chechnya. What exactly was this event, and will it become an annual thing? If so, how do you choose the venues?
I truly enjoy meeting interesting people, and connecting them if I can. A couple of years ago I organised my first most-traveled-meeting in Munich with Charles Veley, Jorge Sanchez, Wolfgang Stoephasius, Nina Sedano and other good folks. It was great to meet people in person that had already been connected in the virtual world for several years. I often look at other travellers’ profiles on TBT and try to get inspiration from their trips.
That was also my motivation for the first ETIC congress in Grozny last year. Through my friendship with the Chechen leading family, I was able to provide a safe and hospitable local set-up, in a place that seemed out-of-bounds for many years, and that still carried enough caché to lure travellers from the very top of the list. We were not only in Grozny, but high up in the mountains, crossing the notorious Vedeno Gorge, and to neigbouring highlights like Dagestan, Ingushetia, the Beslan school massacre memorial, or through the Roki tunnel to South Ossetia.
I felt extremely honored to have such a diverse spectrum of traveller guests at the ETIC, thanks also to the support from TCC, MTP and TBT. There was Kari-Matti Valtari, the current Nr. 1 on TBT, Don Parrish who is Nr. 1 on MTP and Charles Veley, who may be the founding father for many of us travel addicts, and more than twenty others from a dozen countries. We had some travellers who prefer low-budget backpacking whereas another attendant impressed me with his pretty unique travel style, visiting several surrounding republics and oblasts every day in his private jet. There was definitely no one-upmanship or other trumping of fellow travellers, just a deep emotional bond of a shared way of life and of very extreme travel experiences.
For our Chechen hosts it was a possibility to present their interesting republic to an expert audience and to beat the stereotypes of the past. I believe that travel in itself is an ethical act that promotes peace by bringing people closer together. In the future, I want to find similar ETIC venues that deserve to be highlighted out of their neglect or obscurity and that are motivational for travel collectors who have seen it all. In 2015 I am trying to set up the ETIC in Gaza, but so far I have not yet received official permission from the powers to be.
So, yes, with a bit of luck the ETIC may become an annual event, but it has to develop in a sympathetic way, without pushing, and also my cost has to stay within reason, because I want it to stay free of charge and not become commercial.
Q: So, what are your main ‘aims’ when travelling? Or aren’t there any?
Motivations change over time, but for me the overarching elements are to satisfy my curiosity for the unknown, to understand reality as it is and to meet interesting people. To be honest, the pure counting of countries is not my motivation, or worse to beat other travellers at it, no, not at all. But collector clubs like TBT are an excellent way of getting organised and structured to see the most of this wonderful planet. That’s the beauty of systematic travel, as Professor Alan Hogenauer called it. We probably visit here only once, so we better take the effort to see as much as possible.
Q: And to end this interview, tell us of a travel experience you had which has truly remained memorable.
Zigzagging 20.000 kilometers from Monaco to Magadan in 2013, again with my Austrian buddy Harald, Trans-Siberia on the infamous Road of Bones, in winter, past the pole of cold in Oymyakon, with temperatures between -50°C and -62°C for several days and nights, without sleep, that was so incredibly intense, like through a tunnel or time warp, heading east, east, east, finally 12 time zones from GMT, ever deeper into the cold, always worried that the car might break down, leaving us prey to conditions like on planet Mars, that was probably my most memorable trip ever.
The photos in this article are from the private collection of Kolja Spöri, if you want to see more you can visit his blog www.luxuryrogue.travellerspoint.com.