L’uboš Fellner is, in our experience, one of the friendliest and most warm-hearted people who is truly an ambassador for his country. Proudly Slovak, he is most certainly a man of the world and is the owner of BUBO, the biggest Slovak travel agency, while immersing himself in adventures too. He made our UN Masters List in 2019 when he completed his last UN country. We are very happy to hear his take on travel!
L’uboš, tell us something about your early life and how your love for travel developed.
My story begins in Eastern Europe. After I finished studying medicine, I was lucky enough to be present at the operating table for the first three successful heart transplants in Slovakia. However, my heart was always beating for travelling. I’ve loved it since I was young. Maybe it runs in the family, during the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century, my great-grandfather sailed around the world as a main mechanic.
My grandfather rode his bicycle from the Czech Republic to Croatia. My father completed his PhD in Trondheim and lived in Melbourne with my mother. The love for travelling has been in my family for generations.
Chad near lake Ounianga – which we had difficulty finding back in 2010
You grew up in communist Czechoslovakia. What was travel like in those times, if there was any?
I lived (and still live!) in the capital Bratislava, and since travelling during the communist regime was strictly forbidden, it was a habit to spend a lot of time in gardens. We have a garden about 12 km from Bratislava in a small town called Devin. When I used to go there, I would always get stopped and checked by the police or even soldiers with German Shepherds, since the town lies on the border with Austria.
The Carpathian Mountains originate in Bratislava, and whenever I would go to our garden, I would sit on the hill, watch the forbidden Alps and dream about travelling. The Velvet Revolution began during my third year of medical school in 1989. I was an active participant of the protests, and even took some wire cutters and cut through a wired fence. Until this day I have that barbed wire framed. I crossed through that hole in the fence, and from that day forward I have been travelling.
With a Kurdish family in Erbil, Iraq
And give us a few gems from your native country that you feel travellers should experience.
The High Tatras are magnificent, and if you have a love for heritage hotels, the Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras with blow you away! I must admit, it is hard to talk about the gems of Slovakia, as it is not a very well known country. However, if you are interested in sports, I highly recommend the “od Tatier k Dunaju” run. It is a relay run through the whole of Slovakia. I personally organize the Trans-Danube swim, by which I try to support my community and surroundings. Bratislava is situated on the border with Austria and Hungary, connected by the beautiful Danube.
Once a year, always on the first Sunday of September, we regulate the transport of ships, call lifeguards and even divers, to ensure the safest possible conditions. Up to a thousand people jump into the Danube and swim across in about 20 minutes. The first Sunday of September may be a unique opportunity the next time you visit Slovakia!
Cameroon – Central African Republic border areas
You’ve been to every one of the 193 UN countries – is there a Slovak Travel community or not really?
I began travelling in 1989 and I continue to, slowly but surely. The last two countries I visited were Algeria and Tajikistan, which I have actually been to years ago, but only for one day, so I decided to return. I am actually trying to jumpstart the Slovak travelling community. In the year 1993 I founded BUBO, and ever since our goal has been to evolve travelling in Slovakia.
BUBO originated from the Latin word bubo bubo, which means owl, the owl being the symbol of philosophy. We are organizing educational trips. We organize events for Slovak travelers (“Meeting of most traveled Slovaks” ) with more than 500 participants in the Slovak National Theater. I founded the largest traveler’s festival called BUBO Ball, which is celebrating its 25th year anniversary.
The travel agency BUBO is actually meant to form a so-called travel community. In Czechoslovakia, Slovaks used to stay at home, while Czechs always travelled. However, our team in BUBO, a group of about 100 people, crazy into travelling, have decided to turn that around
Arno Atoll, Marshall islands
Since you mentioned BUBO, it is the largest Slovak travel agency and you are its owner. Tell us a little about it, the challenges and rewards of running it and how having that has helped in your own travels.
I used to be a doctor, and as the only doctor in my family, it was supposed to be my destiny, but I could not let go of travelling. In 1993, when I wanted to rent a bus headed to Morocco through a previously existing travel agency, they told me that it was not possible. So, I rented it on my own.
The following year we decided to travel past the polar circle. In the year 1995 we travelled through Syria, in that same old bus with no air ventilation. We spent Easter in the Calvary in Jerusalem and continued until we got to Euphrates and then by the northern border of Saudi Arabia. It was not possible to link Israel and Syria, but we did it, in that same old bus.
My salary as a doctor was 100 euros, and after my attestation it was 105 euros per month. I really did not have any money. Today BUBO organizes the most luxurious expeditions from the North to South Pole. We focus on the educated and most successful citizens of Slovakia, creating a community of people who love to travel and wish to form their own perception of Earth, as they travel around it.
Is there even a travel agency that reaches out to more countries of the world? This is not a result of logic, as we do not make nearly as much money from our wide range of destinations, as we do from our more classic trips. This is a result of our love for travelling, and at the end of the day, we will always be travel fanatics over businessmen.
You can see the quality of our travel agency for yourself at www.bubo.sk. It is in Slovak, but I trust you will be able to understand. We also have a large travel blog section, which I try to make on a higher, designer level.
Vaccinating children of the Nuer tribe in Juba, South Sudan
Of the 193 countries you visited, which ones surprised you positively and which ones negatively and why?
When I first started travelling, I would sometimes be let down. I soon found out it was my own mistake. I always say that Slovakia is a perfect example, because even though the average traveler would think to themselves that there is nothing here, with a good guide, it is the unknown places that are often the most magical.
I know that no one from the NomadMania community needs a travel agency, but we are the architects of out expeditions. We have guides that specialize in Scandinavia, or China, while others specialize in safari trips. Even someone who does not fancy a safari is delighted with the right people.
I actually had a very negative experience in 1996 on the island of Nias near Sumatra. However, it was due to a lack of experience. This island is often visited by Australian surfers, that live a freer life. I travelled there with my wife who refused to travel with me after the harsh experience. However, in that same year I was blown away by Myanmar, which became one of my favorite countries that I continued to visit in 1997, 1998, even 1999, and recently I repeated this journey. I also like India very much. I’ve travelled there over 40 times.
Dressing up in Bhutan
Give us a couple of travel stories which are really memorable to you.
I am very grateful for my trip through South Kordofan in Sudan, from Kadugli to Talodi in 2008. I travelled according to the footsteps of Leni Riefenstahl, Adolf Hitler’s director, because I saw her photographs from the mountains of Nuba. They capture one of the most beautiful documentaries about African tribal culture. It was an extraordinarily difficult journey into the unknown, and I would be interested in whether anyone from the NomadMania community has ever been there. It was both tough and beautiful.
In the year 1996 I travelled to the Indian Kashmir, and I have been returning there ever since. I have a lot of friends from there. In the year 2005 I made it to the summit of Mt. Paektu, the tallest mountain in North Korea. It is not a difficult climb, but the logistics of the trip were difficult. The following year we crossed through Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Thinking back at all of these travels, it is not only about the destination, but also about the time you visit. When I visited Nagaland in 2006, it was not even open yet, it opened the following year.
The peak of Mount Paektu, North Korea
What did your family and friends think of your attempt to do all 193 countries?
In Slovakia it is not a topic of interest. I think it is too distanced of a topic or idea for anyone to care. It is known that a number of British people, or Russians, have achieved this goal, but in Slovakia no one even knows how many countries there are. People have come to me, bragging about being extensive travelers, but later on I found out that they have barely been to 20 countries.
I have never been one to “cross off” countries, I actually find it funny. I’d rather travel the world at a slower pace, because I consider a country traveled, once I have actually gone through it thoroughly. For example, have you truly traveled to Mali without travelling to Timbuktu? Or to Chad without Lake Chad? I hope I have not offended anyone.
I have an amazing family which I am very thankful for. I am able to travel and still uphold a functional family. This I owe to my wonderful wife, who raises our children when I am away. My older children have accompanied me on the last few trips to Tajikistan, Kiribati and Tuvalu, countries which are considered not to be traditional tourist destinations – the 3 least visited countries in the world (I saw it on one Italian website).
They were 20 years old when they completed these journeys. In Tuvalu we did not stay in Funafuti, but travelled to a small island, where we stayed with a small indigenous community, and ate raw tuna with coconut. My teenagers love vacations with me. In BUBO we live by the motto adventure hunters, and this is overall the philosophy of all my travels. Discover the world by exploring.
Our vehicles in Siberia
And what are your aims now in terms of travel?
Summiting Mt. Everest has been on my mind recently, but I must be honest, I am scared. My daughter is still young, and she needs a father. Does anyone from NomadMania have any experience? At the end of last year, I summited Kilimanjaro, but Everest is on a whole different level. My dream is to make BUBO an international company, because of which I would be grateful for help from NomadMania. There is no other club of travel professionals like it.
Since you are a professional in the travel industry, tell us how covid has so far affected your business, and what are your expectations for, say, the next few years in terms of travel?
My business did not drop by 10 %, or 50 %, it dropped to zero, it dropped 100 %. As I am writing this, Slovak regulations prohibit all Slovak citizens from travelling for recreational purposes (ed’s note: this was in early May and has since changed). Some individuals do travel, but only for business. My firm is still shutdown.
As we are the largest, we suffer the most. I try and restrict myself from complaining. Life goes on and our team at BUBO continues to work hard to complete everything we did not have the time to before. This is why I also mentioned my blog, where you can find a number of my photographs. I initially planned to write these blogs when I retired, but it looks like I never will, which is why I am glad to have the time for it right now.
Even these blogs are fairly expensive, keeping my company at constant costs. However, I am optimistic, I believe we will push through.
I am a covid sceptic, making me rather unpopular in Slovakia these days. I am a doctor and have been responsible for the well-being of our clients for 30 years. Even travellers are used to protecting themselves from malaria and dengue. I’ve lived through SARS, the swine flu, and the bird flu… The media created chaos around the Zika pandemic, causing elderly customers to cancel many of our trips.
When I asked them whether they plan to get pregnant, as Zika did not cause much else than the microcephaly of newborns, they laughed. But the media brainwashed their heads. Because of this, in the year 2015 I organized a trip called the Ebola tour, which traveled through all the countries that had been affected by Ebola, to show them that panic evoked by the media is nonsense.
Even though Ebola is 100 times more deadly than Covid-19, when it comes to young individuals. The media stated that Ebola would cause 2 billion deaths.
The panic and hysteria that we see today is completely counterproductive. Yes, there should be certain measured taken, and Covid-19 is a dangerous virus, but I am convinced that if humanity focused on the right things at the right time, we would be a lot more prosperous.
All the media is focused on whether someone is wearing a face mask or not, but at the same time half of the Slovak population does not want to get vaccinated. Media state that it is not their fault, but young people must wear facemasks when riding a bike in the forest.
The hospitality business lost the war with covid. The media, pharmaceutical business and the internet won. But everyone who travels knows how important traveling is, and how the phrase “traveling leads to world peace” is not just a phrase. The whole covid topic is a very difficult one, and it requires a whole other blog.
So, what are your travel plans for this summer then, if you have any?
My secret plan is to travel to the Deriba crater in the mountains of Marra in Darfur. It is close to South Kordofan, that I already mentioned, and I believe it is about time to return. It would probably be the first time someone climbs to the top, since the decades long civil war.
The region is still very unstable, which still makes me unsure. I would also like to see Puntland and once again the Democratic Republic of Congo (deeper into the jungle =)) . It will be very hot in the summer, but it was not possible to travel there up until now.
And finally our signature question – if you could invite 4 people from any era to dinner, who would your guests be and why?
One of my passions is to travel the footsteps of some of the greatest travelers, and to write about them, which makes Marco Polo, Fernão de Magalhães and Ibn Battuta my heroes. Of the polar explorers I have written blogs about Ernest Shackleton and Fridjof Nansen.
However, for lunch I would invite Albert Schweitzer, who provided care for people in Lambarene, in Gabon. He had an inspiring admirable life. Next, the Slovak pilot, astronomer and nobleman, Milan Rastislav Stefanik, who is responsible for the existence of the Slovak Republic. He was truly a great traveler. Lastly, I would also invite Harry Mitsidis, the founder of NomadMania. And my parents and my wife. Yes I will invite all, I am grateful for my life and possibility to travel.