For those well-versed in the traveller community, Sascha needs no introduction. One of our highest ranking travellers, whose knowledge of Africa is second to none and who has even formed his own club – which we thoroughly recommend – the author of Traveling: 30 Years Around the Planet is certainly a very versatile, inspirational and daring adventurer!
Sascha, in 2016 you completed your last UN country in Somalia. Was this an aim for some time? Why? How does it feel now? Did you celebrate?
Actually in the last nine years I visited only three new countries each year (with the exception of my two-year Pacific stint), even though I was traveling eleven months of the year. I chose a different approach, maybe also because I wasn’t ready to look for a new goal after all those years dedicated to this endeavor. Finally Jorge (Sanchez) encouraged me to get the last three under my belt, and, spending longer than a month in two of those, I have had no regrets whatsoever since. Somalia isn’t the place where one could celebrate in a way we would think of the meaning of that word .. you won’t find any drinks there …
You are a so-to-speak African expert. What fascinates you especially with this continent?
Africa .. see it to believe it! A French friend’s father once told him not to visit Africa before he turned 40 .. as otherwise he wouldn’t want to look around anywhere else on the planet after that. When now almost everywhere there are hordes of tourists roaming the streets, even nowadays you can be on your own and feel thus special when in Africa. Just yesterday it struck me that one must finally uncover MTP (Most Traveled People website) as the joke it is. Sorry to have to say but true, when it comes to Africa. Imagine if one can get ‘travel points’ equal to 50% of what is Africa ‘valued at’, for driving around all the different cantons of Switzerland in a single day! What an excuse to let the sissy traveler in through the back door! Ridiculous! And more so that folks still, after almost ten years, don’t seem to have taken any offence with this ‘situation’! Unbelievable! Again, I’m sorry to have to emphasize this so much, but it’s just such a glaringly obvious unfair weighing of different regions of the world, and I feel very strongly about it these days.
You have your own website at saschagrabow.com but we notice it isn’t much updated. Who is it aimed at? Do you consider yourself a blogger?
I try as much as I can to have things updated WHEN I get the chance to do it, but foremost I am a traveler and don’t mind leaving the face of the earth for months on end if an upcoming adventure requires that. The mantra of having to blog regularly in order to blog successfully is definitely lost on me I must admit. As I am a Getty photographer as well, maintain a youtube channel, have just published my first book and teach tennis around the world at times, while in general believing that staying away from a laptop as much as you can is the healthiest way you could possibly live, what you get (my output is) is a compromise according to these very different components I like to mix up my life with in order to escape boredom (my biggest fear, almost like it’s Asterix & Obelix’ only fear that heaven will fall onto their heads) eternally.
You are also a founder of your own travel club. Tell us something about it.
At GreatestGlobetrotters.com I tried to find a way to balance the traveling styles of backpackers versus jet-setters, while at the same time not discrediting other clubs’ (those existing then) divisions of the world. Of course flying saves time so overlanding will give you an extra point. But not only that: there is a huge difference between passing through a land border on your own, and landing somewhere on a flight where basically everything is taken care of for you, and you don’t have to take a single traveling decision of your own, whereupon success or failure of the venture may depend on. One would have a point suggesting that I might have been more radical in my approach.
Tell us about some of the travel highlights that you will never forget.
I like situations when someone tells me it absolutely can’t be done. It is right then when I start becoming excited about a project. Walking 250km through the jungle of Congo-Brazzaville from the border of the Central African Republic was such a trip, where the pygmees were delighted to exchange a single sachet of Nescafe against a delicious grilled monkey. I guess whatever a certain region provides in abundance! Walking a thousand kilometers through the other, larger, Congo-Kinshasa was equally memorable. Climbing Mont Blanc or Germany’s highest mountain as the only one without any gear or even gloves was exciting also. Sitting and leaning against my backpack for 12 hours without moving while being watched by pairs of huge cat-eyes through one black night in the Costa Rican jungle. Being a day away from having my leg amputated in Samoa was another moment where calm, clear, sane and experienced decision-making was crucial for getting through to the other side of things.
What is the most important element of a place that your impression rests on?
It is always the people and their way of life that make a place most special. That is why one should ideally always bring one’s whole life when setting out on a new expedition. Many tell you: Oh, I have to come back here next time, I have to go there again! No! A place is special in your memory because you met this extraordinary person there. Then next time you go there, you have an expectation to make a comparable experience there. But because of this expectation you won’t .. leaving you disappointed of the place. The other location .. where you never had this personal encounter in the first place .. may actually hold charms like that for you .. but you will never know because you aren’t inclined to go back there! These dynamics make it clear that if you are having a good time somewhere, then stay there as long as it continues to be so, and if that means for the rest of your life!
Folks may think that always estimating the grass to be greener on the other side makes one a big traveler .. while the opposite is true: not missing a place but always enjoying the moment you are in right there and then rejuvenates your energy and keeps you thrilled and elated like on your very first journey.
You’ve obviously often got into trouble while travelling?
I was held a night in Guinea-Conakry when trying to cross into Sierra Leone overland. In Liberia a child soldier threatened to empty his Ak-47 into my belly unless I gave him 10$. In France four youngsters tried to rob my bag while night-hitching at a highway toll station. Their driver punched me a black eye while we both struggled for my bag, but the surprisingly present police still let them go. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I promised the local hotel owner to be back before 5am so that he could open the place that was locked from the outside with a huge padlock, me holding the key. I honored my part of the deal, even though I had met some chaps that night who invited me to their luxury lodgings. But six hours later next morning my backpack inside the hotel room had been slashed open with a knife and 200$ cash stolen!
I remember times in Africa when it seemed that every third night I had to resort to running at any one point in order to get out of a troublesome situation. It is absolutely incomprehensible to me how travelers here give interviews claiming they’ve managed to get to every country in the world without the slightest insalubrity ever happening to them!
Oh .. and I forgot: one time my arm was broken with a gun while getting robbed hitchhiking in Gabon, Central Africa.
So, do you have a home base? If yes, where? If no, don’t you miss such a concept?
Home is where the heart is, right?! ..though easy said, it is a more demanding task to fulfill.
Now that you have finished the countries of the world, what are your remaining travel aims?
UN+ is universally accepted I guess, while starting from the Travelers Century Club list with some entries you can be of divided opinion regarding their value. If I get a chance to reach overland one of those countries that I haven’t so far, then I’m always up for it. Have more time to go back to Africa now, and slow down travels in a way so that a longer-time relation is possible if one then encounters one. Last but not least: buy a huge hot-water bottle, hopefully get through the visa hassle, and finally give Russia the appropriate travel attention it deserves as the largest country on earth 🙂
Finally, if you could be granted one superpower, what would you wish it to be?
Righting the world’s justice systems while avoiding another world war. Granting those people who focus on love and honesty a financially decent life, as opposed to only those who focus on money.
The photographs accompanying this interview are from Sascha’s private collection.