Madeleine Karlsson is an adventurous Scandinavian girl who will remind you of why all the backpacking stories make sense and lure you out to travel. She is restless in her travels. While she may have started out as a “sold it all to backpack” traveller, she is now much more organised and on a mission – visit them all!
Danakil depression – Ethiopia
Madeleine, tell us something about your early life and how your interest in travel developed?
I grew up in Falkenberg, a small town on the west coast of Sweden. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up so summer holidays were spent at home, but with Falkenberg having great beaches and many tourists coming to spend their summers there I kind of liked it.
The only person in my family that had somewhat travelled is my uncle. He use to work on boats that took him to different places in the world. I remember staying in his place sometimes when I was a kid and he had a real shrunken head from Peru, that I was both super scared of and also curious about. He also had a stuffed baby crocodile that he use to chase my sister and me with.
I did my first trip in Europe when I was around 19 years old and like most Swedes, the trip went to Greece for some serious beach time. Yes, we Swedes are obsessed with summer and beaches probably because we “suffer” long and dark winters.
My first trip outside Europe was to Thailand and Malaysia with friends in 2004, a real eye-opener for me. This was before the internet was a big thing and you pretty much needed a guidebook and reading travel magazines to figure out where to go and what to see. We went because a friend was getting married in Thailand, but when we arrived it turned out Budda had thought a week earlier was a better date to get married so we missed the whole thing.
I got really hooked on travelling after this and the year after I was ready for the first trip by myself. Also, this trip went to Southeast Asia. I was a bit scared, to be honest, but after landing in Bali which was the first stop, meeting other travellers and fantastic local people it was all good.
Travelling solo turned out to be something that suited me great, so I went home, quit my job, sold my car and went on an around-the-world trip for 9 months. I came home super broke with great memories and bitten hard by the travel bug.
I thought that I would be satisfied after 50 countries that was my first goal, but of course, it went the other way around, I just can’t get enough of different cultures, watching animals in the wild, and, being from Scandinavia, the sun and good beaches
So my goal of 50 countries went to 100 and then I needed to see it all. What if the countries I didn’t visit are actually the best?
Which character traits help and hinder you while travelling? Tell us about your personal travelling style, please.
I’m truly a backpacker but sometimes also enjoy staying at a nice hotel. When I go on longer trips I mix my accommodation quite a bit. All from homestays, hostels, hotels and camping.
But for travelling inside a country I always travel with the local people. For me, this is the best way to get to know people and get a good understanding of the country I visit.
Going on chicken buses in Central America is the best experience. Once I spent a whole day on a chicken bus going through Guatemala to the border of Honduras – so much fun.
Also in West Africa going in shared taxis is good fun, my longest trip there was from Guinea Bissau to Guinea squeezed in with 10 people in a Peugeot for 12 hours. That was one sweaty ride!
Since I am covered with tattoos, all with histories from my travel, it’s always been easy for me to attract local people. Quite often they seek me out with questions about the tattoos and some of them want to take pictures.
I am never as happy as when I travel, if possible I would travel full time. But for now, I try to make one longer trip in February, escaping winter, and then some long weekends and 2 weeks in autumn.
Sometimes it’s necessary/easier to do group tours. Not really the way I like to travel because I want to be “free” to move on when I like. But I had some great experiences with this too since it’s been in countries where you meet people just like yourself.
With that said almost all countries are quite easy done alone, in my experience, people are very helpful and getting a local guide is also a good option.
I like to read up before I go and make some plans, but also leave some room for spending extra days or just chill for a few days. Otherwise, I like to stay busy, want to see and do as much as possible.
I’m a big animal lover so if there is a chance to see animals in the wild I will be there. Also very interested in mummies and burial rites, and tribes will always get my attention too.
I’m also a big fan of diving and snorkelling, sharks being my favourite animal in the ocean.
You have been on safaris, had encounters with wild animals, have visited tribes and did quite a few adventurous things. Have you ever been in an extreme situation? Tell us about the most exciting ones.
Oh, it’s hard to pick one, I love going on safaris, staying with tribal people and visiting areas that are not all secure.
A few years back I was in Tajikistan, went on the Paimir highway and spent a whole day driving on the border to Afghanistan with just a river separating them.
I could not let this chance go to waste. The only problem was that I didn´t have a valid visa to get back into Tajikistan, but did actually have one with the wrong passport number because by mistake I sent the wrong passport for my first visa.
My Tajik guide said let’s give it a shot, we can always bribe immigration when you come back.
So I got my Afghanistan visa. The morning when I was crossing over to Afghanistan, the Taliban had taken over the village where I was supposed to cross, so we went to the next one, just a few kilometres from where the Taliban were. When going through Tajiki immigration they were super worried, they had never had a tourist crossing alone, and I was also a woman.
Going to the bridge connecting the countries I was thinking that this could be the most stupid thing I have ever done, but when reaching the Afghani side a military man opened the gate, he had a heart-shaped Afghani flag on his uniform and he welcomed me to Afghanistan with a big smile.
The man owning the hostel I stayed in on the Tajiki side had arranged a guide to pick me up, he took me around the village where everyone was super friendly, wanted me to take pictures of everything and wanted me to tell the world that not everyone in Afghanistan was terrorists.
I also spent time with my guide Masad’s family in the countryside picking walnuts from the trees.
Coming back to Tajikistan they never saw that my passport did not match my visa so I got back in without any problems
Dinka tribe in South Sudan
Can you dismiss some popular myth or stereotype about the places which you have visited?
Every time I hear or read something bad about a country it kind of triggers me to go there and prove them wrong. All countries have something good to offer, and most of the time it’s the local people that turn out to be great.
Many times people told me “You can’t go there, it’s not safe”, but as long as you do your research and you don’t take unnecessary risks, you will be fine.
During the last Easter, I went to Tunisia. Over the years I had heard other people from Sweden who went there and they hated it. They felt that they were not left alone and that the girls got a lot of unwanted attention.
Luckily I had a whole different experience, the only thing that was hard was finding food during the day since I went during Ramadan. I stayed with a great family that took me around town and to a breaking-fast dinner one of the nights.
I will definitely go back one day to get the whole food experience that I missed out on this time.
Overall I don’t pay too much attention to other people’s bad experiences and media reports. The only way you will know is to go there yourself.
Nyiragongo Volcano Democratic Republic of Congo
How did your general view of the world change with travelling?
This is a bit related to the question above – don’t let your view of the world be the one from the media and other people’s experiences.
An observation I have made is also that the poorer countries have much happier people. I live in Norway, one of the richest countries in the world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great country to live in, but people here are quite lonely. We have enough money to live a good life but you don’t see the same kind of happiness here as in less fortunate countries.
We always stress about having a great career, a new car, a big house, children, time for the gym and so on.
I spent a lot of time in Africa in the last 5 years, seeing people with very little access to clean water, and not enough food, that have problems putting their kids through school. But they still make the most of it and are grateful for what they have. Mostly you also see that they have a good connection with their family and friends, something we definitely could learn from.
Give us a few hidden gems of your country that most foreigners may not know, but you absolutely recommend.
I have been really bad with travelling in my own country, but my hometown Falkenberg is definitely worth a visit. People mostly think that Sweden is all winter and snow, but we also have great beaches. Falkenberg has quite a few and in the city, you find a 2 km long sandy beach.
Also if you go to Sweden in the summertime and go up north you will experience the midnight sun. Go in the winter and there is no daylight at all, but there is a chance to see the northern lights.
Harar, Ethiopia, feeding wild hyenas
Which places would you come back to and why?
There are a lot of really good places I would like to visit again, Madagascar for one. I went there for 10 days a few years back but would love to come back and visit more places.
Lemurs – say no more. One of the most funny animals to watch, just love them. I don’t speak French but had a great time with the local people that I found super friendly and helpful.
I also have a plan for retirement in Costa Rica. I love most parts of Central America and can definitely see myself living there when I get older.
Socotra island – Yemen
There aren’t many women who have visited all UN countries, so you will go down in history once you complete it. Do you have this as your goal? Do you have any other ambitious travel goals?
Yes, I want to see it all! I’m going for both UN countries and the UN + list!
Hope to get it all done in the next 5 years, my fingers are crossed that we are done with pandemics.
Finally, our signature question – if you could invite any 4 people to dinner, from any period in history, who would your guests be?
Ragnar Lodbrok, the famous Viking king, since I’m from Scandinavia. it would be awesome to spend time with a Viking and hear all the stories from that time.
David Attenborough could probably talk about animals with him for hours and hours.
Johnny Cash, because you always need music. He, being the rock ‘n’ roll star of his time and me, being too young to have ever seen him.
Erna Solberg, former prime minister of Norway. I’m not much into politics but have always liked Erna.
Togo – Voodoo market