It’s that time of the year again. A reflective moment, looking back on the most adventurous travel year of my life. I travelled solo, without a car, overland in 10 countries in West Africa for 2,5 months. I spent over a month in Southeast Asia and went for epic holidays in Iraq and Northern Cyprus. I’m a happy man.
In 2019 I visited a massive total of 19 countries, of which 15 (!) new on the list. In chronological order: Australia, Germany, Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leon, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, North-Cyprus and Belgium.
All together I spent 38% of 2019 abroad. That is almost entirely due to my 4-month sabbatical leave that I got from my corporate job.
In fact, I have now visited 92 UN member states, or 104 countries and territories in the UN Plus definition. In some ways you could claim I visited over 100 countries. To avoid any debate though, I am giving myself some additional time to continue visiting a bunch of new countries. It will probably be 2021 by the time I reach my 100 goal properly.
The greatest adventure of 2019 was certainly my solo overland trip in West Africa. One of the most difficult parts in the world to travel independently, but surprisingly low on crime and with super friendly people.
I spent 70 days on the continent, averaging 1 week per country, spending 3,000 euros on the way. It was a low-budget trip, but I needed 430 euros for visas and budget accommodation starts only at 15 euro / night. Nevertheless a hell of a trip, with the usual hitchhiking, couchsurfing and street food adventures.
If I have to summarise my experiences I would say the following:
- The biggest challenge is to get from A to B. I spent 50% of my time on figuring out the logistics
- You will have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable all the time. The extreme conditions while on the road, low hygiene, bureaucracy, language barriers, the occasional loneliness, etc. At times it was tough to keep going, but I pushed through
- The highlights are few but so worth it. There is amazing nature, scenery and history.
- The people, no matter where you go, are amazing. Often you see people struggling to get by, but they are happy to meet foreigners who show genuine interest in their way of living. If there is one reason to return to West Africa (which I certainly will), it would be to meet the people again
Unfortunately I could not take out my DSLR camera as much as I wished. Many people in West Africa seem to have an animosity towards ‘white’ people with large cameras. I therefore choose to avoid any confrontation and rely more on my phone for pictures. The experience made me even think about changing my entire camera setup for something smaller.
My plan is to write up a summary of the highlights, but you’ll have to wait for that until 2020. You can sign up here to receive an automatic email notification when that article is finally up.
As part of my 4-month sabbatical I choose to pay another visit to Southeast Asia. Flying from Sierra Leone to Bangkok, then moving on to spend a few weeks in north Laos, then northern Vietnam and Cambodia.
One highlight was travelling from Luang Prabang to the far north of Laos. I booked a private tour and spent 3 days in a remote jungle between different hill tribes. Away from the developed world, locals here still rely on hunting to provide for their families.
Another highlight was a 5-day self-drive on a scooter through the north of Vietnam, doing the so-called Ha Giang Loop. I visited remote communities and regional live-stock markets, with stunning scenery and epic roads along the way.
It’s a mission impossible to summarise 6 weeks in these countries in a few paragraphs. To do just to all my amazing experiences I will probably write a more detailled account at a later point.
It’s been a long dream to visit Iraq, a land of incredible history, food and hospitality. In september I got the chance to visit the autonomous region Iraqi Kurdistan and it did not disappoint. It was an incredible experience, among others due to my host the incredible Baderkhan, a local (instagram) travel celebrity.
I already wrote a full article about the ten days I spent in Iraq, which you can find here.
Last, I paid a short visit to northern Cyprus. Being a country not recognised by anyone but Turkey (who have de-facto control), it surely was an interesting visit to a complicated place.
Among others I caught a glimpse of the largest abandoned ghost town in the world, Varosha near the city of Famagusta. It used to be the number-one tourist area on the island, until the Turkish invasion in 1974. These days the area is a Turkish military base off-limits to the public. Thousands of mostly Greek residents were forced out of their homes, becoming refugees on their own island.
Also I checked out the demarcation line where the Greek and Turkish Cypriots face off, under the surveillance of a large UN peace-keeping force.
In the last year I unfortunately noticed my website visitor numbers drop significantly. I’m still not sure what caused it, but I certainly did not change anything relevant on the website myself (apart from a better-looking homepage!).
What I do see is that the online travel blogging industry is maturing and competition is now harder than ever. If you do not post content every 3 days, of you suck at writing clickbait titles, if you do not have your own Youtube channel and keep your Instagram fan base engaged, then you will quickly find yourself left out.
As we enter a new decennium, keeping up has become a tremendously time-consuming thing. This is why I see that almost all the big names in the blogging industry are full time digital nomads. Many rely on (undisclosed) sponsored posts, sponsored trips and often do not show the ‘real’ side of travelling. A few exceptions there, but overall this is where I feel the industry is going.
This website though is my little creative space on the web, a hobby rather than a serious job. I like experimenting with writing different types of content and playing around with technical features, just for the fun of it. I do not monetise the traffic it creates, in fact the hosting itself costs me more than it brings. At least that’s if you look at it from a financial perspective.
If money was the reason to start this website, I would have stopped years ago already. I sometimes spend days on an article that in the end only attracts just a few hundred readers on a year basis. A few examples:
- Riding the iron ore train across the Sahara in Mauritania
- Searching for The Abandoned Laboratory Apes in Liberia
- How I spent a great and safe holiday in Iraq
- 10 must-visit museums in the age of dark tourism
In 2019 I managed to post 8 new articles. Not too bad I must say, but I wish it was more. Let’s just see what 2020 will bring.
Plans for 2020
Apart from writing a whole lot of articles for my website, of course I plan to continue travelling in the next year. Im still figuring out exactly when and where, but for sure I will hit Switzerland, Liechtenstein and San Marino to get closer to finally finish visiting every European country. All that will be left is Monaco then.
To add a bit of adventure to 2020, I am certainly visiting the Middle East again. I really want to return to Iraqi Kurdistan, but I guess I will try to visit either Syria or Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Also I am contemplating visiting Cabo Verde, or perhaps even South America.
Time will tell, but for sure it will be pretty impossible to beat 2019. This year was an epic year for travelling, and it’s been a pleasure to share it with you all. Hope you will stick along again for 2020!