Twenty-three years, 195 countries and a single rucksack: that’s what it takes to complete a travel bucket list. We’ve all got one and most of us probably won’t be able to complete it; there are just too many incredible sights in the world. But one man has ticked of his entire list, so we called him up for a chat.
Back in 1990 on a trip around North America, Mike Spencer Bown had an epiphany in the Rocky Mountain Range that later inspired a mammoth journey around the Earth. With a slight pang of jealousy in my voice, I grilled him about his epic trip.
So how did it begin?
I was standing over a valley full of ponderosa pines, where I could see all the trees below and a chain of lakes almost like a string of pearls. The sky was a bit blue, there were forest fires in the distance and I could see a little bit of the curve of the Earth.
That’s kind of a strange sight, you know. I figured there must be so many other amazing, strange sights. I thought, I wonder if anyone has ever tried to go and see all the different ecosystems of earth? That was my first idea.
For the first few years I didn’t even know how feasible it was, but I still tried to keep it in mind. After four or five years I was thinking, maybe it’s not even doable – but I just kept on. After ten years I was already half way, so I just carried on through and now here I am.
How did you fund all this?
I used to think up ideas for products that could be manufactured, like coffee tables made out of coffee wood, and I’d get them shipped between countries.
In Java they’re cutting down coffee plantations and selling the coffee wood as firewood. I would have tables that are low to the ground made out of it, and then when I sold them in North America I’d say, “it’s not just a coffee table; it’s a coffee coffee table, because it’s made out of coffee wood”. With that one little joke you’d have them sell like hot cakes: I could sell a container in a day or two.
You went to the most dangerous areas of the world, what was the scariest thing that happened on your trip?
Somalia was pretty dodgy. It was a raging war when I was there: hand-shells whistling overhead; gunfire everywhere; trench warfare. But I think it’s actually not that bad, compared to the wilderness. When I was younger I used to do some mountain climbing, wilderness expeditions. I’ve had hundreds of run-ins with bears. And a mountain lion tried to kill me once.
Umm, a mountain lion tried to kill you?
Yeah, a mountain lion tried to kill me. That was quite funny. I was way, way up in the mountains doing some night hiking – you can hardly see the trees in front of you, I was just going by a bit of moonlight. I came to a bit of a dip in the landscape, and I could hear some sort of animal start following me. To test it I stopped, and it took one footstep, two footsteps, and then it stopped also. And I was like, ooh, a mountain lion! If it was a bear it would just blundered on. So I thought, oh no, it’s a situation now! What to do?
Because I had no weapons, and it was maybe ten metres behind me, I really, really had to mind my feet. I knew there were cliffs everywhere, and it was really, really steep. If I even stumbled slightly he would’ve lunged. So I had to just puff out my chest and stride as if I could see everything around me.
As I went down it followed me the whole time. I was kind of hoping it would turn around as we got off the mountain and deeper into the valley, but no, it kept on.
Then, when I got to my tent, I hoped it’d leave because there was so much smell of me around. But instead it started making runs as me. It’d come forward, making no noise, coming right at me. So I grabbed a stick, and spun it around and yelled to scare it off. But it would circle, rotate and come at me from another angle, and I’d have to do the same thing again and again.
Eventually, I decided to eat plenty of tuna because I thought maybe if it smells that I’m a meat-eater it might leave me alone. Eventually it did.
What is the strangest thing that happened to you while travelling?
Well, I would make the worst hotel inspector on earth. Really, the worst! I don’t complain to the management about anything. You know how a porcelain toilet is somewhat hollow inside? In Southern Chad I was in a hotel where there was a nest of carnivorous red ants, with stingers, living inside of the toilet, and when you flushed it they would boil out and try to kill you – they’d try to slice up your butt with their pincers!
You’d have to lunge out the door and slam it shut, and you’d hear them skittering against the wood. By the time you, you know, had to use the toilet again hopefully an hour had passed and they would’ve returned to their nest. You’d think I have gone and complained to management? I just thought OK, I’ll be fast about it, no problem!
What’s changed the most in travel since you began?
Flying seemed to get more expensive. I tried to avoid flying as much as possible.
One of the bigger changes has been the communication change – this has been a pretty big one. It used to be that months would go by and you didn’t communicate with anybody. You’d really feel that you were in another world. Because you’re not in touch with family or friends, you feel that you’re on your own and you really have to talk to locals.
Then email came in and there was a little bit of change. Every so often there’d be an internet café, but mostly people didn’t really know how to use it and it was kind of hit-and-miss. But then, by the late nineties or around 2000 there was quite a lot of emailing going on. Soon after that, Facebook came along, which changed everything.
And what about attitudes towards travel, how have they changed?
I noticed that travel is getting a little bit more organised and people’s risk tolerance is going down too. These days the media go crazy if a traveller gets killed somewhere. They’re all for talking about safety issues and how people shouldn’t go to certain areas because of a lack of safety; they say it’s irresponsible.
Which country was least how you expected it to be?
Pakistan was completely different. Everyone thought it was full of terrorists and very unfriendly, anti-American and anti-Canadian, so I thought that I’d have to be careful, but it turned out to be not the case at all.
I arrived there and everyone was super friendly: sometimes taxi drivers wouldn’t accept payment for the ride they’d given to me; the herders on the mountain just wanted to sit and share their bread with me and maybe I’d have a little bit of food – some sardines or something – to share with them. There’s good food and it’s relatively cheap – you could get a good hotel for about six bucks – a really good place for travellers.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned on your travels?
To trust your intuition. First of all build your intuition, then trust your intuition for people’s characters, whether you should do something or not do something. Eventually you’ve gotta get a sixth sense almost. You might be in a neighbourhood and think no way, I shouldn’t go there. Sometimes your intuition will say “sure thing, go ahead”, but it’s important that you make the right decision for yourself.
Don’t be afraid to explain it to others that you don’t feel comfortable – that’s how you avoid danger.
Mike now plans to “settle down and find a girlfriend”, and spend some time on a beach in Panama writing up his adventures to publish as a book. All photos courtesy of Mike Spencer Bown.
If you want to follow in his footsteps, start planning your trip with the Rough Guide to First-Time Around the World.