Travel as a Way of Life
A group of globe-trotting junkies aim to visit every corner of the world
Long ago, what used to be Jürgen Preimesberger’s hobby turned into something much more than a passion for travel. For over a decade, travelling has been his obsession.
The 38-year-old medical doctor from Vienna can’t bring himself to stay at home and has even molded his career around that fact. He has a job as a cruise ship physician so he can get to obscure destinations like Bora Bora, the Indonesian island of Komodo or Antarctica – he’s been to 150 countries in all and is planning to visit more.
"It’s like an addiction," he told The Vienna Review. "I can’t stop travelling; I don’t think I’ll ever stop."
Preimesberger is part of an elite group of Austrian "ultra-travellers" – people who travel obsessively. And the so-called Travelers’ Century Club is for them. The organisation of about 2,000 members – five of whom live in Austria – is open only to people who have visited 100 or more countries (it counts 321 countries or territories worldwide as separate places to visit).
The ultimate goal for a dedicated ultra-traveller: to visit every single country in the world.
"It’s about visiting new places, having new experiences," said Klaus Billep, the German chairman of the club, which is based in California. "But some people also want to knock off everything on our list. What I say is: ‘Some people collect stamps, our members collect countries’."
Ultra-travelling is hardly a modern trend in Europe. One might call explorers like Christopher Columbus, who sailed to America in 1492, or Marco Polo, the Italian merchant who went from his home to deep in Asia in the 13th century, the pioneers of extreme travelling.
But even with the backing of wealthy royalty, until the last century it would have been unthinkable to be able to travel long distances from home more than a few times in a lifetime.
Today, trains and cars mean that those with a deep wanderlust can easily travel far and wide – and brag about it. The Travelers’ Century Club lets them shout their passion to the world.
Austria’s most travelled
Formed in the mid-1950s by Los Angeles travel agent Bert Hempill, the exclusive organisation now has 15 chapters in the United States and three international chapters. Its Germany chapter, which officially opened last year with about 20 members, is meant to cover Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
But let’s get to the point: Who is Austria’s most travelled person?
It might be Erich Winauer, a 46-year-old civil servant from Moosbrunn, a suburb of Vienna. He’s checked 172 Travelers’ Century Club countries off his list.
But the truth is that no one knows. Part of the problem is that some humble people travel a lot but simply don’t publicise their adventures. Another is that it depends on how the word "country" is defined in the first place. There’s the Travelers’ Century Club definition and there’s that of the United Nations, which counts 193 independent countries in the world.
Then there’s Most Traveled People, a competitor to the Travelers’ Century Club founded by American millionaire and ultra-traveller Charles Veley, which claims 872 lands. According to that website, Austria’s most travelled person is Vienna native Othmar Zendron, who has visited 397 places (when contacted by e-mail, Zendron said he was working in the Congo and had no time to comment about his travels).
Everyone has his or her reasons for becoming an ultra-traveller. Preimesberger, used to be an elite track athlete and thrived on the pressure of competing in international athletics competitions.
But after graduating from medical school, he got bored and started looking for a new challenge. Travelling non-stop was what filled that void, he said, recounting roughing it in places like Ghana or Colombia.
"I just want to have insight into every culture I can," he said.
Others have always wanted to see the world – Winauer remembers reading a story in the newspaper during his youth about a man who loved travelling. He decided to follow in his footsteps.
Ultra-travelling is not all fun and games. While the hobby can be exciting, it can also be dangerous. Almost every ultra-traveller has stories of being robbed. Winauer often regales listeners with his tales of aggressive rip-offs by police.
"One time I was in Russia and the cops threw me in a van and made me give them money to let me go," he said. "That is definitely the most scared I have ever been."
But travelling to unusual places can also be fascinating, offering unique glimpses into locations that Austrians rarely go – or even want to go. Like North Korea.
On a recent trip there Winauer was watched around the clock by suspicious guards who prevented him from talking to locals, but he also got to visit the heavily guarded area on the border between North and South Korea, where he scored a photo with a smiling North Korean official. And he loved it.
"That was unique," he said. "But it was probably the oddest experience I’ve had."
Erich Winauer’s travel stats
UN countries visited: 110 out of 193
Travelers’ Century Club countries visited: 172 out of 321
Methods of transportation: 53 ships, 411 flights, 81 airlines and 184 different airports
Times he crossed the equator: 11
Days travelled outside of Austria: 729, roughly two years of his life