The man who has been everywhere

by Michael McCarthy

Quick now, pick the right answer: Marco Polo, Captain Cook, Christopher Columbus, Phineas Fogg. Who is the world’s greatest explorer? The correct answer is none of the above.

Even though you’ve never heard of him, the world’s greatest “explorer” is officially Charles Veley, and if you could locate Charles he’d easily prove it to you. Trouble is, Vanishing Veley is a very hard man to find. Today he is off Antarctica aboard a South African polar research ship sailing to the South Orkneys for a bit of rest and relaxation before returning to port in Cape Town and then flying home to San Francisco. Tomorrow, the South China Sea? Micronesia again?

Charles Veley is, according to the fine folks at Guinness World Records who keep track of such amazing feats, The World’s Most Traveled Person. Marco Polo doesn’t hold a camel’s nose next to Sir Charles. This is the man who has been everywhere.

Catching up with Charles

Since Charles is such a damned difficult man to interview, it took some time for me to track him down. I finally met him on a park bench not far from his home in Pacific Heights, an upscale hilltop neighborhood in San Francisco.

Curious locals on the coast of Zanzibar. — Photos courtesy of Charles Veley

I had been trying to set up an interview for months, but it turns out that, global village or not, it can be difficult to have a conversation with someone on an atoll in Micronesia. But we finally got together.

Charles seemed a normal-looking person, soft-spoken and composed, although he did have something of a faraway look in his eyes. He’d just returned home to celebrate the greatest adventure of all, the birth of his daughter, but it was clear his mind was elsewhere. Two weeks later I found out why, but in the meantime he told me his story.

How it all began

Charles started his journeys early; his parents would often find their kitchen door open and their 2-year-old toddler missing. At six, he would prop himself behind the wheel of the family car with a map in his hand and dreams of the open road. At 22, he explored Europe.

Then, in 2000, at the height of the dot-com boom in San Francisco, Charles cashed in his job and shares as an executive of a booming software company and made millions. As millionaires are wont to do, it was off to the Continent. One day, aboard an airplane in the skies over Paris, he heard about TCC, the Travelers’ Century Club, and the rest is history.

The Travelers’ Century Club is to “extreme travel” what a Maserati is to the family car. Rich? Famous? Talented? Good-looking? Well connected? Sorry, you can’t just buy or bribe your way in. The only way to get into the TCC is to have visited at least 100 “countries.”

This would take most of us up to 50 years, even if every vacation was spent doing nothing but traveling to strange countries. That’s why most TCC members are rather elderly. (The former Guinness World Record holder is Mr. John Clouse of Evansville, Indiana, who held the title for 15 years. He is nearly 80.)

At age 34, Charles immediately threw himself into the challenge of nailing 100 countries with the same determination to “complete the task” that made him a millionaire. After all, travel is like designing software; it’s just a matter of logistics. Switzerland, Swaziland, Sarawak, St. Helena… Poof! In no time Charles had bagged his 100 “countries.”

That’s when he heard about the ultimate goal hidden within the club’s rarified upper echelons: to become “the World’s Most Traveled Person.”

Chasing the ultimate goal

Veley with friends in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The first step is to complete the TCC list of 317 places. Why 317, when the United Nations lists only 192 countries in the world? Aah, you’re forgetting all those territories and protectorates and far-flung atolls, aren’t you? French Polynesia, for example, is a huge territory ruled by France. Greenland is administered by Denmark, and Antarctica doesn’t really belong to anybody, but several countries have in the past claimed sovereign right to certain sections. And so it goes.

“There are some people — not many, just a few — who have visited all 317 places on the list, but they are all over 60 years old, Charles explained. “I completed the list this past April (2003), after nearly four years, at age 37.”

But wait, the journey has only begun.

“The second step,” said Charles, “is to complete the Guinness 14, or the 14 other items which happen to be on Guinness’ secret internal list. Of course, I didn’t even find out about this secret list until October of last year, which made for all kinds of consternation and inefficiencies in trying to pursue it.”

Nobody has ever completed the Secret Guinness 14. The inestimable Mr. John Clouse has nailed 12. But Charles has given it a fierce run and already has knocked off 12, including such impossible-to-get-to places as the Coral Sea Islands Territory; Heard and McDonald Islands, and Kingman Reef. The Kingman Reef escapade actually put him off travel for a while.

A rough journey

“Have you ever dreamed that you were falling? Most people have,” said Charles. “Perhaps you are pushed, against your will, out of a perfectly good airplane. As the ground approaches, you say to yourself, ‘Wow. There’s no way out of this. I’m really going to die. I wonder what it’s going to feel like?’ I have recently had that very sensation. Thousands of times, in fact, and continuously.

“Imagine, if you will, a 37-foot boat, capable of making only seven knots, crossing vast stretches of choppy ocean directly into the current and wind — over 1,000 miles in a 10-day period,” he continued. “I was able to enjoy it all, face first. As I attempted to cling to my bed, the boat would repeatedly drop away a good five to 10 feet, leaving me to free fall. The negative Gs at the crest of each wave left me temporarily suspended before falling to meet the mattress. And that went on for 1,000 miles.”

Kingman Reef is nothing more than a tiny pile of coral about 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii, near the equator. It rises a few feet out of the water in two spots about a quarter mile long, at its widest measuring only 50 feet. The reef is covered with bleached coral and plastic ocean detritus, but nevertheless it’s on the list and therefore Charles had to set foot on it.

As it turns out, Kingman Reef was just an intermission in an adventure that may have no end.

Kick it up a notch

Rarely visited South Thule Island, the southernmost of the South Sandwich Islands and a secret Argentinian base of operations during the Falklands War.

“I have discovered and decided to pursue yet a third list, which I have determined to be an even more difficult list to accomplish,” explained Charles with nonchalance, as we watched two joggers bounce by our bench on their own little journey. “In fact, none of the world’s top extreme travelers has even attempted to complete this list. It is virgin territory.

“This list is compiled by the leading Ham (Amateur) Radio operator organization in the world, the ARRL. It contains 53 items that are so obscure as to be outside of both the TCC and Guinness lists. So, in my spare time, I have been pursuing these additional items in case of a Guinness tie. It serves as an excellent tiebreaker, and if someone else is crazy enough to pursue the Guinness record they’ll have to chase me down this extra list too. So far, of the ‘Obscure 53,’ I have managed to visit 19.”

It was starting to get a little chilly on the beach, and Charles had a newborn baby and wife, Kimberly, he was eager to see again, so we parted ways promising to keep in touch. Two weeks later I received an e-mail message, apparently from the captain’s cabin of the SA Agulhas, sailing out of Cape Town, South Africa.

“At the 11th hour, the South African National Antarctic Program as well as the Norwegian Polar Institute have agreed to let me land on Bouvet Island with a small group of technicians. Such permission is not normally given. In fact, it is nearly unheard of. If I do successfully land on Bouvet, I should gain the Guinness World Record for Most Traveled Man. John Clouse has twice gone to Bouvet but was unable to land either time due to the terrible weather conditions. The sailing will last for 72 days, with no possibility of earlier transfer. So, while this is a unique and exciting opportunity, it means leaving Kimberly and the baby for over two months. I am renting a satellite phone and data link for the trip, so I think that I will be able to write to you from the ship.”

Bouvet is located in the sub-Antarctic, a mere 1,500 miles southwest of the Cape of Good Hope and about 1,000 miles north of Queen Maud Land in Antarctica. It is the most remote place on Earth, according to “The Guinness Book of World Records,” and weather-wise is a very nasty place indeed. It’s nothing more than 23 square miles of black lava surrounded by several miles of frozen sea. Thick clouds usually obscure the island, snowfalls are frequent and the temperature rarely rises above freezing.

A new friend for the children of Takapoto, Tuamoto Archipelago, French Polynesia.

Given that Charles would be sailing the Antarctic seas for 72 days, I set aside my world atlas and went about my own business, only to be surprised a few days later by yet another e-mail.

“I am pleased to announce that, at roughly 05:15 Greenwich Mean Time, the morning of December 16, a group of nine people landed on Bouvet Island. Bouvet was incredibly stark and foreboding, but the seas were relatively calm and visibility was good. Even so, I was very cold and windblown after two hours on the island. The entire beach and rocky upslope was covered with penguins and seals. With this landing on Bouvet, I have now visited all but two items on the Guinness list, a record matched only by John Clouse. I have also now visited 300 of the 335 items on the Ham Radio list, which is several more than anyone has ever done. Therefore, I will be claiming the title of Most Traveled Man from Guinness.”

What lies ahead?

What’s left for the world’s most traveled man? Apparently, Charles still has a few rocky islets and inaccessible atolls left to visit. A few have the added charm of being defended by large weapons.

“Well, there’s the Paracel Islands,” Charles said. “This tropical island group is about as far from Antarctica as you can get but, strangely enough, has the same seasonality issue. Last year I spent several days in Sanya, the nearest Chinese city, having a look around. A salty old fishing boat captain told me that the winds and current are most suitable to approach these islands in December and January, and that he couldn’t even consider stowing me away and taking me there until then. Of course, the bigger issue with the Paracels is that they are occupied by the Chinese navy, which firmly prohibits all foreigners from landing.”

Temporarily drafted into a Somalian “technical” unit, Veley is second from left, back row.  In the van, he found an AK-47 at his feet.

The question that begs to be answered, however, is not so much the logistical “Where next?” as the more mysterious “Why?” as in “Why are you doing this strange and crazy thing, spending over a million of your hard-earned dollars when you have a lovely wife and newborn baby at home?”

“Well,” said Charles, “first you have to realize that Kimberly and I have been traveling together for most of the last four years. She enjoys it and has been to over 200 countries and territories in her own right. And one of the reasons I have been running around so intensely of late has been to try to earn the record before the baby arrived, so that I could in fact feel ‘done’ and stay home for a while. The timing of this Bouvet trip could not have been worse, but what can you do? It was a ‘never before, never again’ opportunity for the record. Now I can address the remaining 36 places in a more relaxed fashion. Believe it or not, I have been craving domesticity for a while now.”

“But as to your question (of) why I do this? My motivation is a classic overachiever’s response to a quota: ‘You want me to do 100? I’ll do better than that; I’ll do 200.’ But by the time I got to 200, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop until I had completed the whole thing.

“The world is the ultimate jigsaw puzzle. Every new encounter, every new interaction is a tiny piece. Joined together, they give me a privileged glimpse of the common face of humanity. Can you imagine? A total global perspective, built entirely by firsthand information and that grows just by the act of trying to get from one place to another — sometimes especially because of it.”

Editor’s note: Guinness did award Charles Veley the title of The World’s Most Traveled Person. However, an objection was lodged that is currently under consideration.

Since this article was submitted, Charles has visited three more places on the Amateur Radio list: Banaba, an island in the West Pacific; Rotuma, just north of Fiji, and the Santa Cruz Islands, part of the Solomons.