The Extraordinary Travel Festival was designed to bring together people from around the world who seek out extreme and unusual destinations, for a programme of talks and social events. There is no doubting the depth of experience of the speakers and attendees: dozens had already visited every country in the world – two, twice – and considered this a starting point, not the end goal, of their systematic travels.
It would be impossible to answer the question of who the most travelled person in the room was, but I think there’s an obvious candidate for least travelled: me! With so many “chasing 193”, I clearly hadn’t quite got the memo with Armenia being just my 19th. Nonetheless, I had a great time listening to tales of epic adventures and getting a glimpse into a community which is as much about the people as the places.
I can’t resist picking out a few highlights from the packed schedule. An obvious choice would be the opening speaker – Tony Giles. Blind and 80% deaf since childhood, he has nonetheless visited over 100 countries, and explained how he experiences new places through his other senses. His talk was not just interesting, but amusing, so I’m keen to pick up one of his books. Tony joined us on the cosmic day trip, so I was able to witness his can-do attitude in person. As he puts it, he wants to try everything – except salad!
Not every speaker initially announced could make it to Armenia, but Thor Pedersen was always going to attend remotely. Like many, he’s attempting to visit every country in the world: but with the extra conditions of neither flying nor returning home to Denmark until the tour is complete. Now nine years in to this saga with a handful of awkward Pacific islands remaining, he joined us over zoom from quarantine on a container ship off New Caledonia. It was clear the project had become a millstone around his neck, so his determination to see it through is admirable.
Similarly epic was Francis Tapon‘s tale of arriving in Africa for the first time in 2013 and staying there for over five years, visiting all 54 countries and climbing to the highest point of 50 of them. Along the way he picked up three thousand hitch-hikers; got married; and nearly got his new wife and brother-in-law killed…
Of course, not every talk would appeal – there are some destinations I know don’t interest me, and I’ve also no appetite for trying to monetise my travels (whether that be as an influencer, a digital nomad, or founding an international property empire). Plus I was keen to see more of Yerevan! So I did skip a couple of sessions – and take a drastically shorter lunch – to hike out to one more sight: the genocide memorial at Tsitsernakaberd.
Some Armenian activities were also built into the schedule. The event was kicked off by local musicians, wearing traditional dress and performing on drums and duduk, an ancient instrument from the region. For the conference dinner (included in the price) we descended en masse to Vostan restaurant to tackle a truly vast amount of barbecue, apparently the go-to dish for any group celebration here.
There won’t be an ETF23, for the simple reason that this one took over a year to organise, and planning has not yet begun for another. However, I think there was appetite for this year’s to be the first of many – probably roaming from destination to destination – so I look forward to more extraordinary travels in the future!