Northern Ireland

Irishman Johnny Ward visits 'every country in the world'

Johnny Ward celebrated reaching his final destination at an ice bar in Norway Image copyright Johnny Ward
Image caption Johnny Ward celebrated in an ice bar in Norway after reaching his final destination on his round the world adventure

Johnny Ward has travelled all over the world, quite literally.

The 33-year-old from Northern Ireland has spent the last 10 years visiting every country on the planet.

Although he started out with little or no cash, he made himself rich along the way and claims to have earned more than $1.5m (£1.2m) from a travel blog.

But it wasn't one long beach-hopping holiday - the blog recounts his path through war-torn states, no-fly zones, and pirate-controlled seas.

Image copyright Johnny Ward
Image caption He had an armed guard for his visit to Somalia

He had to deal with corrupt border guards, robbers and people smugglers; he was arrested twice trying to cross in Liberian during the Ebola crisis and witnessed a shooting shortly after arriving in Angola.

"Within about 20 minutes I saw a guy getting shot twice, about two metres from me, it was horrible," said Johnny.

"Two guys on a scooter pulled up between my car and his car... they slung open the drivers' car door and shot him once in the stomach, once in the leg.

"So I ducked down in the car and our car tried to drive out of total gridlock and the driver is laughing - our driver is laughing at my reaction.

"It turned out that our driver had been in the Angolan civil war and had a lot of blood on his hands, so this was nothing to him.

"That was not a nice introduction to Angola."

Image copyright Johnny Ward
Image caption Transport in parts of West Africa was a dangerous business

However, none of those frightening experiences, nor the endless "hellish" bus rides, have dampened his sense of adventure.

The globetrotter is a difficult man to pin down, but when I finally made contact with him, he was feeling "hungover" in an airport in Oslo, having just returned from his journey's end celebration in the Arctic Circle.

Norway was the last county on his very long bucket list - chosen because its [relative] proximity to Northern Ireland meant he could share his achievement with family and friends.

They celebrated on Monday 13 March by drinking champagne round a camp fire, under the Northern Lights.

Image copyright Johnny Ward
Image caption The Arctic Circle journey marked the pinnacle of Johnny Ward's 10-year mission

Johnny is now trying to get official confirmation that he is the youngest person and the only Irishman to travel to every nation on Earth, but he has his own rules about what constituents a proper visit.

"I'm speaking to the Guinness Book of Records at the moment," he said.

"If you literally put a toe over a border - no visa or anything - and GPS it, they count that as technically having visited a country, whereas for me, I feel like you have to enter the county, get stamped in."

He tried to spend several days and sometimes weeks in each state, to get a sense of place and an authentic experience.

"I've truly travelled the world, I feel like I can sleep well at night, knowing I have really tried to appreciate the beauty of every country."

Image copyright Johnny Ward
Image caption Picking tea leaves in Thailand was one way he kept his journey on track

So how on Earth did he do it? And what drove him to attempt such a feat?

"Life wasn't meant to be lived in an office, working five days out of seven, asking bosses for permission to go on holiday. No thanks," his blog declares.

"Social conformity, the media, our education systems dictate that we should go to school, go to uni, go to a city, work in an office, save for a retirement that we'll be too old to enjoy. Personally, I don't want to do that."

It's an enviable philosophy for those who can afford to hold it, but Johnny was at pains to point out he is not "just another white guy from a rich family, travelling around on daddy's credit card".

Born in Galway in the Republic of Ireland, he moved to Northern Ireland as a young child and was raised by a single mother in the County Down coastal town of Kilkeel.

Image copyright Johnny Ward
Image caption Johnny Ward's mother has accompanied him on many of his adventures abroad

The family had to rely on welfare payments for 13 years and although he describes it as a happy childhood, they had "no car, no central heating, no holidays".

After studying International Economics at an English university, his travels began the very next day after he finished his last university exam, with a one-way ticket to New York.

In 2006, he set himself a life-changing goal to visit every nation on Earth.

Image copyright Johnny Ward
Image caption Travelling through the Middle East often meant depending on the hospitality of strangers

"The first five years, I was broke, teaching English in Thailand, Korea - scrambling together pennies on a budget of $10 a (£8) a day - really breadline broke - and then the next five [years], I started my blog and within six months an advertiser had contacted me."

He caught advertisers' attention with tales of the "pretty crazy year" he spent travelling from Capetown to Syria - overland with public transport.

"They contacted me and paid me $35 (£28) I think. That was kind of a watershed moment for me because then, suddenly, I had something tangible from this output.

"To finally have money paid into my Paypal account for the first time, I said like 'Wow, this might actually be something'."

He said the adverting requests grew until he was making up to $5,000 (£4,050) a month.

Realising how lucrative blogging could be, he started to buy up other bloggers' websites and started his own media company.

He can now boast that he doesn't "need to work for anyone any more".

Image copyright Johnny Ward
Image caption The Kilkeel man travelled to France to support the Northern Ireland team in the 2016 Euro football finals

But even though he may have escaped the nine-to-five trap, his global ambition has caused its own stresses and he spoke of his "relief" on reaching his final destination.

"It looks like I was super free to travel the world, making money online and everything, but actually, because I had this goal, that dictated a large portion of my life for the last 10 years," he said.

"So now I'm free."

So is this the end of the journey? Not by a mile.

After a trip back to his hometown of Kilkeel, he is planning another epic journey from Belfast to Bangkok - but this time there are no flights involved and he'll be driving a three-wheeled rickshaw.

"I think it would be really fun," he said, before signing off to "go and sort this hangover".

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