“I don’t want to be a prisoner of my own goals.“
Meet Tom Boerman, the Dutchman walking across every continent—including Antarctica. Once suicidal, depressed, and battling addiction, he decided to quit his job, sell his house and possessions, and travel full time. He combines road walking and trail hiking, sleeps in people’s yards, and walks for the experience rather than towards a particular goal. Two years into his epic plans, he has already traversed Europe, the Middle East, and part of North America and is currently chipping away at Australia.
Walking Around the World: Q&A with Tom Boerman
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So why don’t you start by telling me where you are right now.
At the moment, I’m in Airlie Beach, close to the Whitsunday Islands in Australia. I’m walking down the coast from top to bottom. It’s the same distance as from New York to Las Vegas.
How long do you think Australia will take you?
Normally I walk around 600 miles a month. It will take me around four months. And it’s just road walking. I’m pulling a small buggy. Then I’ll fly to New Zealand and then I will step on a trail again. So I’ll switch to my backpack and walk the Te Araroa from top to bottom.
Which do you prefer, road walking or trails?
I don’t walk to escape society. I walk to get to know society. I’m a freelance journalist, I write about humanity. So on the road walking, especially with my buggy, it’s really obvious that I’m walking around the world. I get invitations almost every day from complete strangers. You get a different view on cultures and countries.
People see me being vulnerable. And if they invite me into the house, people answer vulnerability with vulnerability. They’re really open about everything. It’s so cool. And there’s so many unique people already all over the world.
So I like both. Sometimes I’m just done with the road walks, and then I just want to disappear into the wilderness and meet my buddies from the trail community.
What’s one of your low points on this walk?
I was affected with Giardia. There was a heat wave going on. I was done with purifying my water. So I just drank from the stream, but probably there was a dead animal in the stream. I was days away from society. I started to puke, I had high fever, I couldn’t drink anymore, couldn’t eat. And I had diarrhea. I knew I was alone and in trouble.
I literally walked for almost 60 hours, without drinking without sleep, just to reach a town. By the end, I was hallucinating. And then I reached town, but unfortunately, there was no doctor. So they had to drive me to the mountains to the hospital for a couple of hours. I spent 15 days in the hospital. So my advice will be if you go into the wild, take an SOS device with you.
Do you know how long it will take you to walk around the world?
I see it as a lifestyle, not a goal. So I just go with the flow. It could take me five years, it could take me 10 years. It’s really tough. It’s not a thru-hike, it’s way more difficult. Because I’m not surrounded with hikers.
How do you deal with the loneliness of not having a community?
It’s all about self-love and self-acceptance. You have to deal with your own thoughts. But when you are living in the moment, even the thoughts are completely in the now. In the end, when you spend so much time alone, there’s nothing to think about anymore. But still, it’s tough sometimes. I miss every form of intimacy. I’m on the move all the time. I meet people, and then I stay with them one night, and then the next morning, I leave. So I’m saying goodbye each and every day. I really need that walk through New Zealand again to connect with other hikers.
My advice for people is travel without expectations, My motto is “no expectations, no disappointments.” You will enjoy your traveling way more if you don’t expect anything because there’s a whole new world around every corner. Don’t look anything up on the internet; just go with the flow. See where the winds will bring you and don’t make a plan. We’ve learned to plan, we’ve learned to think, but we have never learned to feel. So if you just trust your gut and you don’t have a plan, just a vision, just go for it. But no plan.
What if you’re walking on the road and someone offers you a ride at the end of the day, are you going to say no, for like five miles? Like, be a purist? No, that will be stupid because if you say yes, then magic will happen. You can probably stay with them. They’re gonna cook for you. You have an awesome conversation about life, about culture, they will take you to a grocery store, they probably will pay for a meal, you have a good bath, a shower. I travel for the experience, not for a goal. So I will never ever say no to a small ride. But I did back in the day. I was one of those purists.
I was going to ask you if you had taken a ride.
Yeah. The world isn’t made for walking. So, for example, a couple days ago, there was road construction. You are not allowed to walk where there’s construction in Australia. So they picked me up, dropped me off on the other side. There are bridges you’re not allowed to walk on. So I have to take the ride. I remember in Croatia, for example, I could walk, but not over the bridge. I would have had to walk 160 miles to get around just one bridge. So I took a ride to the other side. Because I don’t want to be a prisoner of my own goals.
I just walk almost every day. And sometimes I accept those small short rides. Because it gives me the unique opportunity to get to know people. It would be stupid to not, because I travel for the experience. And it’s not like running a marathon or doing short thru-hike. This is a lifestyle. I do this all year round. So if I’m walking in the pouring rain and someone offers me a ride, I’m not gonna say no. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I’m always carrying my “Bible”: It’s a book called The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. It’s just one of the best books ever. Read it and you will be blown away. It’s so freakin good stuff. And it says, “never sacrifice happiness for achievement.”
Once I was a prisoner. Everything was all about status and power. You know, I had my own company, my own house, I had to pay my mortgage and everything. So I was just busy with making money, not with living. But life is for living, so live it. And then, when I sold everything, I became free. But then I became a prisoner again because then I was walking the Te Araroa trail in New Zealand, and I was a purist. I said no to everything. I had a goal in mind to do this within 90 days until I ended up in a hospital like, “what the heck did I just do like last two months?” That was so stupid. It’s about experience. That’s how I travel.
I’d love to hear one of your favorite stories.
One of the highs and the lows was crossing the border from Bulgaria to Turkey. I started walking really early. I had to walk around 10 miles, so I walked for almost three hours right to the border. He said, “no, you’re not allowed to cross the border on foot. Go back and buy a bicycle or something.”
I was so annoyed. I had to walk back another three hours into town, and then I had to hitchhike even further back to the middle of Bulgaria. And there I found some guys in the middle of the street who said, “we can take you.” I spent the evening with two old Turkish men who didn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t speak a word of Turkish. We had to drive a couple of hours to the border. And then, just before the border, they stopped at an old restaurant. And then I found out they were smugglers.
So they had all those bottles with Jack Daniels, and they asked me to hide them in my backpack. I said, “no, I’m not gonna do that.” So they hide it in the van. And I’m like, “What should I do? I going into Turkey, where smuggling alcohol was probably not a good idea.” But I’m standing on the side of the highway, with nowhere to go. I’m so tired of this experience already today. So I took the risk, and it worked. They shake some hands from another corrupt officer. And we crossed the border. I got my stamp. And I was in Turkey.
So I told this story on Instagram. An old Turkish man replied, “Don’t go for dinner. I will be there in two hours. I’m going to show you what real Turkish hospitality is.” He showed up with his neighbor and his daughter, oh my gosh. And they had food and everything. I stayed there. And he just called his family, and they came over from Istanbul to visit me. I’m still in contact with them. So you see, this was a low and a high, but I tried to remember the good things.
What’s your plan for Antarctica? Like, how does one walk across Antarctica?
Not really walking. I’ll be on skis. I have mountaineering experience. So I know how to deal with the cold, but still, I have to prepare myself for at least a year. It’s really, really difficult and really expensive. It will cost me around 200,000 American dollars at least.
I’ve been there before, actually. Then I went with a boat. But this time, I’ll need to go with an airplane. There’s no such thing as touring because it’s so difficult that many people have to quit or die. It’s insanely difficult. But it’s about believing. You become what you believe, not what you want, what you wish, or what you’re hoping for. I believe that I can walk across Antarctica, so I’m going to do it.
Do you have all of the food with you that you’re going to need the whole time?
No, you need drops with a helicopter. It’s really expensive. I’m gonna do it supported.
How do you make a trip like this financially sustainable?
I have invitations from almost 40 schools to talk about my adventures and about my life choices. I’m gonna do public speaking and everything. So that’s a bit of an income.
If you do something extraordinary, something which has never been done before, you will get paid, but you have to work really hard for it. I’m active on social media, and people are keen to help me when I’m in trouble. So I give them an adventure through my eyes, 365 days a year, no fancy bullshit. I showed him what traveling is all about, like the lows and the highs. It goes with the flow. So I’m living by what people are giving me and by the goodness from people.
I’m thankful that people are making a small donation through my website. I’m not doing this for the money, I do this to show people that humanity still exists and to raise money for charity. And then people leave like $5 for peanut butter. I’m not making money through it, it’s just enough to pay the bills.
I’d love to hear more about your foundation and the charities that you’re raising money for.
When I had the idea of walking around the world, I decided I was going to combine it with charity because I’ve seen so much distress in the world. So I want to give the world something back. Several weeks ago, I started my project in Nepal. After the devastating earthquake of 2015, they tried to rebuild everything, but an average income for an adult is around 75 American bucks a month.
I’m rebuilding four schools at the moment. The kids go to school, there’s no running water, there are no toilets. There’s no glass in the windows. They’ve never played with a ball. So we want to make sure they have a playing field. We want to make sure that they can go to school on shoes, and not on flip flops in the rain and snow. Provide them with running water, toilets, and everything.
I am around $7,000 in right now. I’m trying to focus on it a bit more than ever during the next period of my trip. I just have to find a bit of time. It’s all nonprofit. Every euro or dollar goes to the project 100%.
What do you do about the language barrier?
That’s not difficult nowadays. We have Google translate. I speak a couple of languages because in Holland, we have to learn English, German, French, and Dutch. And I speak a bit of Arabic.
When I go to a new country, I just learned the basics from an app while walking. And then if you show up somewhere, use it, and then after a few sentences, you just say, “I’m still not that good. I’m learning. Can we continue in English?” And then, all of a sudden, doors will open for you. Everywhere.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
My only advice will be to take a bit of emergency gear with you. Don’t think that the rest of the hikes in the world are the same as the PCT. If you end up alone in the wilderness in another country, make sure you are self-sufficient even when you are in trouble. Don’t go ultra ultra ultra lightweight. That’s stupid. Because those people, when they are in trouble, they are really in trouble.
All photos used with permission of Tom Boerman.