“The trip to the South Pole was not the most extraordinary experience of my life, but it had to be done. In the same way that people visit Aghios Gerasimos to fulfill a pilgrimage, I felt it was my duty, as a Greek, to raise the blue-and-white flag there,” said Babis Bizas, 61, talking about one of his recent journeys.
The planet’s most traveled person, according to the Guinness Book of Records, Bizas is a daring explorer who has set foot in each of the world’s 195 countries. He also became the first Greek to leave his mark on both Poles – he visited the North Pole in 1995 and the South Pole a few weeks ago.
Recently back from his two-week mission on the Antarctic mainland, Bizas was speaking about his adventure on the sixth continent in great detail.
He recalled the 100-ton Russian army helicopter on which he flew from Patagonia in Chile to Union Glacier Camp, as well as the chopper which took him 2,000 kilometers from the shore to the southernmost point on the surface of the Earth. He talked about a group of about 100 scientists at the US Station who welcomed him to their state-of-the-art facilities (including kitchens, showers and storage areas, among others), as well as his 12 Russian fellow travelers (thanks to whom the mission was covered financially). He described living conditions in minus 36 degrees Celsius, including thermal sleeping bags and walking on 3,000 meters of accumulated ice – “like being on the tip of Mount Olympus” – which moves three centimeters every day.
“Similarly to the Strait of Magellan, the South Pole is not particularly attractive. In terms of tourist attractions you’ve seen it all in four hours. The rest is about emotion, history and human achievement – the importance of standing on the exact spot where Norway’s [Roald] Amundsen became the first man to set foot on in 1912 and where Britain’s [Robert Falcon] Scott died that same year,” noted Bizas.
Back home at his Halandri apartment, in northern Athens, Bizas was already planning his next adventure.
“There is a Greek starting point and return, but I can only last in Athens a few days, just the time I need to organize the next escapade,” said Bizas. Sitting next to him was his wife, Pinelopi, his life partner and travel companion. Their list of upcoming travel plans runs through March 2016 and includes exploring the Seychelles atolls of Alphonse, Farquhar and Aldabra – home to giant tortoises weighing around 150 kilos each – Annobon island of Equatorial Guinea and its Lago A Pot crater lake and Colombia’s Malpelo.
“The current trend is discovering unpolluted ecological havens and observing nature prior to human intervention,” noted Bizas. Just as well for he has never been a fan of luxury travel. “I don’t enjoy all-inclusive hotels and I find conventional holidays terribly boring, including swimming in shallow waters and sunbathing. I need action, chasing seabirds and chameleons. What’s the point of going somewhere if you’re not prepared to go on the street to meet local people and shake their hand?”
Forever a restless spirit, Bizas was raised in a five-member family in Arta, northern Greece. There was not much to trigger his imagination back then, but his curiosity was genuine. His father insisted on his son following in his own footsteps and getting a job at a bank. “There are those who want a career, others who want a family. I wanted to discover the world with a backpack,” said Bizas.
He was issued with his first passport at the age of 22, the year he traveled abroad for the first time, visiting Bulgaria, Romania and Istanbul. His next trip was a 40-day tour of Scandinavia. While studying political science at Panteion University in Athens, he took off on a six-month journey with just 250 dollars: He traveled by road to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and worked as a deckhand on a merchant marine vessel which took to him to South Africa. He returned to Athens in time to sit a constitutional law exam.
How did he make ends meet? “Have you ever slept under a bridge or at the Calcutta train station next to the police precinct to feel safe? Did you ever spend a week eating your Aunty Mary’s biscuits? Have you been a stowaway on a train? I made plenty of sacrifices, but the excitement of exploration always prevailed and I felt that nothing could stop me,” said Bizas.
What started out as a hobby soon turned into a profession. His travel experience and fluency in five languages led him to work as a travel planning director with major travel agent organizations. He made bold travel choices, but clients trusted him and he soon developed a passionate following, organizing the kind of trips which had never taken place before. He accompanied a group to El Salvador during the country’s civil war, another to Nicaragua during the rise to power of the Sandinistas, while he was among the first travelers to visit Vietnam at the end of the war in 1977. The risk taking culminated in 1988: He was arrested in Libya when the Gaddafi regime took him for a Israeli spy.
What would he describe as the highlights of 40 years of traveling? New York, his favorite destination; Azerbaijani cuisine; the thrilling journey tracing the footsteps of Alexander the Great; the temperate climate and diversity of the Greek landscapes; and the world’s happiest people on the African island of Sao Tome, who although living below the poverty line are never caught brooding because they’re content with very little. “This is why I follow the 1-2-3 mantra, traveling only with the bare essentials: one pair of shoes, two pairs of trousers and underwear, three shirts.”
We have been chatting for four hours, but Bizas is happy go on. He now has 40 passports in his drawer, never lets go of his three-time-zone wrist watch and is set on spending most of his days on airplanes for as long as he can.
What else is left to see? I wonder. “When I first started traveling, at the age of 22, I used to say that if I managed to go on 30 trips in my lifetime I would have seen the world. When I exceeded 80 trips, I felt I was still missing 200. Now that I’ve been on over 1,000 trips I know that what remains to be seen is more than what I have seen. That’s the way it goes: The more you travel, the more you discover. The feeling of ‘going further’ cannot be taught through documentaries.”