Telegraph readers are a well-travelled bunch, but Philip Wharmby might just be the biggest globetrotter of them all.
He has stood atop the Great Wall of China, watched the sunset through the steam of a smouldering volcano in Guatemala, and climbed mighty Mount Kilimanjaro. Among the most obscure places he has visited are Tajikistan, Burundi, Mauritania – and the unrecognised state of Transnistria. All in all, the 71-year-old Briton has ticked of 106 countries or territories, and has no intention of slowing down.
“My ambition is to continue exploring until my legs pack in,” he explained. “It keeps me physically and mentally active, so I’ve got trips planned out until I am 85.”
Wharmby’s wanderlust began in the late 1950s, when, as a child, he was entranced by BBC programmes such as Travellers’ Tales and Zoo Quest.
Seven decades on, only two countries that featured on Travellers’ Tales remain unvisited: Bolivia, to which he has a trip lined up for 2024, and Afghanistan, which he accepts will have to wait.
‘Attenborough made me do it’
Wharmby, a retired NHS finance officer from Bury, credits Sir David Attenborough – the host of Zoo Quest, and dozens of other TV series – for stoking a lifelong enthusiasm for both travel and wildlife photography.
“Attenborough inspired me to do it. I’ve seen wildlife all over the world and every time I think, ‘oh yes, I saw that on one of his programmes’,” he said, adding that Sir David’s longevity (the 96-year-old broadcaster’s latest series, Wild Isles, was shot on location) also spurs him on.
A meeting with Attenborough, during a Manchester book signing in 1991, only sharpened his urge to explore. Just a few months later he followed in the broadcaster’s footsteps to see the mountain gorillas of Rwanda – the first of 19 countries he would tick off that decade.
“He was a very nice guy, really pleasant – he seemed grateful to inspire so many people’s travels and interest in wildlife,” said Wharmby. Describing his own face-to-face meeting with mountain gorillas, he added: “They charged up, raised on their hind legs and beat their chests.”
‘I was woken up by a purring lion’
Wharmby visited six countries on that 1991 trip: Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania, where he joined a wildlife safari in the Serengeti and hiked up Mount Kilimanjaro.
Recalling one night in the Serengeti, he said: “I woke up thinking someone was snoring, but then realised it sounded more like purring.” After peering outside, he spotted a lion inspecting their camp. “I was the only person who woke up, and I quickly leapt back into my sleeping bag.” The feline had its sights set on something else, however. “It stole the towels from our washing line,” laughed Wharmby.
Breakfast the next morning was taken to the sound of roaring in the distance. “Well, this doesn’t happen on holiday in Blackpool, I remember thinking at the time,” he said.
Before climbing Kilimanjaro, Wharmby undertook three months of training, running five miles a day. He began his final push for the peak at midnight, wearing a head torch. As dawn swept across the mountain, the view was awesome, he said, and the sky alive with stars, though he admitted: “My memory is pretty vague, and based mostly on photos, because I was absolutely shattered and short on oxygen.”
‘I’m Bury’s answer to Indiana Jones’
Understandably, given that his travel back catalogue includes countries as diverse as the island idyll of Antigua and landlocked Uzbekistan, Wharmby has become the person friends look to when they are planning an off-the-beaten-track trip.
“I always think of myself as Bury’s answer to Indiana Jones,” he joked. “A mild-mannered accounts clerk that changes into explorer mode when he goes on holiday.”
Wharmby doesn’t need pampering, and usually stays in cheap hostels. “It gives you a better impression of the country,” he said. “Also, when sharing with travellers younger than yourself, you have different experiences. I remember dancing at a festival with a 60-year-old nurse who was staying at the same hostel. Strictly had nothing on it.”
His earliest trips were around Europe, with Belgium, Netherlands, France and Spain ticked off in the 1960s; his first trips further afield were to the US and Canada in 1975, The Bahamas in 1976, Morocco in 1977 and the Middle East (Egypt, Israel and Palestine) in 1978.
In recent years he has turned his hand to guiding too, and led groups in the late 1980s to the Greek island of Naxos and to Egypt. In Naxos, after showing people around the ancient Greek temples, he was given “a very nice bottle of liquor” in appreciation, while his Egypt group ventured to the lesser-visited Western Desert, where he was told that no foreign tourists had been for six months.
A fellow member of the hiking group to which Wharmby belongs, the Stockport Walking & Outdoor Group, said: “I’ve known Phil for 20 or more years, he’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable about what he does. His tours are well-planned. He thinks outside the box, and he’ll take you to places you’ve never been to before, interesting places.”
Reflecting on his travels so far, Wharmby said: “I never expected to get to amazing places like the Canadian Rockies or the Grand Canyon – places my mother showed me in picture books when I was little. It’s something a bit extra than going away for family holidays on the Continent.
“I don’t know how many years I’ve got, but I want to enjoy them, and keep travelling.”