On June 20th 1970, Dave Kunst embarked on a journey that would see him become the first man ever to walk around the world. Kunst managed the first independently verified walk around earth in about 4 years, returning home on October 5th 1974 after walking 14,520 miles and taking over 20 million steps. Dave and his brother John set off together carrying only the basics, a mule, $1000, and a letter of endorsement by Senator Hubert Humphrey. In 1972, the adventure was interrupted when a gang of bandits attacked the Kunst brothers in Afghanistan, killing John and severely injuring Dave. After 4 months of recovery, Dave returned to the very spot where he and his brother had been ambushed and continued his walk with his other brother, Pete.
When did you first decide that you wanted to walk around the world, and why?
Dave Kunst: It was a very cold evening in early January 1970 in Waseca, Minnesota. My friend and I were talking about adventure. I told him I thought of driving to the tip of South America or flying to Australia and driving across Down Under. My friend informed me that both had been done before. I replied that we had gone to the moon last year, so what was there left to do? He then said that no one had ever walked around the world. I said, of course not, no one can walk on water. He laughed and said that if you try that, you will probably get your feet wet, but you can still walk the land surface of earth in a circle and fly across the oceans. I told him I would do it. I then told my brother John who was going to graduate from the University of Minnesota in June and he also said that we were going to do it. We set the date and told people so that we would not start saying, “someday, someday” like so many people do. We were going to walk out of town on June 20th 1970, ready or not, and we did.
We did it to do something extraordinary in our lives, to get in the Guinness Book of Records, to see part of the world, and to go on a great adventure.
How did you support yourself throughout this adventure?
I had a thousand dollars to start and we thought we would work along the way. As it turned out, the idea of using a mule got people’s attention and caused them to ask, “what are you guys doing with that mule?” More often than not that led to an offer of a meal, or a place to spend the night, or both.
The scroll was what we used as a reason to meet city officials. It is now at the Minnesota Historical Society. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey gave us this letter of introduction that influenced officials to meet us, which usually also led to an offer of a meal and a place to stay. Telling people to send money to UNICEF also induced offers.
After John was killed by bandits five prominent people in our home state decided to put up 500 dollars each to help me finish. They called themselves “Friends of the Kunst Brothers”.
How much did you have to rely on the help and generosity of strangers to get by? Who were the friendliest people you met during your journey?
There is no doubt that I would not have made it without the help of people we met around the world. Hubert Humphrey’s great letter of introduction helped influence officials around the world to help us. His letter gave us real credibility.
We were helped by good people all around the world, but people who understood English helped the most. Language was our number one problem.
What was your favourite place from all the countries you visited throughout your travels, and why?
Australia, because people speak English and it is where I found the love of my life. Jenni and I are still in love and together after 40 years.
It took you around four years to walk around the world. It must have been hard returning home to every-day life. How did you cope?
It was easy for me. I returned to Australia to be with Jenni. We went back to the USA a year later. Jenni taught school in California for 30 years. I told my walk story using coloured slides to schools, clubs and organizations for 20 years. When I started the walk I said that I would not go back to an 8 to 5 job and I didn’t.
All in all, how did walking around the world impact your life? What are the main lessons you drew from your travels?
The walk gave me my wonderful Jenni and it taught me who I am as a person. I continue to feel a self-satisfying sense of accomplishment.
Your journey was filled with challenges and hardships, including the loss of your brother John along the way. Did you at any point consider giving up? What kept you going?
I’m a very strong willed person and when I commit myself, I finish what I start. I’m also a loner, not lonely, but a loner with a soul mate. To really understand what a loner is you will have to read Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto by Anneli Rufus. I never considered giving up and John’s death made me more determined to finish what he and I had started. To do what I had set out to do no matter what is what kept me going to the finish.
The world is very different now than it was in the 1970s. Do you believe it would still be possible to take on such a challenge?
It would be extremely dangerous to walk some of the countries I crossed. I would even say suicidal.
We live in an age where traveling has become more of a norm than a luxury for many. If you had one piece of advice for young aspiring travellers, what would it be?
If Dave Kunst can walk around the world, he can do anything and so can you.
Originally published on Affairs Today on October 5th 2014.