How a globe-trotting teenager enthralled millions in 1928
The planet has become such a small place. Now, we can hold the world in the palm of our hand, scrolling on our smartphones from one country to the next while lounging on the sofa.
Unfortunately, the more we open ourselves to the world on the internet, the less we get to see it for real. What a shame that is, because in shrinking the world to bitesize we, too, have grown smaller… both in our life experiences and in our understanding of how others really live.
Not only are we less than once we were, but as the darker aspects of human nature are revealed to us on the internet, so we have become more fearful, too, about undertaking exotic adventures of our own. And when it comes to letting our children loose into the great unknown, well that’s a definite no-no.
In short, we have become fiercely cautious and overly protective.
So, there we sit, smaller and more afraid than ever before. It’s enough to make one hanker back to a time when ignorance was bliss; when not knowing what lay beyond our own shores was a lure, not a threat… when it was a reason to knock down the metaphorical walls around us and embark upon discovery.
Which brings me to Palle Huld, a boy who had the spirit of adventure imbued in his soul; a Dane who travelled the world, and who undertook this remarkable journey alone and at the tender age of just 15 years.
It was 1928, and Denmark’s Politiken newspaper was marking the centenary of the birth of Frenchman Jules Verne, author of Around the World in 80 Days. They did so by launching a competition, the winner of which would echo the globe-trotting adventure that had been embarked upon by Verne’s character Phileas Fogg in his famous novel,
Rather unfairly, it was only open to teenage boys, and it was won by a red-haired, freckled lad named Palle Huld, whose challenge was to circle the globe unaccompanied and to do so within 46 days. He would do it in 44.
Huld, who was a boy scout, set out on March 1, 1928, on a voyage of discovery across land and sea that took him from Denmark to England, Scotland, Canada, Japan, Korea, China (then called Manchuria), the Soviet Union, Poland and Germany.
He crossed the Atlantic to Canada, where he met First Nations’ tribes, and then went by luxury liner across the Pacific, meeting with Japan’s Admiral Togo along the way (the only downside to that being when Huld had to remove his shoes for the occasion, thereby revealing the hole in his sock, much to his mortification).
What a journey, though…. and all done on first-class tickets. While Huld did travel alone, he was assisted along the way by reporters from Politiken, as well as by Danish embassy staff around the world, and local boy scout groups in various countries.
His adventure caught the public’s imagination, and newspapers across the globe followed his exploits. Upon his return to Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, 20,000 people turned out to welcome him home.
Huld’s exotic travels must have surely inspired a generation of teenagers to follow in his footsteps. Not only that, but they also seemed to have inspired cartoonist Herge (real name Georges Remi), whose globetrotting teen character Tintin, complete with red hair and freckles, appeared in newspapers a year later.
Palle Huld went on to chronicle his adventures in the book, A Boy Scout Around The World. He later became an actor, first taking to the stage in 1934, and thereafter making regular appearances on Danish TV and in films, until his retirement in 2000.
He died in 2010, no doubt with the memories of the people he met and the places he visited on his remarkable journey still embedded in his mind.
How many parents out there would allow their young teen to embark on such a journey alone? Many of us would balk at such a risk, but what a loss that is for our children… the chance to explore and experience life, unfettered by parental control.
In my own days as a boy scout, I had some of that freedom – nowhere to the extent of Huld, though. My experiences were of going away on a week-long camp aged 13 that I planned and led, organising activities, work rotas and meals for a group of six other boys, all done without the presence of an adult.
I mention this not to show my own organisational ability, but to lament the state to which we have come, where health and safety is taken to the nth degree, to such an extent that almost any sense of risk is eliminated and where concerns over liability overrule everything else.
Such caution, though well intended, impinges on true learning and growth. The spirit of adventure, of risk, as personified by Palle Huld, should be fostered, for it is in such times that our true strengths emerge.
We should step away from the smartphone and embrace the unexpected. Doing so may reveal hidden strengths… ones which, for sure, a certain Danish teenager tapped into on his remarkable voyage of discovery back in 1928 – the year when the name Palle Huld became a byword for exotic adventure.