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He Won't Rest Until He's Conquered the World

May 30, 2000|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ken Ziegler, 76, is two places short of traveling the Official World. To complete his checklist of 313 countries and territories, the retired Navy fighter pilot must make it to Iraq and the British Indian Ocean Territory.

He puts Iraq aside for the moment. A German travel company is trying to get him into the restricted country.

What Ziegler must finagle now is a way to reach a tiny archipelago in the Indian Ocean between Africa and Indonesia.

"It's a pain. It's time consuming," he says, sounding not at all upset. "I'm constantly trying to figure out ways to get somewhere, and once you have settled it, you find the airline no longer exists. It's a constant fight."

Ziegler is president of the Santa Monica-based Travelers' Century Club, whose 1,500 members have visited at least 100 countries. Only 10 members have touched down at each place on the club's official world list, updated every two years by its board of directors to reflect changing political boundaries.

When the club was founded in 1954, a trip to Hawaii meant a five-day voyage by ship. These days, with travel more convenient and the world smaller than ever, the club's elite is pushing to nail the most remote spots on the list. Thirty-one members have reached 300 or more of the club's designations; Ziegler is the closest to the current number--313--on the official list.

"Some people save coins," he says. "Other people save stamps. We're country collectors. It's a competitive thing, making the countries."

Not to mention fulfilling.

Ziegler knows he is lucky to be able to indulge his passion through some good investments he made after retiring. He has spent more than $750,000 on travel in the last 18 years, and he doesn't regret a cent.

"My wish is that everyone could do it," he says. "I wish everybody could see the world and have a better understanding of the world. If they did, I think they could be better voters."

In Los Angeles, during the Cold War, the club's founders had the same idea, says chairman Klaus Billep. The founders, some of whom worked in the travel industry, wanted to start a club to promote international understanding through travel. Members pay a $100 initiation fee and $25 annual dues.

On the honor system, members track the number of places that they get to on the list (even a brief stop counts, such as an airplane refueling).

Sometimes, Ziegler, of Cypress, who is divorced with two daughters, thinks about staying home more. The flights are long, the jet lag is wearing.

"You have to ignore that," he says, "if you really want to be a traveler."

And he does. Witness his plan for the British Indian Ocean Territory:

He'll round up six or eight club members who want to bag it as badly as he does. Each will pony up about $10,000 for travel expenses. Later this year, they will fly to the Seychelles, a group of islands northeast of Madagascar. They will board a chartered yacht and sail for about six days.

If the weather holds, the yacht will anchor about 200 yards from a speck of the archipelago called Danger Island. The territory, which is used as a joint U.K.-U.S. military installation, has no public access and a nasty sandbar situation.

The group will decide whether to head in by dinghy or swim. The last group of club members to reach the territory swam. One member, who can't swim, strapped on a life vest and piggybacked onto a crew member who managed to get both of them ashore.

The territory is restricted to military personnel and contractors, but members will try to get permission from the United Kingdom to land.

"You stay just to go ashore, take pictures, look around," Ziegler says. "Not more than an hour."

He will make the trip simply to cross the territory off his list and does not plan any other travel in the area.

"Crazy, huh?" Ziegler says, chuckling.

* Information on Travelers' Century Club can be obtained at http://www.travelerscenturyclub.org.

* Renee Tawa can be reached at renee.tawa@latimes.com.

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