Now’s the time, guys: escape the rat race

It’s been over 30 years since Tony Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet enterprise, set off on his first trail-blazing trip. meets the man who has inspired generations of travellers to take up their backpacks and venture into the world of the unknown

Mount EverestIt’s been over 30 years since Tony Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet enterprise, set off on his first trail-blazing trip. Venetia Rainey meets the man who has inspired generations of travellers to take up their backpacks and venture into the world of the unknown.

“I should dedicate it to George Bush, really; he made me write it,” explains a quiet, smiling man with greying hair. “I had a lot of fun though, and I really enjoyed all the places I went to. I had [Bush’s] three axis of evil countries—Iraq, Iran and North Korea—then Burma, Cuba, Afghanistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia…” He trails off, allowing me to imagine the “fun” to be had in such politically unstable places. “I’ve always liked those sorts of places,” he continues. “We started Lonely Planet by going to the odd places in the world. The big publishers were doing the Frances and the Italys and we couldn’t compete with them, so we had to find odd places to do; there weren’t books about those countries.”

I am, of course, talking to none other than Tony Wheeler about his new book Bad Lands. He is the founder of the now giant guidebook company, Lonely Planet, whose name was apparently chosen after Tony misheard the lyrics to the song ‘Space Captain’ (it’s really ‘lovely planet’).

It is little wonder, considering the story of how Lonely Planet was founded, that even today Tony continues to pioneer and document ‘different’ travelling. Just when we were beginning to think that there was nowhere exciting left to go in the world, Tony is releasing his new, fairly controversial book, wherein he explores places which, by his own (and Bush’s) criteria are “bad”. Questions to be asked of countries before they can feature in the book include, firstly: how do they treat their own people? (For example, did you know that in Cuba you are allowed to run a restaurant, but you can’t have more than 12 seats, because if you do, you might be competing with the government?) Secondly: how do they treat their neighbours? And finally: do they support terrorism? “It’s much more difficult to find a ‘good’ land,” he remarks, shaking his head slightly. “To be a ‘bad’ land all you have to do is something bad and then, well, you’re bad. To be a good land everything you do has to be good. If I sell enough copies I’m all set to do Bad Lands 2. Zimbabwe would be an obvious case study, and Syria.”

Tony has a sense of humour that, perhaps refreshingly, allows him to laugh at the state of our world, even after having seen as much of it as he has. He tells me that, while most of the people he met in the “bad” countries were friendly and willing to talk to him, he did have a bit of a problem in Saudi Arabia: “I had less insight than I expected in Saudi Arabia. I talked to lots of people, but they were all Westerners or Egyptians. The Saudis just sit at home and count their money—they don’t work. They don’t drive the taxis or work in the hotels.

“One of the interesting things about writing the book is that people really want to talk to you about their country because you are neutral. You’re an outsider, you’re safe; you’re not going to shop them to the government.”

This brings up the question of whether or not we should consider politics when travelling, especially in light of the so-called War on Terror, which is a particularly pertinent issue when exploring countries such as Iraq. “I don’t think you can go anywhere without thinking about politics, and if someone does bring it up, you need to have a response,” he says.

I am reminded of Nicholas Garrigan in The Last King of Scotland, and ask him what he thinks of the negative effects of mindless tourists. “There is no question that there is a bad side to tourism,” he replies. “There are some things you definitely don’t want to see happen, like sex tourism.”

So is he staunchly against the Westernisation of destinations? He is, after all, the original off-the-beaten-track travelling man. “You go to places where you think, ‘20 years ago it was quiet and it was peaceful,’” he says. “But if you go to people there and you say, ‘Oh, it was nicer when I first came here 20 years ago’, they’ll turn around and say, ‘Yeah, but 20 years ago there wasn’t a school for my kids, we didn’t have electricity and I was lucky if I had a bicycle; most of the time I walked. And look at it now! I’ve got air conditioning and a car and my kids are in school and I can watch television!’ And you think: ‘No, that’s not what we want; we want to get away from what we have at home’. But we have no right to say to them, ‘stay primitive. Don’t get electricity, we like it with the oil lamps.”

“If we rave about some place in India we can make or break it. But as an author, if you do find something really good you just cannot keep it a secret”

The irony for the average backpacker setting off this summer with their LP guide in their rucksack is that it is exactly this type of travel which sets the wheels in motion to transform a city, beach or even restaurant from an undiscovered gem into a tourist honey-pot, minus the oil lamps. It’s a conundrum: how does a guidebook promote independent and sustainable travel, when in purely by mentioning a place it is condemning it to widespread popularity, and perversely, its eventual demise? “If we rave about some place in India, we can make or break it, you have to be very cautious about how you use that power.” That’s exactly it, the power of the guidebook; how should writers and readers alike approach such a dangerous medium? “As an author, if you find something really good, you cannot keep it a secret. Some readers say, ‘I use your guidebook to find the places where I don’t want to stay and don’t want to eat, because I know I’m going to meet all the other travellers there’. And fair enough—that’s quite an imaginative use, really.”

On the subject of guidebooks, I turn the conversation to his first ever guide; the book that started it all, Across Asia on the Cheap, the predecessor of the famous Asia on a Shoestring. His highly personal and, in places, perhaps a little dated tone runs throughout, evident in comments like, “The Hindu religion is such a comic book, with a Disneyland set up; it is almost difficult to take it seriously. If one looks at it as the Hindus do, then it becomes meaningful”, or his advice to hippie “freaks” crossing borders: “Do yourself and everyone else a favour and stay cool”.

Statements such as these are a far cry from those populating the clinical and politically correct guidebooks of today. Apparently, however, I am far from alone in bemoaning the depersonalisation of Lonely Planet’s travel guides: “We keep saying to our writers that people have to have some feel of what their opinion is. It is difficult, there’s no question. Because you end up having a number of writers, and they are big projects.”

Perhaps the problem lies in the massive public demand for up-to-date guidebooks. Even guidebooks that are bought the year in which they come out sometimes prove out of date and once over a year old, their popularity declines rapidly for fear of them being unreliable. Books at Lonely Planet are put on two or four year rotations, depending on how popular they are. All the time in between two editions is spent revising the first. Authors are given a few weeks to do their city or part of a country and all of this time is spent checking out every place they have already included, plus looking out for new places to eat, stay, drink, party, and so on. In light of this, it is not hard to understand why the informal, chatty style of Tony’s first book has petered out. Unfortunately, some of the more quirky sections of his book have also disappeared; the section entitled ‘Dope’, for instance, has sadly faded into a quaint memory of a time before health and safety went crazy.

“People are going to look for drugs whether we tell them about it or not. One of the things we do much more now is tell people where you would be crazy to look for it; in Singapore for example, you are absolutely nuts to even think about it, whereas in Ibiza—not that I’m particularly up to date with the drug situation there —I expect you might just get your knuckles rapped.” Quite a contrast to the advice he dishes out in his first guide: ‘If dope is what you want then you are going o the right places! In Bali, mushrooms go down well, the restaurants will prepare you an interesting omelette if you supply the mushrooms. Afterwards you can trip gently down to the beach and watch a truly unbelievable sunset.’

I press on, conscious of how fast time is slipping away. Are the only places that are acceptable to go to now the ones that are underdeveloped, without basic amenities and as far from home as possible? His pleasant chuckle reassures me that I am wrong: “One can travel for different reasons, I think. Last weekend I went to Paris and had a very enjoyable few days. I stayed in a nice hotel and ate nice food. I was just a regular tourist in a very nice country.” How extraordinarily, well, nice. “France is still one of the most popular destinations in the world, and when you go there, you realise why,” he says. “It’s very civilised travelling.”

I find myself relaxing in my seat; thank God we are still allowed to travel civilly. Today you would be forgiven for thinking that the only travel worth doing involves one set of clothes, corrugated tin shacks and either a collection of African orphans or a small herd of endangered turtles. “But equally,” Tony continues on, “one of the trips Maureen and I did this year was this thing called the Plymouth-Banjul challenge. You come to England, buy an old car, and then drive through France, Spain, down into Morocco, through the Western Sahara, and then finally into Banjul, the capital of Gambia. When you get there you give the car away, and it is auctioned off with all the other cars in order to raise money for charity.”

Enough of France, I hear myself saying, what about England? More importantly, has he ever been to York? “I really didn’t like England when I first returned for sixth form after America,” he chuckles, “I can see myself spending a lot more time here in future, though.” Sensing he is not quite answering my question, I ask again: has he ever been to York? “It’s funny, when we did our first Britain guide, I thought, this is crazy, I know India better than I know England, and I was born here! So I ended up writing about the South, the Midlands, and the North of Scotland. I learnt a lot.” How strange, I think; is York that awful a conversation topic, or is he just trying to hide something? I repeat my question a third time, and finally he yields, albeit begrudgingly (or is it guiltily?): “I’ve never been to York, no. But I would like to…”

Tony Wheeler

Following a brief but unashamedly enthusiastic plugging of our beautiful city, I venture into the realm of languages, and the role they play in travelling. Surely, I joke with him, he speaks at least five languages, one of which is an old African tribal dialect no longer in existence. “I am an awful linguist,” he smirks good naturedly. “If I could improve one thing in my life, I would be better at languages. It isn’t from lack of trying,” he protests, seeing the look of ill-suppressed shock on my face. “I took Italian lessons last year for a few months. But I think more important than being good is being willing to give it a go. If you can speak a bit of a language, it makes the world of difference.”

We are interrupted, at this point, by a knock on the door. “Are you finished yet?” I hear a female voice enquire. Something about my journalistic naivety must have struck him, however, and he decides to give me another five minutes. “I still like travel for the sake of travel,” he proceeds. “You know, just bumping into people and meeting people and things happening; general good fun. But I also like bicycle trips. They are good fun too.”

What about travel dislikes? Is there anything that really gets his goat when he hits the road? “I dislike jetlag.” he replies quickly, “I dislike tiny hotel rooms where you’re tripping over things all the time. I don’t dislike squat toilets, on the other hand,” I hear him add, nonchalantly. Really? I find them quite irritating, I reply. I have obviously touched a nerve here, however, as he proceeds to launch into a tirade against toilet-intolerant people: “One of the things people have when travelling out of their comfort zone is that they are really scared of toilets. Squat toilets scare a lot of people for some reason. I don’t mind them at all; some people even argue that they’re physically better for you.” For more on Tony Wheeler’s worldwide toilet shenanigans, check out his toilet blog (no joke) at www.lonelyplanet.com/tonywheeler/my_lists/here_i_sat.

Moving swiftly on, I ask what he plans to do next. “Well I’m in England for the rest of the week, then I’m going to the USA for two weeks to promote Bad Lands, then I’m stopping in Tanzania on the way back to Australia to climb Kilimanjaro with some friends.” A pretty standard month then, roughly on par with what I’m getting up to myself over the next few weeks. “I used to live in Detroit, you know. It’s changed a lot over time; some of it is like a third-world disaster area now.” Is he a fan of the USA, then? “America has a lot going for it, it’s just a shame it has a lot going against it as well,” he answers coyly.

So where is he a fan of, I find myself asking. In light of the fact that he must have been to nearly every country in the world, where does he find himself drawn back to time and time again? “I actually haven’t been to every country in the world,” he replies, shaking his head. “That’s a bit too much like ticking off things on a list for me. I’ve been to more than 130; Maureen says it’s appalling to keep count. One of my friends claims to have done it, but then how many countries are there in the world? The UN represents 192 officially, but it doesn’t have Taiwan, for example. And is Gibraltar a country? Or Antarctica? The Lonely Planet Blue List book ended up with 235.” He pauses to think for a second and the conversation is briefly suspended as both of us take in the sound of the English rain beating on the glass roof of the room. “But the place I’ve gone back to more than any other place is Nepal, I guess.” I have to ask him to repeat this, as he pronounces it Ne-pall, in an American sort of way; his accent is a truly bizarre fusion of Australian, English, and American. “Over the years I’ve probably been there over a dozen times.” Because of the fascinating mix of culture and landscape? “Because of the walking,” he smiles generously. “I love to walk.”

I draw the interview to a close by asking him if he has a travel motto. “If there is a motto, it is to be open, to expect things to not work out all the time, and to be ready to change,” he says. Sounds more like a motto for life than for travel to me, but then I suppose that’s the thing: for Tony Wheeler, his life is travel, and I can’t help but be a little bit jealous.

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