When I was little, my dream job was to be a writer for the Lonely Planet. The little blue bible was my guide around the world on my first forays into solo travel aged 18. It’s always retained a soft spot in my heart, a token of my seeds of wanderlust. So when I found myself with a press pass to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, and I saw Tony Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet’s, name upon the program, I knew I had to get an interview.
Some of the fruits of that talk are published over at Travel + Escape, but I also wanted to save some for this blog – and what better type of interview for a veteran traveller than our Superpower Series? We’ve asked this set of questions to people all around the world during our travels. It’s been a fascinating lesson in both the complexity and similarities in human nature.
Tony Wheeler founded the Lonely Planet in 1972 with his wife Maureen after they took an overland trip from Europe to Australia and realised there was a real shortage of information on the subject. The first incarnation of the guide was called Across Asia on the Cheap, which later morphed into the familiar South East Asia on a Shoestring. Over the next 30 years, it became an empire, finally being sold to the BBC in 2007 and the NC2 Media in 2013. Tony still travels widely, and has most recently published a book called Dark Lands, an exploration through some of the world’s most troubled countries, including the Congo, Zimbabwe and Pakistan. Here’s what he had to say…
If you had a superpower, what would it be?
I’d like to be able to travel back through time. Then I’d be able to do some interesting travel things. I’d also be able to go back to Bali 40 years ago and take the photos I wish I’d taken. Time travel, that’d be my choice.
That leads me nicely on to the next question, if you could travel back in time, where would you go?
I’d go back and join Joseph Banks on Captain Cook’s voyage around the world. This was a ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ type of thing – places where civilizations had never met before – a marvelous trip. And he was an interesting person. He came back with a tattoo when they hadn’t been heard of before. Great stuff!
If you could have dinner with three people, dead or alive, who would you choose?
Joseph Banks would certainly be one of them. We can’t have Captain Cook too, so let’s go with Richard Burton – source of the Nile Burton. And we have to have a woman. I always think the woman who left her husband and went off travelling for 13 years through Tibet and so on would be fascinating, but we’ve already had travellers so we need something else, perhaps an actress. I think Jane Birkin. I’ve always fancied Jane Birkin, married to Serge Gainsbourg in France in the Sixties and so on. Yes, I think that’d be a pretty knock-out combination. I’d just have to stop Richard from staring at Jane all night!
When was your happiest moment?
There are three times. One was the first year Maureen and I met. We were living in London and it was a really great time. I was really enjoying London and the life there, and we’d just met each other so we were falling in love and all that stuff. London was a special time.
Then when we took that big overland trip. That was amazing. I can still remember so much of it so clearly.
And then we lived in San Francisco in the mid 1980s. The business was growing at a fast pace in quite an exciting fashion, but it was also a time fraught with a lot of worrying and sleepless nights, and yet somehow the excitement of it overpowered that.
You knew those straight away! If often takes people ages.
I’ve thought about it before.
What’s your greatest fear?
Two things. I’m always worried about getting sidetracked with boredom, especially now I don’t have the business. I have to create my own amusement. I always worry about not doing something worthwhile. You want to write a book but you can’t get on with it, or no one is interested and you’re too old. At my age, getting too old is a worry. So getting lost is a fear.
But the stupid superstitious fear I have is this. When I occasionally end up in a grotty hotel in a place I’m only in to get on a bus somewhere the next morning, I think: “I’d hate to die in this hotel. Imagine I have a heart attack tonight and they find my body in the bed?” What an ignominious end in a dead end grotty town with people wondering: “What was he doing there?”
What’s the love of your life?
I could say my wife of course. We have an interesting relationship. But I’ll say travel. It’s done wonderful things for me. I’ve been to lots of interesting places. It’s been a life, and a career, and a business, and an enjoyment.
I really have always enjoyed it. There was a ten-year period at Lonely Planet– not when it was a baby learning to walk, but when it was a teenager growing really fast, excited at everything – it was a wonderful time to be doing it. People often say those years working for us were brilliant. It was exciting. Really the whole of it was good, but there were periods that were wonderful.
What’s the closest you’ve come to death?
You don’t know, do you? You’ve come out the taxi and then 100 meters down the road it’s had an accident.
Once when Maureen and I were in Belfast when things weren’t good there, we were walking and came to a crossroads where we could go one of two ways. We chose one direction and a bomb went off in a street the other way. They had cleared the street but nonetheless we heard this big boom and dust started flying up above the roof tops. That was close.
And then last year I was in the Congo. I did three flights there and the last two were with the same airline in the same aircraft – the only 747 they had. I remember looking over the door of the aircraft as I got on the plane – there’s usually a sign there saying when the plane rolled out, and this one was going to have its 50th birthday in two years time. I flew from Kinshasa to Kisangani, and a few days later flew on the same plane to Goma. Precisely a week later it crashed and it killed nearly everybody on board. It was the worst crash in the world anywhere that year. It was the same flight number, same airline, same aircraft, just seven days later.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Just go, do it.
I’ve also been given lots of little bits of good advice – try that restaurant, that museum, that sort of thing. For example, I remember once being on an overnight boat from India to Sri Lanka, a service that’s been closed for about 30 years now. Some young Tamils on the boat told us that when we got there everyone was going to run to the booking office for the overnight train to Colombo. “Don’t do that,” they said. “Instead go round the back of the office to the berth reservations counter. If you do that quickly, while everyone else is booking tickets, you can get a sleeping berth.” It was terrific advice because instead of spending another sleepless night standing on a train, we had this really comfortable sleeping berth. I remember the next morning we woke up feeling wonderful. We pushed the blind up and it was sunny with palm trees and rice paddies. Sri Lanka, what a beautiful place.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I’ll be remembered for the Lonely Planet. I always love that people get a kick out of it. That’s always been a special part of it. People went somewhere they wouldn’t have done otherwise. For various reasons, we took them there. That’s special.
Describe your perfect day.
A mixture of things. I have a short attention span but I really do love everything. I love walking because it’s a wonderful way of seeing the world. I also like museums, nice restaurants and good hotels, and I’ve had lots of interesting nights in bar.
Is there anything you don’t like?
Even the things you don’t like, you still have to do them. A Lonely Planet researcher has to be at the market at dawn and the nightclub late at night. You burn the candle at both ends and even if you don’t like markets, you learn something from going there.
Is there anything you’ve learned to love along the way?
All sorts of things. I remember working on the first Lonely Planet Great Britain Guide when I learned a lot about church architecture. That’s a fascinating area to poke around in. I love looking at churches now. They’re amazing conglomerations of different eras.
Do you have a favourite place?
No. It’s all good. I love it here in Bali. It ‘s always nice to come back somewhere but I also like going somewhere new. I’m disappointed if I don’t see something new every once in a while.
And finally, have you ever seen something you can’t explain?
Oh yes, lots of things. Once I was on a walk a long way from anywhere in Tasmania and it was like a flying saucer had gone by. There was this strange noise and all of us said “what the heck was that? “Maybe it was a strange climatic thing. I don’t know.
The strangest thing I’ve seen in last two weeks was this. I left from Australia and flew to Auckland to change planes. When I got off and went to the lounge for business travellers, I saw a man over by the wall who looked like he had a green head. When I eventually got closer, I realized his head really was green. He was tattooed to look like a lizard. It was beautifully done. I wish I’d taken a photograph.