Firstly, what brings you to Australia?
, which I’m sure you’ve heard about.
A mixture of things; to come and meet Lonely Planet. I’ve never been to their Melbourne offices despite working for them for 12 years; I’ve never had enough time. And various other things; [including] to do some media appearances, hopefully to show the other side of how Lonely Planet really is, as opposed to the version put out by Thomas Kohnstamm
We have some questions about that in a minute. For now, what is it about travel that grips so many of us?
It’s so addictive. It’s possibly a very primeval instinct, just to climb the mountain and see what’s over the other side. I think it can be found in almost anyone. I find it very difficult to stop travelling.
Do you consider yourself a traveller who writes, a writer who travels, or something else entirely?
Probably a little bit of both really. Everyone likes to do a job which incorporates their biggest passions and for me, number one is writing. I love writing, it’s wonderful when you do something that really makes you burn up within – that kind of feeling is the only way to describe it. I also love learning languages, I love research and I love the travelling, so it’s a mixture of all those things. If you can combine them it makes a very happy working life.
And how did you become a travel writer?
I was always going to do law. But during the holidays at university I did some travelling and it really grew from that. I realised it meant I could enjoy all my big passions. More and more I got pulled that way…
I know from experience that guidebook writing can be stressful, underpaid and exhausting, and you’ve said there’s “nothing glamorous” about travel writing. So why do you – and others – keep doing it?
I think because we love it, that simple reason – and believe in it. It sounds possibly a bit sentimental but I really do believe in what I do, very much that travel is a force for good; for the individual – we can learn so much from it – and for the country in the sense that it’s enormously important industry at the moment, it’s number one in the world and growing faster than any other industry. As a writer your dream is to try and influence people a little bit, or change their opinions and I think in a good guidebook it’s so much more than cheap hotels and cheap restaurants, it’s so much more about coming to a country, looking into its culture, learning about it, interacting with the people. It’s very rewarding as a writer when people do change opinions.
You’ve been arrested on the suspicion of spying in Djibouti and in Ethiopia a whitewater rafting trip went wrong leaving you stranded for two weeks. What’s the most frightening situation you’ve been in?
The great thing about being a travel writer or journalist is that when things go wrong it makes fantastic copy, or a fantastic story for when you get home. It’s often kept me sane, writing things in a diary while things were going wrong. Perhaps the most sustained case of that was on the whitewater rafting trip, where we were just marooned. Three helicopters had failed to find us and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had told our families to expect the worst. Yet having the diary to write in every day more or less kept it in perspective and kept the sense of humour there. The most exciting time was possibly a car chase with some bandits who were trying to sell hashish in northern Morocco. I guess everyone fantasises about being in a car chase and it certainly lived up to expectations, though I wouldn’t readily undertake that again.
Women are increasingly travelling alone. You’ve said the essential items are “a smart skirt and a bit of lippy”. Do you have any more advice for females going solo?
I believe passionately that women should never feel afraid to travel anywhere in the world, just because they’re women. I really believe that women have advantages over men. They are female and if you’re alone you definitely attract more attention than you would otherwise. That’s motivated by a variety of things – it could be compassion and pity – whatever it is it generally leads to invitations to experience to local hospitality or kindness, which you might not get as a man or if you were travelling with someone else. The thing I find most rewarding is when you step from being a tourist, over that boundary, into the local culture. I think it leads to the most rewarding travel experiences of all. It’s much less about ‘you’ and ‘them’. I love that.
Of course you have to take care. I have the ‘three second rule’. I look at someone and very often you have only three seconds to decide whether you can trust them or not and after that you absolutely have to stick by that first feeling you have. It’s generally kept me out of trouble. People say women have a greater intuition than men, possibly a sort of sixth sense about things that perhaps preserves us or keeps us out of danger. As a writer there have been so many times when I’ve been granted special permissions, interviews or visas purely on the strength I think that I was a woman. I reckon we get quite an easy ride really, as women.
You’ve eaten Pigeon Pie in Morocco. What’s the strangest food you’ve eaten on your travels?
I’ve had sea cucumber in Borneo, snake and chickens’ feet, which I wasn’t crazy about. I‘ve found that often if you’ve ordered soup, it’s much better not to ask what it was and don’t dip your spoon too far to the bottom. I got a sheep’s eye in Jordan, but thankfully it was a lot smaller than I had imagined and quite soft. I managed – just – to get it down in one gulp rather than having to chew on it.