Guidebook writer Lee Atkinson talks Russian shootouts, the man from Atlantis and why[Sydney] is so great

How did you get into travel writing?
More good luck than good management. I started off working for the map-making department, with the NRMA. I used to spend my life on the road helping to survey the roads. Not that long into it I realised that you could actually make a living wandering around the countryside and the world, getting to travel and getting paid for it,and I just thought, “I like this idea”.

Is it the world’s best job?
Yeah, it is the best[job] in the world. But it’s not as glamorous as it looks from the outside. There’s a lot of hard slog to it. There’s a lot of really boring stuff that people don’t think about, like endless hotel inspections. I think the worst bit is that you’re writing as if you’re having a lovely time on holiday lying in the sun, but you’re not. You often just get to go to places for a flying visit. I have a list a mile long of places I want to go back to.

Are you any good at travelling light?
You’d think I’d get better over the years but I think I’ve actually got worse. I do feel a real sense of triumph when I get home, empty my bag and I’ve worn everything.

What can’t you travel without?
A headtorch. I use it so often. I’ve been in so many blackouts or you’ve got to find the bathroom in the middle of the night.

You must have met some fairly strange people on the road over the years?
I did meet someone in the[Kimberley] who I think stays there in the wet season by himself, which could be the problem. He was convinced that he was in Atlantis and he knew what happened and why it sunk.

How about scary moments?
I had one in Russia several years ago. There was a shoot-out on the steps of our hotel, which was all a bit scary. But no, I’ve been really lucky. I’ve never been mugged. I’ve had some inconvenient times. Very recently I was flying back from Timbuktu, as you do, in west Africa, with Kenya Airways who neglected to fill the plane with enough fuel. We had to have a forced landing in Cameroon and were forced to stay there for two nights and missed all our connections. They wouldn’t let us out because we didn’t have a visa. It was just a pain in the neck.

Is guidebook writing very different to normal travel writing?
It’s a lot less creative. But the[Sydney] one in particular I really enjoyed because I was getting to show off my hometown. But I agonised for days and days. It felt like a huge sense of responsibility to make sure that what I fit in was the best.

So what’s your perfect[Sydney] day?
I have a flat by Bronte, so I get up in the morning, walk down to Bronte Beach, try to make it all the way to Bondi along the clifftop walk before I succumb to breakfast. Then I just keep going all the way to south head. Then fish and chips on the beach at Watson’s Bay or meet up with friends for a beer. It costs next to nothing and is just such a beautiful thing to do.

What do you love about[Sydney?]
What’s not to love. It’s just such a beautiful physical city. So much of what you can do in Sydney is oriented to being outside. We normally have great weather. We’ve got national parks that practically ring the city. Beautiful parks inside the city, even national parks like Lane Cove in the middle of the city. Beyond that you’ve got the beaches. They’re so easy to get to, it’s so easy to get out on the harbour, it’s not just for rich people. It’s very hard to feel miserable if you’re on or beside the water on a nice day. I think that’s the magic about Sydney, you can really get outside and have a good time without spending a whole heap of cash.

If somewhere is really bad are you always honest in your write-up?
If it’s somewhere nobody’s heard much of, and it’s awful, then I won’t put it in. There’s always lots of other great places. But if it’s somewhere that everyone is going to hear about because it’s in a tourist brochure or whatever, and it’s crap, then I’ll tell it like it is, because people need to know.

Any tips for aspiring travel writers?
Don’t think you’re going to make a lot of money. It’s one of those things you do for love, not for money. It’s really important to just start writing and to get to know the editors. Read as many other travel writers as you can.

Lee’s guidebook, Frommer’s Sydney Day by Day is out now, through Wiley Publishing.