Back in 1973 the term backpacker wasn’t even invented. But wanting a bit of adventure on their honeymoon, Tony and Maureen Wheeler set off across Europe and the hippy trails of Asia until they finally reached Australia. Not sure what to do when they got there, the newlyweds decided to write a book about it, called Across Asia on the Cheap – and so Lonely Planet was born. Eighty million books and 35 years later, Tony Wheeler is still spending his time travelling the world and writing about it. His latest offering, Bad Lands, takes him to nine rarely explored nations.
You visited some of the world’s most notorious countries in Bad Lands. How did you draw up your list? I started with the three that Mr Bush had labelled his ‘axis of evil’ [Iraq, Iran and North Korea] and then it was countries that I thought were particularly interesting for a variety of reasons. Whether they’d been off the rails, or had a lot of bad publicity… I don’t think necessarily they’re the most demonised, there are others which are equally on the bad list, but they were an interesting group to look at.
You seemed especially enthusiastic about Iran. What was the appeal? I’ve never met anybody who’s been to Iran who hasn’t had a good time there. You’ve got a fairly outgoing people, they’re educated. They’ve probably got the highest standard of education in that region. They’ve always had a lot of outside contacts. People often compare Thailand to France because they’ve got great cuisine and they’re very proud of it. They’re also very confident of their culture and everything else they’ve got going for them. I think in a way the Iranians have the same attitude. They have a long history going back thousands of years. They’ve got poets and writers and artists and they’re proud of that so they tend to be a confident people.
Where were you most restricted in what you could see? North Korea is definitely the one where you’re most restricted. Everything is so tightly buttoned down. You get very few visitors there. The fact that it is so tied up makes it a very interesting place to visit. The other place that was bizarre in a similar fashion was Saudi Arabia.
You were born in England, grew up around the world and settled in Australia. What is it you love about Oz so much? It was completely chance that we ended up in Australia. We stayed here for a year, then came back more or less by accident. The first time we’d lived in Sydney and liked it very much, but thought let’s try somewhere else so we ended up in Melbourne, where we’ve been ever since. None of that was planned, it’s just the way it happened.
There’s obviously a few very well-worn routes for travellers in Oz. Where would you recommend? If somebody was coming here and they said “Where should I go?”, I would always say the Outback. A lot of people are going to go to the Great Barrier Reef. That’s a great thing to do and I’ve always enjoyed travelling up the reef. However, I have been scuba diving in three countries in the last year. It’s all great, but there’s not a lot of difference once you’re under the water. The Outback is really the part of Australia that’s unique. It’s something you don’t see anywhere else. I’m definitely an Outback fan.
Travelling has changed a lot since your early days. It’s now big business. Do you think it’s still possible to have as adventurous a time as you did back in the ’70s? The year Maureen and I travelled around Australia like backpackers was 1974. We travelled for a month or two on our way out to Asia to do our South-East Asia guide. We started off in Melbourne, went up the coast as far as Cooktown, went inland to Alice Springs], down to the rock, up to Darwin. The sort of trip any backpacker would do today and stayed in the sort of places that backpackers would have stayed. But of course there weren’t any backpackers here in those days. We met two French tourists who had bought an old Valiant and were driving around in it. To meet a couple of French tourists in Australia in the mid-70s was very strange. We got to Darwin and people were heading out to Indonesia. There seemed to be lots of them but in comparison to today it was nothing.
So was it a lot wilder then? You didn’t get your hand held as much. In comparison it’s a lot easier nowadays. You know, you come into Airlie Beach and you see the buses competing to drag you off. There’s all that, but if people want adventure they’re going to find adventure no matter what and Australia’s still a great place to do that. If you want it, you’ll find it.
You and your wife recently sold most of Lonely Planet to the BBC. Do you think LP will change? I don’t think so, I’m hoping not. We hadn’t thought of the BBC at all. They took us by surprise. But I think it’s going to be a good fit. The book side I don’t think is going to change at all. The television side is going to be accelerated and definitely the website. Personally it was just time for a change, I was going stale. Now I’m more flexible.
It’s often said the best way to discover a country is to explore what isn’t in the Lonely Planet. How do you like to travel – do you follow guidebooks? People have said they’ve used our books that way. Wherever we cover they won’t go there! I do a reasonable amount of travel each year and I really like all forms of it. I like going to the really civilised places and eating in nice restaurants and staying in nice places, but I also like the unusual. I’m really thinking of doing a ‘Badlands 2’ because there’s lots of places I’d like to add to the list. They would all be places that don’t get a lot of visitors, which makes them interesting.
What’s top of the list? Probably Haiti. It’s a Caribbean country which has just been chaotic from day one. It’s the poorest country in the western hemisphere, yet you look at the great start it had. It was the first country in the region to kick out the colonial powers, in 1804. It should have been great but instead it’s been disastrous. It’s still in chaos. They’ve had revolution after revolution, lousy ruler after lousy ruler. The place is impoverished. It’s an interesting place. Congo – people are just starting to go back to, but it’s been a country that’s just never worked. From when the Belgians colonised it, until it fell apart, with Mobutu ransacking the place, it’s just been bad, bad, bad all the way.
Will you ever get tired of travelling? No. The next six months is committed already. There are so many things I want to do. It is an endless satisfaction. One thing constantly leads on to another. You go somewhere, you find out about something and then you read some more and your interest is triggered to go to another place.
Are you always honest with other travellers about who you are? Most people have no idea who I am. I don’t jump up and say “Hi, I’m Tony Wheeler, I’m the guy who started Lonely Planet.” I’d never do that. But on the other hand I’m not going to start pretending I’m not Tony Wheeler. You still meet people you have to explain it all to.
Your list must be diminishing, but where are you still dying to see? It is, but there’s so many of them. I’m not going to finish it in this lifetime. I don’t know any continent very well. I’d hate to say that I’ve travelled a lot, because if you say that you’re going to immediately bump into someone who’s going to outdo you by far. There’s lots of places in Africa that I’ve not been to, I wouldn’t say I’ve covered South America thoroughly. There’s lots of potential.
Where are you going next? Taiwan. After that I’m probably going to Haiti, Columbia, America, then Europe.
A lot of people fancy themselves as budding travel writers. Any tips? The first thing is to travel. We don’t take anybody on who hasn’t been overseas. It’s a specialisaton thing. I’m always amazed at the languages some of our people speak. They’ve gone to university and studied something that ties in with a region we’re working on and learnt the language that applies. They’re three-quarters of the way there.
Tony Wheeler’s Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil is out now, published by Lonely Planet, for $29.95.