This year, we’re very excited to have Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet as a judge for our WildChina Explorer Grant competition. We sat down Tony Wheeler to find out why he’s always loved exploring and what’s up next on his travel agenda.
Tony Wheeler on the island of Tuvalu
For 40 years, Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler has been picking out the world’s least-traveled destinations, exploring them like they’re his own backyard, and having a grand time. He then goes home and writes about all his experiences and helps us believe we can do the same.
It all started with a shoestring trip to Asia that he took with his wife. When they returned home, Tony and Maureen sat down at their kitchen table and wrote down all the ways they made the trip happen, pasted in the photos and maps to go with it (1970’s publishing style) and published their very first guidebook, and without knowing it a the time, started a multimillion dollar guidebook company that would change the way people thought about travel.
The ‘How’s’ of travel may be what Tony is best be known for, but we were curious to ask him about the ‘Why’s’. We posed a question to him that we’ve been asking our WildChina Explorer Grant applicants: ‘Now that every inch of earth has been trodden on, why travel, why explore?’ His answer was as satisfying as it was simple: ‘The view from the top is just as good if you’re the first person or the hundredth person, or even the millionth person.’
Everest Base Camp in Nepal
Traveling for the love of it (and Tony’s new book!)
For Tony, the biggest ‘Why’ of travel lies simply in the joy of the experience. The moment you start talking to Tony, you’re immediately taken in by the warm and welcoming demeanor that’s made him friends all over the world. He seems like the kind of person who’s lived much of his life saying, ‘Sure! Why not!’. If you read his books, you’ll know that it’s this easy-going and open attitude of his which gets him into the very best kinds of travel experiences. “Lots of travel is funny,” he says. “It’s not scary. People are people everywhere you go and generally you’re made welcome.”
Tony’s love for savoring simple joys along the road often sees him uncovering gems in seemingly uninteresting nooks that others may gloss over. The next book he’s working on is all about that. He’s taken one of the world’s longest flight paths – London to Australia – and broken it down into a 22-part journey. “Normally all you see on this trip is the airport duty-free shop at the end of your flight,” says Tony “and if you look out the plane window you might catch a 40,000ft view of India. But I went to 4 different cities in India.” He also visited Rome, Athens, Istanbul, Dubai and Muscat in Oman. Stopping a day or two in each city, he stretched the 24-hour flight, into a month of interesting travel experiences.
The joy of sharing with others
The second part of Tony’s ‘Why travel?’ answer is about the joy of sharing his travel experiences with others through his books and talks. When we asked him about this he compared travel to art forms like writing, photography or stand up comedy. “These artists have information they want to show to people, they want to impart that information and that’s an enjoyable part of it. And with a live audience you understand immediately whether they get it. When the audience laughs, you can see that they appreciate it the same way you do.”
A hard turn off the beaten path
Tony seems to especially love sharing stories of the places that are a bit off the beaten trail. “You get more of a kick out of going to the unusual places. The places that aren’t so normal,” he says. “It’s more fun when you’re the first person there in six months, not the hundredth person there that morning.” Often these places are just 10 minutes from the well-trodden tourist circuits, but sometimes they are well out of the way of what many would think of when they say, ‘Let’s go on vacation!’
In his books Bad Lands and Dark Lands, he makes a decided departure from mainstream destinations and lands right in the heart of the some of the West’s most feared or misunderstood places. He’s visited more than a dozen countries that fit this category.
What did he find there? Much what you’d find anywhere else. He takes Bougainvillea in Papua New Guinea as an example. “They’d had a war on for 10 years and for 10 years nobody was going there at all. So you really did feel like you were going to a place that was unusual in many ways, and yet in other ways it wasn’t unusual at all. I stayed in hotels, and I ate in restaurants, and I went and watched football at a high school. So things were quite normal in all sorts of respects, except that no one had been there in 10 years!”
Next stamps in Tony’s passport
So what’s the next destination on Tony’s dream destination list? He’s going to Cuba in the next couple of months – a place that will be opening up for more travel especially after President Obama visits this month. And a destination that’s been on Tony’s list for a long time is the Yemen. It’s a country with a rich history and surprising natural features like the Bottle Trees on Socotra Island, but is sadly in the midst of a brutal military conflict. He’s also reading a book right now about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. The accounts by people who were there at the time and have visited since make him want to go see it for himself.
All photos courtesy of Tony Wheeler
Wait for the announcement of this year’s WildChina Explorer, coming soon.