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‘Certain things only happen to you when you go to a place. You don't read about them in a book, listening to a podcast, or watching a video.'
Gems in this
For five decades now, Lonely Planet has been a compass for millions of travellers, inspiring entire generations to embark on off-the-beaten-path adventures and experience the world. Behind the travel publisher's empire were Tony and Maureen Wheeler, travelling in their twenties and following the 'Hippie Trail' from England across Asia to Australia when they spotted the need for a new type of travel guide to help the wave of independent, laid-back travellers. In 1973, they released the first Lonely Planet guidebook.
Since then, it’s been a life-changing ride for Tony and Maureen. They sold their remaining share of Lonely Planet in 2011 and have both been appointed as Officers of the Order of Australia (AO) for their distinguished service to business and commerce as a publisher of travel guides and as benefactors to Australian arts and aid organisations, including The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne — established to support writers, readers, thinkers, and ideas. To acknowledge their epic 50-year milestone and contributions to travel and creativity, we sat down with Tony Wheeler to uncover his favourite travel stories — including a tour through the houses of Ernest Hemingway in Havana, Bob Dylan in Hibbing, and Brett Whiteley in Sydney — his top on-the-road songs and places seen on a journey around over 100 countries, now shared with Exceptional ALIEN in our first ever Global Travel Playbook.
On the early days of Lonely Planet
What amuses me these days is, once upon a time, we had to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it. Then, a period of time passed, and everybody was using the books — you couldn't step into a cafe in Vietnam without seeing copies on every table around the place. We had too much influence, and everybody knew it. Now, it moved on again; you say Lonely Planet, and people say, 'Oh, yes, my parents used to use those.' And of course it's moved on. The world is digital these days; things aren't all in print anymore. They are still important, but they're not the only thing.
On your role in inspiring people to travel the world
You have to point people in the right direction a bit sometimes. I'll give them a little shove, but really, it's up to people themselves. I'm constantly amazed when I get somewhere. You may have driven there in a four-wheel drive, but then you turn around and see that they've got there on their bicycle, so you're put in your place pretty quickly.
On having visited over 100 countries
It depends on how you count them because there are a lot of places that I'd count as a country that aren't countries. I'm getting close to 200 if I count 30 or so, like the Falkland Islands, French Polynesia, Gibraltar, Taiwan and other places that aren't technically United Nations countries. There are the "list tickers" who want to go to every country on Earth — I know a fair few of those people who spent a lot of time travelling. They're constantly on the road, in which case, I'm way behind them. And there are the "every country counters". They get really mundane about it, 'Did I go there if I was only at the airport?' No, you did not. 'Do I have to spend the night there?' No, because you go to the Vatican City and don't stay overnight unless the Pope invites you. So it's an open question.
On how to get around Sydney
Sydney is a great city for walking because you've got the harbour there. One of the walks I've done a number of times and always recommend to people is the walk along the North Shore of the Harbour. Take a bus or taxi out to the Spit Bridge, and then you can walk along the harbourside all the way to Manly — go surfing there if you like, or you can get the ferry back from Manly to the centre of Sydney. Along the way, on that little walk, you pass through some suburbs, you go by some beaches, and there are also places where you can look back right down the harbour to the city. You can find some Aboriginal artwork carved into the stone if you know where to look, and you're in the city limits of Sydney. I find that delightful and astonishing.
‘You can find some Aboriginal artwork carved into the stone if you know where to look, and you're in the city limits of Sydney. I find that delightful and astonishing.’
On Sydney’s colour and the life of a well-known local artist
If there's a colour for Sydney, it has to be blue, the blue harbour, and I always think of the artist Brett Whiteley — who was a rock star artist and had a rock star style death from a heroin overdose. You can go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and see some of his work; like The Balcony 2 (1975) — it's all blue. You can also go to his studio, which they've kept open. You can walk there from the centre of Sydney. It looks like he just turned off his tools, went to shoot up and died — he didn't die there though; he died in a hotel. Another great place to go to is Lavender Bay, where Bretty Whitley lived, and his wife Wendy is still there. That was where he looked out across the bay to Sydney and painted numerous Lavender Bay paintings, and blue was the colour they all were. So yeah, I do a bit of walking, and I do a bit of Brett Whiteley chasing when I'm in Sydney.
On Hemingway's story in Havana
I love places like Hemingway's place [Finca Vigia] in Havana; you go to Hemingway's bedroom there, and his typewriter is on the bookshelf so he could hop out of bed and knock off another chapter of The Old Man and the Sea, crossing out all the adjectives as he didn't like them. Places where people did things are always fascinating. It's one of the things to experience if you are in Havana. You can see Hemingway's boats out in the shed and the swimming pool where Ava Gardner swam nude. There's a fair bit of story in Havana with Hemingway's connections. You can drink at the bar [El Floridita] where he drank — there's a bronze statue in there, so you can front up to the bar next to Ernest. I really enjoyed Cuba — both the good and bad sides to it.
On places you always return to
I've been back to Nepal many times because of the walking. And I haven't been in Nepal for five years at least, but I probably will go again in the next few years. It's like how they say of London, 'When you're tired of London, you're tired of life.' [Samuel] Johnson said it, and we could say the same about India. If you're tired of India, you're tired of life.
On what makes Nepal so special
One of the standard lines about Nepal and anybody who goes there comes back parroting this, 'The big attraction was the walks; I was there in the Himalaya or Everest or walked around the Annapurna, and saw this and that mountain.' And it's true — getting up on cold Himalayan mornings and pulling the tent flap back with it all there right in front of you — it's fabulous. But the thing that people really love about Nepal is the people because they are pushed up against people. You're meeting the people walking with you on your track, staying in the little guest houses in the mountains or passing people on the trails. It's the people that really make Nepal the place that it is.
On a favourite spot to exprience art in London
In London, I'd recommend the National Portrait Gallery — that would be the first one. But come on, the British Library is great, the British Museum, they're all good. I've been to the Tate Modern only once this year, and there are a lot of other galleries and things to see as well.
‘I'd recommend the National Portrait Gallery — that would be the first one. But come on, the British Library is great, the British Museum, they're all good.’
On stepping into Bob Dylan's house in Hibbing
I've had a pilgrimage experience in the last 12 months, and certain things only happen to you when you go to a place. You don't read about them in the book, listen to a podcast, or watch a YouTube video. Actually going to the place makes all the difference. I drove from Milwaukee to Winnipeg with a friend, a British journalist, and then he had to go back to London, and I carried on down to Fargo, North Dakota. We drove to Duluth, where Bob Dylan was born and went by his house, which he lived in when he was one to six. Then we drove through Hibbing, where he grew up, and went to the house where he lived from when he was six to 16 — when he left to become, no longer Robert Zimmerman, but Bob Dylan. So we drove by the house and stopped, and this old guy was mowing the lawn; we got talking to him and discovered that he owned the house, and after about five minutes of talking, he invited us to come in and look around. And I thought, 'Jesus, that wouldn't happen to you if you hadn't just driven by and stopped outside Bob Dylan's house.' Then we're shown around Bob's bedroom, the laundry chute where he'd put his dirty clothes down and his mother washed them — and he mentions that in one of his books. I love that. That was a high point of last year's travels.
On unexpected findings along the way in Eau Claire
We had another funny experience the day before that stop in Hibbing, Minnesota. We were thinking about where we were going to stay that night. Simon was driving at this point, and I was looking at the new Lonely Planet USA guide that wasn't even available in the States yet, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, popped up. A little box text about Eau Claire said people were comparing it to a smaller version of Portland, Oregon, or Austin, Texas. So we decided to stay in Eau Claire that night. There was a hotel called The Oxbow Hotel; I looked it up and booked two rooms. The website said, 'Here we are in trendy Eau Claire, Wisconsin. We're a hotel with a hipster vibe.' And a bit further down, it also said, 'We offer senior discounts.' You get those two together so rarely, so when you combine the hipster vibe with the senior discount, it's great. Every room had a vinyl record player and a little vinyl library at the reception. You could check out three LPs, take them to your room, and play on the vinyl record player.
On incredible but overlooked places
I've always had good times in Africa. I was there twice last year — one of the trips was to Chad. I rather liked it there because people simply do not know about Chad and it's definitely not on the front of the wish list. I found it fascinating; it was one of the most interesting places I've ever visited. Then in Nigeria Lagos may not be one of the world's most comfortable cities, but it's certainly one of the world's megacities. And, again, not often visited. I lived in Karachi, Pakistan, as a very small child for several years, and I've been back more recently. Karachi is also definitely a fascinating megacity. There's a wonderful book called How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. It's a great title and a very nice novel. It's written like it should be a how-to-do-it manual, but it's a novel, and it's really a love letter to Karachi, even though the country Pakistan and the city that it's set in Karachi are never mentioned in the whole book. But if you know Pakistan and Karachi, you know what he's writing about. That is a book that I love, and it did a lot for me.
On literature inspiring travel
Fascinating countries generate interesting travel, writing and filmmaking. Congo is full of it — right back to Heart of Darkness or Poisonwood Bible, A Bend in the River. How many great novels have been written about the Congo? I've only been there once; I found it really, really interesting. On the other hand, it's a country where I spend a lot of time looking over my shoulder, which is not normal. But If you delve into books about travel, there are all sorts of fascinating titles, and you think, 'God, how the hell did they do that? It generates so much interest. Places like that are always interested to have more visitors.
‘That's one of the real virtues of travel, that you do encounter the kindness of strangers all the time.’
On a place you haven't delved into and want to go next
Algeria. I've been to everywhere else across the region — I spent time in Libya and Morocco, enough to travel around a bit, but not long enough to get any handle on it. But I've never been to Algeria, and that's got a lot of interest, from the city of Algiers to the Roman ruins along the coast and Algerian desert — part of the Sahara.
On one piece of advice for travellers
In the next lifetime, the thing I'm going to concentrate on is learning more languages. I'm not a good linguist at all. I really envy people who are great linguists, and I don't put enough effort into it. I feel a bit embarrassed because I've had the opportunity to be better at it, and I haven't been.
On connecting with other travellers
People are friendly, in general, and love horror stories — they're constantly worrying about getting ripped off or having something stolen. You don't have to travel long until you get pickpocketed or something. I've only once had a knife held to me and that was in Colombia, and I handed my bag over right away, but far more of the time, you experience the kindness of strangers, and people always have stories about the good things that happened to them when they were travelling, and people help them out. That's one of the real virtues of travel, that you do encounter the kindness of strangers all the time.
On what you always have on your carry-on
I like having my laptop because I can't read my handwriting. And I like to get things down. I am always writing notes in my notebook. But I'm not happy until it's been taken out of the notebook and down on my laptop. I'm really unhappy if I travel with more than carry-ons. I have this 17-day trip coming up and I won't carry 17 days of clothes with me. I will be washing clothes as I go along.
On a window or aisle seat
I can't imagine going on a plane and not wanting the window seat. When you're going someplace, you want to see things, so then let's start by looking out the window. I'm glad lots of people don't want the window, but it's beyond my understanding.
On your favourite on-the-road classics
Quite a few years ago, Rough Guides did a little book of playlists. I did the on-the-road playlist for them, and it was kind of fun. I came up with ten records: there's Coney Island, Van Morrison, Jackson Brown also has a number of on-the-road songs, which certainly fit the bill.