Once described as “The trailblazing patron saint of the world’s backpackers and adventure travellers,” Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet guides hasn’t stopped travelling since he sold the company. He has a fascination with Bad Lands, Dark Lands (the titles of two of his books) and edgy travel. He was recently in Bali for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and the pre-festival Komodo National Park cruise in partnership with Seatrek Sailing Adventures aboard the traditional pinisi schooner, Katharina. Here he imparted some of the wisdom he has learned along the road.
WHAT I FIND MOST FUN ABOUT WRITING BOOKS IS TALKING ABOUT THEM.
I enjoy telling stories and talking. I have plenty of funny stories, but I soon learn what works and what doesn’t, so I refine them. Whenever I write a new book, it’s not about the prestige of getting it published, I just want it out there so that I can talk about it.
I’VE ALWAYS BEEN INTERESTED IN AVIATION.
Inspired by The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux’s account of his epic train journey through Asia, I decided to write something along the lines of ‘The Great Airline Bazaar,’ which will hopefully be published soon. Earlier this year I left London Gatwick on an EasyJet flight and I flew to Marseilles, where I spent a couple of nights, and then I took the other famous low cost airline in Europe, Ryan Air, and flew to Rome. Altogether I took 24 budget airline flights from London to Melbourne, visiting some of the world’s most interesting cities – Athens, Istanbul, Kuwait, Kolkata, Bangkok – to name just a few. I never flew more than a couple of hours at a time and I stopped for a day or two in each place, giving myself enough time in each city to look around. All of the airlines, including Pegasus the Turkish airline, and the Indian Airline, Spice Jet, were pretty good, none of my flights were delayed too much, and I never had to wait for baggage because I only took carryon. The book also looks back at the history of air travel and the rapid growth of budget airlines and some of the characters that started them.
THE LAST TIME I VISITED KOMODO WAS IN 1974.
It was at a time when everyone knew about the Komodo dragons but tourists were few and far between. We chartered a boat from Labuan Bajo, and went directly to Komodo village where our boatman found someone who was willing to take us to an area where we could see dragons. I think as we were coming back to the boat we also encountered a dragon on the beach. We later did some snorkelling and we spent the night on a pink sand beach, which must have been Pantai Merah before it became famous. We then sailed on to Sumbawa where travel became easier because there was a regular shipping service from Sumbawa to Lombok. On Lombok, I remember that although there were some hotels in Ampenan, there were no tourist hotels and no beach resorts, and the Gili Islands hadn’t yet been “discovered”.
I’M ATTRACTED TO RUINS PORN.
There are now regular tours of Chernobyl, and I know a few people who have been there – although you can’t stay for very long. I have always been fascinated by deserted places; places that have gone backwards and Chernobyl is clearly one of them. The Congo is another place, full of towns that flourished under the Belgians, which have now gone back to the jungle. I went to Bougainville (Papua New Guinea) a couple of years ago and I went up to the big copper mine at Panguna, which was abandoned in 1990 when the civil war broke out. There’s this whole mining town full of five-storey apartment blocks where the miners all lived, as well as an outdoor Olympic-sized swimming pool and a cinema and a shopping centre, all taken over by the jungle. The swimming pool is empty and there are trees growing up through it. The cinema has burnt down, the roof has fallen in but the seats are still there, all charred and black. Yes, it’s bizarre because there was so much money there at one stage, but it’s like Chernobyl where there was a really quick desertion – very different to the 1,000-year-old ruins we find on archaeological sites.
I WOULD LIKE TO VISIT YEMEN.
It’s been on my list for far too long and I’ve just never managed to get there. Every time I’ve had a vague plan to visit, Yemen has been in the sort of situation that it’s in right now, when it’s clearly impossible to go there if you want to live – and I do want to live.
MY GREATEST HOBBY IS TRAVEL
It’s not just the travel; it’s all the stuff that’s associated with it: food, books, history, people and cultures, scuba diving, boats and aviation – that’s why travel is my passion.