No such thing as a holiday for Lonely Planet pair

Maureen and Tony Wheeler have backpacked around the world several times over but for them there is no such thing as a holiday.

That’s not surprising when their business is travel; specifically, travel on the cheap.

As the names behind the hugely successful Lonely Planet travel guides, the Wheelers—now in their 50s—are as peripatetic as ever, spending six months of the year away from home on their lifelong working holiday.

“There are never trips we do that we don’t get caught up [in business],” Tony said in an interview in Hong Kong.

“You do get tired, but you have to do it. I can’t complain,” adds Maureen.

For the past 30 years the Wheelers have been the last name in backpacking, travelling light on a shoestring.

From their earliest hand-written guide to south-east Asia in the 1970s, they have built a sprawling empire dedicated to opening up the furthest corners of the globe.

The Lonely Planet brand has flourished as the free and independent traveller market has boomed in the past few decades.

Underpinning its success has been its meticulous updated research, nowadays carried out by a battery of freelance writers, but in earlier days performed by the Tony and Maureen themselves.

“After a while, we thought this is crazy,” said Tony during a stop-off in Hong Kong.

“So we used other writers more, deliberately to stop ourselves from going back to the same place,” he said from a hotel room facing the famous Victoria Harbour.

Despite spending most of the time on the road, their enthusiasm for travelling hasn’t been dampened.

Just this year, the couple together went to more than 15 places including Paris, Britain, Thailand, Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, Italy, the United States and Denmark for promotional work, office visits, nights out at the opera or visits to aid workers in earthquake-affected areas of Kashmir.

Before they came to Asia, they went on a 13-day walking trip covering 300km from the Irish Sea coast to the North Sea coast.

They already have plans for next year: Mongolia, and an Africa trip going from England to Gambia, passing through France, Spain, Morocco and Senegal.

“We’re quite relaxed about not being in any place for long although Maureen is always happy to get back from a long trip and I’m always looking forward to the next trip,” said Tony (59).

These days, their travel is dedicated more to business promotion and currently they are trekking the world promoting The Lonely Planet Story, a memoir that tells not only the tale of the guide books but also relates some of their experiences.

“When we first went travelling, although we were really broke I can remember virtually every day because we did something new,” Maureen said.

“When travelling, you are always alive. You also learn about yourself,” the 56-year-old mother of two added.

Although they have left their footprints in a large part of the world, Maureen did not travel much before the couple met.
Maureen was born in Belfast and went to London to get a job that would allow her to see the world.

The then 20-year-old was trained as a shorthand typist because her mother thought being a secretary was “just about as good as it gets”.

Three days after arriving in London, she met the “really cute” young Australian Tony, already a keen traveller, on a park bench in London.

Two years later and just married, the penniless couple set out on a year-long journey going overland across Europe and Asia. When they arrived in Sydney, they only had 27 cents left.

But after being asked many questions about their trip, they decided to write it all down at their kitchen table and published their first book in 1973, Across Asia on the Cheap.

Another trip, 18 months in South-east Asia, resulted in their second guide, South-east Asia on a Shoestring.

More than three decades later, Lonely Planet publishes more than 650 titles in 118 countries and employs more than 150 authors. Tony is currently working on a book on war-torn Afghanistan.

As much as they like exploration, they have their concerns about the future of travelling with a potential flood of tourists from India and China—the world most populous countries with almost a third of humanity—threatening to choke markets.

“There are too many people in the world; a proportion of them who want to and can afford to travel, I think that’s absolutely great,” Maureen said.

But when tourists have to book a year in advance to visit some US state parks, she said, “I wonder if tourism would actually become a much more managed activity.”

“It’s inevitable that the sheer numbers of potential travellers in China and India [will have an impact]. I just don’t know how that can work. Something will have to change,” Tony said.

For now, Tony and Maureen’s love for adventure means they will continue to spend the rest of their lives on the road.

“I’m not going to live forever, unfortunately. But at the moment I want to carry on travelling for a while yet,” Tony said.

“There are still many places we can go to. There’s no shortage of great places but there is a shortage of time,” he added.—AFP

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