How I Travel: Tony Wheeler

TONY WHEELER: THE ICONIC WANDERER

It could easily be argued that Tony Wheeler is in the running for ‘Most Influential Traveler Alive.’ In 1972 he and his wife Maureen co-founded Lonely Planet—now the largest guidebook publisher in the world. Their books are user friendly, thoroughly researched and encourage pragmatic and conscious tourism. They’re also immensely popular—the company currently offers more than 500 titles.

Before Lonely Planet was a publishing giant, it was just Tony, Maureen and a typewriter. And before they were ready to write that first book, they had to travel. A lot. That passion to explore still burns brightly for both of the Wheelers. In fact, Tony was in transit when he made time to speak with How I Travel this week. Read on to hear Tony’s thoughts on appropriate road attire, what sparks his wanderings and why he’s sure to pack novels along with his guidebooks.


I spent from age 1 to 5 in Karachi, Pakistan and some of those childhood memories are still crystal clear.

Going out with my father on sailing dhows in the harbor and lowering a piece of string down to catch crabs which we cooked on the deck. And damn me 15 years ago (when Karachi was not exactly a safe place to visit) I went back there, walked down to the harbor and 10 minutes later I was out on a sailing dhow and pulling in crabs on a piece of string. “This,” I thought, “is amazing.”

Travel is the only way we get a wider perspective on the world.

It’s the only way we meet each other and realize we’re all traveling on the same planet.

I’m a vagabond, an elite traveler, a foodie, a culture seeker and an animal tracker.

I hate to be typecast and I have a very short attention span. 24 hours of vagabonding and I need a spell in a 5-star hotel, 24 hours later I want the opposite extreme.

From my hotel window right now I can see the replica of Captain Cook’s ship the Endeavour in Sydney Harbor.

Now Cook and Banks, my two heroes off that original ship, were sailing into the complete unknown. Every encounter was one of the third kind, something totally new. Every time I think about Cook’s first circumnavigation I am blown away with admiration. And jealousy.

Sometimes a trip starts with just one picture, one image, even one taste or one smell.

You get a whiff of that aroma and you want to go there. I only have to smell kretek cigarettes and I’m up for another trip to Indonesia (and I don’t smoke). Retsina does the same for Greece.

My travel list which sadly (or perhaps not so sadly?) I will never get to the bottom of, is what keeps me on the road.

Some trips I’ve read extensively and know exactly what I want out of a place.

Other times I have no idea and every experience is a new one.

I always carry a guidebook.

And sometimes much more than a guidebook, some of the best books about places are novels. Want the flavor of Congo? Read Poisonwood Bible.

Street food is probably safer than some 5-star hotel buffet where things have been sitting and festering for hours.

I have to admit…

I have a hopeless sense of direction.

My favorite travel movie is Pasolini’s great film Arabian Nights (1974).

See it and you immediately want to go to Iran, Ethiopia and Yemen – what a travel list!

Bangladesh definitely deserves to be a more popular destination than it is.

When I arrive I go out and walk the streets…

that’s the only way you get a handle on how a place works.

Learn to say please, thank you and a few other key words.

I find ‘a cold beer please’ really helps too.

I won’t leave home without my laptop, my passport and a credit card.

Anything else I can pick up along the way.

Singapore turns out really specific taste treats that I love going back for.

Want a south Indian vegetarian thali? Try Komala Vilas. Hainanese chicken rice (the signature dish of Singapore)? Try Yet Con, nothing has changed since 1940 when it opened for business. A north Indian briyani? Singapore is the place.

My travel shortcoming?

Impatience.

When I get home I head to the E Lounge in Richmond (an inner city part of Melbourne).

They do Roman-style pizzas (i.e. thin crust) which would make the cut in Rome. Weirdly, it’s on a street known (to Melbournians) as ‘little Saigon’ because it’s wal-to-wall Vietnamese restaurants.

My favorite mode of transport is my feet.

Followed by bicycle. You won’t see me on a tour bus.

Back in the 1970s I was amazed over and over again how you could find a beautiful hotel room (simple, spartan but done with style and grace) in Indonesia for a dollar a night.

The nicest hotels are in Indonesia too. Ubud in Bali to be specific. Where else can you find a room with a swimming pool? Or a Hindu temple?

Check out Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree

when you’re not on BootsnAll.

I have no desire to visit any casino.

Apart from perhaps Monte Carlo.

There are heaps of cities where I find myself going round and round in circles until suddenly I think “oh, here I am.”

Once on Niue Island I got hopelessly lost even though I knew within 100 yards exactly where I was, I just could not find a way through the tangled undergrowth and razor sharp ‘makatea’ rocks to the path.

When I see fellow travelers behaving and dressing like rude idiots, I think: “you wouldn’t behave like that at home, why do it when you’re overseas?”

Or “you wouldn’t dress like a slob if you were visiting your grandmother, why turn up in some country where politeness and appropriate behavior is part of the picture with something rude and dumb written across your T-shirt?” There have been people where I would just love their grandmother to suddenly materialize and slap them across the face.

The most amazing travel experiences are the ones where you come away thinking “why have I never heard of that or never seen a picture of that before?”

I mean the Taj, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty are all great icons, but they’re no surprise. In recent years Tsaparang in western Tibet blew me away. Ditto for the great stone Buddhist stupa of Takht-e-Rustam in…wait for it::: Afghanistan.

The best beach I’ve ever seen was Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka in 1979.

Sometimes it’s wonderful to know where you’re going to end up that night, hey it’s late, you’re beat, it’s a relief to know that comfortable hotel will be waiting for you.

But more often the real thrill of travel is not knowing where you’ll end up. One of the best trips I’ve done (in the civilized world) was a month kicking around the south of France (very civilized) where virtually nothing was planned. One day lunch took so long (enjoyably so) that we thought, hell, let’s just stay the night here.

I love travel because you may be uncomfortable, hungry, hot and sweaty, cold and shivering…

but damn it, you will never be bored.

Check out Tony’s blog on the Lonley Planet Website. You can also keep up to date with his travels by following the Lonely Planet Twitter feed and ‘liking’ them on Facebook.

“How I Travel” is a new BootsnAll series publishing every Tuesday in an effort to look at the unique and diverse travel habits of some of the world’s most well known and proficient road warriors. Got ideas for who we should talk to? Drop us a note.

You’ll find links to all the “How I Travel” articles on the How I Travel archive page, you can become a fan of “How I Travel” on Facebook, and you can follow the @howitravel profile on Twitter to get updates as soon as new features in this series are published.

all photographs provided by Tony Wheeler & Lonely Planet and may not be used without permission

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Older comments on How I Travel: Tony Wheeler

jim humberd
16 November 2010

You ain’t seen nothing yet until you have traveled 87,000 miles and spent over 600 nights in 28 European Countries, in your RV.

See about 1,000 photos, over 1,000 stories, 11 books, and more at http://www.Travel-Tidbits.com

Ahi Kerp
21 November 2010

So cool to here that he’s still living the life. And Richmond is the best part of an already incredible city…it must make it hard to want to leave.

gomadnomad
03 December 2010

Visiting Bangladesh is good advice.