This month, as part of NOW! Jakarta's 'Wanderlust' theme for September, we caught up with one of the most travelled men in the world. We're talking about none other than Tony Wheeler, the cofounder of Lonely Planet, the world's largest travel guidebook publishers. He opened up to us about his life as a traveller, a writer and also his appearance in this year's Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF), South East Asia's largest literary festival, set for the 26-30 October 2016.
Hi Tony, it is a great pleasure to have in our magazine! The Lonely Planet was started in the early 70's based on your and your wife's long journey from Europe to Australia. Tell us what encouraged you to go on that long trip, considering travelling back then was not as popular as it is today?
It was an era for that sort of travel, the post war baby boomers (like me) coming of age, the arrival of jumbo jets making long distance travel easier, and lots of interest in Asia – the Beatles going to India, that sort of thing. The route across Asia, London to Kathmandu and then on down to Bali was known as ‘the hippie trail’ and last year I did a BBC radio programme about it. Later this year I’m doing a talk at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London about the hippie trail as well. I did an Australian ABC radio programme 10 years ago about Australians visiting Bali and talked about the three reasons they started visiting Bali in larger numbers from the late 1960s, after the Sukarno era: 1. Balinese art and culture, 2. surfing, 3. it was on the hippie trail.
How are you keeping busy these days?
I engage in all sorts of things. Besides the UWRF, I’m also speaking at a travel conference in China the week before Ubud and then other events in London and San Francisco after UWRF. Plus I’m on the board of Global Heritage Fund, which works on archaeological sites in assorted countries (Colombia, Guatemala, Cambodia, China, Turkey, etc). And I’m writing a book on the Islands of Australia for the Australian National Library. And there’s the Planet Wheeler Foundation.
Do you still get the same buzz out of travelling?
I definitely still get a buzz out of travelling. Going back to familiar places (like Ubud) is always great and this year I’ve been back to Italy, France, the USA, Cuba and Guatemala, but I’ve also been to new countries including Panama where I travelled through the Panama Canal and the Ukraine where I went to Chernobyl.
What skills, besides travel writing, have you picked up from being on the road so much?
I’d say patience? The expectation that things will not go as you planned or expected is important.
In your opinion, what makes a great travel story?
It’s the story that can take you to somewhere unexpected or which for you is an unknown. Even more important is if the story makes you think ‘I want to go there!’
This year at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, you’ll be on a panel session reflecting on ‘tethered’ travel, discussing whether technology and infrastructure have meant nothing is surprising or spontaneous anymore. How do you think travel is changing and can we still find places that are really ‘new’?
Technology certainly makes finding and booking things much easier, but I don’t necessarily think that makes travel less surprising or spontaneous. For an islands of Australia project I’m involved in for example, I was researching the Houtman Abrolhos Islands where the Dutch ship Batavia was wrecked en route to Jakarta (or Batavia as it was then) in 1629. Thanks to technology, within minutes I found that it’s possible to visit the islands and I was immediately thinking ‘well, I should go there.’
How often do you go to Bali and what do you like the most about the island?
When I was working on the LP guidebooks through the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was a regular visitor to Bali and travelled all over the island. Then I had a long spell in the ‘90s when I didn’t visit Bali at all. Now I’m a regular visitor again, 10 times in the past 10 years, but generally just to Ubud and often for the writers’ festival. This year I’m going to arrive a few days early and do some scuba diving, but like many visitors I like many different things about the island – the music, the art, the food, the beaches, the temples and the activities. In recent years I’ve done bicycle trips, white water rafting and even climbed Mount Agung.
Is there any place in Indonesia you would like to explore in the future and why?
Last year, before the writers festival, I went on Janet DeNeefe’s (UWRF founder) Komodo Islands trip with SeaTrek and the idea of going further afield by boat really appealed. Scuba diving in the Maluku Islands perhaps?
What advice would you like to give to young travellers today?
‘Just Go,’ as we used to say on the Lonely Planet guides, is still good advice. And getting a little outside your comfort zone, being a little adventurous is never a bad idea!
Thanks Tony, look forward to seeing you at this year's festival!
Southeast Asia’s biggest literary festival, Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) is returning on 26-30 October 2016 with yet more local and international authors (including Tony Wheeler), artists, performers and advocates from all around the world, all eager to share ideas, words and inspiration altogether while immersing in Ubud’s scenic surroundings.
Tony Wheeler will be appearing in "Tethered Travel", a main program a part of the UWRF this year. Want to see Tony Wheeler live? Find out more here: www.ubudwritersfestival.com/program/tethered-travel/ .
The full line-up, program and tickets to the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (26-30 October) are now available via www.ubudwritersfestival.com.