The face behind Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler chats with Shikha Kumar about travelling with a tight pocket and never tiring of India
In 1972, just days after graduating, Tony Wheeler and wife Maureen set off on their Asia Overland Trip. Starting from London, the young couple aimed to go all the way down to Australia via Europe and Asia. It took them six months to complete their journey and eventually arrived at Sydney a day after Christmas. The experience of travelling over half the world with hardly any money kindled such a fierce desire for travel that the appropriately named Wheelers haven’t stopped since. “We set off with the intention that we’d go around the world in a year. It’s been 40 years now,” says Tony.
It was quite a brave decision to forsake the safety of a job and embark on a vagabond lifestyle.“When we arrived at Sydney Maureen asked me how much money we had left, I put my hand in my pocket and 27 cents was all I had,” he says. Tony sold his camera for $20 and with that meagre amount they rented a hotel room for a week, bought some food. Maureen got a job with a local cafe. “When young people are focused on doing something, money is not so important,” asserts Tony.
That first trip had changed their lives. For the Wheelers, there was no going back home. But they soon realised, that they needed money to fund their travelling lifestyle. People they had met in Sydney seemed very curious about the logistics of their trip, so Tony and Maureen decided to write a book about it. They called it Across Asia on the Cheap, the book flew off bookshelves in Sydney within a week. “The books then became a way of travelling, in the future, they inspired the travel.”
Even as we chat within the plush confines of a conference room at a five star hotel, Tony emphasises the importance of experiencing life on the streets while travelling on a budget. “Wherever you travel, talk to the people on the streets, find out what the street food is...in the Lonely Planet guides, we show people how to make the most of the money they have,” he says.
Tony says that some of his best travel experiences have been with his children. He remembers a trip to Luxor in Egypt when his kids were very young. After seeing the Valley of the Kings, Tony and Maureen decided to walk to the Valley of the Nobles, which was over a hill. Their kids were tired and hesitant, but Tony insisted they walk. “We walked up the hill and sat down to wait for the kids. Imagine our surprise when they came up on donkeys.”. The kids struck a deal with a man who was going down the hill with his donkeys. “My son even said ‘Dad he asked for four Egyptian pounds, but I beat him down to three.’”
Tony waxes lyrical when asked about his experiences in India. “They used to say about London hundreds of years ago..when you tire of London, you tire of life. You can say the same about India. There is so much variety, that it makes India a very exciting place.” His advice to aspiring travellers is simple. “Go! That’s the one word. One thing people always find when they do go is that it’s easier than what they expected and it’s better than they expected.”