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Travel far, travel long

Tony WheelerTony Wheeler’s guide to travelling far, travelling long. From Coventry to Cairo, Gibbet Hill to Jerusalem, travel has been a way of life for Tony Wheeler (BSc Engineering science 1965-68) since leaving Warwick. As co-founder of the Lonely Planet series of guide books, there are not many places that Tony hasn’t visited over the last 40 years. Here he suggests where you should go and how you should get there.

I was at Warwick on the first day, one of around 300 first year students who turned up at the brand new campus on Gibbet Hill road in late 1965. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the best lessons I would take away from university were not from classrooms or lecture theatres. Engineering was interesting, and I found the business studies option so inspiring that a couple of years later i did an MBA. The important learning curve, however, was after hours.

I worked on the original staff of the University newspaper that we nonchalantly named Giblet, a sophomoric pun on its university address. My newspaper enthusiasm probably went a little too far in my first year. Giblet consumed so many hours that I failed some of my end-of-year exams and had to re-sit them, only narrowly scraping back onto the course.

I went from Rootes Hall to the Rootes Car Company in Coventry, although my first job soon ended in redundancy. The company, already stumbling before Chrysler Corporation briefly resuscitated it, took another downhill plunge. I briefly swapped the Coventry office for a spell running a go-kart track at Worthing, before going back to study at the London Business School.

Two years later, my wife Maureen and I decided to take a year off, travel around the world and ‘get travel out of our systems’. Today we’d call it a gap year and it was an experience that has made me a firm believer in the virtues of the concept. Fortunately, or unfortunately, our gap year has stretched so far that it’s become a lifetime.

In a beat-up old car we’d bought for £65, Maureen and I drove across Europe and then Asia, all the way to Afghanistan. We carried on by bus, train and just about every other form of transport until we hitched a ride on a yacht from Bali and arrived, near penniless, in Australia. By the time we’d hitchhiked from our Australian landfall south to Perth, and then a few thousand miles more east to Sydney, we were even closer to the breadline. when Maureen asked how much money we had when we reached Sydney on Boxing Day in 1972, I was able to fish just 27 cents out of my pocket.

Fortunately I still had my camera, which netted us 20 dollars at a pawn shop. we soon had jobs, a rented basement flat, another beat-up old car (my engineering skills would prove useful during that year) and then, suddenly and surprisingly, we had a business as well. in 1973, my Warwick publishing experience helped us produce a guidebook – we’d invented Lonely Planet Publications.

On that first ‘big trip’ across asia i was in my 20s and although more decades have swished by than i care to remember, i still love travel. Despite the negative publicity travel often gets these days, i’m a firm believer that the plus points of travel – from international understanding to kick-starting developing economies – can far outweigh the downside.

So, if i was choosing where to go for each decade since i left warwick, what would i suggest?

20s – travel ‘big’ – sure the whirlwind trip is a cliché, one of those ‘it was Thursday, it must have been Berlin (or Boston or Bangkok)’ expeditions, but when you first set out there’s so much to see, so why not make a meal of it? Later on you can come back to concentrate on the places you discovered you really liked. if you’re going to see all of europe, all of south-east Asia, all of South America, perhaps now is the time to do it.

30s – travel with kids – some of the best travels in my 30s were with our kids. Children can be amazing door-openers. You are suddenly transformed from just another tourist to a real human being. some of our best child-friendly trips were safari trips in Africa, walking trips in the Himalayas and outback trips in Australia.

40s – travel far, travel long – maybe this is the time to set out on those longer or more time-consuming trips: the coast-to-coast car trip across the United States, travelling around Africa in a Land-rover or a month at a language school in the south of France finally getting your French to work. Perhaps take an adult gap year?

50s – travel adventurously – we did those things when we were younger, but these days age limits don’t seem to apply. I’ve done lots of walking trips in the Himalayas, but I didn’t get up to the Everest base camp until i was in my 50s. I joined an adventurous group to follow Shackleton’s walk across the sub-antarctic island of South Georgia in that decade as well.

More recently, Maureen and I joined the ‘drive an old car to west Africa’ gang on the Plymouth-Banjul challenge.

60s – travel bizarre – for me the 60s look like they might be the years to travel bizarrely. I recently wrote a book called Bad Lands about my travels to countries which, for an assortment of reasons, have been labelled as pariah nations – from Afghanistan to Cuba, Burma to Iran, Libya to North Korea. In fact, none of them turned out to be as bad as their reputations, and the whole project was such an eye opener that I’ve already starting visiting more countries with troubled backgrounds, including Haiti and Colombia.