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Unlikely Destinations: The Story of Lonely Planet

"In this autobiography, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, creators of the Lonely Planet, describe their first trip from London to Australia and the creation of their publications. It is an incredibly fascinating story. This couple lives the kind of life most people dream of living. And I found their story truly inspiring." --Renee Estey


Once in Australia

Even now, more than thirty years later, I can almost recount day by day what we did during the last six months of 1972. How often in life is every day lit up so vividly? Most of the time we’re lucky to be able to tell one year from another.

We were having such an amazing time; there was no way we were going to rush back to Europe and into the nine-to-five routine. Even before we arrived in Sydney it was clear to us that this was no longer a one-year trip around the world. Three years seemed a much more sensible time span.

Instead of working to save enough money for a few month’s travel on our way back to Europe, we decided to spend a whole year in Australia and save enough for another year’s travel. We’d explore some of those places in Southeast Asia which we’d scurried through in our rush to get to Australia before our dollars disappeared. Then we’d go to Japan; maybe we’d buy a motorcycle there and take it to the United States, perhaps we’d even get down to South America.

We knuckled down to saving money, living on one salary and saving the other. Our bank balance put on weight even faster when we started after-hours on door-to-door market research projects for a North Sydney company.

That still left us time to explore Sydney, nurse our ancient car down to Melbourne and back, and rack up many miles of bushwalking in the wonderful national parks which border Sydney to the north and south and in the Blue Mountains on the inland side. We even managed a skiing trip to Thredbo in the Snowy Mountains.

The Idea for a Guidebook

Soon after our arrival in Sydney we went to a slide show put on by a recent visitor to Iran and met two couples, Dave and Jane Shaw and Tony and Lena Cansdale, who have remained friends ever since.

Casual meetings like this were to have a life-changing effect on us. Every time we went to a party or met people at a work function, questions would come up about our trip to Australia. How did we do it? How much did it cost? What’s Bali like? Can you really hitch through Thailand? Are the trains in India as bad as they say? Is Afghanistan dangerous? Can you really get all the way to Europe by land?

We found ourselves scribbling down notes so often that we began to draw up lists of the most frequently needed responses. We began to think about selling this information instead of giving it away. Why didn’t we produce a collection of mimeographed notes on the overland trip? Those notes soon grew to more than a handful of pages and we began to think bigger.

‘Why don’t we write a guidebook?’ I suggested to Maureen one evening.

‘But how would we find a publisher?’ she asked, sensibly.

‘We don’t need a publisher,’ I responded. ‘We can publish it ourselves. I know how to put a book together.’

This was almost true; the unofficial newspaper publishing course I’d spent far too much time on during my first year at university was about to pay off as we put together our first primitive book. On weekday evenings we wrote by hand and each Friday Maureen would borrow her office typewriter so we could work on the book over the weekend.

Victoria Street

At this time the battle to preserve Victoria Street in Sydney’s King Cross was an ongoing drama. Today Victoria Street is the center for young international backpackers, a strip of small hotels and hostels, travel agents, restaurants and traveler’s meeting places, populated by an ever-changing tribe of overseas visitors.

Back then it was a street of decaying Victorian houses threatened by a city government redevelopment plan. Lots of Sydneysiders objected to a swath of the city’s fine Victorian houses falling to the wreckers. The adjoining suburb of Paddington, where we lived, was a shining example of how beautiful those old houses could be, given a little love, attention and money.

On weekends, Victoria Street was the setting for a street fair and protest meetings. One Sunday we took a break from working on our guide and strolled over to see what was happening. Sitting on the curbside we saw a young guy with a sign that read ‘Traveler’s Notes to Indonesia’. We asked him about them.

‘I’ve traveled all over Indonesia,’ he explained, ‘and these are notes about how to do it. Where to go, where to stay how to get around the islands and from one to another. It’s an amazing place. I am going to make my notes into a book.’

‘That’s a real coincidence,’ I said. ‘We’re writing a book about our travels as well. We did the overland trip from London to Australia.’

The Indonesia information purveyor introduced himself as Bill Dalton and, of course, these notes were forerunner to his famous Indonesia Handbook. Bill beat us to the press with his first 32-page Moon Publications guidebook, typeset by Cathy Quinn at Tomato Press, a small counter-culture printing works on Glebe Point Road in the avant-garde suburb of Glebe. I can’t remember if Bill introduced us to Tomato Press or if we found our own way there, but soon Cathy was typesetting our book as well.

The Route to Publishing

Deciding to write a book and deciding to publish it ourselves was not totally one and the same decision. We did think about following the conventional route of taking our book to a publisher, but our initial enquiries didn’t generate much interest and we had to get our book out fast. We’d set early January 1974 as the departure date for the next leg of our trip and it was already August.

One other event inspired us to continue along the self-publishing route. I went in to Angus & Robertson on George Street, the biggest bookshop in Sydney at the time and still the largest. I spoke to John Merriman, manager in charge of the small travel section, and told him about the book I was planning to publish. He promised to take fifty copies.

Lonely Planet

Our proposed book was too big for Tomato Press’ small printing press, but they put us in touch with David Bisset who had a larger press in his basement and agreed to print 1500 copies. I drew maps of the countries we visited, crudely drew illustrations and we pasted up the typeset galleys to produce a book which came out to precisely ninety-six pages.

We needed two more things — a title for the book and a name for our fledgling publishing house. The title was easy; the book was about traveling across Asia on a tight budget, so we called it Across Asia on the Cheap.

Finding a name for our publishing house was less straightforward. We ran through dozens of names over bowls of spaghetti and glasses of cheap red wine in a small Italian restaurant on Oxford Street in Paddington before inspiration hit. I’d been humming a line from a Matthew Moore song ‘Space Captain’, sung by Joe Cocker in the classic rock and roll tour film Mad Dogs & Englishmen.

‘Once while traveling across the sky,’ I sang, ‘this lonely planet caught my eye.’

‘No,’ said Maureen, ‘you’ve got the words wrong. As usual. It’s lovely planet.’

She was right, I always got the words wrong, but lonely planet sounded much nicer. I sometimes wished we’d come up with a more business-like, more serious name, but it’s certainly a name people don’t forget.

Finally the sheets of our book were printed, but we’d only ordered the printing; turning the sheets into a finished book was our responsibility. We organized someone to fold the printed sheets into sixteen-page ‘signatures’ and these were delivered to our basement apartment.



We borrowed a foot-operated stapling machine from Tomato Press — it rode home in our convertible, peering over the windscreen. A weekend’s work collated the sections into books and Maureen and I stapled every copy. Then we ferried them round to Tomato Press’s office where we used their guillotine to hand trim the finished books.

Finally we had 1500 copies of our little baby-blue book stacked on the floor. Across Asia on the Cheap was ready to hit the shelves. I’d even drawn a logo, the words ‘lonely planet’ written in lowercase with a circle behind them. Which looks remarkably like it still does today.

Instant Publicity

I took a day off work and went to Angus & Robertson to fill that promised order for fifty copies. That may have been the biggest order, but by the end of the day I sold several hundred copies. Maureen followed up with the next bookshop circuit, including one very important sale to the New Edition bookshop in Paddington, a stone’s throw from our Oatley Road apartment.

The bookshop-owner’s girlfriend, Nancy Berryman, was a journalist. She wrote the very first story about Lonely Planet for the Sydney Sun-Herald. A review of our book followed in another Sydney newspaper and then we were invited to appear on a breakfast-time television program. This was a useful first lesson for us about the power of publicity.

Soon our book was not only on the shelves, but sitting by the cash register and in shop windows. Ten days after the review was printed we delivered the last of our 1500 copies and planned a reprint.

This time we printed 3500 copies and left the collating, stapling and trimming to the professionals. We also changed the cover to a glossy white one, since we discovered the blue one quickly got dirty.

We put quotes from our first review on the back cover. ‘If you’re thinking of going to Asia, do yourself a favor and buy this book. You’ll be glad you did,’ advised the Nation Review. ‘The hardest thing about making a trip like this is reaching the decision to go. I think even people who never work up the courage will enjoy the book,’ suggested the Sydney Morning Herald.

Most of the first batch had sold in Sydney; now we began to take our book further afield. I flew to Melbourne with two suitcases full of books, took the airport bus into the city, parked the suitcases in left luggage at the railway station, marched around the city bookshops in the morning taking orders and in the afternoon went back and forth to the railway station collecting books and delivering them. In the following weeks I used up more vacation days to repeat this technique in Adelaide and Brisbane, while Maureen made another trip to Melbourne to restock the shops there.

The Beginning of a New Book

Soon we were planning another 3500-copy reprint and the thought occurred to us that we could make a living out of this. Perhaps it was presumptuous to imagine we could go from that first little book to making travel publishing our livelihood. It’s more likely we simply thought that writing another book might help pay for more travel.

In any case, Across Asia had been a totally unplanned success; we certainly hadn’t set out from England thinking we were going to write a book about our adventures. But we did now wonder if we could repeat the act, this time with the intention of producing a book from the very start of a journey.

We looked north to Southeast Asia, at that time almost a terra incognita. It’s hard to imagine how little known the region was less than thirty-five years ago. Today Thailand is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, but in the early 1970s it was still stamping out a smoldering Communist insurgency and tourism meant R&R from the Vietnam War.

Singapore was newly independent, still vaguely exotic and taking the first initiative steps towards becoming today’s air-conditioned mega-city. Indonesia was emerging from the Soekarno years and was better known for burning down the British Embassy in Jakarta and threatening to invade Malaysia than for welcoming with open arms the tourists who would soon be flocking to Bali.

Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia may have been relative unknowns, but to Americans at the time the words Southeast Asia conjured up none of those names. Southeast Asia was synonymous with Vietnam, the site of a long, divisive and still unresolved war.

Given this unhappy background it was scarcely surprising that guidebooks to the region were nonexistent, but we sensed the situation might soon be changing. In the final month of our Asia trek we’d hurried through the region, our anorexic moneybelts dictating the rapid pace, but we’d witnessed Bangkok starting to substitute international backpackers for vacationing American soldiers.

We’d enjoyed the food and flavors of Singapore. We’d seen Bali when Kuta Beach was just the odd losmen (local hotel) dotted amongst the palm trees and rice paddies and visitors were mainly adventurous surfers. It was virgin territory and time somebody did a guidebook.

 ‘Let’s not just travel back to London,’ I ventured. ‘We could spend a year traveling around Southeast Asia and write a really good guidebook.’

‘OK,’ agreed Maureen, ever ready to join my mad plans, ‘but what do we do at the end of the year?’

‘I guess we’ll go back to London,’ I mused. ‘We don’t really need to make our minds up until the end of the year.’

So our plan was simple: We’d spend a year exploring the region and at the end we’d write the definitive guide. In December, we bought a used 250cc Yamaha DT2 trail bike, big enough to haul both of us around Southeast Asia, but small enough to load on and off the boats and even airfreight if necessary.

TAA (Trans-Australian Airlines), now the domestic wing of Qantas, operated flights between Darwin and Baucau in Portuguese Timor. I contacted the editor of their inflight magazine and he arranged to fly our motorcycle from Darwin to Timor in exchange for an article about traveling around the island...

[editor's note: Lonely Planet has published more than 80 million copies of their guidebooks.]



Read Renee Estey's story about Tony and Maureen Wheeler.


Buy This Book From Amazon Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story


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