Ask him about his hobbies and Tony Wheeler has to think hard. “Well, I did scuba dive in Papua New Guinea,” he says slowly. “Then, reading, yes. I read, mostly travel books.” Lonely Planet’s co-founder chases happiness over journeys, in wildernesses. He is constantly winding and unwinding from one excursion to the next, seeing the fun in the work and the work in the fun. Did we hear anyone over 65 was a senior citizen? Wheeler apparently didn’t. He is on the road most of the time and confesses to feeling more like an 18-year-old backpacker than a white-haired publishing honcho. “Someone offered me his seat in the Delhi metro once,” he laughs. “I refused politely.”
It’s not surprising that he doesn’t mind losing his way, Daniel Boone-style. The American traveller of the 1800s, when asked if he was ever lost, parried: “I have never been lost. I was just a bit bewildered for six weeks.” Wheeler appreciates the sensibility. Recently, he was marooned on the MakateaIsland in the Pacific, without water, for hours. “I parked my car and walked half a mile on a rocky coastline, and I clicked pictures,” he says. “Then it took me five hours to find the car.” Wheeler’s insouciance is not put-on — he is a full-blooded adventurer who enjoys talking about his Indian Ocean-to-Antarctica crossing. “For seven days while we were at sea, I did not see any other boat,” he remembers.
Dangerous places are like catnip for him. When George W Bush called Iraq-Afghanistan-North Korea the axis of evil in 2003, Wheeler’s first thought was “to get there!”, and his book on them he called Bad Lands. “I have had some good times in the so-called bad places,” he says. “North Korea is a strange country. Everything is make believe. You feel like you are on a movie set all the time.” The country is a rarity — someplace he may not want to visit again.
India, on the other hand, is special. Forty years ago, Wheeler set out from London in a car with his wife, with the intention of “going as far as it could take us.” The couple sold the car in Afghanistan before walking across the border into Pakistan first and then to India, in October 1972. Later, they would leave for Australia, where they wrote the first Lonely Planet guide.
In 1981, Wheeler and two other writers spent a year between them in India, and co-authored the first Lonely Planet India edition. “It was bigger than anything we had done before,” he recalls. Wheeler also has a sense of ‘discovery’ about Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. “It wasn’t on the international tourism radar till we featured it,” he notes. “Anyone who comes to India and doesn’t have a good time in Rajasthan, doesn’t have his eyes open.”
And like every traveller looking for the next adventure, Wheeler has been to uninhabited islands, barren lands, dense jungles and breathtaking glaciers. He started wandering four decades ago and doesn’t want to put up his boots yet. “Not until they put me in a wheelchair,” he smiles.