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The road less travelled
Meeting Hilary Bradt, founder of the pioneering Bradt Travel Guides
For over 40 years, Hilary Bradt has been travelling the globe, visiting many of the world’s remotest places both as a tour leader and as the founding writer and publisher of the Bradt Travel Guides. Today, as she steps into retirement, her company’s guides stand out as being the guides to the exotic. But that’s not really surprising, given the way the company began.
Her first book, Backpacking Along Ancient Ways in Peru and Bolivia, was written over three days on a river barge while floating down a tributary to the Amazon in Bolivia. It was 1974 and the last stage of an 18-month honeymoon with her then husband, George.
“When I got married, I knew I wanted to go to South America,” says Hilary, “and George wanted to go hiking. We did the Inca trail when there were very few doing it, and it was terrific. The most worn path was the wrong path, because people had gone the wrong way and come back again. It was very easy to get lost.
“When we met other gringos, which wasn’t that often, we would talk about where we’d been and where we were going, and when they heard we’d been hiking in the mountains they’d get out their notebooks and say, ‘Where did you start, where did you go and how long did it take?’ We gradually thought – we’ve got all this information and we should be sharing it.” She giggles. “We didn’t take any notes on the way, so it was pretty inaccurate. But we had nothing else to do in those three honeymoon days.”
When they returned home, they sought a publisher for the book. “It was rejected, because what they really wanted was a mainstream guide to Peru.” That, Hilary admits, “was actually a good publishing position. We said we couldn’t afford to go back there to research it, and they said, ‘Well just go to the tourist office, get some brochures and then do it from them’.”
Hilary didn’t much like that idea, so she and George decided to start their own business. “We had only £680, and we had two guidebooks we wanted to publish, so my husband went to work for a printer and instead of being paid in money he was paid in books, which was really neat. Nowadays it would cost about £7,000 to do a normal print run, so to do two for £680 is quite good!”
Today Hilary is chairman of the company she’s steered for the past 33 years, but on handing over the day-to-day running of the company to her new managing director, Donald Greig, she says, “The really important thing is that the ethical stance in everything we do keeps going – that’s responsible tourism, and really not exploiting anyone, whether it’s the host country or our authors or suppliers.”
We did the Inca trail when there were very few doing it and it was terrific. The most worn path was the wrong path because people had gone the wrong way and come back again
But she’s happy to admit she hasn’t always played by those rules on her own travels. “It’s poacher turned gamekeeper. I was very unethical in the early days.”
One trick she liked was keeping the mileage down on hire cars to reduce costs, by driving in reverse. “You have to do it for 10 kilometres and then go forward 10 kilometres, it won’t cross zero.” But there are pitfalls: “We fell into this enormous cattle grid that didn’t have bars across it, which we couldn’t see because we were going backwards. Someone had to lift us up and set us on our way – which was, of course, the wrong way. So we went back the way we came, until they’d gone out of sight, and turned around.”
Things are different now, of course, and one tale really shows off the strengths of being a little company focused on the exotic. “Our Kabul guide has a lovely story. The author came to us because he lived in Kabul and had done the first edition just as a pamphlet that was sold by street kids to raise money – anything they made they kept. So we said – we’ll do it, providing you can sell it in the same way. And he did.
“We all won: we made money on it, the street kids made money on it, and the author made money on it.”
Hilary will continue to write opinion pieces for the press in her retirement, and much of that will be to do with ethical travel. But really what she’s excited about doing in her new-found spare time is sculpture. And after many years of leading tours around Madagascar, home to so many weird and wonderful creatures, perhaps it’s no wonder that her sculpture is of animals: “It’s very hard work, and so I do them reasonably small. What I really want to get into – because there’s money in this and I want to make money – is animal gravestones.”
However, she’s not one for getting sentimental over animals. “I like eating wild meat. I’ve eaten monkey in the jungle in Ecuador, which now I feel guilty about. It looks just like a baby being grilled, but gosh it was good.
“I also like eating guinea pigs, and I have pet guinea pigs. I threaten them all the time. The first one was called Rico, which means ‘delicious’, because that’s how he might have ended up. But I think I’ve had some unpleasant meats too: I had a bull’s penis once, that wasn’t very nice, it was very rubbery.”
Naturally, she has her own hopes for the company, too. She glows with pride when she mentions winning the Small Publisher Of The Year award in 1997, and does so again when, in her usual understated manner, she says, “It’s very nice knowing that it helps countries, to hear that the president of Burkina Faso is absolutely thrilled at our guidebook and couldn’t believe there was one to his country.”
But national leaders aren’t enough. “I’d like everyone who travels to know there is a company called Bradt Travel Guides, and so instead of saying to a bookshop ‘Is there a Lonely Planet guide to such-and-such,’ they’d say ‘Is there a Bradt guide to such-and-such?’
“I don’t mind if they don’t like the guide when they see it. But I want them to know it exists, and to get a fair comparison with competitors.”