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Hilary Bradt has been globetrotting for over 40 years, hitchhiking in every decade of her life except the first. Thirty-three years ago she began producing guides to the farther corners of the earth – the first one was written over three days on a river barge floating down a tributary to the Amazon. Today, as Hilary embarks on retirement, Bradt Travel Guides has more than 100 titles to its name and in many cases is still the only guidebook publisher to certain countries.
When you first began travelling where did you go?
I suppose the first adventurous holidays were going to Greece when I was a student between 1960 and 1963 with someone called Brian Hughes. He used to commandeer a whole train going from London to Athens. Most Oxford students in the ’60s went to Greece with him. It was like the developing world in those days. And then when we got there we hitchhiked and slept on flat roofs at hotels. You could live on less than £1 a day.
And that acted as motivation to continue to travel in your career?
Well, I didn’t think so at the time. I was an occupational therapist and went to OT college. But I really loved the open-endedness of travel. And I think that set me up – not knowing where we were going to stay or where we were going to go.
I love discovery and usually it’s in the natural world, because so much of my travel is now in Madagascar when I’ve been tour-leading or researching my Madagascar guide. Maybe the discovery is a new animal species or almost any scene that I haven’t seen before. I just love that, that’s what travel is all about, it’s discovery.
1963 was the first big trip – three months hitchhiking to the Middle East. We hitchhiked the whole way, determined not to take any public transport. And that was great, very adventurous. That’s where I learnt my street wisdom. I was very street-wise. These days there’s all this talk about sexual harassment of women, but in the ‘60s you just accepted it and you told men where to get off.
Have you had much trouble of that kind on your travels then?
I’ve been robbed fairly frequently but I haven’t been harmed even when I’ve been travelling alone. I travelled alone in Peru for three months in the 1960s, when there were very few gringos travelling, so that was quite often quite scary and I was going to Huancayo which is a very high, very cold place. The bus had broken down and it didn’t get there ‘til 1am. I was the only person left on the bus and the bus driver then made advances to me and said that my luggage was no longer on the roof, it had disappeared. I just started to cry. Then he got a bit disgusted and put me out with my luggage, which was wasn’t lost after all. In situations like this you feel very vulnerable and alone, because it’s not quick, there’s no sort of quick reaction, you just think, ‘Oh shit, I just don’t want this’.
So what do you think has kept you safe all that time?
I think actually it’s trust. I was probably quite naïve as a young traveller and I remember a time in San Francisco. I was waiting at a bus stop and this gang of black youths surrounded me and asked, “What’s the time?” and actually I’m sure they were setting me up for a mugging but I said, “Oh it’s half past ten” or whatever and they went away. And I think they were expecting me to look afraid and then it would be more fun for them. Since I actually wasn’t afraid I thought they were just a friendly group of young men. It wasn’t until I was mugged that I got more nervous. I think if you do trust people they are actually trustworthy, it’s when you show fear that they live up to expectations.
The first book
The story of writing your first guide on a river barge floating down a tributary of the Amazon is a great one. Did you make that trip in 1974 with the book in mind from the outset?
Not at all. I’d done a trip to South America before that. In 1969 I’d gone on my own through Central America and then Colombia and Ecuador, and met up with a girlfriend in Peru and went down the Amazon. I’d travelled on my own up until then. And so when I got married I knew I wanted to go back to there, George knew he wanted to go hiking, so we compromised. The first books were hiking guides because we’d been walking in the Andes, spending several days at a time in the mountains, and other travellers really didn’t know how to do this. So we wrote the book while we were on the barge in Bolivia for three days with nothing else to do, and when we arrived at our destination, a small town in the jungle, we went to a typing school and asked if we could use one of their typewriters when the students were not there.
What tips do you have for other budding guidebook writers? Should they do as you did – going out to a country before getting a commission?
Absolutely not that! It’s a bit of a catch-22. People say, “I want to travel for a living, can I write a guidebook?” You’ve got to have the knowledge before you’ll be accepted as a guidebook writer. The way to start is to get a job in the country that most interests you, whether as a volunteer or community work, then you can come back and say, “I’ve spent two years in such and such a place and I’d like to write a guidebook”. So first get the commission and then go out there. But it never ever, ever works to come back and say I want to do a guidebook.
I was very lucky to start a publishing company in the ‘70s, which was a time that anyone could do anything. Nowadays you couldn’t do what we did, publishing two books on £680 and selling them. These days you’ve got to have a lot of money to start a publishing company. And you also need a brilliant idea and if you’ve got a brilliant idea you’ve got to find the market for it. We just couldn’t have done it.
When you returned to England your book was rejected as the publisher wanted a normal guide to Peru as opposed to one focused on hiking so you decided to publish it yourself. How did you then get it distributed?
I remember George went to Stanfords and showed it to them and whoever was there asked, “What discount do you give?” and George didn’t know about discounts so he just said, “The usual”. And then they said, “35% then”.
Because we were doing all the books ourselves and we didn’t know anything better, we didn’t know about distributors. So in America we got a coast to coast Greyhound ticket and we got off at the main cities during the day and sold the books and slept on the bus at night. That was a very good experience. It was exhausting but it meant that we met all the bookshop buyers and what we were offering them was so unusual they were actually quite pleased to see us. And we sold some other publishers’ books we brought over from England so it wasn’t just our own. It actually worked very well. I think we did it two years running. So we still visited personally and tried to find new contacts. That was in 1978 and 1979.
Then in Europe I got a Eurail pass and did the same thing, sleeping on the train. I remember Hamburg to Munich was a nice night’s journey and I could sell at each end in two major cities. And I sold lots of books. About half our sales were to Germany and Scandinavia and we’ve still got some of those shops still buying from us, so that really set it up very well.
I also went around Britain with books in the boot of the car and in those days you could just go into a bookshop and say, “Do you want them?” And they say, “Yeah I’ll take a couple” and give you money from the till. It was all very neat. But of course you can’t do that now.
Tour leading tips
After your divorce you spent many years as a tour leader, while still producing two or three guides each year, so what makes for a good tour leader and passenger, for that matter?
A good leader has an air of authority and is an extrovert. It helps to be a raconteur, and tell stories. And of course you need knowledge, but when push comes to shove that’s probably less important.
For passengers, it’s something I quote in my Madagascar guide – a woman who said, “I’m going to give up thinking, it doesn’t work in Madagascar!” And she was right,it doesn’t work! If you’re in a group situation you must just go with the flow, it’s really no good questioning everything. Mostly everyone is doing their best to give you a good time.
Travel writing tips
And while you’re giving tips, following your recent talk with Travellers’ Tales on ‘How to win travel writing competitions’, what advice do you have for budding travel writers?
My tip, which is unusual, would be to write when you’re really tired, when you want to go to bed, because you’re much less constrained – it just all comes out. And the wonderful thing about the word processor is you can come back to it and correct it. In the old days you couldn’t do that. Don’t reread it, just keep going, and come back the next day.
Ok, back to Bradt Travel Guides. Why did it blossom in the 1990s?
I suppose it was market driven, the books were starting to do well and we had a proper distributor. They started saying, “You need to publish on a schedule, you can’t just do it when you feel like it” and I realised I had to be more professional. I also started taking on more staff.
By the end of the 1980s we had about 25 titles on the list including those authored entirely by other people. I only wrote a couple myself. Then in the 1990s the list grew quite steadily. We were doing about 6 new ones a year and of course the growth of new editions is proportionate to the number of titles you do, so that snowballs.
The significant year was 1997 because that year our distributor went broke losing me a very large sum of money, plus we won the Small Publisher of the Year Award. I’m enormously proud of that because we were competing with much larger publishers. And an award like that makes such a difference. You think if we’re recognised not just by the readers but the trade – well that really feels very good.
Today you have over 100 titles published by Bradt Travel Guides. Are you aware which of those is the bestseller and why?
The steady bestseller is Ghana. There’s no other guide to Ghana but it’s actually absolute quality and we’ve never had a negative letter about it and people always say, even on the Lonely Planet thorntree website, about the Bradt guide to Ghana. So it’s earned its bestselling status and it’s the bestseller in the States, in the UK, the Netherlands, wherever we distribute it. Philip Briggs updates it every two or three years and he’s our top author, he knows how to write and he’s got the passion. I’m very proud of Philip and Ghana – actually a lot of Philip’s books are up there, Uganda sells well at the moment. Actually, interestingly, the bestseller at the moment is probably the Cape Verde islands and that is in its 3rd edition. When we first published it, it sold so slowly we said, “Should we publish a second edition?” We’d probably got there too early. And then they started direct flights and it was booming and we sold hundreds every month and that’s terrific. It’s just the patience paid off – we could have decided to ditch it.
But for a few months it was actually the Iraq guide that was out-selling everything else, is that right?
That was lovely actually. What attracted me to the proposal was that one of the contributors was working for the anti-sanctions movement when Iraq was crippled by sanctions and allied bombing after the first Gulf War. I hoped the sanctions would be lifted soon and that’s why we published the book. I was moved by the stories this woman wrote about the ordinary Iraqis and how they were suffering under sanctions. The manuscript was ready at the beginning of September and then 11 days later we had 9/11 and we just thought we can’t go ahead. But we’d printed the posters and took them to Frankfurt for the book fair and put them up and distributors said, “Oh Iraq, we could sell that!” and it was that feedback at Frankfurt that made us decide to do it – it was a whole new market. It sold pretty well in the run up to the war and then 3000 in America in April, the first month of the war. We had a phone call from the Pentagon enquiring about it.
Effects of 9/11
So had you seen any negative effect from 9/11 beforehand?
Almost everyone did. We had the tiniest blip because the bookshops lost confidence, Stanfords obviously not, but other bookshops took travel off their shelves. People were still buying our books, but there was a dip in sales for a few months and then for half the following year slightly slower. Then we sold a lot of Iraq in the lead up to the war, and we had USA by RaiUSA by Raill and that did very well because Americans were all frightened of flying so all jumped on trains. Then we had Eccentric Britain and that went very well in Britain. So it was a mixture of lucky and also our sort of readers are actually much more sensible than the mass market. They know if you’re flying to Burkina Faso the likelihood of having a bomb blow up on the plane is quite small.
Where is Bradt Travel Guides heading as you step back from being MD and become Chairman?
The reason we didn’t suffer from 9/11 was that our niche was so specific that they weren’t the sort of books that would be affected. I strongly believe that the world needs these guides to the unusual places. So there’s no question of changing that, but we plan to make more use of colour and to try to spread the net a bit wider, moving into some new areas.
And what will you now turn your hand to, now that your weekends are your own again?
I’ll continue to write articles. Not only the usual destination pieces but I hope more opinion pieces where my 45 years travel experience will be useful. But sculpture, that’s what I want to do when I grow up. I do stone carving and I really want to spend more time doing that, and working with clay and wire mesh as well. I mostly do animals and have lots of ideas I want to try out.
What will you miss the most no longer running the company day to day?
I think it’s authors that were really my protégés. I’ll miss regular contact with them. I won’t miss the management but I’ll miss the people side of it – people whose careers I’ve sort of nurtured.
Not only have you travelled the globe so extensively, but you’ve also lived abroad for many years. Where are you most at home?
I’m most at home in England. I’ve lived in Scotland, but there I felt very English, so it’s England not Britain that I’m at home in. I actually love the area that I grew up in, the Chilterns. I love the bluebells and the beech trees and the whole package that’s the Chilterns. However, I shall be moving to East Devon next year and that’s a beautiful county.
I loved living in America. I was in Boston and San Francisco which are terrific cities. To be young, British, and living in America – three fantastic things. You could be really stupid but they would think you’re wonderful just because you have a British accent. Very helpful! I love the out-goingness of Americans. I was very shy as a child and young adult and it really brought me out. You can’t be shy living in San Francisco, not in the 1960s which is when I was there. It was a fantastic time to be there.
I also lived in Cape Town for a couple of years during the apartheid period and that’s interesting because it was actually probably the happiest year of my life. It was just brilliant, I mean the landscape is so beautiful, the people were terrific. I had a very rewarding job, I was an occupational therapist then, working with quadriplegics. But it was the height of apartheid, so you had the guilt about being so happy. But actually I had friends that were working within the law but against apartheid and they were very effective so that helped.
You must have so many wonderful stories and memories – can you remember your best ever meal?
It was after George and I were lost in the jungle of Madagascar. It was a four day ordeal and it was extremely unpleasant. We had very little to eat. Afterwards we went back to this small town, Sambava, and checked into a little hotel. It was run by a grumpy Chinaman and we said, “Could we eat at the hotel tonight?” He said very crossly that he had a special guest but he supposed we could. He was cooking duck for the special guest and said he could cook some for us. We asked how much it was and it was $5 and that was too much, that was our budget for the two of us so we said we’d just have one meal. So we split this duck portion and it was absolutely fabulous and of course we wanted more. The special guest was eating on his own and left some of his meal in the serving dish. Fortunately the waiter put the dishes on the side table before clearing them away so we managed to nick it. I don’t remember any meal better than that.
And the worst?
On my trip to Madagascar last year I’d climbed a mountain and we had cooks and porters – it was the same mountain and jungle that I’d got lost on 30 years ago and I was sort of recreating that trip. Now it’s a national park so instead of backpacking and being lost for four days I went with porters and guides and friends and it was an absolutely super trip. And the food had been wonderful and the cook served up this stew and I thought there was something about that smell that I wasn’t sure about and I knew where I’d smelt it before. You know in third-world markets if you go through the fish market you know how the smell of dried fish catches your throat. It was a dried fish stew and I thought it can’t taste as bad as it smells but it did, and I just couldn’t swallow it.
And what about a favourite memory, a favourite moment?
Such a little moment, but it absolutely stands out, was when we were travelling in Africa and we were in Zaire, so what’s now The [Democratic Republic of] Congo. First of all the driver had been very unfriendly and we’d had the usual argument about money and how much the transport was going to cost and he settled for lower than he wanted. Then we were crossing some open bush country and he said we either had to pay him more or he would put us out there – and that there were lions in the area, which I think there probably were. We didn’t get out and we didn’t pay. We were in the back of his pick-up truck and it was really cold because we were driving through the night. There were quite a few Africans with us and we were all huddled together for warmth. And he stopped outside this café shop and we stayed on board, not wanting to get out because we didn’t trust anyone with our rucksacks and didn’t want to unload them. We waited a long time in the cold. And he came out of the café carrying two mugs of hot milk which he gave to us and it just tasted so good and the gesture meant so much. It was a very special moment.
And any funny stories from dealing with Stanfords?
When I was doing a lot of tour leading in Peru and Bolivia I realised you could buy Ordnance Survey-type geographical maps very cheaply. They were about 50c or so, and they could retail for £5.95 at Stanfords. So every time I went to South America I would go to the Instituto Geográfico Militar and buy the maps. I had these enormous rolls of maps, and boxes of smaller ones. I always used to pack my luggage in US mail sacks and I’d fill up these sacks with maps. The problem was I still had my regular luggage so to get it all home I’d go to Lima airport with two bags of maps, check them in, then come back an hour later with two more bags and I would say, “Here’s my ticket and I’m awfully sorry, I checked in earlier but I didn’t have my luggage with me and I’d explained to the lady at the desk and she said that was ok I could bring it back later.” And for a few years I got four bags on using this method. Until they introduced computers and I got caught. It took all my powers of persuasion to get out of it and I never did it again. But for a few years I provided a lot of maps to Stanfords!
Then there was the problem of getting books or maps from the UK to America. We’d go to Heathrow with our US mail sacks, go up to someone in the queue to check-in, and say, “Will you check-in my bag?” I’d give them an addressed envelope for the luggage stub and say, “Mail it when you get to Boston.” So if I was in the UK and George was in America he could pick it up once he’d received the envelope with the stub in. The sacks would just go around on the carrousel, no one would pick them up, and they’d be stored until George arrived to claim them.
In those days we managed to get away with a lot of disreputable behaviour. Now, ironically, I’m very involved in ethical travel.