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A childhood encounter with an exotic door-to-door salesman sparked a lifelong passion for travel and adventure for Lonely Planet co-founder Maureen Wheeler.
The Belfast-born business woman was just six years old when a foreigner called at her home, introducing her to the idea of a big world beyond Northern Ireland.
An overheard conversation between the travelling salesman and her father left a lasting impression on a young Maureen, who went on to set up the world's largest travel guide book and digital media publisher with her husband Tony.
“I always knew I wanted to travel, even when I was a child,” she says. “No one really travelled in my family before me, although I did have several uncles in the army and my father was born in Egypt. He lived in India as well, until he was about eight or nine.
“I remember being at home one day in Belfast when an Indian man came to the door. He was wearing a turban on his head and at that time, looked quite different from the people I had seen around Belfast.
“He had a suitcase full of gorgeous things, little trinkets and beautiful silk scarves. He started speaking to my dad in Hindu and I remember being in awe that my dad was able to speak back to this exotic looking man.
“I think at that moment I had a glimpse of all sorts of travelling and that encounter opened a window in my mind. I was so proud that my dad could speak this language and I realised there was a world outside of Belfast, a world I wanted to explore.”
On leaving Princess Garden's Grammar School in Dunmurry, Maureen went to Rupert Stanley Technical School to train as a secretary. She had toyed with the idea of joining an airline, but at just 5ft 3in was ruled out because of her height. She had also considered journalism as a career, but was advised against it by a teacher, who warned her it wasn't a job for a girl.
“I was told I would end up writing about births, deaths and marriages. Or fashion,” she laughs.
At the age of 20, with shorthand and typing skills under her belt, Maureen left Belfast for a new life in London.
She always knew she would move, but envisaged a post in the UN or Brussels, one that would allow her to travel. London, she hoped, would provide her with the necessary experience and act as a stepping stone in her plan to see more of the world.
Two days after her arrival in the city, she began her hunt for a job and was lucky to be offered a few secretarial positions by the following evening.
She accepted one of the job offers and, safe in the knowledge she would be financially secure, decided to treat herself to a trip to the theatre.
But there were no tickets left for the matinee showing of The Last Waltz, so Maureen bought herself a book and headed off to Regent's Park for a spot of afternoon reading. There, on a bench, she met her future husband Tony Wheeler in another life-changing chance encounter. “In that first conversation we had, he told me he'd travelled quite a bit,” she recalls.
“He'd been to the States, the West Indies and Pakistan.
In Belfast, it was uncommon to meet someone who'd travelled to so many places. I'd been to Paris when I was 18, but that was about it. I was excited about all the places Tony had been to.
“We sat and talked and talked. He told me he'd been to Greece the year before. He'd also gone to Monaco for the Grand Prix. I was enthralled.”
One year later, Maureen and Tony married and decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime - crossing Europe and Asia overland, en route to Australia. They saved up around £400 (about R5 000), bought a cheap minivan and set off on their travels. The trip, which lasted six months, took them through Europe to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, following the hippie trail.
Then they headed onto Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Bali, before reaching their final destination of Sydney.
“We were always on the breadline,” she says. “We couldn't even afford a can of Coke. That was a monthly treat for us.
“We sold the car in Afghanistan for £55. We had no credit cards, my mum didn't have money, we couldn't tell Tony's mum or she would have told us to come straight home.
“But we made it to Sydney, arriving there with 27 cents to our names. If I was to find myself in that situation now, I'd be terrified. But at that time it didn't really faze us at all. Maybe it was because we were 21 and felt we could do anything then.”
The couple moved into a shared house in Sydney and while Maureen worked in a sandwich bar, Tony temped for a while. “I only worked in the sandwich bar for two weeks. It was all about survival,” Maureen says.
“Then I started temping and Tony got a job as a marketing manager in a pharmaceutical firm. We knew we were planning to leave at the end of the year to go travelling again. So we saved Tony's salary and lived on mine.”
Their long journey across Europe and Asia to Australia prompted curiosity.
Fellow travellers wanted to know how they'd managed to travel so far in such frugal conditions. So the couple sat up at night at a kitchen table, writing, typing and stapling pages together to produce their first travel guide, Across Asia On The Cheap.
Within a week the 96-page guide had sold 1,500 copies. A further 3,000 were reprinted and sold out. Lonely Planet was born.
“Back then, there were no real travel books to talk about, no information out there. We'd kept comprehensive diaries of our experiences. It was great fun putting the guide together,” says Maureen.
Not long after, the pair set off to southeast Asia. Much of this terrain remained unexplored by the Western traveller, thanks to the communist revolution and the Vietnam War.
This led to their second guide book, South-East Asia on a Shoestring, written in a backstreet hotel in Singapore. The 'yellow bible', as it was nicknamed due to its distinctive cover, remains the definitive guide to the area for backpackers, with helpful tips on cheap places to stay and eat out, detailed maps and the history and culture of the region.
Wrongly convinced that they wouldn't make a proper living from their Lonely Planet guides, Maureen went to university to study social work. The couple had decided to settle in Melbourne and in 1980, their daughter Tashie was born. Three years later, they had a son called Kieran. By now Maureen had returned to travel writing, giving up on social work. The Wheelers' first guidebook to India was published in 1981 and in the 1990s, the company expanded into Europe and North America.
Travelling with children became the norm for the Wheelers, prompting Maureen to pen a guidebook, Travel With Children.
“Until they started school, we took them everywhere,” she says. “From the beginning, Tashie wasn't fazed by the travelling and Kieran wasn't really bitten by the travel bug. These days, he will travel every now and then, as long as he can set the agenda himself. Tashie is a great traveller though.”
As Lonely Planet became a global brand, with offices in Melbourne, London and Oakland, employing over 500 people and selling six million books a year, the offers to buy it came rolling in. But it wasn't until 2007 that the couple felt ready to sell a 75 percent share to BBC Worldwide, which had promised to uphold the Wheelers' commitment to independent travel. Last year, BBC Worldwide became sole shareholders of the company when they bought out the remaining shares.
Maureen says they have no regrets about selling, though admits telling the staff was a wrench. One reason for giving up their claim to the company was to free up more time for travel. Another was complete confidence in BBC Worldwide's ability to meet the challenges of the digital age.
“After we sold the 75 percent share to BBC Worldwide, we quickly realised we couldn't be part in, part out” she says. “It was the time to sell up and the right thing to do.”
For a couple who've spent most of their lives on the road, travel will always be a priority.
“We've had a good year this year,” says Maureen. “We're doing the Karakoram Highway between China and Pakistan and we've already been to Bali, Dominican Republic, Haiti, New York and Russia.”
Maureen finds it hard to single out one particular place as a favourite destination. She's loved all her far flung, off-the-beaten track journeys. But for the pure excitement and pioneering spirit of it all, that first adventure as newly-weds across Europe and Asia and onto to Australia tops the lot.
“Nothing comes close to that first trip,” she says. “Looking back, we were so unprepared for it. “Nowadays people have Google Earth, they've watched David Attenborough on television, they've read the guide books. We relied on other travellers. Or we discovered things for ourselves.
“I'll never forget coming into Kathmandu. That was magical, like finding Shangri-La. It was a long, weary, dangerous journey to get there, on an over-crowded bus, up a winding road. But it was so worth it.” And while the Wheelers were fortunate not to find themselves in any life-threatening situations, Maureen acknowledges their recklessness was foolhardy, particularly a certain boat trip from Bali to Australia on that first overland outing together.
“We heard this man saying he needed two more crew for his boat to set sail for Australia and we said we'd do it,” she laughs. “There we were, in the middle of this huge ocean, with no safety equipment, no navigational machinery. The engine didn't work. There were 16 of us and we ran out of food and water. It was quite a hairy experience, especially when we were hit by a big storm.
“When you think about it, that was a close call.”
With family still living in Belfast, Maureen likes to try and get home as often as she can. Tashie and Kieran have visited too and a few years ago, Maureen hosted a trip for four Australians, two Germans and an American.
“We stayed in Enniskillen, drove around Derry and Portrush, visited Cushendall and then Belfast,” she says.
“We spent two and half weeks in Northern Ireland and had a wonderful time. I loved showing them around the place and they thought it was beautiful”
But while she loves coming back to Belfast for the occasional visit, Maureen will never move home. “I'm in a great situation where I am able to come back and see the place from time to time but I left Northern Ireland when I was 20 and that was a long time ago,” she says.
“Anyway, there are still many more places out there to explore. We're not finished yet with our travels.” - Belfast Telegraph