By Cheryl Tan
Tony Wheeler with his wife Maureen
Did you know Singapore played a big role in the establishment of the world-famous travel publishing house, Lonely Planet, now a multimillion-dollar empire?
For three months in 1975, founders Tony Wheeler and his wife, Maureen, holed up at Palace Hotel in Jalan Besar to write Lonely Planet's second book, South-east Asia On A Shoestring, a book now in its 14th edition. More than 30 years ago, they paid only $2 a night to stay at the now-defunct hotel.
'It was crazy. We had no computers then and we had to write and staple all our material together,' recalls Mr Wheeler, 61, in an interview with Life!. He had flown in to Singapore from a writer's conference in Bali recently.
Across Asia On The Cheap, the first Lonely Planet book, written and published in 1973, documented the British couple's travels across Asia and also listed Singapore as one of the more interesting destinations to visit.
The Singapore connection is re-established more than 30 years on. He will star in Roads Less Travelled, a new TV series by Lonely Planet, co-produced by a Singapore-based production house, Beach House Pictures, and backed by the Media Development Authority of Singapore.
Premiering on the National Geographic Adventure channel in January, the 13-part series will take viewers through an hour-long adventure each week, revealing what it is really like to be a Lonely Planet author.
Ms Laurence Billiet, the head of Lonely Planet Television, says: 'They miss trains, get lost and run into trouble getting to their destinations. Audiences will get to witness a real journey through the country.'
The destinations have not been confirmed, but may include Madagascar, Colombia and regions in South America. She adds that the authors featured on the show may find themselves in completely unfamiliar countries but will be given time to do the necessary research.
And how does Mr Wheeler handle a potentially sticky situation in a foreign place he has never been to? He pores over maps, readers' letters and Internet research about a new destination before he gets there.
But the best way to explore a place is just 'getting out there and talking to the locals'.
'They give lots of suggestions, so you discover so many more things that can't usually be found on the Web,' he says.
The job of Lonely Planet authors, he adds, is 24/7, and they usually have to cover as many places as possible during a two-month duration at the destination they have been assigned.
'When an author visits a beach, it's not to relax. He scoops up sand with his fingers to feel it, and sticks his head into the water to test its clarity,' he says.
Today, he and his wife are still looking for new destinations. His daughter Tashi, 27, is a commissioning editor at Lonely Planet, while son Kieran, 25, is a computer technician.
The travel guru says he is unable to visit a country simply for leisure.
'I can't tear myself away from work. I take notes on things that I discover and see during my travels all the time and will go around doing it forever. I'm doomed.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 28, 2008.
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