Interview with Tony Wheeler, Founder of Lonely Planet

WildChina > WildChina Explorer Grant > Interview with Tony Wheeler, Founder of Lonely Planet

We are very excited to announce that Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, will be joining our WildChina Explorer Grant 2017 judging panel.

Lonely Planet started with a shoestring trip to Asia that Tony Wheeler took with his wife nearly 40 years ago. When they returned home, Tony and Maureen sat down at their kitchen table and wrote down all the ways they made the trip happen, pasted in the photos and maps to go with it (1970’s publishing style) and published their very first guidebook. Without knowing it at the time, they had started a multimillion dollar guidebook company that would change the way people thought about travel.


Tony was unafraid to go off-the-beaten-path and explore the world. And since that first trip, he has never stopped traveling, helping other people to follow in his footsteps along the way. For this reason, we knew he’d be the perfect judge for the WildChina Explorer Grant 2017.

This spring, Tony Wheeler is taking on a brand new challenge: he’s driving a classic car from Bangkok all the way to London!

During his ride he’ll spend over 38 days in China, starting by coming over the Laotian border into Yunnan and heading east towards Shanghai. He’ll then loop north through Beijing and continue west until he hits the westerner most border with Kazahkstan.

Talk about a WILD ride!

We sat down with Tony to discuss his upcoming trip and to ask him why going on off-the-beaten in China is something he just can’t resist.

Can you please tell us a bit more about your upcoming drive from Bangkok to London?

A friend told me he was going on this drive with cars all made from 1965 to the early 70’s. They’re all forty to fifty years old. I told him it sounded really fantastic and he said, “in fact we can take one more car because we’ve got two shipping containers and each shipping container will fit four cars in. So if you want to buy one of these old sports cars, you could join us.”

I found one immediately, and I bought it. I had it shipped down to Melbourne from the other end of the country. I handed it over to an old car specialist and said “fix it up”. It was expensive. I could have bought a new car for how much this thing has cost me. Then about four weeks ago we put them all into a shipping container. They were shipped off and arrived in Bangkok a few days ago. So we fly up to Bangkok in ten days time, pick the cars up, and we drive through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China for 38 days, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, all the way to London. It will take 3 months.



What inspired you to take this journey?

Two of the people on this trip have done a similar trip in the old fashioned sports cars from the southern tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego, right up to Canada. Right up through South America, Central America, United States, up to Canada. I wanted to do something similar so this seemed like a good option.

On the trip you’ll be spending a large amount of time in China, what are you most looking forward to about this section?

Well we’re going to enter China from Laos, then we’re going to go across and travel east to Shanghai then up to Beijing. We’ll then turn back and go west and eventually enter into Kazakhstan. So we’re going to see quite a fair bit of China. I’ve been to Shanghai and Beijing and Xi’an before, so a fair amount of it will be things I’ve seen before.

But there are three things I’m really looking forward to. One is the ceramics capital, Jingdezhen. I’ve never been there but I have a really good friend here in Melbourne who works there every year. She spends several months there each year making ceramics and then she sells them back in Australia.There’s quite a few ceramic artists from overseas who have gone there. She’s going to be in residence while we’re there so we promised her we’re going to line up all these old cars outside her studio.

The second is, I work with this organization called Global Heritage Fund. They are based in San Francisco but we’ve got a couple of projects in China. Mainly in villages in Guizhou province. But we did work in Pingyao, so we’re going to stop there. We’re also going to stop in Maijishan as well. It’s sort of like a working holiday doing all these stops.

While I’m in Beijing and Shanghai, Lonely Planet China is bringing out the third edition of the Lonely Planet Story in Chinese. I’m probably going to do something with them while I’m there. All fun!


What do you think the biggest challenges are if someone wants to be like you and travel “off-the-beaten” track?

Usually, I’m the sort of person who just starts out and just works it out as I go along. I’m not one for huge amounts of planning. But this is a trip that has been planned to the eyeballs. They pretty much know every night where they plan to stay all the way from day one to day one hundred and thirteen.

It’s not going to work out. There’s going to be places where they get delayed or things don’t work. Somebody’s car is going break down. Who knows what’s going to go wrong? I don’t think it’s really going to work out as they planned.

There was a hell of a lot of paperwork to import the cars and so forth. You have to go through a lot of bureaucracy to do it, especially in China.

If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps and travel this route by car, what advice would you give them?

I’d do it by bicycle. It’s much easier. I did a bicycle trip through Africa a few years ago and that didn’t involve anywhere near as much paperwork, planning, and organization. Get on a bicycle! Do that! So many people ride bicycles around China, why not you?

Everes- Base-Camp-tony-wheeler

Do you have to have a driver’s license in each country?

We got a thing called an international driving permit which just says you’ve got a drivers license. It’s not really a drivers license for each country. One of my favorite books about China in recent years is Country Driving by Peter Hessler. I thought it was so funny. I liked it so much I made sure everybody on my trip’s got a copy, so they’ve all read it. I just thought it was hilarious that book. I really liked it. He’s a really good spirit- just getting out there and going places. Great book!

Do you have any other projects coming up that you would like to tell us about?

Well then I’m just in Europe for a couple months. I will fly back to Australia at the end of August. We end up doing all sorts of things when we’re in Europe. The main thing we’re doing this year is taking (my wife is from Ireland, Belfast in Northern Ireland) ten friends to Northern Ireland and we’re going to travel around. That’s the main other trip.

Then I’m going back to Australia and for some reason I have a lot of book projects at the moment. I’ve got the new edition of Guide to Lonely Planet in Chinese. I’m also writing a book for the National Library of Australia on Australian islands. Do you know how many islands Australia has? 8,000! You can’t believe it. It’s more than are in the Caribbean. At the Great Barrier Reef there’s 100 here, 200 more there, they’re all over the place. I’m not writing about all 8000 of them, but I’m writing about 20 or 30 of the most interesting. It’s more of a desk book than a travel book, but I did write a book about the Barrier Reef Islands for Lonely Planet, so I traveled to a lot the islands up the east coast for that. I’ve been to a lot of the other ones anyway. Some of them I’m not going to go to. It’s just desk research. And a few more I am going to go to because since working on them, I’m really interested in them. I really want to see them. So, I’m doing that.

I’m also doing a book called Epic Drives for Lonely Planet. There’s like 500 drives in it and I’m just writing up 8. I’m also doing a thing on Great Cities for Lonely Planet. I’m writing a forward to a book about bicycle riding in France for Lonely Planet France. So, lots of things to keep me busy and out of trouble.

Thanks Tony for the fun interview!

Stay tuned for more news about the WildChina Explorer Grant 2017 and find out how to apply at For the first time, the WildChina Explorer 2017 of the WildChina Explorer Grant will get access to all of our local networks and knowledge and their exploration will be turned into a WildChina Journey for all to enjoy.

If you want to make like the founder of the world’s best off-the-beaten track travel guides and spend time in China’s ceramic capital, customize our Jingdezhen: the Art of Porcelain tour.