When I was headed to Ethiopia and Eritrea in the mid-90s and needed a travel guide, I turned to Bradt. They specialize in unusual destinations - and back then these less visited countries would have merited a few pages in an 'Africa' guidebook, but no more. As I traipsed across northeast Africa, Bradt Guides were my lifeline.
Trained as an occupational therapist, Hilary Bradt's first major trip took her hitchhiking to the Middle East for three months in the early sixties - and she hasn't looked back since. Co-founder and now Chairman of the popular Bradt Travel Guides, she still writes (you can find her blog at hilarybradt.com) and is busy exploring the artist in her through sculpture - though not too busy to take a few minutes to talk toWomen on the Road.
Who exactly is Hilary Bradt? A publisher? A travel writer? An adventurer?
All three, really, although I wouldn't ever put 'Adventurer' as a job description. It's more the willingness - even desire - to take risks which is part of my personality and has helped me do what I most enjoy doing in publishing as well as travel.
As a publisher, why have you gone for the offbeat destinations?
The pleasure of taking risks; and also because they are the countries that most need a guidebook. We've been able to make a real difference to countries emerging from war or internal disasters, such as Mozambique and Rwanda. I hope we will do the same for The Congo. It seems so much more useful to publish the first-ever guide to an emerging destination rather than yet another book on, say, Thailand. And because they're unique, Bradt Guides usually have reasonably good sales, even to the most unlikely places.
What sets Bradt Guides apart from other major guidebook series on the market?
I think there are two main factors here, apart from the sort of places we cover. One is that we tend to have more in-depth coverage of culture and natural history and secondly - and I think this is one of the defining differences - our authors are on a royalty so share in the success or failure of their book. I believe this improves the quality of their research, because they know they will be going back to do the next edition so have an on-going interest in the book. We also allow them more leeway than other publishers. Our books are not tightly formulaic, so whatever our authors' interests or passions, they have an opportunity to share them with their readers. We often prefer first-time writers to professional travel journalists, because they are likely to be more passionate about the placethey've chosen to write about. The ability to write well is paramount, however.
You've done a lot of hitchhiking - do you think it is still a feasible form of transport for women traveling today?
I am proud that I've hitchhiked every decade of my life except the first. The last time was a few months ago, when my friend and I took local buses across the breadth of England and got stuck, busless, a couple of times. I find it very sad that so few people hitchhike these days. I don't know if it's any more dangerous than it was in the '60s and '70s when it was my favoured form of transport. It seems to me that the likelihood of being picked up by a rapist or a murderer is negligible, and it's so life-affirming: you only meet kind people. Mind you, I'm sure it's safer now I'm in my 60s than when I was in my 20s since I don't imagine that anyone stops for me with sex on their minds! I make a point of picking up female hitchhikers (or couples) when possible, even turning the car round to go back for them once I've decided they're safe. What goes around comes around.
In your decades in the travel business, how has the relationship between women and travel changed?
I think the main difference is that women these days are far more upset than we were in our youth about 'sexual harassment'. When I hitched to the Middle East in my 20s, we talked about men being 'a bit fresh' or having 'gear-lever hands' but just took it as part of the experience and learned how to distract them. There were a few nasty moments but nothing that we couldn't cope with. Women these days seem to get so angry about it which must spoil the travel experience.
And today anyone can travel. We take low air fares for granted these days, but they were far higher when I was backpacking in the 70s. When I went to work in America in the '60s I couldn't afford to come home for a year, and my big backpacking trips through South America and Africa hardly involved any flying, because it was too expensive. But the biggest change of all is communication.
I've just finished clearing my loft prior to moving house, and have found box after box of letters that I wrote to my parents, and them to me, that they kept. These are a fantastic record of three decades of travel. I don't know if emailed accounts or blogs will have the same sort of life. And parents these days don't have to go through what my parents went through in 1963 when they received a postcard from Jordan saying 'We're off tomorrow to Baghdad with the Iraqi army'. They heard nothing after that til I walked into the house a month later with sixpence (10 cents) left in my pocket. Now that there are internet cafes in every country in the world, just about, loved ones at home have a much easier time.
How do you travel these days? Are you still backpacking?
Now I'm a pensioner I get free bus travel in England which is wonderful! So when exploring my own country I take a bus when possible. Overseas, I'm afraid I no longer want to suffer on my travels, so I stay in better accommodation (though I hate luxury hotels).
And I'm not sure whether I'll do any real backpacking again. Sleeping in a small tent on rocks has lost its allure. But I still love walking and as long as I can stay in a lodge or hut rather than a tent, I'm up for it.
Do you have to travel under an assumed name so people won't know who you are?
You flatter me! I'm almost never recognised, except in Madagascar where I've been over 30 times and written nine editions of my guidebook so you would expect some people to know me. Being recognised is a mixed blessing. Many years ago I was in the Departure Lounge of Quito airport and someone spotted my luggage tag with my name and asked if I was the Hilary Bradt. Immensely flattered, I agreed that I probably was. He then said "Last month I swore that if I ever laid hands on Hilary Bradt I would kill her!" He'd had a spot of trouble on one of the hikes I described.
Is there still a place on earth you haven't been that you'd still like to see?
There are two places I have my eye on in the near future. I want to go to Borneo to see orang-utans and to Sierra Leone which sounds wonderful. Both choices are helped by the fact that we have forthcoming Bradt guides to them. I also want to go to the northwest corner of Greece, for the hiking and remoteness, and to Sri Lanka, for the wildlife, and Angola... in fact there are loads more places I want to see before I die!
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