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Wildwriting: An Interview with Kim Wildman

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Women on the Road interviews Australian-born Kim Wildman, who has spent the better part of the last ten years continent hopping as a guidebook author, travel writer and wannabe National Geographic wildlife photographer. During this time she co-authored and updated some 12 guidebooks for a variety of publishers including Lonely Planet, Dorling Kindersley and Bradt Travel Guides (read our Hilary Bradt interview in this section). Kim's feature articles have appeared in Travel Africa, abouTime, Planet Africa, Australian Women's Health, Ninemsn and Voyageur. Visit her website at www.wildwriting.com.au.

Women on the Road: What drives you and keeps you on the road?

Kim Wildman: Itchy feet!... For most of the last decade my life has virtually been lived in perpetual motion, so much so that I now find it difficult to stay put in one place for too long. It's like I've become filled with this overwhelming desire to continue to learn more about the world and the people who live in it. In essence the more I travel, the more I WANT to travel. While many people see this as a downside of my work, I really do feel blessed to have lived the life that I have lived and for the experiences and opportunities travelling has given me.

solo womenItchy feet may lead to stunning sunrises
Hans Splinter via Flickr CC
How did you become a travel writer?

Kim Wildman: For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a writer. But I certainly took the long road to get to where I am today. In spite of my passion, I somehow managed to get lost along the way and ended up working as an account executive for a uniform company. I truly hated the job, but I probably would have stayed in it forever if it wasn't for my fateful first trip to Southern Africa in 1996 (I travelled overland through South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia). 

solo womenBlyde River Canyon, South Africa 
Rob Inh00d via Flickr CC

At that time Africa, in particular South Africa, wasn't really on the tourist map. It was only a couple of years after Mandela had become president and the country was still facing some serious issues. But there was such a feeling of renewed energy and hope spreading across the continent that it was almost impossible not to be inspired. Seeing such an amazing dream being realised - the fall of apartheid and the liberation of a suppressed people - that a decade earlier had seemed unfathomable made me want to reach out and finally grab hold of my own dreams.

So to everyone's surprise, when I returned home, I quit my job and went back to university to study journalism full-time, telling anyone who would listen that I was going to get a job working as a travel writer for Lonely Planet.

As part of my degree I had to do a two-week internship with a print media publication. While most of the students in my class simply applied to do their internships with the local newspaper, I was determined to work for Lonely Planet, so I called up the head office in Melbourne and asked if they would take me on, and to my great surprise they said yes.

women travel writersLonely Planet offices, Melbourne
Mark Broadhead via Flickr CC

It was then while I was in Melbourne doing my internship that I was informed that the company was actively looking for younger, female writers (at the time, most of their authors were men over the age of 40) and was asked if I wanted to apply. Naturally I jumped at the chance and, well, before I knew it I was off on my first assignment to cover Romania and Moldova in Eastern Europe.

What does it take to be a travel writer?
solo womenGood writing 'transports' you there
booizzyvia Flickr CC

Kim Wildman: Being passionate about travel is a good start, but it's not enough. The same goes with writing. While you might love to write and keep a journal of all your travel experiences or send funny emails home to your family and friends while you're on the road, travel writing is so much more than this.

You need to have a sharp eye for detail to see all the fascinating and interesting aspects about a place and its people that other travellers might miss and you need to be able to write in way that transports your readers to the place or region you are writing about. You also need to be able to think quickly on your feet - flights get cancelled, your luggage might go missing, attractions might be closed - so you must be able to work your way around any situation.

Now for the inside scoop - what's it 'really' like to be a guidebook writer? Could you describe a 'typical' day on the road?

Kim Wildman: In spite of what most people believe, being a guidebook writer is not nearly as fun or as glamorous as it seems. In fact, it's a lot of hard work. While most people imagine that my life is like being on one long holiday, nothing could be further from the truth. It's a job and, like any job, you have responsibilities and deadlines to meet. Not to mention the fact that you have all these other travellers relying on you to get the most up-to-date and accurate information about the destination you are covering. It's a lot of pressure. So while everyone else is relaxing on the beach or leisurely taking in the sights, my days are usually spent running around between tourist offices, attractions, restaurants and hotels, talking to numerous PR people and frantically scribbling notes.

solo womenKim, hard at work

What's worse, I'm usually dripping in sweat and wearing the same smelly clothes that I've been wearing for days on end. And then, when the sun goes down, if I'm not out gathering more information about the nightlife of a place I'm usually alone in my hotel room typing everything up. Not all days are the same of course. While I might be run off my feet in a major city one day, the next I might be in a remote village in the middle of nowhere with only a handful of places to cover.

What are some of your best memories as a travel writer?
solo womenBran Castle, Transylvania: 
Dracula was here

Dan Nevill via Flickr CC

Kim Wildman: I've had so many great experiences while I've been on the road. A few stand outs include having dinner with a real Transylvanian Count in a castle in Romania; spending five days in the mountains of the Transkei in South Africa as one of only two outsiders invited to witness the inauguration ceremony of a Traditional Healer; and attending a small ANZAC Day dawn service in Tobruk in Libya to honour the Rats of Tobruk. More often than not though, it is the seemingly little things that have provided me with some of my best memories such as sharing a long breakfast with my driver and his family in their home in Moldova; watching the sunset over Lake Victoria in Tanzania; and seeing snow for the very first time (at the age of 30) in Romania.

And some of your worst?
travel writingBeware border crossings
Kecko via Flickr CC

Kim Wildman: I wouldn't say that I've had any bad memories per se, but there have certainly been instances when things have gone spectacularly wrong - I was held up at gun-point in South Africa, I was almost arrested in the breakaway Republic of Transdneistr in Moldova for arriving at the border crossing half an hour late and most recently I wound up in hospital in Jamaica after contracting a severe case of salmonella food poisoning from something I ate in Cuba. Even then though, in spite of how terrified I may have felt at the time I really feel like I have learned so much these experiences and as a result I have grown stronger as both an individual and as a writer.

Is there a destination you are still desperate to write about?

Kim Wildman: I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Cuba last year which had always been at the top of my 'must see, must cover' list. So now I'm a little at a loss as for a destination that I am 'desperate' to cover. Mind you, I've always really wanted to travel through Central and South America - perhaps hike the Inca Trail or go Tango dancing in Argentina. At heart though, I'm an Africa addict and while I lived in South Africa for three years and have worked throughout the continent there many countries I am yet to visit. Maybe one day I'll even get to do the complete trek from Cape to Cairo.

solo womenArgentine tango: still to do
Joel Mann via Flickr CC
What is your best advice for women who want to become travel writers?

Kim Wildman: I'd simply say never give up. We've all been rejected - JK Rowling was rejected nine times before some wise editor glimpsed the magic of Harry Potter. So follow your passion and hold on to your dreams no matter what.

Also never let anyone tell you that cannot do something because you are a woman. Whenever I'm in doubt of my own abilities as a woman I just think of Mary Henrietta Kingsley, an English writer and explorer, who during the late 1800s travelled through parts of Africa I still haven't been to, dressed in those ridiculous, voluminous Victorian get-ups. She even fought off a crocodile with a paddle - you go girl!

What is the most important personal lesson you've learned as a travel writer?

Kim Wildman: To be flexible. In spite of the best laid plans, things can and will go wrong - flights get cancelled, bags go missing and people will undoubtedly let you down. Getting upset and bursting a boiler over something you have no control of won't change the situation. So learn to let go and just go with the flow.

And finally - I couldn't get away with not asking you this - can you actually make a living as a travel writer?

Kim Wildman: Yes, you can certainly make a living, but just don't expect to get rich. The best strategy is to diversify your writing and sources of income. Say, for example, you are working on a guidebook to a particular destination, you should try and supplement this work with writing magazine articles about different aspects of it or perhaps writing some hotel or restaurant reviews for another publisher. 

travel writingNew Orleans: travel discoveries everywhere
Joel Mann via Flickr CC

It is certainly not easy, and it will probably take several years of hard work and scraping by before you'll reach an acceptable level of income. So if you place great value on having a plump pay packet and owning lots of fancy things, then this is not the job for you.

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