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Bradt Travel Guides - How the faithful guide books all started

Bradt Guides, now one of the biggest and leading guide book publishers in the world, was founded over 40 years ago. Their Founder, Hilary Bradt, spoke to MD Adrian Philips at Destinations London last year about her experiences of travelling in undiscovered world and writing her first guide book.

Adrian Phillips: What was the first book you wrote and what prompted you to start it?

Hilary Bradt: Well, I was travelling with my then husband on a kind of honey moon. He was a keen hiker and I loved South America so we agreed we would go on the condition that we went backpacking. Now, I initially thought this was a very bad idea because in those days backpacking meant hiking which would have been very intense and hard work. It brought back terrible memories of climbing Scottish mountains as a child in the fog and rain, which was completely miserable. However, South America and the Andes was incredible for walking and so I was convinced. When we were planning our trip we realised that there weren’t any travel guides. There was The South American Handbook but this was aimed more at business travellers rather than general tourists and we thought it would be nice to write an article about the places we found and the trails we had discovered. It evolved from this into a little guide book. I sent it to my mother from a small village in the Amazon for her to check as it was riddled with spelling mistakes as my husband was dyslexic and I couldn’t type in those days so he had typed it. She printed 2000 copies for us and it took off from there!

Adrian Phillips: What other guide books were around at that time?

Hilary Bradt: This was 1974. Lonely Planet had started a year before us and their territory was South East Asia. There certainly wasn’t a feeling that we were stepping on each other’s toes. All the first guide books we did were on America and had a focus on hiking and walking. We did 11 initial books on South, Central and North America before we broadened out to Africa.

Adrian Phillips: You were one of the first people to walk the Inca Trail, something that is very familiar to us now - so much so that they are starting to have to restrict numbers that hike the trail each year. How was that?

Hilary Bradt: Yes, that is something I am proud of. I walked the Inca Trail in 1974 when very few people were doing it. I’d say maybe one two others were doing it each day when we did it. There was no clear route and the clearest paths were often the wrong paths because people had gone there and then come back again! The Inca Trail was one of the trails that made us decide to do the first book, Backpacking along Ancient Ways in Peru and Bolivia. We wanted to share the pleasure we had experienced with other travellers.

Adrian Phillips: You really have been at the frontier of guidebooks, what changes have you seen over the years?

Hilary Bradt: First of all, I’d just like to say that I don’t believe in the death of the guidebook! True travellers will always want that kind of information that you are provided with in a guide book. Our little yellow guides were riddled with spelling errors and they looked pretty awful, but what was useful was the unique information they provided. Now, there is much more emphasis on the look and feel of guidebooks and there is significantly more competition!

Adrian Phillips: Of course, being one of the first guidebook publishers and an adventurous traveller there were times when this was a bit of a risky business. In your new book, The Irresponsible Traveller, you give some amazing anecdotes and tell of some narrow escapes. How many times have you been arrested?

Hilary Bradt: Well, the name of the book came about because since the 1990’s I have had an emphasis on responsible travel and ensuring we respect and understand other people’s cultures and appreciate the impact that tourism has on communities on both an environmental and social level. Prior to that, I had been a lot less responsible on my travels. To answer your question about being arrested, I was arrested three times in Africa in the 11 months we took to travel through. Africa was just like that in those days. We were arrested in Tanzania for taking a photo in the market. A soldier approached us and asked us, did we not know that you need a permit to take a photograph in Tanzania? Can you imagine it now! We replied that we were unaware of this rule, to which he said ignorance of the law was no defence and took us to the police station. Whilst we were in custody they developed our film and it turned out we had been within five miles of a military installation and as such they destroyed our photographs.

I was also arrested in Ethiopia and Uganda. In July 1976 Uganda was not the kind of place that you wanted to travel in and it certainly wasn’t a great idea for us to decide to visit a botanical garden in a place called Entebbe. When we went to the bus station and tried to buy a ticket to go there, we were arrested pretty quickly. This was just two days after the Entebbe raid where an Isreali plane was hijacked and rescued by commandos of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). It was rather horrible, we were held on a bus for hours under machine-gun guard. I thought that might end badly. I was particularly worried when they pulled my husband forward and one of the officers spoke to him – I thought they were going to take him out and shoot him. When he came back, he had a wry smile on his face. The officer had said that the commanding officer wanted to come and interrogate us but that he had run out of petrol on the way. He asked us to turn ourselves in at the police station and had drawn a little map of how to get there! Needless to say, we got the hell out of Uganda pretty quickly!

Find out more about the misadventures of Hilary Bradt in her book, The Irresponsible Traveller: Tales of Scrapes and Narrow Escapes avaliable at Stanfords Book Store.

To learn more about the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival and who will be speaking at the show here. Has this article inspired you to travel to some new destinations? Check out the Destinations Exhibitor List to see which travel experts you can meet at the show.