Interview with Hilary Bradt – Travel Writer and Publisher

Despite the abundance of data on the internet, guidebooks remain the most trusted source of travel information. I remain in deference to writers whose curiosity and articulacy inspire and guide so many personal adventures. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting with Hilary Bradt, intrepid traveller, travel writer and co-founder of the Bradt Travel Guides, who gave me an insight into the world of travel writing and guidebook publishing. She also spoke at length about her trips to Ireland, two of which are detailed in her recent books “Connemara Mollie: An Irish journey on Horseback” and “Dingle Peggy: Further travels on Horseback through Ireland”.

Hilary’s love of horses extends back to her childhood, and in 1984 she planned for a lengthy horse trek in Iceland. Mistaking her hand-writing, her friends agreed that Ireland would be the ideal place for such a trip given the tradition and history of horses. And so, after changing her mind, Hilary found herself in Galway purchasing Mollie, a grey Connemara pony. After spending some time bonding with the initially sulky horse in Connemara, they headed south from Galway with Dingle as the final destination. “Connemara Mollie” charts the journey and narrates the personal connection made between Hilary and the pony. The trek comes to a tragic end outside Dingle (I’ll say no more – read the book) which Hilary describes as the worst of only two negative travel experiences she has had. Not wanting to let this incident sour the rest of her life, Hilary returned to Dingle a few weeks later and hired Peggy, the small, brown pony who travelled with her through the five counties of Munster east of the Shannon. This trip not only helped build Hilary’s confidence after the heart-breaking end to the Mollie trek but also exorcised the unhappy memories of her only other negative travel experience – a rain-soaked, windswept childhood trudge traversing the bogs and mountains of my own pretty parish!

Hilary wrote the Mollie and Peggy books immediately after the trips but the scripts remained in her attic until Bradt branched out into publishing travel narratives in recent years. What strikes one most about the Connemara and Dingle books is the frank and honest account which Hilary gives of the trials and tribulations of both journeys. And it is this honesty and candour which one will find throughout the Bradt travel guide series and has been the guiding principle since the foundation of the company in 1974. Indeed, encountering a lack of authenticity in the publishing world when completing the second edition of the first guide made Bradt realise that integrity would be the unique selling point. When Hilary and George lacked the funds to return to Peru to complete a mainstream guide, an unnamed publisher advised them to acquire their information from brochures at the tourist office. “We were horrified” says Hilary. “If that’s the world of publishing…we don’t want to be a part of it”. Their reluctance to compromise quality meant financing their second title required thinking outside the box. Hilary worked as an occupational therapist whilst George (Co-founder) went to work for a printer with the agreement that he would be paid in books. “The outcome was 3000 copies each of two new books which sold well enough for us to decide to ditch the day jobs and get into travel and publishing full-time”, adds Hilary.

The first six books were unique in that all were backpacking guides to the Americas. Their 1979 guide, ‘Backpacking in North America: the great outdoors’ was the first British-published guide to the USA. In the early days, the decision to focus on niche markets and pioneering emerging destinations wasn’t a conscious choice although the decision to focus on South America and Africa was. “I knew those two continents and Lonely Planet were making inroads into South East Asia”, explained Hilary. With such a niche, it is inevitable that Bradt’s target audience is equally unique as the guides are most popular amongst adventurous travellers, journalists and NGO employees in the developing world. Bizarrely, the Bradt guide to North Korea sells more copies than the total number of tourists entering the country!

Hilary says her best travel experience was arriving at the Gateway of the Sun in Peru in 1974 and looking down on Machu Picchu below. However, Madagascar is the country which has become her specialist subject having been inspired to travel there by a talk from a South African zoo collector. Hilary first visited the island in 1976 becoming immediately captivated by the wildlife and people. She reckons she has returned around 35 times, seeing a new species of animal each time. She has lectured extensively on Madagascar, wrote the Bradt guide for the country, has led tours there, and is patron of a number of its charities. Another place which rates highly on her list of recent destinations is Borneo.

From having written the first Bradt guide on a barge floating down a tributary of the Amazon in 1974 to the experiences she has had since then, I was keen to discover what her preferred role is. Unsurprisingly, it is travel writing, although she finds the combination of writing and lecturing a good balance. Since stepping down as head of the company in 2007 she has been awarded an MBE for services to the tourist industry and to charity. In 2009, Hilary received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Guild of Travel Writers.

Hilary’s achievements in the travel industry along with her back catalogue of writing are truly impressive as is her lifelong commitment to sustainable travel and boundless physical energy – She’s 72 but looks 50. Travelling positively is her travel philosophy and she encourages us to abandon bias and preconceptions. This philosophy has championed tourism in the developing world via the guides and has positively impacted those places from a social and economic perspective, Rwanda most notably. I have a keen interest in the role of tourism in post-conflict peace-building, and as a result, many of the Bradt travel guides cover destinations where I can contribute to this process. So, when I arrive in countries such as Bosnia & Herzegovina, Angola or Macedonia, Hilary and her team will thankfully have done the ground work. Isn’t it great leaving the tough work to others!

Image© Hazel Joy 2013

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