I’m often asked how to become a guidebook writer. For me, it was a combination of timing, luck and bloody-mindedness. I started in the late 1980s, just as the industry was beginning a decade-long boom (good timing), approached a company which was already planning a guide to Australia (luck, as I was just about to emigrate there), and then harassed them for two years until they gave me work (bloody-mindedness).
Since then I’ve written – and regularly updated – guidebooks to Australia, China, Indonesia, Iceland, Hong Kong and Malaysia for Rough Guides, Dorling Kindersley and others. Each edition typically saw me spending months at a time on the road, sleeping in a different bed every night and filling up exercise books with notes on peoples, places and prices.
Below are thumbnails of a few of my titles, what they meant to me, and what I got from writing them.
Rough Guide to Australia
This was my first guidebook, and one that taught me a lot about my newly-adopted home. I covered Queensland and the northern parts of South Australia, bouncing my kidneys to jelly along rough Outback tracks in an ancient Toyota Landcruiser. One of the highlights was making it to Cape York, right at the very northernmost tip of Australia, but every night spent camping in the bush, the air thick with that unique scent of gum trees and red dust, was an unforgettable bonus. I also learned to scuba dive, abandoned beer for Bundaberg rum, discovered a historic shipwreck, fossicked for gemstones, saw tree kangaroos, survived a shark attack and a diet of roadhouse burgers, and still believe that Surfers’ Paradise is the sleaziest place in the country. I updated every edition of the guide (eight of them) until I left Australia in 2008.
Rough Guide to China
Cheerfully ignoring the fact that China is as large as Europe or the USA, my employers split the country between just three of us, with a freelancer covering Tibet. Not surprisingly the first edition took two years to research and write, when I did nothing but eat, breathe and live China. In later editions I subcontracted out some of this immense workload and focused on the southwestern regions – Sichuan, Chongqing, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi – though by swapping with other authors I managed, at one time or another, to cover most of the rest of the country (I’ve still never made it to the northeast). Spending an average of six months on the road for each research trip, I stuck with the book until after the eighth edition in 2016, clocking up over four years in China’s backblocks and authoring several other guidebooks along the way. It’s impossible to give a brief account of how thoroughly the country has wormed its way into my life, but a look at the rest of this website might begin to give an idea.
Rough Guide to Indonesia
I was living overseas when the other authors got together in London to plan this book, so I got left with the bits nobody else wanted: Sulawesi, most of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and Maluku, the far-flung “Spice Islands”. But things worked out brilliantly. I saw some fabulous wildlife – orang-utan, proboscis monkeys, flying lizards, birds of paradise and green tree pythons – spent time with an exorcist and a carpenter who kept his grandmother’s skull on the mantlepiece, footstepped one of my zoological heroes, Alfred Wallace, dived on some pristine reefs and generally spent six months travelling off the map. It would have been better if I hadn’t developed shingles or been beaten up during a riot in Ujung Pandang, but you can’t have everything your own way. Unfortunately, Indonesia erupted in violence just as the book came out, and most of the areas I’d written about became no-go zones; it sold about a dozen copies and was the first of my titles to be discontinued.
Rough Guide to Hong Kong & Macau
I took over the Rough Guide to Hong Kong & Macau from the original author in 2005, nudging the text away from its British expat perspective towards a more Chinese viewpoint. Being in Hong Kong for extended periods allowed me to moonlight in martial arts studies between the usual pleasures of road-testing restaurants and hiking surprisingly rugged trails across the New Territories (where I literally tripped over cobras, abandoned villages and overgrown gun emplacements from WWII). The title was shelved indefinitely in 2012, though I’ve continued to work on a cut-down spinoff, the Pocket Guide to Hong Kong & Macau.
Rough Guide to Iceland
People usually laugh when I trot this one out; Iceland is so out of character with my main Asia-Pacific interests. But I first visited this Nordic outpost in 1981 and, frankly, have always enjoyed covering somewhere a little less demanding than my other titles: the first edition took just six weeks to research and only three months to write. Even better, I didn’t have to learn yet another language, as nearly everyone speaks English – though in deference to national pride, I’ve done my best to master Icelandic pronunciation. Iceland remains one of my favourite places, small enough to be accessible, yet raw enough to inspire a sense of solitude and discovery. I’ve updated every edition, most recently in 2015, and also authored Top 10 Iceland for Dorling Kindersley.