In The Spotlight: Hilary Bradt
By Timothy Vivian-Shaw
A travel industry veteran, Hilary Bradt is best known for the guide book range that bears her name. Launched in 1973, Bradt Travel Guides have become synonymous with off the beaten track experiences. Offering local insight and advice, the books take travellers far beyond the average tourist itinerary and help them to immerse themselves in the culture of their destination. From remote villages of Madagascar to the soaring peaks of the Andes, Hilary’s travel experiences are enough to inspire anyone to hit the open road! We caught up with Hilary to chat about what inspires her, the importance of local knowledge and how Bradt Guides has evolved over the years…
TL: What do you think initially inspired you to travel? How did that interest evolve into producing guide books?
My first trip abroad without my parents was as a student in 1961. I went to Greece with a couple of friends, and I think the exhilaration of travelling independently, seeing what we wanted to see, and hitchhiking gave me the taste for the exotic. And Greece, in those days, was very exotic. That curiosity about other places led me further and further afield.
TL: Your guides often focus on exotic or off the beaten track destinations, many of which are not yet covered by other guide books, what draws you to these kind of places?
I just love the adventure of travelling off the beaten track. The first guide came about because my (then) husband and I had been backpacking in the Andes, exploring the network of trails used by the locals to travel from village to village, and we realised that we had some unique information. In 1973 there was only one guidebook to South America, and that was the South American Handbook, aimed largely at business travellers. So we self-published a guide to backpacking in Peru, which included the first ever description of the Inca Trail. Since then I’ve never seen the point of publishing a guide to a place covered by other guidebooks.
TL: What’s the process behind producing a guide book? Does local knowledge and experience play a part in it?
The choice of author is crucial. Ideally they live in the country or have recently lived there, and know it well. Local knowledge is essential. No foreigner knows everything about a country, so all authors seek information from the locals as much as possible, while bearing in mind that it may not always be accurate. In the developing world, local knowledge of natural history is very often shaped by superstition and folklore. All facts have to be checked. We are conscientious in ensuring as much as possible that our authors have done their research and got their facts right. This editing process is one of the advantages of published guidebooks over internet information that has not been edited or checked.
TL: We’ve heard that your special area of expertise is Madagascar - do you have any top tips for people thinking of travelling to that part of the world?
Buy the Bradt guide! It’s such a richly varied country that you can’t really summarise it in tips. But I would say don’t try to see too much – it’s a huge island with poor infrastructure – and while luxury resorts are now opening up, this is still an emerging destination and travel does not always run smoothly.
TL: What are your favourite memories of your travel and research experiences? Any great stories to share?
It’s hard to know how to answer this one without writing an essay… there are so many memories I could choose! I wrote one of my most memorable experiences into a piece for Africa Geographic so that’s a good one to share. It focused on a day’s walk that I took in Andapa, Eastern Madagascar, and the isolated village communities I interacted with along the way. It was a truly incredible experience - the locals, while not well acquainted with tourists, were so friendly and welcoming. It was a cultural exchange in its purest form: swapping anecdotes and stories in broken fragments of one another's’ languages.
TL: We often hear from our customers that they are constantly surprised by the different cultures and traditions they encounter while travelling. Have any of the destinations you’ve visited and researched overturned your expectations?
I suppose the topsy-turvy world of North Korea, which I visited last September, would be the most surprising, both in the smiley people, even the officials, and the extraordinary deference paid to images and statues of the former leaders. And I think perhaps Guatemala is the country least influenced by western culture that I’ve visited. The customs and costumes were beautiful and extraordinary.
TL: Our ethos is all about bringing travellers as close as possible to local expertise. Have you ever been saved by a bit of local advice?
There must be lots of times but my memory is drawing a blank. But there have been plenty of times where I was dependent on local advice. For example when my husband George and I crossed the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama on foot in 1978 there was absolutely no information available since it was considered too dangerous and difficult. So we travelled from village to village, sometimes on foot, sometimes by canoe, with the villagers helping us get to the next settlement, until we emerged in Panama after three weeks of seeing only these friendly, isolated indigenous people. It was a wonderful experience.
TL: What’s next for you? Any dream travel destinations still on the bucket-list?
I’ve had a long-term dream of going to Socotra, a remote island in the Arabian Sea with extraordinary flora. But I’m afraid that dream is further away than ever – it’s a dependency of Yemen.
Make it happen
If you want to hear more from Hilary, check out her website: https://hilarybradt.com/hilary/ or head over to https://www.bradtguides.com/. If you want to get to know Madagascar, explore the culture of Guatemala or cross the Andes, contact our local experts and get your planning underway!