June 28, 2011

Unlikely Destinations.

I just finished reading Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story. The title basically speaks for itself. It's Tony and Maureen Wheeler's story of how they set off on a year long trip around the world in 1972 with the intention of getting the proverbial travel bug out of their systems. During this trip, they were not only bit harder by this vicious bug, but after following the "hippie trail" from England across Asia to Australia, they recognized the need for a travel guide to suit a new breed of independent travelers. A million dollar idea was born.

Thirty years later, they are the owners of one of the world's largest, most successful independent publishing companies with offices on three continents, with 400 employees, 250 writers, more than 600 titles in print and annual sales of over 6 million books.

However, it was an incredibly long and arduous road to arrive at such success. In describing yet another scenario of "getting going and going broke," Tony described his early experiences dealing with the Australian port system.

He writes:

In May, our ship came in. I attached a rental trailer to the tatty old Ford and drove off to the docks to collect our books, straight into the arms of what would be one of my pet hates for the next few years -- the Australian dock system.  Australian dockers are still not the best in the world, but in the mid-1970s they were among the worst. At that time, third-world workers equipped with nothing more than some tattered ropes and a wonky plank could unload a ship ten times faster than Australian dockers armed with everything from cranes to forklifts. For many years, the docks remained a last bastion of Stone Age unionism and their institutionalized inefficiency was a prime disincentive to doing more of our printing in Australia rather than in Asia.

Long lines of trucks were always waiting at the docks and drivers, who did want to get on with the job, cursing the time they wasted waiting for the dockers to lift a finger. Until we could afford to use a proper freight agent to clear out shipments, I made many pre-dawn trips out to the docks to be the first in line when the gates opened.


One of my greatest fascinations living in Tanzania is the long queue of container ships that can be seen at any given time on the Indian Ocean, awaiting arrival into Dar es Salaam's sluggishly slow port system. I am in no position to compare, but I cannot imagine that Tony's Australian port system woes of the mid-1970s are any real match for today's nightmarish port system of Dar es Salaam that plagues Tanzania and several of its landlocked neighbors. Just saying.

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