Interview with travel writer and author Deanna Swaney.
Deanna, when did your passion for travel and travel writing begin, and what kept you going?
My passion for writing began as a child. My father was a newspaper reporter, editor and photographer. He taught me to read and write before I went to school, and provided all the inspiration to steer me in that direction.
In addition and unlike anyone else in my family I always longed to travel, even on road trips as little as 20 miles from home! Having said that, my first real international trip was a very low budget three-month spin around Europe and the Middle East after graduating university, and it became clear that my desire to travel was probably insatiable.
After a trip to Bolivia in 1986, I decided that Lonely Planet needed a Bolivia book, so I wrote up a sample chapter and sent it to Tony Wheeler. He liked it, commissioned the book, and then offered one project after another, much to my delight, of course!
What kept me going was not only my innate love of travel in general, but a growing interest in travelling for a purpose writing, trekking, photography, and spiritual pursuits and a real joy in the opportunity to see first-hand all the wonderful (and even not-so-wonderful) things the world has to offer.
I noticed you have travelled widely in Africa. Could you describe to our readers five most unique and perhaps romantic venues in Africa that you have visited, and what makes them so special?
It will be very difficult to limit that list to five, but I’ll try!
My favourite spot in Africa is undoubtedly the Tsodilo Hills, in northwestern Botswana. This little range of four small hills rises from the flat Kalahari and is considered by the local San (Bushmen) to be the site of Creation, as well as the heart of their world. The hills are covered with ancient rock paintings, which are said to have been done by the ancestors of the San, and it’s quite simply the most enigmatic and spiritual place I’ve even visited, and I return again and again, each time seeing and discovering more wonderful things there. On one hike alone through a remote part of the hills, I surprised a pack of 17 wild dogs, and felt both vulnerable and exhilarated at the same time.
Another wonderful spot is Lianshulu Lodge in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. It’s rather simple as Namibian safari lodges go, but the surrounding landscape is reminiscent of the Okavango Delta, without the tourism hype or extortionate high prices. It’s heaven sitting out at night listening to the elephants trumpeting, the hippos belching, and a dozen species of frogs calling from the wetlands.
The third spot is Canyon Adventures in the northern reaches of southern Namibia’s Fish River Canyon. It’s owned by friends of mine, who came from South Africa and purchased their own personal Grand Canyon. Here the landscape resembles images sent back from Mars, with fields of rocks baked black in the sun and some of the most fascinating geology on the planet. On one visit, I hiked alone for six days through the hills and canyons, sleeping under the stars every night, and swimming in waterholes during the afternoon heat. During the trip, I saw no one else, but did manage to share a waterhole with a leopard one night, and all along the route passed through some truly incredible and inspiring terrain.
Then there’s the remote and very unique Jungle Junction, along the Zambezi River in Zambia, which is a sort of counter-cultural venue on a remote jungled island mid-stream. Visitors arrive in dugout canoes poled by friendly local people, and the experience feels akin to what David Livingstone must have felt the first time he was taken to Victoria Falls. Guests camp in simple jungle tents or very basic cabins; one of these is actually on a raft moored in the river, where guests are lulled to sleep by a raging current just inches from their pillows!
In another part of Africa entirely, a particularly impressive place is Karnak at Luxor, Egypt. While it’s all very touristy, the scale of the place is overwhelming, and one can only feel insignificant in the face of so much mystery and apparent skill in the construction of the place.
Other amazing venues in Africa, which I’d mention in more detail if you’d allowed me ten or more sights (!), are Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe; Lamu and Mt Kenya in Kenya; Berenty Reserve in Madagascar; the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana; and the Naukluft, Kaokoland and Skeleton Coast in Namibia.
How easy or difficult is it to travel in Africa?
Obviously, some countries are easier than others. For those who aren’t travelling on organised tours, the most straightforward are Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, where visitors can hire a car and get around quite easily, and in fact these countries have been dubbed Africa for Beginners.
In general, the further north you go, the more difficult things become at least until you reach Egypt and the Mediterranean Coast, which are quite easily tackled – but Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and non-war zones in West Africa enjoy relatively good public transport systems that facilitate independent travel.
Where are the Faroe Islands and what can travellers expect to find there?
The Faroes, which belongs to Denmark, is an archipelago of 18 very green islands about midway between Scotland and Iceland, but the green comes at a price, as one can expect rainfall and generally very nasty weather about 300 day a year.
On the other hand, there’s no need to worry about tourist crowds, and those with webbed feet will find some spectacular hiking, as well as very impressive sea cliffs, bird colonies and an ancient Scandinavian culture that still speaks a derivative of Old Norse, which was spoken by the early Viking settlers on the islands.
Visitors can also expect to see more ovine than human Faroese, and may even witness the traditiona, quirky and controversial grindadrap, which involves rounding up and slaughtering pods of hundreds of pilot whales for food.
Can you explain some of your research techniques, and how you found sources for your various guidebooks?
Every country was different. In some, especially those with active tourist offices, it was easy to find contacts and sites of interest. In others, such as Bolivia the first time around, and for most of my other first edition books on developing countries, I was pretty much on my own.
In such places, I’d see a place on the map and try to get there to find out what there might be of interest to readers. Of course, this was all before the days of the Internet and hosts of competing guidebooks, which have recently made researching anywhere in the world much easier.
How have you used the Internet in arranging your travel and in boosting your career?
Over the past 10 years, the Internet has been a wonderful tool and has made research considerably more convenient than it was in the days when the only information one could find on some countries was an old article in a National Geographic or an obscure 18th century explorer’s journal! Of course, it has also made it possible to advertise my career and secure new gigs. In fact, the project I’m working on now came to me through www.guidebookwriters.com
If you were to pick one country that impressed you the most, which one would it be, and why?
That’s an easy one Namibia. I’ve always been inspired by Africa, deserts, wilderness, hiking opportunities, wildlife, geology and unique cultures, and Namibia enjoys all these features in abundance. It’s also a reasonably affordable and relatively safe venue for travellers.
Close runners-up would be Nepal, Tonga, Portugal, Bolivia, Australia and just about every part of the USA.
What does travel mean to you?
Hmm, that one isn’t so easy. I think more than anything, it’s a lifestyle and of course an addiction. When I’m not travelling, I’m thinking of travelling, and dreaming of travelling, but not so much due to wanderlust as to a perceived imperative to seek out some unspecified ideal. As I said before, it’s a spiritual quest although I’m not exactly sure what will be found on that quest.
What is next for Deanna Swaney?
At the moment, I’m working on a Dorling-Kindersley Eyewitness Guide to Alaska. Having had my base in Alaska for the past 27 years, it’s a joy to have the opportunity to explore close to home and see my backyard from a new perspective.
Is there anything else you wish to add to our interview?
Only to tell readers that organised travel can be great if they have only two or three weeks, but for those with more time, independent travel isn’t as expensive or difficult as they may imagine, and can be infinitely rewarding. Oh yes, and that in my travels, I’ve never found a place without some sort of beauty or interest.
The above interview was conducted by: Norm Goldman, Editor of Sketchandtravel.com.