For millions who came of age before mobile phones and cheap flights, tucking a guidebook into a backpack and heading off the beaten track was a rite of passage. The godfather of that poste restante world was Geoff Crowther.
An underground travel publisher and early stalwart of Lonely Planet guidebooks, Crowther, who has died aged 77, was the original hippy traveller. Famed for his eccentric advice, hand-drawn maps and crowdsourced tips for cut-price hostels and how to manage humourless border guards, his shoestring guides took young thrill-seekers with the right passports into the nooks and crannies of the world.
“You weren’t travelling with a guidebook, you were travelling with a trusted friend,” says Ryan Ver Berkmoes, who was inspired by Crowther to write 130 Lonely Planet guidebooks of his own. “He was the guy sitting next to you in the bar saying: ‘Do it! You might get stranded in some obscure corner, you might catch a disease or two, but you can do it and here’s how.’”
Born in 1944 in Halifax, Yorkshire, to mill workers Susie and George Crowther, he began hitchhiking around Europe in his teens. He studied biochemistry at the University of Liverpool and contemplated staying on for a PhD. But instead he took to the road, heading east on the hippy trail that led from Europe to south Asia.
In 1972 he arrived at BIT, an underground press-cum-collective in London, which had produced a stapled hippy trail guide of travellers’ handwritten tips. Crowther was tasked with writing up a second version. Three weeks later, the 100-page Overland to India and Australia appeared. Crowther recalled how he and co-author Nicholas Albery “spent the next 48 hours drinking wine and smoking mushrooms nonstop while we churned out a thousand copies of the new guide on the second-hand manually-operated duplicating machine”.
The guide became a cult accessory for hippy trail cognoscenti. Fans included Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who used it on their own trek in 1972. The following year the pair founded Lonely Planet guidebooks, and in 1976 they tracked down Crowther. “I suggested he turn his work with BIT on Africa into something we could publish as a guidebook,” recalls Tony Wheeler. “Africa was his real specialty and he’d never made a cent.”
Out of this meeting came Lonely Planet’s iconic Africa on a Shoestring. Crowther wrote and drew the maps for the first edition. Information about African countries he’d not visited drew on letters from other travellers.
Unsurprisingly, the book’s advice wasn’t always reliable. In a 1986 column, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recounted a conversation with fellow travellers in Burkina Faso about whether to follow its recommendations. “Geoff is often wrong,” they agreed. “But nevertheless we began to talk about him in worshipful tones, recognising him as the patron saint of travellers in the Third World.”
The title stuck and his reputation grew. Crowther “got to start making money doing the things I was already doing for free”, he later told his son. But funds at the company were short. “We didn’t have any money for advances at first, we just said: ‘Go do it and we’ll pay you a royalty,’” says Wheeler.
In the late 1970s, Crowther moved to Australia, basing himself in a converted banana shed on a New South Wales commune. While working on a guidebook in South Korea, he met a young woman, Hyung Poon. In 1982 they were married in Seoul. The couple lived in a large wooden house he built in the New South Wales rainforest. In 1989, their son Ashley was born.
Crowther produced guides to multiple countries on three continents. David Else, another Lonely Planet writer, met him in “disreputable bars” in Kenya in the 1980s, where Crowther “was always the life and soul of the party”.
Over time, Geoff’s demons were brought out by heavy drinking. His marriage to Poon ended in 2000, and he had a brief second marriage to a woman he met in Kenya. By the early 2000s, he had stopped writing the guidebooks and was broke after his second divorce.
In 2004, Poon and her partner invited him into his former house to live with them. The next year he sustained a head injury in an accident and was transferred to a care facility. He is survived by Ashley, a photographer, and Poon.
Lonely Planet’s Africa guide is now in its 14th edition, a slickly produced, 1,120-page tome with 24 contributors. But the ethos of Crowther’s first edition remains: “The hardest part is making the decision to go. The rest is easy and will turn into one of the best buzzes you’ve ever experienced.”