In conversation with Audley’s founder, Craig Burkinshaw
As we celebrate 20 years of extraordinary adventures, we put some questions to founder Craig Burkinshaw about his experiences, how travel has changed and where you can go to make a difference...
1. What was your inspiration for setting up Audley (formerly Asian Journeys) 20 years ago?
That’s an easy one. I’ve always been entrepreneurial so I've never been able to contemplate the idea of working for somebody else. Travelling after university I visited and fell in love with Vietnam, and on my return I realised that nobody was arranging travel to the country as it was just opening up. This was the opportunity I needed; I knew the country and I could be my own boss and in an area that I loved — travel. I didn’t hesitate and placed a small advert in The Sunday Times.
2. What changes have you seen in the travel industry over the last 20 years?
In the 1980s people mainly travelled independently or on small group tours to more adventurous destinations around the world, like Brazil and India. We realised that many of these people actually preferred to travel on a private tailor-made basis but that it was poorly catered for.
In my area of travel I have seen more people travelling to more unusual destinations in all corners of the globe. For me there is nothing as eye-opening and interesting as travel.
3. When and where did you first begin travelling?
I had moved to London and was studying at the LSE (London School of Economics). We were in the bar watching the evening news as the Berlin Wall was collapsing. I said to a friend 'we have to go there now', so we skipped lectures and flew to Berlin the next morning. In a whirlwind five days we explored West and East Berlin and drove through East Germany visiting Weimar and Leipzig. An incredible journey at an exceptional point in time.
On finishing university I hitched a lift on a lorry to Bordeaux. I then spent two weeks hitching through France, Switzerland and Belgium. I had £200 to spend so to save money and to get a more interesting experience I slept rough the whole time in woods, fields and parks. Fortunately it didn’t rain! It proved to be one of my most memorable experiences.
The budget was tight because I had saved all of my money for a round-the-world trip. I set off at the end of summer with my girlfriend at the time to travel around India, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. Leaving Southeast Asia we travelled in Australia and then bought a clapped out 1975 Morris Marina to explore New Zealand. Within a couple of months of returning to the UK I had started what turned into Audley Travel.
4. What was the first tailor-made trip that you planned?
A trip through Vietnam by river, road and rail for BA pilot Rolf Richardson and his wife Audrey. Coincidentally we were chatting last week about a book he has just written called 'Coffin Corner'. I’ve bought it and will read it next. Thirteen trips with Audley to date, most recently Mexico and we're still in touch which is lovely.
5. How would you describe what it means to travel on an Audley trip today?
It goes without saying but you can’t do everything. Our role is to distil, from the vast array of options, a journey that captures the places and experiences that will be most interesting and memorable for you in particular. Your travels should complement and contrast with other journeys that you have undertaken.
From what you see, to where you stay and how you travel, be it land, river, air or road, the experience should be richly varied and contain an element of the unexpected. Our hand-picked local guides are the key ingredient, ensuring you get the most out of every moment. Most of all you should gain an insight and appreciation of what makes these people and places tick that cannot be obtained from any book or travel documentary, no matter how good.
6. Describe a time you helped an Audley Traveller achieve a unique travel goal. What trip idea did they bring to you and how were you able to help make their experience happen?
A year or so after I began a couple called to say they wanted to do an extensive trip through Southeast Asia. Unusually, they had around eight weeks available so this allowed me to create a unique journey through Indochina, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia. This was the first time I had a chance to arrange something so extensive. It was incredibly varied and quite complicated, but it was an absolute joy to put together and it worked wonderfully so that really sticks in my mind.
7. What is the most memorable trip you’ve planned for an Audley Traveller?
Not long after World War II, four Englishmen managed to drive two Land Rovers overland from Europe to Singapore through South Asia and Myanmar. They wrote a book about it — 'First Overland' by Tim Slessor. Fifty years later one of them approached me wanting to revisit various points on the journey, so I put together a trip with some awkward logistics to get to some quite remote places.
The trip down memory lane was a great success, and on his return he came to see me at the Audley office and gave a talk and slideshow one evening to the staff. The stories and images mixed the original journey with the recent trip and showed some great tales of adventure. It was fascinating to see how places had changed over time, some very little, like Myanmar, and some completely, like Singapore.
8. What are the top travel experiences you’ve had while working with Audley?
In the last few years I've been on repeated trips to Rajasthan, the Ecuadorian Amazon and Kenya to visit and advise a development organisation working in these areas called Free The Children. They have lodges in beautiful locations where you can stay and see first-hand the work that they are doing to improve education, agriculture and health in rural villages. This offers travellers a real insight into day-to-day life that is deeply fascinating, authentic and educational.
Many clients over the years have asked me where to go and what to do to get a more in depth look at life in these places. This is the answer. Ask about travel to Araveli (Rajasthan), Bogani (East Africa) and Minga (Ecuadorian Amazon) lodges if you are interested. My first safari in Southern Africa, many years ago now, also stands out. Seeing the vast plains and incredible wildlife of Africa is something that will stay with me forever.
9. What could you never travel without?
A good book. I’m currently reading 'The Old Patagonia Express' by Paul Theroux about travelling by train from Boston to Patagonia in the late 1970s. I'm currently visiting Panama, so it's a great read.
10. Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet that’s still on your bucket list?
Many places. We are now going to Bhutan this September but Madagascar, Bolivia, Papua New Guinea and Tasmania (my Dad worked there in the 1960s) are all on the list. My current book is making me realise that I want to explore more of Central America and there's also a lot the US and Canada that I haven’t seen. I'd also like to visit more of Indonesia and the South Pacific.
11. What is your favourite travel book?
In 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning' Laurie Lee narrates his incredible journey on foot from his childhood home in the English Cotswolds, first to London and then from Vigo in Northern Spain to the shores of the Mediterranean. This is in the 1930s and Spain is a largely feudal society on the brink of civil war. I think it's my favourite book.
To get into the mindset of a country, I always pack a good book set in the place that I'm travelling to.
12. What has been the most unexpected highlight you've had exploring?
On an early Audley trip when I took a train through Vietnam with clients, the drivers allowed us into the train cab. Travelling for hundreds of miles through paddy fields, villages and towns in this way while trying to communicate in hand gestures and my very limited Vietnamese was a special experience, probably mainly because in an ever more regulated world this would now be almost impossible to do.
13. If you could tell people to travel to one place, where would it be and why?
I always give two answers to this one. In the developing world I still feel that Myanmar is a very special place and is still caught in something of a time warp allowing you to feel like you are stepping back in time. I also have to say New Zealand, I will be heading there again this winter for what I think is the sixth time. The scenery, slower pace of life, empty spaces, people, food and wine combined with great places to stay provide for an incredibly relaxing and varied journey.
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