Maureen Wheeler has lead a pretty incredible life and career thus far, having co-founded with her husband Tony a series of iconic travel guides with which you might’ve made your casual acquaintance, Lonely Planet, all the while raising a family and completing a degree at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, one which has informed a great deal of her philanthropic work in recent years. On the eve of the final leg of her latest journey – the inaugural Australian production of a marathon opera, Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle – we took five minutes with Maureen to talk advice for upstarts, travel tips, philanthropy and the kind of stuff you only learn when you’re schoolin’ life as few know how.
In the interim since having sold the remainder of their ubiquitous publishing company to the BBC in 2011, the Wheelers have devoted their continued efforts to providing financial assistance for humanitarian projects in developing countries through their second joint global venture, The Planet Wheeler Foundation – an initiative Maureen describes as being established to “fund projects which support Women and Children’s welfare, which is very broad, as virtually everything from clean water, to schools, clinics and orphanages affect women and children.” Working across some fifty “projects in South East Asia mainly, but also Africa, Sri Lanka and Haiti,” the couples’ work with Planet Wheeler is the continuation of a shared ambition to give back to the world from which they’ve profited considerably through a great deal of persistence and by overcoming a few obstacles along the way – from the necessary evil of endless airport terminals to a taxing encounter with a bout of E. coli their daughter contracted in Guatemala.
Earlier this year (and as recently as this week), another dream of Wheeler’s came full circle after she played a pivotal role in bringing Wagner’s The Ring Cycle to Melbourne for the first time in partnership with Opera Australia. It’s work she describes as both the surreal moment of her career so far, as well as some of her most rewarding work to date. Performed over four nights at the State Theatre to rave reviews, the sixteen hour German opera epic reads on closer inspection like something akin to another kind of cross-continental journey. Staging The Ring is a mammoth feat requiring both the significant investment of time and resources; one impacting on the lives of not only all those who worked to bring luminary director Neil Armfield’s vision to life but those who embarked on each of the four acts from the comfort of their seats. For Wheeler, however, it was “having so many people say how much they enjoyed it” which was the ultimate reward.
Where undertaking long-durational projects and long bouts of travel alike are concerned, you’d be hard pressed to find someone with more experience than Wheeler. Having studied Psychology, Politics and Sociology and Social Work at La Trobe uni, Wheeler was well-versed and well-equipped enough to pursue an equal parts entrepreneurial and publishing career, preparing her for her later endeavours in more humanitarian and philanthropic fields. For anyone aspiring to navigate a similar path, she offers the following sage advice: “Find something you are inspired to do, do it well, work hard.” It might sound like a given, yet it’s sound guidance, to which she adds the one piece of advice she wishes she could’ve told her university-aged self: “Stop worrying, it’ll be fine.”
Originally from Ireland – the one destination she says she’d return to unequivocally should she ever have to limit herself to travelling to just one country – Wheeler lists amongst her carry-on essentials the modern traveller’s necessities, (coming from someone who literally wrote the book on modern travel): an iPad, and an iPod, a wrap, an eye mask and moisturiser.
However if Ireland were off the cards, Mexico, the British Virgin Islands and Cuba would follow soon after amongst her top picks for travel destinations to visit in 2014. Should either of those locations remain out of reach for now, those looking for a little escapism on a slightly smaller budget would do well to seek out Ruth Ozeki’s Tales For The Time Being at Wheeler’s recommendation, the Man Booker Prize nominated novel that traverses as many continents as one of Maureen’s little blue travel guides and – depending on your speed reading and time management capabilities – one that promises to deliver the same entertainment value as a sixteen hour cycle in The Ring.
Photo: via Lonely Planet