I was born in Bournemouth and reared in Buckinghamshire. My mother was a physiotherapist, and my father liked to pretend he didn’t have any children. So, in essence, I came from a one-parent family until we were teenagers and he began to take an interest.
My mother never said, ‘Take care.’ I really owe her for that. She had three children and was busy, so she would just open the back door and let us out. We were completely free to do whatever we wanted to do as long as we came back by dark. I learnt to be adventurous and take care of myself and find my way around.
I wanted to go to art school and be a sculptor but my mother wasn’t sure I was good enough so she suggested I train as an occupational therapist instead. But in 1964, I had a life-changing experience. I saw a play about the conquest of the Incas called The Royal Hunt of the Sun and became fascinated by the Inca culture. They were the most perfect socialist regime that has ever been; everything was done for the good of the community rather than the individual.
I moved to the USA to earn enough money to travel to Peru and, when I married my husband George, I said we must go back to South America. We walked lots of trails, including the Inca Trail, which we were the first people to write about. Although the path existed, it was so little known at the time that the wrong routes were more worn than the right ones. Arriving at Machu Picchu was magical. There was only one other couple hiking at the time; now more than 2,000 people can visit in a day.
When we found another Inca route in Bolivia, we began to think that we should really share this information. We were initially going to write a booklet for the main outdoor equipment sellers in the USA, letting people know where they could go after they had bought their kit, but we sent what we had written to George’s mother and she had 1,000 copies printed and sold them quite quickly.
We didn’t mean to be real publishers. I’m a lousy businesswoman, but our enthusiasm carried us through the first five books. We just wanted to share the information – mostly hiking guides to begin with – and make the books better and better. We learnt on the hoof.
I decided to publish what I wanted to, rather than what I thought the world wanted. That was a wise decision. We specialise in unusual destinations and ones that are opening up. Our Ghana guide is consistently one of the most popular. It’s extremely good and there isn’t another guide to the country. Guides that haven’t done so well are ones that we’ve published because we thought we ought to go mainstream, such as the Canaries and Costa Rica books. We do best with unique guides; it’s our niche.
Travel can be a force for good. I don’t hold with the idea that we shouldn’t be flying, because the planes would be going anyway. A lot of our books have really helped their countries. I’m enormously proud of the Rwanda guide. It was the first post-genocide guide and it gave the people the confidence to know they could move forward.
I’ve had some fairly close calls on my travels, but I’ve never been hurt. The most frightened I’ve been was on a bus in Peru during the late 1960s. The driver had dropped off all the other passengers and then drove off into the countryside and – as I would have written in my diary at the time – got a bit fresh with me. But I was very firm and very cross. I don’t think I was in real danger, but it was unpleasant and I had a long walk home.
I’ve hitchhiked every decade of my life except the first. Recently, a friend and I went from the farthest west to the farthest east in England on our bus passes, and hitched when we couldn’t find a bus. My friend has white hair, so people stopped, thinking we were poor old things whose car had broken down.
I’m not naturally brave; it’s a constant effort. I was a shy child and I’m still shy now. I don’t think, ‘Oh goodie I’m going to hitchhike,’ I think, ‘Oh gosh, I’m going to hitchhike,’ but my interest and curiosity always overcome the fear. So when people tell me that they’re nervous about travelling I say, ‘Me, too,’ but you do it because you’ll never regret it.
1941 Born in Bournemouth
1952–59 Oakdene School, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire
1963 Qualified as an occupational therapist
1969 Travelled in South America for three months, mostly solo
1972 Married George Bradt and returned to South America with him for an extended honeymoon
1974 Published Backpacking along Ancient Ways in Peru and Bolivia
1977 After travelling and working in Africa for a couple of years, returned to England and set up Bradt Guides
2007 Semi-retired from Bradt, but remains a director of the company
2008 Appointed an MBE for services to the travel industry
This story was published in the May 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine