So you want to be a guidebook writer? Sean Connolly – author of Bradt's Senegal guide – reveals what this dream job is really like
For anyone who’s ever daydreamed of taking off into the sunset with nothing but a notebook, pen, and generous sponsorship (keep dreaming), guidebook writing can seem like a sunny proposition indeed. And while it might beat basking under a panel of corporate fluorescents, there are plenty of unanticipated bugbears hiding out in even the most idyllic backwaters…
Prepare to confuse
While many guides focus on well-trod destinations, working with Bradt typically means quite the opposite is true – their guidebooks focus on much more adventurous places. I’ve now been on assignments in a half-dozen African countries – some more visited than others, but Paris they’re certainly not.
Even the concept of a guidebook is often unfamiliar, and you’ll often incite confusion and suspicion with your prying (read: extremely basic) questions and constant notebook-scribbling.
I’ve more than once been turned away by receptionists unable to provide me the price of a room (let alone a phone number!), given websites and emails that seem to have been made up on the spot, and even refused a restaurant menu on the basis that if I just wanted to read it, the manager would have to be consulted. Get used to traipsing around town and leaving a trail of puzzlement in your wake.
You'll need to like your own company
Guide writing is solitary work. Researching in remote, infrequently touristed locales means that transport tends to be unreliable and expensive, and being away for the holidays becomes routine when it’s a cool €1500 just to drop in on grandma for Christmas.
Of course you do meet friendly locals and other travellers on even the remotest of roads – I’ve made great friends standing under the MiG jet in Hargeisa and on a dinghy in Lake Malawi, but generally speaking you’re a long, long way from the backpacker hubs of Buenos Aires or Bangkok. Get used to being the only guest in your hotel and learn to savour that dinner for one.
You’ve got to go everywhere
Given that a good guidebook’s aim is to be comprehensive, you pretty much have to go everywhere. Ugly or pretty, if there’s a reasonable chance a visitor might end up there, you’ve got to go first to check it out.
There’s no skipping over the less-interesting bits when you’re out on assignment – for every day you spend along the paradisiacal shores of Senegal’s Toubacouta or Kafountine, you’ll be spending another dodging the trash piles of Kaolack or Tambacounda.
Improvise or die
Along with the undeniable thrill and rewards of visiting a little-explored place, there’s also the occasional nasty surprise, as I found in Mozambique in 2013. After 20 years of peace, there was an unexpected series of fatal attacks on vehicles in the country, which made travel to finish researching the guide a suddenly dangerous proposition.
Thanks to this anachronistic rebellion, flights were booked out for days in advance and the roads too much of a risk. In a moment of travel serendipity, a supply boat for some remote coastal missions showed up, and after negotiating two full days of boat and tractor travel, we were eventually clear of the danger zone and back on our way.
The rewards are all yours
Ultimately though, it’s not naïve to think this might be the best job in the world – on some days it really is true. While the low pay, crazy hours, and interminable sweaty days taking notes at the bus depot will leave you seriously questioning your life choices/sanity, the highs are nothing short of stratospheric: gorilla tracking in the DRC, scuba in Lake Malawi, live music in Dakar, mouth-watering Mozambican chicken, and a sense of adventure that no tourist-trail destination can possibly deliver are perks that very few jobs can claim.
You will be humbled by peoples' kindness and generosity, and bewitched by the open and genuine interactions you'll have on the road.
American author Kurt Vonnegut once said that “peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from god”, and there are few more peculiar ways to travel than researching for a guide. Whether good or bad, you’re obliged to see it all, and in the process let the true spirit of the country – warts and all – shine through.
Sean's guide to Senegal is out now (Bradt, £17.99). You can follow his travels in West Africa and beyond via Instagram