Carlisle Rogers, publisher and host of 4WD Touring Australia, epitomises a wanderlust for life and adventuring wisdom. Carlisle grew up travelling around the US, surfing and hiking the Appalachian Trail with his dad, enjoying a love of nature and the outdoors that would ultimately bring him to Australia to pursue his dreams. Here, he would find a way to turn his passion for travel into the ultimate career.
I spoke to him recently on the phone about his journey as a writer, filmmaker and publisher and what it took to achieve his dreams.
Have you ever wanted to do anything other than writing and travelling or has this always been in your blood?
I was a very voracious reader as a young man and writing came naturally, to a certain extent. I just wanted to travel when I was younger and professional surfer wasn’t really on the cards, so I thought “how else can I travel around and catch waves for a living?”
I thought being a travel photographer would be a great way to do it. It seemed like a nice ticket to ride, so I bought a camera and started teaching myself to take pictures. When I did have a chance to start to write and shoot, mostly for free, for websites, I quickly learned that writing was making a lot more money than photography. I thought that photography was going to pay for the writing habit, but it turned out to be the other way around.
It’s a bit of a package deal these days isn’t it. When you submit to a magazine unless you have good quality photos an article isn’t really going to be accepted. Or is it?
Personally, and as I’ve said to our contributors, 4WD Touring is quite a photo heavy mag. All mags are, but I like to think we’re a bit more selective than some. I say to people, I can fix your copy, but I can’t fix your photos. I can rewrite the copy from scratch if I have to, but I can’t do that with the images. The economy’s changed.
When I first started freelancing in Australia, probably about 15 years ago, if you went to someone like Australian Geographic, they wouldn’t let you do both. Their policy was get a shooter, get a writer, let them focus on their craft. About six years in I became a little bit more in demand for both, because the economics had changed and they no longer had the budget to hire two people.
When you came to Australia from the States did you have any idea or vision of what you would create?
No, not at all. I was just winging it. I couldn’t get a job in a magazine for a long time, so I just started freelancing and wrote for some music websites for a while. The only thing I knew was music … I did that for a long time while I had a day job, kind of cutting my teeth. They say you’ve got to do something 10,000 times before you’re really good at it. I definitely wrote 10,000 music stories. And it teaches you, never be stalled by the blank page.
Eventually I started getting into travel stuff and freelanced for a decade before anybody would give me a job for a mag. And then went to work for a travel magazine for about seven years, kept freelancing on the side and eventually, once I learned how to produce a magazine, the cage was a little too small so I thought, I can probably do this. I thought I’d give it a go.
It’s a big step from writing for a magazine to publishing your own magazine. What research did you do?
You’ve got to learn how to do Excel spreadsheets, that’s the biggest thing! Yeah, running a business is extremely challenging. You’ve got to love it because the perseverance that it needs doesn’t come from anywhere else. I was studying the books when I was at ACP. Most of the editors weren’t, they were just doing their jobs … I was figuring out how the business works and once I went out on my own, I still had no clue.
I started the business and I had a mortgage and two kids, no job and about 5K in the bank. I went to a printing company that I knew and they helped me with the details and then the distribution company helped me as well. I went to them completely blind and said how do I do it and they explained it. These days there are better ways to make money. The digital revolution has really killed a lot of print. It’s very much a survival of the fittest now.
You’ve made it though, with your magazine
We’re still making magazines, but we’ve diversified plenty to stay relevant. Our fitness may not be the same thing that’s made other brands survive. Our fitness has been doing everything in house, running a very small crew, everyone works from home, we don’t have any overheads that other brands have. I’ve been running a paperless office for twenty years, so I’ve had a lot of practice at working from home and building that into a business has helped.
What do you think differentiates your magazine, tv show and brand from others?
You have to pick your audience and know your audience. Our audience is educated and affluent. Those two things tend to go together, most of the time. We don’t talk down to them, we don’t dumb the magazine down. We come from that older school of thought and I like to think the mag is a little bit more literary in our writing style. That isn’t for everybody. We don’t have the biggest numbers…but we have a higher quality audience.
Your Book, The Philosophy of Travel, did that morph from the show, from your travels. How was that idea born?
That started out from the first issue of the magazine. I’d already done a Kimberley photo book a few years ago and it set the tone for everything that 4WD Touring would be in terms of the writing style. So, issue one editorial of the magazine really set the tone and was very much inspired by old travel writers like Robert Byron and Bruce Chatwin, my challenge was to try and synthesise ideas along with that sort of travel inspiration. So, it started from finding quotes that really inspired me. It was better if they were disparate, if they came from completely different points of view and then try to synthesise these different ideas into one essay.
After I’d been doing the mag a few years I thought it’d be great to pull together some of the work we’d done here and those editorials really seemed to fit, once you packaged them all together. The title came about just sitting round the campfire trying to sum up what the magazine had always been about.
I love the way you embody emotion and feeling in your stories and how you come across. You’re quite philosophical, for example, what do you mean by “immersion in the landscape”?
A good example of this comes from doing the Madigan Line a few years ago, across the Simpson Desert. Some of the guys with me out there were trying to get into the landscape more. There’s a Robert Hughes quote, the only quote I’ve ever stuck into the cover of the magazine, and he says, “learning to see is a gradual process and it begins truly when you cease to be bored by the absence of the spectacular”. I think that really summed up that desert experience of going out there and looking for meaning. The thing is, it doesn’t hit you like a baseball. Sometimes you don’t really see until you’re looking back in retrospect and that’s when you understand what was going on out there.
It’s a subtle feeling. People are so used to being bombarded with media, fireworks and just so much sensory information that we’ve lost touch with the subtler stuff, but that’s not a brand-new problem. All of the guys throughout history that have gone seeking knowledge have ended up in the desert by themselves. It’s kind of like trying to dissolve the borders between inside and out, and the desert is the best solvent for the soul.
What do you love most about being on the road?
Least Heat-Moon said it best when he said “one of the best things about being on the road is that you’re right in the moment. You’re in the here and now.” He said, “there are no yesterdays on the road”. The road is a beautiful escape, but I think escape is only one part of it. It’s what gets you out there, but once you are there travel ameliorates your ability to be completely in the present. That’s the philosophical way of putting it. On another level … it’s another road, freedom, being able to not have a destination other than a direction, listen to music, learn, meet people and see things you’ve never seen before. Novelty for novelty’s sake. There are a million visceral reasons, tangible things, but really, what it’s about for me, is living in the present.
You get the same thing if you rock climb. If you’re on the end of a rope … and you’re above your last protection and you’re depending on your fingers, your wits, and you’re finding a place to put the next chock in the wall, in that moment the fear can be all encompassing.
And there’s no way you’re thinking about the phone bill you’ve just paid or if you’re going to get that job next week, all of that fades away. The only thing left is the exact moment you’re in, that’s all there is. There’s no room for anything else. It’s powerful medicine and it’s worth it.
On a lighter note, as you mentioned music, do you have any favourite music that you play when you’re on the road.
Every issue of the magazine I do a record review and a book review, and I like to keep them very personal. They’re generally records that have a place and a time that go with them. We don’t try just new music or old music, it’s just whatever’s touched me out on the road. I listen to a little bit of everything out there. A favourite? That’s a hard one. Probably Pink Floyd if it’s anything. They touch the void.
What’s the most challenging situation you’ve ever found yourself in?
We’ve been in some pretty bad bogs when we’re filming. We had one in the Kimberley in black soil where both cars got bogged. It took us about ten hours to get the cars unstuck and that was ten hours of pretty much constant digging with shovels and sticks to jack up the cars, moving the cars about a metre and then doing it all again. Maybe moving two or three metres an hour. And in those situations, it’s heartbreaking because you know you’re going to get out eventually, but you also know you’re wasting a tonne of time when you could be working.
What are the top three things you can’t travel without?
Money, definitely, because that’ll always get you out of trouble, a satellite phone has definitely saved my butt at least a dozen times and, honestly, probably just my phone these days because It’s got maps on it and I’ve got to run my business when I’m out there.
For someone setting off around Australia what would be your biggest tip?
That’s a big question. I would say to pack light. You’ve got to take the essentials obviously, your recovery gear and stuff like that, but honestly, I found that if you really need something you can buy it out there. If you prepare yourself for a few emergencies cash-wise sometimes it’s better to buy that stuff so I think the lighter you are, the freer you are. And that goes for everything. I see people pulling caravans around and I think “that’s not real light,” you’re literally towing your bed. The lighter you can be, if you can just get into a swag or a tent on the roof of your car, you can go in there further and get to places where less people get to.
What’s one of the best places you’ve been to?
Some of my favourite places are where the desert meets the sea. I love the Kimberley. I love the Coral coast just south of Kimberley because you can surf there and it’s almost as beautiful as the Kimberley. I love the Eyre Peninsula for the same reasons. You’ve got beautiful coastline there, almost desert country but you can surf as well. There’s no one there. It’s stunningly beautiful. But I love the desert too, for different reasons.
Is there somewhere you haven’t been to yet that you’d like to get to?
I would’ve said Arnhem Land, but we went there a couple of years ago. There’s a few bits of Tassie that I still haven’t seen. It’s such a small place but so much of it is hard to get to. We went there to four-wheel drive and surf a couple of years ago, surfing along the east coast and four wheel driving the west coast. We saw a lot of new country then. There’s a lot more to see down there. So definitely a few spots in Tassie. And the Great Barrier Reef, I’ve never been there.
Knowing what you know now, what would your advice be to someone who was thinking of starting something similar.
Everything I do is about business and I’m no expert, so it’s very difficult to balance, being an artist with being a businessperson. They demand a different mindset from each other. It’s always challenging to do both. I try not to do anything that doesn’t make money, in some way or another, or at least cover its own arse.
You have to be commercially aware because, if you’re not, you’re going to fall on your face and who’s got the money to throw $25K at something that may or may not work.
It might sound like a truism but always think about the commerciality of your art as well and it will let you make a lot more money to grow, to do what you love. It’s important.
That’s a lot to think about
One distributor I spoke to says she has people starting out mags every month and people failing every month. It’s very tricky. Digital is a lot easier though. If you already have a blog, as you do, you’ll understand the costs associated with something like that. They’re not great. It’s hard because you can have the best content in the world, and no one can find you. You can have mediocre content, and someone picks up something and the next thing you know you’re the biggest thing since sliced bread. Some of it’s just luck. That’s life, right. Some are born poor; some are born rich.
Hemingway said when he was writing that he would always write one true sentence then he would delete everything before that and start from there. I think as long as you work honestly and write true stuff, you’ll get there in the end.
I thank him for taking the time to speak with me and he leaves me with some of his renowned words of wisdom …
You have to work hard if you want to do this stuff. No doubt about it. I’m a bit more relaxed now but I’ve definitely done my fair share of twenty-hour days to get to this point. Nothing comes for free. And freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose right? So you have to be willing to trade everything.
But freedom’s the best thing on the menu”.
Carlisle combines his unique and spectacular photographs of the outback with a sensory adventure in every episode and issue of the magazine. To check out all the favourite images of the year, the 4WD Touring 2019 Photo Annual is on sale now: www.4wdtouring.com.au
All photos courtesy of Carlisle Rogers and 4WD Touring.