[PORTRAIT] STEPHANE DE ROUVILLE, AN ENTHUSIASTIC TREKKER, TRAVELLING ROADS THE WORLD OVER
Interview of Stéphane de Rouville, a freelance photojournalist on the road for 10 years, all around the world, to meet nomadic people, the world of caravans as well as vast timbers rafts, amongst other things. An amazing source of inspiration and energy we really wanted to share with you!
The list of adventures undertaken by Stéphane de Rouville is long, just like the roads that he follows. His journeys have led him, for example, half way across Sudan on the back of a camel; he’s spent a winter with nomadic tribes in the Indian Himalayas and has accompanied the Evenki nomads across the frozen rivers of Yakutia, the coldest republic in Russia.
Each journey is undertaken with the utmost respect for the people involved, their culture and traditions. Curious to find out more about his travels alongside the last remaining nomads, the Hiking on the Moon team went to meet him.
[Hiking on the Moon] What made you want to travel?
Stéphane de Rouville: Generally, my desire to travel is linked to two images that influenced me as a child. The first was a trip to Senegal with my parents: we ate with the Senegalese, out of the same dish, using our fingers. At 14 years of age, I found this completely magical. The second image relates to photos of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil, taken by Sebastião Salgado and published in the magazine GEO. At the time, this huge hole was the largest natural, open-air mine in the world and attracted tens of thousands of unfortunate Brazilians coming to try their luck. When I saw these photos, I remember saying to myself: “one day I’ll go there.” And 4 years later, it became the destination for my first solo journey; I was 18 years old at the time.
[HKG] Did these images also inspire you to travel alongside the last remaining nomads?
Stéphane de Rouville: It was more because of an article! After Brazil, I embarked upon a series of journeys and I saw many amazing sights but nothing to do with nomads. Then, one day I read an article about the legendary salt caravans that travel from Salar d’Uyuni in Bolivia and I wanted to go. I embarked upon this adventure in 2002, without even knowing if they still existed. I travelled miles on foot and by bike and went to many different villages and talked to dozens of people. Each time, I came up against the same reply: these caravans haven’t existed for 20 years. Just as I was about to give up, I had a lucky encounter: an old farmer cheerfully told me that there were still a few caravanners and that one of them was in a nearby village, ready to leave! That’s how I found myself alongside Don Alejo, a Quechua llamero (llama breeder), with a craggy face and a ball of cocoa leaves permanently in his mouth. So, we both set off, for 25 days to swap his 40 blocks of salt for potatoes, corn and other essentials to feed his family for a year. During the course of this adventure, I learnt something every ten minutes; I told myself that it was an incredible opportunity to be part of such an expedition!
[HKG] How many “road trips” have you clocked up?
Stéphane de Rouville: Roughly ten of my trips have had something to do with population movements, whether for trade or other reasons. First of all there was Bolivia, which was the catalyst, and then my experience with the Changtang Nomads from the Indian Himalayas. Then, I joined a dromedary caravan that was going from Sudan to Egypt and I accompanied an incredible convoy led by reindeer across a frozen river in Yakutia, Russia.After that I set off to Nigeria to meet the Fulani, who are nomadic herders, and then Peru, to a salt mine with two Quechua caravanners. At the same time, I also accompanied log drivers aboard huge rafts, along waterways in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Kalimantan (Borneo), Colombia, Peru and the Philippines, on trips that can last for weeks.
[HKG] What is the purpose of your trips?
Stéphane de Rouville: I travel because I don’t just want to see things in the pages of a book or on television. For me, it’s a great opportunity to be able to experience and observe the last remnants of some of the world’s intangible cultural heritages. In 20 years, all this will no longer exist and so I want to witness it before it disappears. Furthermore, these stories are also a way of focusing on these people, their work and creating a record. After my trips, I keep in contact with them, whenever possible. I send them photos that I’ve taken which they like. This means they can show their families what they do.
[HKG] How do you decide on your trips?
Stéphane de Rouville: There’s very little information on the internet that interests me and the moment I see a place in a guide book, I know that it’s not for me. Instead I research in very old books, I regularly meet ethnographers or anthropologists and then, it’s a case of a little bit of intuition, luck, chance encounters, patience and determination.
[HKG] Do you prepare for your trips?
Stéphane de Rouville: Before each trip, I learn the language that’s most widely spoken in the country where I’m going; it’s an absolute pre-requisite for success. The people are reassured and very touched when they realise that I can understand them. And to show that I want to meet them for the right reasons, I take photos of my previous trips with me.
[HKG] How do you adapt to the pace of life of these people?
Stéphane de Rouville: Quite simply by doing the same as everyone else! The ability to adapt is the key to such journeys, as is having good antibodies and not being timid. For example, you must be willing to drink salted tea and eat the same thing every day, for several months. For their part, the nomads wanted to check that I was capable of keeping up with them and so subjected me to various “tests.” When I wanted to join the caravan that was going to cross Sudan, they asked me to buy a camel, teach myself to ride it and also sleep outside, like them. After that, they felt that I was capable of travelling alongside them. Their primary concern is their animals and their survival; on no account, must I be a burden to them or risk compromising their long journey.
[HKG] When you were travelling, did you ever ask yourself what you were doing there?
Stéphane de Rouville: Yes, all the time, mostly because of problems I encountered with the police. They stopped me almost routinely; they liked teasing “the bloke who had no business being there” and sometimes, (especially with the timber rafts) they had an ulterior motive. I also found myself stranded in a village on the Pacific Coast of Colombia, in the hands of drug traffickers, as well as on board a smugglers’ dhow, sailing from North Mozambique to Zanzibar. But the experiences that I had during these trips, in terms of discoveries and relationships, more than compensated for those nightmarish moments.
[HKG] Was there one journey that stood out more than the others?
Stéphane de Rouville: Honestly, all my trips were fantastic as there’s always a sense of amazement when you observe different groups of people and their customs. It’s very difficult to explain what one feels after such experiences. Although you have pictures to show what you’ve seen, it’s difficult to convey the emotions. You need to experience it to understand. But if I really had to choose the trip that stood out most, I’d say Bolivia as it was the first big caravan I took part in. I set off alone, with Don Alejo, and 29 llamas who were terrified of everything, even a hare! It was – 20 °C every night and we knew that there were pumas near by. Although I had a Quechua next to me, I didn’t have a tent!
[HKG] What do you remember from your conversations with them?
Stéphane de Rouville: When I talked to them, I realised that, contrary to what we may think in the West, their way of life has nothing to do with freedom. They don’t travel out of choice but because they have to, to ensure the survival of their family or animals. Although they’re very proud of their culture and the work they do, like their forefathers before them, they understand that their children want a different pace of life. I also recall individuals who were humble, honest, united and profoundly humane, who impressed me by the in-depth knowledge they had of their surroundings. They had neither watches nor maps; however, they had an uncanny sense of time and an overdeveloped sense of direction. They also had a very sophisticated knowledge of plants and their beneficial effects.
[HKG] You’ve spoken to us about the harmful effects of modernization on these people. Have they succeeded in preserving the dominant aspects of their culture?
Stéphane de Rouville: With great difficulty. The culture is gradually disappearing as the elders pass away. Music, song lyrics, rituals and even their mother tongue are all being lost. Take for example the Evenki of Yakutia: the youngest no longer speak Evenki but only Russian which is the official language. The same can be said of their clothing: they want to dress in western style rather than their traditional dress. However, here’s a small anecdote: they explained that when the temperatures are close to –50 °C, or even – 60 °C, they put on their animal skin clothing, which is a lot more effective in such conditions. In terms of the difficult conditions of the nomadic life style, it’s understandable that some aspects of their culture will be lost and that the new generations are attracted by the big city lights and less onerous professions that will allow them to buy the goods they see on television. With my photos, I hope to be able to immortalise the key elements of their culture so that it doesn’t all completely disappear.
[HKG] Did you find any similarities between any of the people?
Stéphane de Rouville: In these “subsistence societies,” everything has a use; there’s no waste. The smallest piece of wool will be retrieved, the tiniest shred of flesh on a bone will be eaten. I also noticed, when I spoke to different cultures, that their notion of beauty was far removed from Western ideals. For them, beauty is not linked to the aesthetic but to the practical: for example, the Changtang nomads would find a modern monastery, made out of concrete, with an electricity supply, extremely beautiful.
Another common element: the way of tying knots when loading their animals with goods. I observed the same actions, whether it was loading a yak in the Indian Himalayas or llamas in Peru. It’s quite amazing to find out that there are hundreds of different ways of tying knots. This shows us that if these nomadic people have managed to survive in these conditions, it’s thanks to the appropriateness of their actions.
They’ve also got a very protective side. They’re very happy to welcome a visitor from afar, from a very different world and they do everything they can to make you feel comfortable in their community and want for nothing. During rare moments of relaxation, we discussed our respective lifestyles. They wanted of their ancestors.
But, unfortunately, it’s fair to say that nomadic tribes are not well regarded by sedentary peoples. In Nigeria, the nomadic herders are often in conflict with the farmers of private land they have to cross when transporting their cattle. In South America, the caravanners are disliked because of their accent and the colour of their skin and are seen as evil people who possess magical powers.
[HKG] What’s your next destination?
Stéphane de Rouville: It’s got to be the Democratic Republic of the Congo, again to meet remote tribes, such as the Pygmies. Also, I’m very interested in mines; the Congo is an interesting place to go as the country has 80% of the world’s Coltan mines – coltan is an essential alloy for making mobile phones and computers. This raw material is at the heart of the conflict which is scarring the RDC. There’s also timber rafting. And then, I’ll have the chance to see fishermen on their bamboo stilts which is an added bonus!
This interview is part of the 11th issue of the Hiking on the Moon magazine.
To read the others articles, click on the magazine below!