Your home base: I live at the end of a wild lane — an ancient holloway in fact — in rural West Dorset, England. I can see the sea from my desk. It’s heavenly, my little version of a wild place.
Aside from a passport, the three items you always travel with: My Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is essential. It’s a complete workhorse: I’ve dropped it in sand dunes, it’s fallen in a river in Madagascar, it even works in the -40°C temperatures of Siberia. I always bring my Altai-Himalaya wrap — the best cashmere in the world, harvested in Mongolia, and hand-dyed and woven in Nepal, where my husband worked for a while. It’s my version of a comfort blanket. I also carry three talismans: a little silver Buddhist statue I bought from a monastery near Ulan-Ude in Siberia, a Ganesha given to me by another traveller who was very dear to me, and a magic triangle that my children made me, made from orange plastic. They’re my version of a Saint Christopher.
Your perfect meal on the road – what and where: My husband has a dehydrated expedition food company called Firepot Food. The meals are made using family recipes and local Dorset ingredients. It gives me an instant taste of home wherever I am. I eat them mainly on flights, as all they need is hot water.
The best thing you’ve read in the last six months: Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest. He’s a French writer. It’s a deeply evocative book about living in a cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia.
Your travel soundtrack: When I’m trying to sleep I listen to John Field’s Nocturnes. When I’m in an expansive landscape then it’s any of the big pop anthems my children have left lying around in my iPod.
The one place you’ve been that you think everyone should visit, and why: Rwanda. It’s safe and utterly accessible. On so many levels Rwanda is a success story given how recent the genocide, but the dark shadows are still present in the country’s everyday memory. It never fails to move me: getting up close with gorillas, visiting the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, attending a Sunday service in a church where the people now come together, but where mass killings once took place. Rwanda’s history is an extraordinarily reaffirming story of how humanity can be repaired. But it is a very fragile balance, which you feel in every single grateful minute you are there.
The one place you’ll always return to, no matter how many times: Russia – for the unknown. It covers around a tenth of the world’s land mass. Although I’ve spent two years coming and going for a recent book project, I haven’t even grazed the surface. It’s deeply compelling, and full of untold stories and spectacular landscapes which literally make the heart race.
The one Never-Have-I-Ever destination that you hope to visit, and why: Travel is a sensational experience in the truest sense. In order for its impact to be felt, you have to put yourself in places where your responses haven’t been predetermined by judgement, or mediated by stereotypes. That’s why the holes in the map draw me in — places I haven’t already seen through the filters of Instagram and Google. The Putorana Plateau in Siberia — which is right in the centre, and incredibly hard to access — is a good example. I’m also planning to get to Socotra at some point next year.
The one thing that most surprised you on your last trip: This June, I reported on two rhino relocations, which were part of significant rewilding projects in East Africa. One took place in Rwanda, and was a total success; the other one in Tanzania was not. It was devastating: the rhino died in transit. It was a wakeup call for me: even with the best will, money and professional expertise in the world, there are huge mountains to climb in the conservation arena. I’ve spent so much time banging a drum for these issues; this incident was a reminder that there’s a great deal of jeopardy. The people involved are heroes to take on the risk, complexity, and sadnesses derived from being in this kind of front-line work.
Meet Sophy Roberts – award-winning British journalist and author with a deep passion for travel, conservation and cultural preservation. Sophy’s career has spanned a range of journalistic work as the Editor-at-Large for Departures, monthly columnist for The Financial Times, special correspondent for Conde Nast Traveler and now author of her soon to be published book 'The Lost Pianos of Siberia'.
What did your “This is What I’m Going to Do” moment look like? It was more of a “This is what I’m not going to do” moment. I was in an editorial meeting at a magazine discussing which colour of infinity pool or sea we should feature. I quit that month. I didn’t want my work in travel to be led by a certain shade of blue or the shape of a swimming pool: it’s the human connections that make travel interesting.
How would you describe a typical day? When I’m on assignment, most people, and even dear friends, think I’m disappearing on holiday. That couldn’t be further from the truth. All I can say about a typical day is it’s very, very long; everything else is atypical, which is what I find exciting. I’m up at first light working with my colleagues (photographers), and going to bed late trying to amplify the storytelling on social media. It's physically demanding too. But I have massive amounts of help to enable me on the ground and at home, which I hope I don’t take for granted. A typical day is long enough, and unscheduled enough, for anything to happen. Above all, there is enough time ‘free’ in the field to be led by the reporting, not assumption, which is the enemy of good journalism.
As an avid traveller where in the world inspires you most? Africa always inspires; Russia never fails to surprise; Scotland is where I was brought up, and feels like a place where I have roots.
What has been one of the most challenging travel experiences that you’ve encountered? Kamchatka in Russia, where the mechanisms for travel are just not yet in place. It’s really difficult terrain to navigate, with hardly any roads. But it’s worth it: Kamchatka is the furthest you can go on this Earth and feel like you are on another planet.
And one of the highlights of your career so far? Having the opportunity to work with African Parks - an exceptional conservation organisation that works on a scale which changes the future of entire ecosystems. I first reported on their initiatives in Chad, and have since worked with them in the DR Congo, Zambia and Ethiopia. Their success is a combination of intelligent strategy, boots on the ground expertise and careful, skin-in-the-game collaborations with national governments.
As an award-winning travel journalist you no doubt meet some fascinating people along the way, with this in mind, can you tell us a little about your upcoming book The Lost Pianos of Siberia and where the idea stemmed from? My book comes out in February 2020. It began in Mongolia where I have been spending a lot of time with my family over the years with my husband and kids — it’s somewhere that makes us really happy. It started as a conversation in a Mongolian tent in the middle of the steppe with a brilliant musician who didn’t have a piano of her own. I spent more than two years travelling in Siberia looking for a worthy instrument. Like all really powerful things, the search became an obsession. And with an obsession you never know where it’s going to end up.
Finally, where have you set your sights on next? I’m fascinated by Central Africa and have a book idea that I’m developing in the Congo region. There are some interesting parallels between the Congo and Siberia. As an outsider from the West, Siberia is compelling because you come to it with so many preconceptions. Similarly, the Congo suffers from its reputation. But while much of the horror is true, there is always another layer to the place and history which gets overlooked when the dominant narratives are quite this powerful. That optimism - and search for another lens on the world - is something I care about, and try to hold on to, in everything I do. I think it matters, so we recognise what is bad in our moment in history, but we also find space and time to celebrate what is good.