Take one look at Sophy Roberts’ spellbinding Instagram, or better search out her reporting, and you’ll be instantly transported to somewhere else in this world. In a given moment, she’s in the lush jungles of the archipelago nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, then with the communities of coastal Papua New Guinea, and most recently, helicoptering through the Ennedi Massif in Chad. Wherever she goes, Sophy shines an intense spotlight on that place and its culture, through good old-fashioned, swashbuckling travel writing but also with a keen sense of modernity and often a loving gaze. She’s at once an adventurer-meets-anthropologist-turned-explorer from another era and the contemporary conscience of the travel industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
DP: I guess we need to start from the beginning. How did you end up writing about travel?
SR: I started writing about travel by accident. I studied at Columbia School of Journalism. I wanted to work in conflict journalism, but I had to find a job quickly to pay back some money to pay my debts. Condé Nast Traveller was just launching in the U.K., and I was lucky to be part of the launch team. I have always believed that people are generally more interesting than places — people’s stories give a place life. Conflict journalism is truly about people. It’s about humanity, and humanity suffering, isn’t it? It’s the human experience at its most intense. I worried travel writing was a lazy get-out at first, but as I got braver and stronger, I started to realize that I could find important stories through the act of travel – without necessarily getting shot at.
DP: Before you did more intrepid culture and destination focused reporting you were more focused on traditional luxury travel. How did that evolve?
SR: When I started at Condé Nast Traveller, it was with a team of brilliant journalists who had very little experience in travel, which was both a hurdle and an opportunity. The benefit was that my colleagues’ minds ranged widely; they saw travel as an entry point into all sorts of issues and lifestyles, which I still believe it is. But the other side of it was that they had little knowledge of the industry: the hotels, the cruise lines, the nuts and bolts of the holiday companies that make vacations happen. Since I was the coffee maker — I was like the Super Junior — I was the person that went to all the PR events. I built up a good address book. But I was also unhappy. I left two years to the day after taking the job because while I was grateful for the opportunity, it wasn’t quite the storytelling I was hoping for.
When you’re at the bottom of the scale, you’re doing the humdrum hotel reviews — the bread and butter of the tourism industry — and writing from press releases. I wanted to focus my storytelling on people and my own experiences.
I immediately went into freelancing to see what was out there and what I could do. But the reality is, I had to make money in the industry that existed, and all the money was in the luxury sector.
So not much changed. I was reviewing a lot of smart hotels, but I became increasingly lonely doing it. I became disenchanted by the sameness and the lack of creativity in that world. There were high levels of repetition. Occasionally, you encountered some absolute geniuses who saw things differently, but it was unusual. Bit by bit, I started to find my feet in wilder places, and to find my confidence looking into issues and human stories.
It’s not that I’m not grateful for the magazine experience. I don’t take it for granted. I wasn’t brought up in a wealthy background. I didn’t travel as a kid or anything like that. It’s just as a storyteller, there’s only so much you can say about the room when the news angle is a pillow menu. You know what I’m saying, David, because you’ve always been drawn to the soul of a story, not the gold taps in the bathroom.
DP: I always came through the kind of food door as being the quickest way to get under the skin of a culture. And that was also my entree into the bread and butter of travel journalism, which is indeed, to your point, luxury hotels and operators. However you and I have always had a similar hunger around cultural narratives over hotels and frills, but with COVID and with everything that’s happened this year, it’s put that into much sharper focus. I’m curious because you’ve gone to so many far flung destinations. I’m thinking about now with this big shift in values and value proposition, what are the destinations that ethically we might reconsider going to? For example, Saudi Arabia is out of the question for me and a lot of the fine hotel groups will be opening there soon. I’m not talking about the big conglomerates with concrete box business hotels, I’m talking about the smaller super high quality hotel groups, ones that we use in lots of other places. We won’t be supporting that move but that’s just from my perspective, but I’m curious to know what are the ethics of certain destinations for you? How do we navigate that in these times?
SR: I have no desire to put my money or my voice into the pockets of people or companies that are complicit with regimes or with systems of oppressive politics that I don’t agree with. If I went to Saudi Arabia, I’d have to think very, very hard. I would certainly want to avoid any big, semi-state-owned hotel. But I don’t know if any alternative exists? It was a bit like back in the day with Myanmar, when I did a piece for the Financial Times when it was really considered the wrong thing to do. You were putting money into the military junta, et cetera, et cetera. I went with the desire to connect on a much more basic level, to see whether or not there was benefit in tourism for local folk. I didn’t regret it. I think one has to approach each of these problematic destinations with a very keen awareness of where the money is being spent, and if you’re uncomfortable with it because it’s complicit, then you have to either pull away or find a way that connects you with the people on the ground.
Even this book I’ve written about Siberia is about just that. Am I a Russia apologist? Am I in support of Putin’s politics? Absolutely not. But I do believe that the people on the ground in Siberia and in Russia are some of the most extraordinary, humane, gentle, educated and brilliant people I’ve ever encountered. I’m very glad to have been reminded of that, because there is always another narrative, a connection that transcends our differences.
You have to be informed about your choices, and to your point, I think the power of the travel agent in the future is not going to be “Have you heard about this smart hotel?” It’s going to be, “Have you thought about how you want to engage with this place?” That includes the United States of America. It’s my opinion, but for my part, I don’t ever want to stay at any hotel Trump owns. Besides, I don’t like gold taps.
DP: We boycotted a certain luxury hotel group when issues around LGBT rights occurred and we’ve kept at that. A lot of other businesses do it for two months but revert but a couple of years on. We haven’t put a single booking through with them. Our team is a group of people who are incredibly socially conscious and we’re all working together to think about, “Okay, we’re not going to work with Indian tour operators who work within the caste system. That’s just not going to happen.” We’re thinking about this in a much clearer way.
SR: Well that’s a whole different way of using the expertise of the travel advisor than the models we’ve seen before. I feel really strongly that a new kind of thinking has to take place with safari tourism in Africa. We are over the Imperial African model of the kind oriented around a white hero guide sipping G&Ts in a camp that looks like it’s been installed by Ralph Lauren. We’re way over that time and imagery. Equally, there is a huge disparity in the economies of some of these African countries at the moment, which means some of the Black-owned businesses can barely keep their doors open right now during COVID. Forget the fact that they have zero marketing, zero PR in New York, London, Paris and Milan. How do we as travel professionals—me as a writer, you as a writer and a travel fixer—how do we forge better links with the right guys on the ground?
I believe it’s about good journalism.
It’s like when you used to write about food. The things I most valued were your mom-and-pop places in the south of Sicily, that I would only hear of from you, or maybe if I was lucky from a Sicilian friend. That kind of reporting belonged to you because your feet were on the ground — looking, thinking, tasting, searching.
DP: Yeah, I think that’s where our real commitment is moving forward.
DP: Everyone here at PRIOR is always fascinated with the last place that you’ve been in and the next place to go going. I know that you have kind of a rabid Instagram following that is on the edge of their seat with each destination. I wonder if there’s a few different experiences, countries and places that have had an impact.
SR: Look, Instagram repeats clichés, more than any form of communication we have right now. It’s a visual cliche, not just a verbal cliche. I don’t want to go to places that contribute to that morass. I am drawn to places that surprise me enough to pull out my camera. Places that stimulate my sense of curiosity, which is the traveler in me. Recently, Chad blew my mind. I mean, it’s amazing. It’s off the scale.
SR: Pure scale. It’s huge, absolutely huge. I have never seen another tourist there on two visits. I’ve seen some business folk in N’Djamena, the capital, and that’s it. So that makes it exciting, and there is so little that you can read on it in advance of being there, so you approach everything with the sense of an original encounter. I think politically it is really hard; its oppression of women is appalling, and it’s incredibly poor. It has lots of issues because of where it sits in the Sahel with all the bad boys on every border.
But, the flip side of that is ancient art painted on rocks that speak to entire lost ecosystems. To find in the middle of the Sahara an ancient picture of a rhino because — once that Sahara was green — is like, there you go! That just recalibrated my sense of time, space and where I sit on the spectrum of centuries. It’s just incredible. The landscape feels like Mars. Anything that makes you wonder is an amazing thing.
And like everywhere, you know, I’m not a fool. I’ve got two young children. I don’t go into these places advocating senseless risk. I go with professionals and I say that again and again. I won’t walk into my local town into the wrong street solo, but I will go into northern Chad with somebody who knows what they’re doing. I’ll go anywhere with somebody who knows what they’re doing.
DP: I want to say that that story still showed the power of great travel writing because that’s the one story I think that’s had the most cut through definitely in the past few years, and many people saw that. And it actually resonated, so congrats on that.
DP: You often take your children on work trips. Why do you do that?
SR: I think travel is a brilliant education. A few years ago, my husband and I decided that the money we might have struggled to pull together to give our children a private education would be better spent on travelling with them. We are both self-employed so we manage our own time: it means we’re able to take off for long periods of time to Mongolia, Nepal, Siberia, Papua New Guinea…
DP: Papua New Guinea! That was amazing to see that. It’s an hour and a half flight from where I grew up, and my cousins are from there and I’ve never been. My nephew is the same age as one of your sons and I was thinking that I just have to do that, to take him. It looks like a little boy’s dream, a story book landscape. Explain to me just a little bit about it.
SR: I’ve worked in Papua New Guinea a couple of times before: I would never have taken my children there blind, because you have to know what you’re doing and find the right people to work with. When I took my youngest son, we travelled down the southeast coast towards the Solomon Sea. The sea-faring culture of the coastal people of Papua New Guinea is pretty incredible. My little boy was seven or eight at the time, and he just pushed off into the water and came back saying, “I just saw a really weird fairy animal!” What he’d seen was a dugong. I mean, how amazing is that?
I love the fact that things don’t work in Papua New Guinea. You get stuck in small airports; the little airplane gets cancelled or doesn’t exist, or is missing half a wing. You have to wait and sit around; it’s travel like it used to be, before everything became so smooth.
DP: Can you tell me a bit about how The Lost Pianos of Siberia came about?
SR: The book started very strangely, not in Siberia, but in Mongolia. There’s a place where we’ve been going as a family for many years. It’s in the Orkhon Valley, eight hours drive from the capital. We stay in a camp owned by some dear friends of mine: he’s an eccentric German film producer, married to a Mongolian woman, and they have three children. In this vast valley, there are a few felted gers clustered above a silver-snaking river. It’s completely wild.
My friend wanted his children to have piano lessons, so he brought in a teacher from the capital and set up an old Yamaha baby grand piano in one of the tents. The teacher, Odgerel Sampilnorov, is a talented concert pianist, and one evening my friend turned to me and said, ”Oh, she needs a better piano than that! You must go find one of the lost pianos of Siberia!”
That phrase started a three-year journey to search for a piano. I traveled extensively across Siberia — an area that covers more than a tenth of the world’s land surface and nine different time zones. In doing so, I discovered the extraordinary relationship that Russians have with music and the piano. In the West, the piano is the instrument of the bourgeoisie, the concert hall and privilege. In Russia, the piano is accessible to anyone with an interest, it’s an everyday instrument. That shifted my whole center of gravity. And to be honest, I fell in love — with Siberia, its landscape, its people and stories which you simply don’t find on Google.
DP: Who should buy the book?
SR: People who are interested in travel, history, literature, or music. It’s not a conventional travel book at all: while my British publishers have catalogued it as travel, my American publishers have catalogued it as Russian and musical history, and my German publishers have leaned in closer to music…It’s a real mix.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.