I tempered my expectations as we turned down a narrow track leading into the jungle. I didn’t want to let myself think this path, unlike the others, was the one we had been looking for all day. Hunkered down in my seat I listened as tangles of brush scraped against the side of the truck. Just as I lowered the window a Rhesus monkey screeched and scrambled up a tree. At least the scenery was interesting. My friend Keith, sitting next to me, leaned forward with camera in hand, his expression suggesting he thought we were just moments away from reaching our objective. I was less optimistic.
We were already six days into our deep exploration of Nepal’s Karnali Province and the districts of Rukum, Jajarkot, and Surkhet. Far removed from the throngs of tourists in the Everest and Annapurna regions, the western reaches of Nepal are rugged, untamed, and poorly mapped. The only way to navigate the warren of unmaintained dirt roads is to enlist the expertise of a well-traveled local. My friends Vishu Sijali and Vishnu Khanal qualified, but despite their intimate knowledge of the area, we still spent several hours backtracking and meandering. Periodically we stopped to ask farmers and goat herders for directions, their focus broken as soon as they saw the two Americans in the truck. Making matters more complicated, we weren’t trying to find a destination but locate a moving target. We were in search of Nepal’s last nomads, the elusive Raute.
Vishnu piloted the truck into a rocky river bed and slowly rounded a bend. And there it was, the last Raute encampment in Nepal.
When Vishu informed me of his plan to seek out the Raute I wasn’t convinced it was a good idea. The people of Nepal are kind and welcoming. The Raute are not always so. Governed by strong taboos, they live in fearful cohabitation with forest gods. They’re known to greet visitors with rocks and sharp sticks. Allowing strangers into their camp angers their spiritual overseers. Vishu assured me an invitation had been extended and we would be safe. Put at ease, I nonetheless called my longtime friend, photographer, and guide, Keith Thompson. If I was going to rile the indigenous, I didn’t want to do it alone.
In the past few years, my work in Nepal has assumed many forms. I spend much of my time delivering safe drinking water solutions to remote villages and schools through a nonprofit I founded. I also work closely with federal and regional governments to help promote sustainable tourism while simultaneously protecting the country’s delicate cultures. The Raute, once counted in the thousands, are in many ways the canary in the cultural coal mine. For the last five years, the number of Raute still clinging to nomadic ways has hovered around 150. Our contacts on the ground said that number has fallen sharply in the last year—possibly by half. With that dismal news delivered, we set out to find the last Raute to document their struggles and better understand the challenges they face. Trundling down another rutted road, we wondered if we were too late. Just when we all hope seemed lost––there she was.
Like an apparition, a lone woman slipped from under dappled shadows and into the light of day. Vishnu’s foot fell on the brake pedal, not that we were at all close to hitting her. A hush fell over us as if any sound might cause her to vanish as quickly as she appeared. With a stack of metal pots on her head, she slowly turned to us, smiled, and walked away. We had found the Raute.
For the better part of a millennium, the Raute thrived in the jungles of the Himalayan foothills. Living in peaceful harmony with nature, they move in synchronicity with the seasons. During the summer months they climb into the mountains to escape monsoon floods and oppressive heat. As winter arrives they descend to escape the cold.
It’s a cycle of life that has defined their very essence. But the rhythms of nature have changed. A shifting climate and evolving landscape conspire to interrupt their movements. Encroaching villages and the advances of terraced mountainsides now force the Raute to live in the shrinking wilds in between. Once a romantic example of wandering ways, their vibrant culture has taken on the pained existence of vagrancy. They live where they can, however they must. For centuries they foraged for plants, fruits, and wild vegetables in the jungle. Now they frequently embark on desperate raids of local gardens in nearby villages. Believing domestic animals produce fouled meat, they prefer a diet of Langur monkey, a source of food now gone scarce. Malnutrition is rife. Infant deaths are common. The Raute struggle to survive.
As the lone woman walked down the road we slowly inched forward to follow her. We fiddled with camera lenses and sorted gear, unsure of the reception we would receive once in their camp. Vishnu piloted the truck into a rocky river bed and slowly rounded a bend. And there it was, the last Raute encampment in Nepal. The hairs on my neck bristled. Stepping from the truck, I felt as if the clock had been wound back 900 years. In an instant, a group of young men rushed towards us. My heart raced as I prepared for trouble, but none came. They clapped their hands under their chins, bowed and welcomed us into their village.
In a corner of a large common area a klatch of young boys chopped and whittled chunks of wood. Carving has always been a part of the Raute economy, their wooden bowls and platters regularly bartered for grains and fabrics. In a central part of the camp, elders gathered to sing, chant, and palaver about the events of the day. Kids ran from tent to tent, half of them naked and wild, the other half followed us like wily shadows, digging in our pockets and tugging at our clothes. One crazy-haired boy snatched the glasses off Keith’s face and ran for the trees. A young girl poked me with a stick and giggled.
Self-described as Ban’k’raja, or Kings of the Forest, the Raute pride themselves as the lost descendants of Nepalese royalty. Their language, one of 123 unique tongues spoken in Nepal, is known to only 500 people, most of them other Raute long since relocated to government-sponsored camps. As I sat in a corner of the complex, the sounds of the Raute filling the air, I wondered how much longer such voices would be heard. There were certainly not 150 people in the camp. We put the number closer to 75.
Several hours passed as we ducked into tents and negotiated prices for wooden bowls. The elders of the community told us of their plight, the challenges of finding open spaces to camp, and the difficulties they face selling wooden bowls in the age of steel and plastic. They talked of relatives now living in villages and kids simply vanished without a trace. Vishnu eventually worked out a polite sum to exchange for the photos we had taken. Images we hope will bring more awareness of the Raute and the need to preserve their culture. If it isn’t too late.
As an avid traveler and philanthropist, I’m humbled by the world in which we live. My love of overlanding often compels me to seek out fun adventures and memorable vistas. This was the first time I had traveled so far to see what might have been the sun setting on an ancient culture. Bouncing down the road as we exited the jungle I hoped the Raute had it in them to endure one more cycle of the seasons.
I will be back in just two months time to see if the Raute are still there. When I return I hope they don’t exist only in pixels captured that day with my camera, like ghosts of the jungle.
All photos courtesy of Christophe Noel