With two GoPros, two drones, two sheep—one stuffed, one real—and a tailor-made shepherd stick, Mathieu Francois is all set to take off, on foot. Starting Sunday, the Mumbai-based Parisian will walk from Mumbai to Kathmandu over the next 200 days. Other than his gadgets, his only companion in this 2,500-kilometre-long peace walk, or “Shanti Walk” as he calls it, will be a sheep.
Some may deem this absurd. The 29-year-old business graduate doesn’t really care, though. The significance of this journey for Francois is manifold: He will traverse the same route his father, who passed away five months ago, did in 1971. This peace walk, in that sense, is how Francois hopes to heal from the shock of his father’s sudden death to cancer. As for the decision to travel with a sheep, “that”, he says, “is to sensitise people against animal cruelty, without being preachy of course. We love cats and dogs but a sheep or goat, though just as lovable, are not welcome in everyone’s homes.”
Why specifically a sheep then?
Before he bought his new travel companion from a Mumbai slaughterhouse, for years Francois has been travelling with another sheep. A stuffed-toy called Beluga, this one was a gift from a little girl he used to tutor back in Lille, a bustling university city in the north of France. Beluga is always in his bag, and will accompany him on this trip too.
Besides the two sheep in his life, in a freewheeling chat with National Geographic Traveller India, Francois talks about his fascination with India, his plans to film this journey and, eventually document it all in a travel book.
What brought you to India?
I first came to Bombay for a friend’s wedding in January 2013, and ended up staying back. In those three weeks, I travelled around Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Delhi and fell in love with the people, culture and vibrancy of India. Five months later, I moved to Bombay.
Beluga has been your travel companion for years. Tell us something about her.
She has been a huge part of my life for the past seven years. Fascinated by my constant travels, a little girl gifted Beluga to me. She was eager to know about the world through Beluga’s eyes. That’s when I started a blog, “Diary of a Travelling Sheep”, to chronicle Beluga’s journey. The posts featured her portraits juxtaposed against tourist hotspots, and with locals. After moving to Mumbai, I held an exhibition of these portraits. People actually bought them!
Beluga, for me, symbolises innocence. I want people, especially kids who attend the occasional photography workshops I take, to see the world without prejudice. Losing a parent made me realise the importance of giving the best lessons to kids. I have, though, come close to losing her a few times. Monkeys have run away with her, and once, my bag was stolen on a train. I kept asking policemen for Beluga even after my passport and cash was found.
We hear Beluga met the Dalai Lama this July. How did that go?
Yes! That meeting was brief but felt surreal. I discussed the walk with the Dalai Lama and sought advice about my apprehensions for my sheep’s safety. He asked me to put her well-being first, citing the example of Himalayan shepherds who carry their livestock in carriages on their backs. This journey, said the Dalai Lama, will help me strengthen my core values.
The walk follows the same route your father took in 1971. How did the idea first take root?
Yes, I will be following the same route: Gateway of India-Ajanta Ellora-Omkareshwar–Sanchi-Khajuraho-Allahabad-Mirzapur-Banares-Pratapgarh-Lumbini-Pokhara-Annapurna-Kathmandu. The only difference is that my father travelled by public transport and hitch-hiked and I will be walking with my sheep. For me this journey is, in part, about dealing with the loss of my father. When he was alive, he would tell stories from this trip. For him, the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower paled in comparison with Sanchi’s serenity. He was fascinated by the Khajuraho temples and Varanasi. Recently, I found footage from his trip and got it digitised. In these 40-year-old videos, I saw pujas on Varanasi’s ghats. Ajanta-Ellora and Sanchi weren’t really teeming with tourists back then.
How are you preparing for this journey? What kind of challenges do you anticipate?
I have been trekking for 15 years now, so I think physically I can manage the journey. Navigation might be a challenge. We might lose our way. But I am most concerned about my sheep. Travelling with a sheep is a big challenge. It will surely slow me down. I estimate about 200 days to reach Kathmandu. Alone, I could have reached in half the time. There is also concern for its health and safety for which I have constantly been in touch with a vet. I have also worked with a Mumbai-based engineer to create a special shepherd’s stick. Made of wood and aluminium, I can mount my GoPros on it; it will act as a weapon; and can also be used to pitch a tent for the sheep. The plan is to stop every 25 kilometres and take a day off every week.
Where do you plan to spend the nights?
I am hopeful that people will host me. The queen of Pratapgarh, who is a friend, has advised me to halt at temples. So I will be spending nights at schools, temples… and of course with people willing to host a man and his sheep!
It’s a morbid thought, but what if something happens to your sheep?
You can’t always control the turn of events. I’ll try my best to protect my sheep and hope nothing goes wrong. But I know I will have to face the eventuality of whatever happens along the way.
How do you plan to document this journey?
The idea is to make a movie about this trip. I am carrying a Sony A7 video camera that my dad gave me. It’s not the latest model but holds great sentimental value. I also have two GoPros mounted on my shepherd stick and two drones. My Samsung 8 will be my back-up. Apart from filming, I will update my progress on social media. People will also be able to track me live on my website.
What are you looking to gain fromthis trip?
For me there are three aspects to this journey. First, it is a way to recover from the loss of a loved one. My world turned upside down with my father’s death. Instead of continuing to be depressed I chose this, hoping it will help me move forward. Second, I want to document India, and by adding digitised footage from my father’s trip, show how much has the country changed over the years. Last, I want to talk about treating animals ethically. Walking with a sheep can be a funny sight. But I hope to make people think about why we treat some animals differently and consume their meat while loving others.
Where and how does this walk end? What happens after it does?
If I reach Kathmandu successfully with my sheep, then I will leave it in the Karuna-Shechen monastery. It is led by Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk who is the official voice of the Dalai Lama in France. He has been a great inspiration to me. I haven’t thought much of what happens after the journey except that I want to write a book and make a film based on my travel encounters.
Photos by Mathieu Francois.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.