Arrggghhhh!!!!! It’s too early. At the alarm went off. I got up and I went into the shower to wake up. Twenty minutes later, having dumped my bags by the swimming pool in readiness for loading onto the coach, I was in the hotel restaurant having breakfast.
I was feeling very delicate and wasn’t the only one. I ate some bread and drank some orange juice followed by coffee and felt a bit better. Half an hour later, we were on the coach and heading towards the airport.
Ouarzazate airport was pretty deserted at that time of the morning. Our flight was due out at and at just before the small airport filled with people heading out with us.
I just held my head and
tried to get a bit more shut-eye. I
didn’t feel well at all, but couldn’t believe I had drank
enough to make me feel that way. It must
have been the lack of sleep adding to it.
I slept on the plane and less than an hour later we were in
For the next five hours, whilst waiting for our flight to Heathrow, I spent my time between sleeping in the flight lounge and occupying the toilet for a number of reasons – two to be precise – it was coming out of both ends! I was very seriously ill and kept myself apart from the rest of the group so that I could sleep between visits to the loo without being disturbed. Someone in our group offered me a rehydrating drink and energy tablet, but I couldn’t tell you who – I was out of it – but thank you.
I remember Jim frog marching me through passport control and I got onto the aircraft, clutching a handful of sick-bags on my way in. I sat next to Querida, threw up into a bag, handed it to a steward and went to sleep. I woke once or twice and had a sip of a still orange drink Querida had got me, before passing out again.
We arrived at Heathrow around that afternoon. It seemed like an age waiting for my bags to come through and I dreaded the prospect of customs asking me any questions on the way through passport control. I wasn’t up to any conversation, never mind a confrontational one. Fortunately, it didn’t happen and I said my goodbyes to those I could find – some of whom were ill themselves. Michelle and the kids found me and drove me home and, as enthusiastically as I could, I told them all about my week-long adventure.
* * *
Speaking days later with some of the others who were also ill, it seemed that we all had the fish at the hotel. The fish we had eaten in the desert was all tinned, so I think we were lulled into a false sense of security when it came to the fish served at the hotel. Maybe if we hadn’t drank also, we might have got away with it. As it was, I remained incapable of operating properly for another 48 hours and wasn’t right in myself for another week after getting back.
Nevertheless, the memories and experiences of The Sahara Challenge will stay with me forever. I would recommend both the desert experience and that of raising money for such a good cause. Both were very fulfilling and I look forward to doing another challenge in the future.
As for the
* * *
Thomas Cook Holidays Ltd
EMAP Active Ltd
OAG Worldwide Ltd
Drain Doctor Plumbing Ltd
Royal Carpets (
Sketches – courtesy of Ian Catley
Sunday 5th November 2000
Not a firework in sight!
We were awoken with a room-call at 6.45am. I shared a room last night with David Chapman, who had inspired me to do The Sahara Challenge in the first place.
I’ve seen and talked with Dave quite a few times in the run-up to this, but it will be good getting to know him more. He seems a very laid-back and a mild-mannered sort of guy, with no ego to contend with – unlike a few of the others so far, from what I saw of the journey here – but that’s just first impressions and I guess I’ll get to know the real character of my adventurous colleagues, and myself, during the coming week.
Anyway, as I said, having received our wake-up call, I decided to have another five minutes and was woken with a start fifteen minutes later by Dave grabbing my foot and giving it an aggressive tug. So much for my mild-mannered first impression of him!
Breakfast was simple – orange juice, coffee, toast and marmalade. There were some black olives too. I had a few of those.
After breakfast our Discover Adventure guides, Darren Nicholson and Jim Potter – who seem to have a wealth of experience in running these group trips – gave us a briefing on the day ahead and on the basic rules for the week regarding health and camp hygiene. Also with Discover Adventure is our doctor for the trip, Tatyana Troll – a German lady with an interestingly strange accent – having spent some years working in Manchester as a GP.
We were told that, apart from emergencies, she will only see us during morning and evening surgery and so, just like in the UK, if we didn’t make an appointment two weeks ago, then tough luck!
We got on the coach and started heading south-east out of Ouarzazate.
Picture: Just before embarking on the coach taking us into the desert to our starting point
* * *
Ouarzazate is situated south of the Atlas mountain range and straddles the Draa Valley which itself runs from the Atlas and Jbel Sarhro ranges to the north and the Jbel Bani mountain range to the south.
As a town, it apparently began as a base for the French Foreign Legion, who have left their mark in the form of a Catholic church, which is still run by nuns to this day, despite the main religion of the town – indeed the whole country – being Muslim.
Ouarzazate today, plays an important role in Morocco’s film industry and boasts two film studios – which although basic – are generally rented as base camps to the larger film studios around the world. The surrounding area has been used as a backdrop for many movies, including Lawrence of Arabia, Romancing the Stone and, more recently, The Mummy.
As a result, the town attracts tourists from all around the world. Ouarzazate has cottoned onto this by building its own tourist industry and has established hotels, stores and coffee bars to benefit from it.
The townships themselves are made up of terracotta-coloured buildings of mainly one or two stories, with flat roofs and castle-like turrets – all of which have satellite dishes on top of them. These modern buildings with their technology topped roofs contrast with the roads on which they are situated – which are mainly sand and dust – and dust fills the air as it is swept up by cars and motor scooters as they pass by.
It’s 8.30am and the sun is breaking through fast.
* * *
As we head out of Ouarzazate on a basic metalled road into the Jbel Sarhro mountains, the scenery changes dramatically into a sort of mountainous desert (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). The reddish/brown landscape takes on different shades as the shadows of the mountains cast their cloaks across the floor.
The shapes of these mountains are strange and varied – more like giant rocks that have been weathered by sun and sand over thousands of years, creating these carved structures. Their feet are often lined with electric pylons – which themselves have been battered by dust and have taken on the rust-red appearance of their surroundings.
We are travelling more southerly now, continuing on the road that runs through a valley, following the route of the Oued (river) Draa towards the region of Western Sahara.
Picture: View from our coach shortly after leaving Ouarzazate
About 50 minutes drive later, we go through a small village where the pace of life appears so beautifully slow. People are sitting outside their houses, just watching the world go by. I waved to some children and saw women using washboards to scrub clothes next to a watercourse. I also saw a few goats up on the hillside, finding what pasture they could.
Two or three kilometres on, with nothing around for miles, I noticed a man sitting by the side of the road selling some trinkets. We didn’t stop.
10.45am and heading east again, we pass through a series of villages that have cropped up along the roadside – or should I say, along the route of the Oued Draa. With a plentiful supply of water, the roadside is fringed with crops of date-palms.
The land near the villages is irrigated and green with various crops, including reed beds, which are harvested and mixed with mud to make building blocks.
Picture: View of date palms from the coach
At twelve-noon we reach Zagora and decide to stop for half an hour. Some of our coach party head off to buy shamla – the traditional head-gear, whilst others head off to the cafeterias to try out a traditional mint tea – a glass filled with fresh mint sprigs and topped up with hot water – all for 6 dirhams or 40p.
Having been on an air-conditioned coach all morning, the heat of the midday sun hit us like a wall as we stepped off.
As soon as we arrived, some children came up trying to sell their wares – a toy bicycle or a toy animal made from palm leaves. Because none of us had any change (having only this morning exchanged our money) we couldn’t buy anything. However, I watched Patricia (Tricia) Manns and Emma Padley exchange the palm-leaf animal for a couple of pens. Maybe the kids will use the pens or maybe just sell them later for cash.
One of the children noticed my watch and showed me his. I pointed out to him that they were both Casio, which seemed to please him. He demonstrated that his could play a tune – a very simple one-bar ditty. I told him that mine couldn’t do that and he left looking proudly at his watch as he walked away.
After finishing my mint tea, I took a walk down the street and was soon accosted by a store-owner, who shook my hand and led me into his store. He sat down and gestured for me to join him as he proceeded to show me his goods – rings, necklaces, carved wooden boxes and the like. I think the idea was that we would haggle.
I speak very little French and really only enough to say yes, no, hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and to ask for a coffee etc., so I pointed to my eyes and then to his shelves to gesture that I was just looking. I then indicated in my best sign language that I would fetch my friends. I went out, pointed out the store to a few of my co-travellers and watched them go in. I never saw them come out – although the head-count on the coach was correct, so they must have made it – but probably not without buying something first.
Another 90Km to go until we reach our place for lunch and, more importantly, the start point for our 104Km walk called The Sahara Challenge.
As we got well outside of Zagora, heading south again, the land became more desert-like, although very flat and still cloaked by the mountains. There is still some vegetation and the ground is littered with rocks and small bushes – which from the coach looked like tumbleweed. We then began to climb up through the mountain wall and the landscape became very rocky.
From here I could see the path the river takes when, at certain times of the year, water runs down into the valley below and feeds Zagora. And, for the first time since arriving in Morocco, we spot our first camels – seemingly just mooching around. Up to now all we had seen was donkeys, being used by the locals to carry them and/or their harvest to wherever it was they were going.
1.45pm and we were up and heading through the pass across the Jbel Bani mountains and towards our starting point. Just over the pass, we were stopped at a military road checkpoint. I couldn’t help but notice earlier in Zagora, and again here, that most of the uniformed officials seem to have obligatory moustaches. Anyway, one of them was smiling and waving, whilst the other took the list of names of everyone on the coach. It turned out that this was, apparently, for our own protection, in case we strayed over the Algerian border, only 20Km or so to the south-east.
* * *
We arrived at our starting point a few minutes later. The starting point of our walk and our place of lunch today, was near a well on the edge of the desert – just 100 metres from the main road.
Picture: The starting point for our walk
Sitting waiting for us were our Berber guides, along with our camels and the back-up Land Rover. The coach pulled up alongside them and our luggage was off-loaded.
The landscape is fairly flat now and the ground is made of hard, flat stone – rust red in appearance, as had been the only case so far during our journey from Ouarzazate. We get our bags and sort ourselves out until lunch is served.
Lunch is set out on tables and we queue up and help ourselves to the buffet of pilchards and salad with bread that (we are told) will get harder as the week goes on. The salad consisted of onions, olives, sweetcorn and green pepper. Simple, light and healthy.
Querida Williams – one of our Macmillan hosts – told us this morning that the food would be quite monotonous, but nobody is complaining at this kind of diet. She also told us that, if we are lucky, we might actually get some meat later in the week.
After lunch we were introduced to our first stretching exercises to warm up and, hopefully, stop us from getting any strains during the coming afternoon of walking.
At 3pm we set off by foot, having just topped up our water carriers. The water we are using is all bottled to reduce the chance of anyone getting a funny-tummy. During the whole week, we will be walking in a region known as Hamada du Draa and, if all goes to plan, will reach the Iriki Basin at the end of our journey.
After walking for about an hour, we come across our first sand dunes and stopped for a few minutes to take in the scenery. The majority of our walking will be in a generally westerly direction, with the Jbel Bani mountain range in the distance to the north and, therefore, to our right.
So that nobody gets split from the group, we’ve got strict rules about staying in sight of one another and that we should let someone know if we intend to disappear behind a sand dune for a pee. If push came to shove and someone had to walk out, they would walk towards the mountains and find the road – about a days walk at most. However, the next rule was that if you do get split from the pack, sit and wait for the help to come to you. After all, we were walking along a set route, so there would be a very good chance of getting rescued quickly, if you just sat and waited.
We moved over the dunes and the sand swallowed our feet, step by step, but nothing compared to later in the week. For ease, we settled on straddling the peaks of the dunes and after fifteen minutes, we’re back on flat, stony ground for the last hour of the first afternoon of walking.
Picture: Our first sand dunes
The temperature during the afternoon has dropped from 35°C (95°F) to just over 30°C (86°F) – but the heat from the sun is going fast as it drops lower in the sky, so I can only assume that a lot of the heat is still coming up off the desert floor.
Camp is in sight, but it would take another 30-40 minutes to reach it. Not bad I suppose, but it looked only fifteen minutes away at most.
Tonight’s camp is at Erg Louidi and (as I suppose will be the same for the rest of the week) comprises of an area approximately 35m x 70m, with 4 sleeping tents to the north-east on the long side, the kitchen and trucks opposite, plus the large social tent to the north-west on the short edge – leaving 3 toilet tents 70 metres away to the south-east, each containing a hole in the ground, which will get very smelly. It will be one of the guides’ jobs in the morning to fill in the holes and burn all of the used paper.
As you may have already surmised, the orientation of the camp is determined by the direction of the wind.
Picture: The social tent as night falls
Darkness hit fast and by 6pm it is night. The social tent is the only one lit and looks like a giant beacon in the dark that must be visible for miles around. We all settled down for the evening – some sorting their kit out in the sleeping tents, whilst others gathered in the social tent waiting for dinner.
7.15pm and dinner is served. Vegetable soup and bread – or so I thought and so went back for seconds. I would have been quite happy with a couple of bowls of soup, until Dave Speck walked in with a mountain of meat and vegetables on his plate. How was I to know that the soup was just a starter? Only out of politeness and not wanting to upset our Berber chef, I had some – mutton, potatoes, carrots etc. – and very nice too!
Oh, I forgot to mention the wine. Twelve bottles ration a night (not each, of course) at 60 dirhams – about £4 a bottle. Moroccan Bordeaux – made in Bordeaux and bottled near Casablanca. Play it again Sam. I’ll give the pudding of tinned pears a miss.
It’s now 8.15pm and thoughts of a bed for the night are starting to come to mind. Before I go I’ll sort through the thirty or so digital photos I’ve taken and delete the ones that didn’t come out too well.
The idea tonight is to sleep out under the stars. I will try to describe what I see in the morning. Until then, goodnight.
Monday 6th November 2000
By the time I had sorted through the photos last night, it was 9.30 before I got to bed. As I looked up at the night sky, sleep eventually took over.
I don’t think anyone slept inside. Once the generator switched off, all the noise of people talking around me quickly fell silent – either that, or I simply fell asleep.
I woke up in the early hours of the morning, shivering with the cold. I don’t know what the temperature was, but my breath was steaming in the night air and my three-season sleeping bag felt like it had passed its sell-by date. Then I saw the night sky and couldn’t believe it.
A blanket of stars covered the whole sky and stretched to the horizon in every direction. I’ve never seen so many. It was as though someone had sprinkled icing-sugar over the sky. I could see clusters of stars, seemingly together, but most certainly millions of miles apart and millions of miles away. Were the ones that shone brightest larger, or closer to Earth? Were the dimmer stars, smaller, or further away? It was impossible to say. However, there was a depth to the night sky that I had never ever seen before and it was glorious.
I spotted what I thought might be some planets too, although I’m not knowledgeable enough to name them. I am told that stars flicker and that some of the brightest ‘stars’ in the sky, which don’t flicker, are actually planets that are merely reflecting the light from our own star – the sun – in the same way that the moon does. I also gather that it’s possible to spot satellites in a clear sky. I wish I had brought my binoculars!
I got myself comfortable and went back to sleep.
I woke at 6am, again with cold. The sky above me was becoming blue, although very dark. I turned my head to the east and saw the bright red line of morning coming up over the horizon. There were a few people awake now and sitting up in their sleeping bags watching it. I was still exhausted from the travelling and decided that seeing the sunrise could wait another day. I went back to sleep.
* * *
I needed to catch up on my sleep, having only been getting 5-6 hours a night for the past week and only 4 hours sleep the night before we left.
It’s been a case of sticking in the hours at work in an effort to get ahead of the game. And going home early with a fever on the Monday night of last week – sweating like crazy, but feeling freezing cold – didn’t help me get ahead. Michelle had brought me up a drink of hot chocolate, a stiff whiskey and a couple of aspirin – the combination of which seemed to do the trick – as I was as right as rain the following morning.
* * *
I woke up again at 6.45am and the sun was already warming me up nicely. I got out from my sleeping bag, packed it away and went into a tent for some privacy so I could wash myself with wet-wipes and prepare my clothes and rucksack for the day ahead. Before putting the boots on, I gave them a bang and turned them upside down to see if any scorpions dropped out of them. They didn’t today. Ten minutes later I was out and wondering around camp, brushing my teeth, using just enough water to rinse my mouth and my brush. I then finished packing my kit-bag for the camels to take later.
Breakfast was at 7am. A disgustingly salty porridge made with water. A couple of spoonfuls of strawberry jam made it almost palatable and I scoffed it down – as much for the salt content as anything. I naturally assume that we were being fed this horrid diet for a reason – as your bodily salt levels are quickly sweated away during the hot day, leading to dehydration and cramps.
After the porridge was an egg omelette with some bread. I say egg omelette because egg was the only ingredient. No cheese, no mushrooms, no bacon. Along with the food however, there was coffee, good coffee.
The whole group joined in breaking camp and it was done in virtually no time. We then formed a circle and did our morning series of stretching exercises.
By 8am we were heading due-west. It was already 25°C (77°F) in the shade and the sun was getting stronger.
The first part of our walk was across hard, sometimes stony, but flat ground and was pretty easy going – although the pace was being kept purposely slow, so that everyone could warm-up thoroughly and discover their own pace.
Picture: The start of today’s walk, about 2Km from last night’s camp
Occasionally we would cross over patches of exposed rocks and stones where flash floods had swept away the sand on top.
There is rain here reasonably frequently at this time of year, which is why we all had a waterproof, fold-up jacket in our day-sacks. When it does rain, it runs over the surface in places, sweeping away the sand to expose rocks underneath. This is when fossils are often exposed too, but all I saw was a non-prehistoric jawbone from a camel.
An hour and a half later we started to head over sand dunes and found a tree under which to shade and rest for a while. We all filled our water carriers and some checked their budding blisters – which had started to hit some of the group. Viki Patey’s Caterpillar boots had ripped shreds out of her feet and, so early on in the trek, she was not happy about it!
We set off again over the dunes, which proved harder going as our feet sank into the fine, soft sand. After a while, we found a suitable route, weaving in and out of the dunes and it started to get easier. The pace begins to quicken now and we head south-east towards our spot for lunch.
Dotted around the dunes are the odd bush – typically up to 3 feet high – and we also encounter some vegetation that look like giant cabbage plants – the tallest I saw being over 7 feet high and with very thick leaves.
Pictures: Examples of some of the vegetation as described above
The vegetation is often concentrated where the flash floods occur in the event of rainfall. The smaller bushes have huge roots, their fingers stretching for many metres around the bush and burying themselves just below the surface, where they can absorb any surface moisture as efficiently as possible.
At midday we find our Berber friends setting out lunch under the shade of a large tree between the dunes, where we all crashed out waiting for the food to be served. Lunch today was Spam, pilchards, cheese and salad – followed by pomegranate.
Although I had seen pomegranates in Sainsburys, I had never had one before and it was absolutely delicious. The fruit inside its casing needs prizing out of its internal structure. The fruits themselves look like sweetcorn, but red in colour and, to me, they tasted sort of like a cross between an apple and a pear.
After lunch, we all took siesta. At one point a travelling Berber and his boy came over to us to say hello. The boy had with him a desert hedgehog – apparently rare to see – so we all rewarded our luck with some photos of it. But the hedgehog was very camera shy and didn’t want to show its face.
Picture: Our shy desert hedgehog
It’s now 1.15pm, 29°C (84°F) in the shade and just over 40°C (104°F) out of it!
We set off due-west again and walked over the dunes to the hamada. It’s tough on the feet, walking on ground so stony – but we took our time and after an hour or so, the terrain went back to sand – which was fortunately quite solid.
We stopped under the shade of a tree to rest, while some of our party caught up. Viki had opted for the camel ride because of her blistered feet that, despite a field dressing, were too sore to walk on. I guess the doctor will patch her up properly when we get to this evening’s base camp.
Picture: Afternoon shade
We carried on west and walked and walked and walked. The terrain was fairly flat, but quite soft under foot. I would describe it as like walking on a sandy beach after the tide has just gone out – the weight of the heel striking the ground sinks in, then the rest of your stride pulls the heel out of the hole as the weight moves to the ball of the foot and then onto the toes.
Just after 3.30pm we spotted our campsite, situated at a place called L’oued L’autruche on the edge of some dunes. For me, at least, it took over an hour to get there, but I arrived at 4pm.
I quickly sorted my kit out for the evening and filled up my water carrier, which I will use as a pillow tonight. Who thought I would get a waterbed in the Sahara!
There are some shower tents on site tonight, but I’ve opted for the wet-wipes. As much as anything because there is a ration on the water and, with a queue for the showers already formed, it would be just my luck that the water would run out, just as I had soaped-up.
I went to the social tent and had a kip for a while until 5pm. I was woken to the sound of Dave Jordan, Robin Cooper and Chris Bulow – The Three from Deal – reminiscing about the 60’s and 70’s and concerts they had been to – such as The Kinks and The Who. Our doctor piped up loudly, telling them that they sounded like an OAP’s meeting – an accusation they rebuked vigorously, asking her in return, what groups had come out of Germany. After mentioning The Scorpions, the guys laughed and carried on with their memories. A moment later, Tatyana piped up again, “There you go”, picking up on something they had said, “you must be pensioners, that was over twenty years ago!” Then, in her best German/Manchurian accent and having obviously seen the Fawlty Towers sketch, she said, “You’ll be talking about the war soon, but I can’t mention that!”
At around 6.30pm, with everyone now in the social tent anticipating dinner, we were all asked to introduce ourselves to the group. It started well until Ben Haslam, at the end of his introduction, said that he was having a great time. A heckler shouted, “So’s your wife back in England”. The ice was well and truly broken and the tone for the evening ahead was set.
Picture: Inside the social tent
Dinner was served at 7pm. Soup for starters and couscous with mutton and vegetables for main course. Meat on two nights running! For pudding, it was tinned pineapple rings and, of course, wine too.
I don’t want to give the impression that we are being spoiled. We’ve had a hard walk today and there are a lot of people with blisters already – some quite serious. Besides, there were no after dinner mints or anything.
Well, this is it, 8.15pm and first dump of the trek. I’ll not be writing about every bowel movement, but I wanted to share my first with you. There are three toilet tents – male and female, none of which were signed, so I opted for the middle one to be on the safe side. Inside the 4ft x 4ft tent was a big hole, a toilet roll hanging up to the right, a bag for used tissue to the left and hundreds – no, thousands of flies – all enjoying the stench. It was not a nice experience and I think I’ll stick to digging my own hole behind a sand dune from now on.
Obviously, washing your hands afterwards is important, but it’s vital here. We are using soap and water, followed by an anti-bacterial wash to finish. If one person gets the runs here, the chances are that the whole camp would be affected and it would almost certainly be down to poor hygiene.
Querida was telling me that quite a few of last years group got ill. Hygiene was one suspect, the other was the water – which is why, to be on the safe side, we are drinking bottled water.
I ventured up onto the top of the dunes near camp and saw a group of our Berber guides and the Cameleers, sitting around a campfire, so I went over. They started playing music – someone on a plastic jerry can, someone on a plastic tub, another on a tin pot, with others clapping their hands. I got myself a couple of spoons and joined in. One of the Berbers began singing and I was later to find out that the song was about a Berber marsh man, whose love was leaving the village to marry another man. These songs translate into all languages.
We played and sang for half an hour or so, and then I took my leave – thanking my newfound friends for their hospitality and for looking after us all so well.
Picture: Berber camp – music playing
I sat on top of a small sand dune, just outside camp and began writing my journal for the day. The Berbers having decided to take their music to the social tent.
These are magical times that I shall never forget.
All in all, a good day and even better night. The social tent filled with the sound of Berber music, punctuated by reciprocal Beatles songs. At around 10.30pm, people were beginning to head off to their various places of sleep – mainly around, rather than inside the perimeter of the camp.
I opted for a perch on top of the first dune to the west, but not before joining a group of lads on the other side for a chat. I’ve been nicknamed Lawrence – taking the rise out of the trousers that I had brought with me especially for this trek. They are working wonders – keeping me cool by day and warm by night – thanks to the sister of my work colleague, Haq, for making them for me.
It’s 11.15pm and I can see the glow of another camp a couple of kilometres away to the south – perhaps the Berbers we had seen earlier in the day, or maybe some likeminded Europeans.
125 degrees east-south-east, about 25Km or so away, I can see the dim glow of a town, I later discovered to be called Mhamid – after the Islamic prophet. The Algerian border is about another 30Km on in the same direction.
Time to say goodnight.
Having put on an extra layer of clothing, plus hat and gloves, I still woke up several times in the night shivering with cold.
Sleeping outside again probably didn’t help, especially with a quite strong breeze coming in from the north-east. My perch on the top of a sand dune also left me somewhat exposed to the cold, but also gave me a guaranteed front-seat for the morning sunrise.
I woke up properly at . The stars had all but disappeared and the sky was a very dark blue. I couldn’t make out any of the features around me – not even our camp a hundred yards or so away. It felt like I was sitting alone in the middle of a giant black disk, stretching from horizon to horizon all around me, until it met the only slightly lighter sky.
Ten minutes later, the eastern horizon was pink and red. I checked my thermometer and it was 8°C (46°F) – although even sitting wrapped up in my sleeping bag, it felt much colder. By the sky was becoming bright blue and the horizon was turning yellow with beautiful lines of cloud being highlighted in the sky. By now I had been joined in my vigil by some fellow sun-seekers and we waited patiently together for the sun to peep its head over the horizon.
At 6.40am it did just that and the smallest glimmer of bright sunlight coming over the horizon immediately brightened the sky, making the land beneath it seem momentarily darker and the contrasting colours in the sky, brighter. Reds, yellows and blues of every shade imaginable spreading across the sky to create what we call sunrise.
Picture: A couple of minutes after the sun had peeped over the horizon
To the left of me I could see the silhouettes of the Berbers in their camp, getting up and seemingly stretching. From a squatting position, one of them stood up, squatted again, got onto his knees and stretched out in front. It then dawned on me that the Berbers were in prayer.
From what little I know of
the Muslim faith, I think it is custom to pray in the direction of
It was getting on for and time to prepare for breakfast. I went into the tent containing my kit, got my clothes prepared for the day ahead, had a quick rub down with the wet-wipes and got dressed. After brushing my teeth, I sorted out my kit for the day and then went for breakfast.
Porridge again, but without the salt this time – phew!
I ate my breakfast in the social tent. Chris Bulow was dressing a blister with Compeed – another victim of yesterdays fast pace. Thankfully, I remained blister-free, but an achilles injury from a couple of years ago was feeling quite tight. I shall have to warm-up well today.
Picture: View from last nights perch – the other camp just visible in the distant right
After breaking camp, we did our group warm-up. Today’s stretching exercises were led by Michael Walton – one of us mere trekkers. I think we warmed up through belly laughter more than we did through his routine, which was somewhat comical to say the least.
We set off S.S.W. just before . It was 27°C (81°F) in the shade – slightly higher than this time yesterday.
The initial ground was quite tough going. Soft sand, well, more very fine dust than sand – making it very heavy under foot. However, after about half an hour, we ventured onto a large plain, dotted with 2ft-3ft high bushes as far as the eye could see – and punctuated with patches of hamada, each about the size of a football pitch.
The ground under foot is now hard rock covered in a shallow layer of sand. Apart from having to weave a path between the bushes, it was pretty easy going.
As the area has so much vegetation, I can only surmise that the rock underneath traps pockets of water when it rains.
We come across a small camp in the middle of nowhere that was, we were told, home to a desert hermit.
Picture: Hermit camp nested between a couple of bushes
After a while we took a short break to let the slower ones in the group catch up and I took the opportunity to fill up my water carrier. One of the Cameleers handed out some dates and roasted nuts, including almonds, which were delicious.
A few minutes later, we headed off again and at we found a large tree under which to shade, take a proper break and wrap up in anticipation of the sandstorm that is being whipped up in the distance and seems to be heading right for us. Fortunately, we remained on the peripherals of the storm and twenty minutes later it seemed that we were not going to get hit by it after all.
Picture: Taking it easy en-route to lunch
We got moving south-west across hamada and zig-zagged our way through the desert, between the bushes for an hour, until we found our lunchtime location. It was .
After another cracking lunch of tomatoes, cucumber, beetroot, lettuce, green pepper, onion, pilchards and cheese, we chilled out under the shade of a tree and listened to Michael (Sunday league football manager extraordinaire) Walton, boasting about his team selection and team tactical skills. Time to have a snooze. It’s 31°C (88°F) in the shade and 44°C (111°F) out.
At we walked west, at a hell of a pace. By the time we stopped for a breather, 45-50 minutes later, the tail end of the group were nigh-on a kilometre behind. Not surprising. The first 20 minutes or so, we were ankle deep in sand as we crossed the first significant sand dunes of the day.
Getting up the dunes was an art in itself and you slipped backwards, unless you walked at twice your natural pace and forced yourself up. It was like loads of Travellators from the TV programme, Gladiators – one after the other, after the other. I found it easier to walk in the footsteps of the person in front, where they had already displaced the sand under foot, making the ground slightly firmer.
The dunes were punctuated with ground, similar to that of this morning – except instead of surface sand, it was a soft clay-like material that created a dry, honeycombed cushioned track.
Picture: Honeycombed clay plates Picture: Cross section of the ground
And, it was hot. 38°C (100°F) with no shade or breeze and the sun beating down on my face as we headed west towards it.
Then we hit more sand dunes. We crossed them one by one, dune by dune, getting hotter and hotter. The pace at the front never slowed and I was just considering holding my pace back when, fortunately, the dunes opened out and in the distance, across the plain, we spotted a glimmer of light reflecting from a vehicle. It must be our camp and, after ten more minutes of walking, it proved that it was.
Camp was about half-an-hours walk away and – where on the previous days, it was on sight of the camp when the going got tough, today was different. Having been such a hard day physically, the elation of seeing camp raised my spirit and I was there in minutes, to be met by hot drinks, biscuits and more roasted nuts. It was and the temperature had cooled to just under 30°C (86°F) out of the shade.
After washing and getting some kit ready for Wednesday, I set up a clothesline and pegged up all of my sponsorship t-shirts for a photo-shoot with Dave Chapman and myself. Dave had been given the nickname of Bono on account of the green shamock and wrap-around sunglasses he had been wearing today, making him look like the U2 star.
For the photo-shoot, we enlisted the help of Ian Catley, of the Macmillan camp. Ian soon had us posing artistically – both individually and together – in various poses around the makeshift clothesline. He snapped away, like Macmillan’s very own Lord Litchfield, giving us instructions to lift our heads, look towards him, smile and so on.
Of the forty or so pictures he took with my digital camera, I kept nine – but I guess that’s how the professional model photographers work – and had nothing to do with the fact that the camera was full of sand and kept taking pictures of everything except what Ian was pointing at. Nothing a quick clean didn’t cure.
Picture: 17 of 40
Then to the social tent for aperitifs – or, in English, a couple of glasses of red wine before dinner.
I’ll skip describing the
soup, which was neither better nor worse than any we’d had so far. No, I’m going to save all my gastronomic
praises of the Berbers efforts for serving us spaghetti bolognaise in the
middle of the
Then coffee and chat with all and sundry, and just enjoying the general camaraderie that had been built so far this week – including Perdy (Sporty Spice) Kirkland, telling us of her flirtatious antics with the 17 year old Berber lad who, apparently, does a great Michael Jackson impression. I didn’t enquire further.
Then the Berbers, when finished their evening chores, gave us another display of their improvised musical talents of singing, clapping and playing on instruments of mess-tins, plastic food containers – you name it.
Picture: Entertainment, with Michael Jackson second from the left
I took a bottle of water and sat just outside of camp on my own and, from a distance, watched and listened to the sound of Berber folk music, reverberate around the camp. Time for bed.
I slept inside a tent last night. As much to keep warm and to get a good nights sleep, after yesterday’s slog. Besides, the night sky was cloudy and dark with very few stars to see.
At the light of day had woken me up. It’s amazing but, perhaps with the night being so dark, when morning comes, you tend to wake up naturally. It was much warmer inside the tent than it was outside. Even though dawn had broken, the sun stayed behind clouds and didn’t break through until just after .
I grabbed breakfast – porridge again – which, incidentally, is definitely getting better and the week goes on. As usual, I followed the porridge with an egg sandwich and a couple of cups of strong coffee.
After breakfast, it was a case of getting washed (wet-wipes again), brushing teeth and generally getting ready for the day.
Everyone is aching from yesterday and actually looking forward to loosening up with their stretching and warm-up exercises today. I wonder if Wal will take the class again?
It’s 23°C (73°F) in the shade.
Then the wind picked up and we were lashed with sand. It was like a foggy day in the desert, but the fog was made from fine particles of sand that got everywhere, no matter how hard you tried to stop it. I mean everywhere.
We set off due-west at and walked across the remaining flat plain. It took us an hour with a savage wind whipping the sand up around us.
Picture: Our view of the sand storm as we started walking
We were told before we set off that visibility was 4 kilometres, but not long after we had set off, I doubted it was possible to see much more than a kilometre.
This seems like a long way and I can hear you say, “so what”, but in the desert, visibility is often to the horizon 25-26Km away. On this basis, 1Km is not far and, if visibility gets down to half of that, we will have to stop and sit it out.
At about we hit the first of the sand dunes and ambled across them at a steady pace. The pace so far today has been quite slow, so that the group could keep together – although with the aching limbs mentioned this morning, I doubt the pace would have been much quicker anyway.
Ian Catley had decided to take the camel ride, having been ill during the night. The general consensus is that he is probably suffering from a touch of heatstroke from yesterdays hard walk. Either that, or the stress of the photo-shoot just got too much for him.
After a short water break, we carried on and the terrain changed frequently between dunes and hamada, before finally settling into a vast rolling plain of hamada. It reminded me of the Ystradfellte region of the Brecon Beacons – a favourite walking haunt of mine back home – but instead of peat, bracken, cold and wet; this was sand, stone, hot and dry. Either way, it had a very similar stark barrenness to it and it wasn’t long before a great sense of desolation and solitude was achieved.
At around we went over a rise and found more sand dunes. In the distance were a tree and a Land Rover. Lunch.
Because it was so windy, lunch was served out of the side window of the Land Rover. Chris took the initiative and went up to the window and asked for two large donner kebabs, but was served instead with the Sahara Challenge traditional lunchtime salad – although tuna had replaced the pilchards and we were treated to some French beans.
Picture: Kebab van Picture: Location for lunch
We sat with our backs to the wind, all facing west on the matting laid down for us, waiting for the next gust of wind to pick us all up and carry us away, like a giant magic carpet.
I think we’ve all eaten and breathed in more than a healthy share of sand today, but I am sure there is more to come. I am looking forward to getting a shower in camp tonight. Every nook and cranny of my clothes and body have sand in them and it hurts your eyes, something chronic - even if you are not walking into the wind.
Camels seem to have no problem with the sand and dust – even walking into the wind. They have double rows of protective eyelashes, hairy ear openings and the ability to close their nostrils – all of which leave them somewhat more comfortable than I feel right now.
The camels we have with us are the single hump Arabian camel, as opposed to the two-hump Bactrian camel. They have evolved over 40 million years into the perfect desert survivor. A horse designed by a committee, it has been said; but the characteristics I mentioned above, along with their other attributes, have ensured their evolutionary survival.
They have wide-spreading soft feet, which have evolved for walking upon sand. It is certainly noticeable from their footprints that their feet distribute their weight very evenly, so they don’t sink into the sand – which in itself is very energy efficient. And, they can maintain a speed of around 15Km per hour for up to 18 hours without rest – partly due to them being able to lose as much as 25% of their weight by dehydration without any ill effects. Incredible.
Picture: Sketch of an Arabian camel, courtesy of Ian Catley.
When we’ve stopped for a break, the camels have been feeding on some quite coarse vegetation – even thorny! Although, I am sure they would not be averse to something more nourishing if it were available.
My water intake has been a little less today than most days so far. Partly due to it being cooler and partly to do with me getting a gob full of sand every time I take my scarf from around my face to drink. Generally though, we’ve each been drinking about ten pints of water each day.
It is of obvious importance to stay hydrated in these conditions and our expedition leaders have been great in instilling that importance into us. Basically, if you cover up to avoid direct sunlight onto your head and the back of your neck, and by drinking plenty of water, it is possible – as we are proving, to walk 15-20Km a day without too many adverse affects.
The acid test of hydration (not literally) is to have clear urine. To achieve this, it is important to take regular sips of water instead of large gulps, so that it stays in your system and doesn’t go straight through you. In survival conditions, the balance would be about taking in the optimum amount of water, versus, expelling too much and ensuring what you do expel remains reasonably clear.
It’s 1.10pm, 26°C (79°F) in the shade – time to siesta and listen to the Berbers working away and singing contently in the background of my snoozing thoughts.
The storm is passing. At we got going again and carried on west. After 45 minutes or so we stopped for a break and allowed the others to catch up. To pass the time, a bouncy ball with a smiley face on it was passed around – which was a bit of a giggle, especially when it wasn’t caught and it bounced away for miles across the hamada – the terrain of the day.
We set off again and the
group began to spread out. I decided to
take it slow and enjoy the scenery more – my Brecon Beacons in the
I was now in between the front and back groups with approximately 200 metres distance between each group and me. After twenty minutes or so, the leading group disappeared over a rise and I looked behind to see that the distance to the rear group had doubled to near half a kilometre.
I climbed the hamada rise and thought that I had lost the leading group – only to see that they had beared-off left towards camp, which I could see a couple of kilometres away through the haze of sand still present in the air.
Picture: More hamada
Another couple of kilometres behind our camp, due-west and contrasting against the hazy blue sky, I could see the silhouette of Chgaga – the giant sand dune that will be our challenge for tomorrow.
Content with my own company in this beautiful setting, I sat down to scribble my thoughts and waited for the stragglers to catch up – which they did far too quickly. As they wondered by, Mohammed (one of the Moroccan guides and a professor of geology), came up to greet me. We walked to camp together and chatted away. En route, we picked up a few fossils and I found a piece of rough quartz about 2cm x 3cm in size.
It was and 29°C (84°F).
Tonight’s camp, at Chgaga Erg, had been set out so that the wind wouldn’t blow sand in through the doors. Hot drinks were served inside the social tent – although most took their drinks back to their sleeping tents, where they chatted cheerfully.
Sharing in my tent tonight are Trica Manns, a fifty-something lady with a great sense of humour, life and adventure – Sporty Spice – Dave from Peterborough, aka Bono – Emma (Zola) Padley, who is always at the front of the food queue, eats like a sumo wrestler and is as thin as a rake – Viki (blister) Patey, who is a technical illustrator – and Marcea Goodman.
As soon as I had the privacy, I got out of the days clothes and attempted a wet-wipe wash, as the anticipated showers just weren’t there. Trying to get clean with wet-wipes when you are caked from head to toe in dust is impossible. Nevertheless, just spreading it over evenly with the wipes felt better. I then put on my desert evening-wear (consisting of track-suit bottoms, t-shirt, sandals and head-torch), sorted out my kit for the following day and headed off to the social tent.
It’s . The bar opened and closed, ten and nine minutes ago respectively. The available 12 bottles of wine were snapped up as quickly as though we were in prohibition and the police were about to raid.
Bono managed to get a bottle and shared it with me whilst we waited for dinner.
Starter today was minestrone soup – well, actually, spaghetti soup, made with last night’s leftovers. I can’t believe it is possible for the food to get better as the week goes on, but it does. Tonight’s main course was a Berber speciality – a tajine of vegetable and egg – a bit like a vegetable omelette with a bias on the vegetables – potatoes, carrots, courgettes, peas and tomatoes. Spicy, absolutely delicious and, with a splash of chilli sauce, out of this world.
Of course, as with all groups, there is always opposition to such an opinion. Those who don’t like eggs and, therefore, have some more soup and bread – and those who don’t like any of that funny foreign food and, therefore, have a pot noodle – chow mien flavour! I kid you not.
* * *
The Berbers appear to have split their duties two ways. There are those who run the camp and those who carry it. Whilst we are eating and being generally looked after, the Cameleers sit by their campfire, sing songs and talk. Of course, earlier in the day, whilst the Cameleers were cameleering, the other Berbers were driving to, setting up and preparing the camp for our arrival – including preparing dinner. In the morning, the duty of everyone (including us trekkers) is to break camp before the whole process starts again.
A similar routine seems to happen with the food. The main course is served with a wire-net ladle, which gives us enough juice for our meal, but leaves enough in the pot to make the following night’s starter. Last night’s main course and today’s starter are a good example – spaghetti. It’s probably why we all recognised the first nights starter as being Heinz Vegetable.
* * *
After dinner, the social tent fragmented into several social groups. I sat drinking coffee with Trica and we both enjoyed simply listening to the varying degrees of banter going on around us. We would even join in the laughter, when the humour deteriorated to a suitably low level.
Bit by bit, people grabbed a mattress and made a move to the tents or the dunes. It’s time to say goodnight again.
STOP PRESS… SOMEONE HAS JUST ANNOUNCED THAT THERE IS A GOAT IN THEIR TENT – LITERALLY!
Well, the goat kept the camp awake for some time after lights out – making rather loud goat noises – as goats do. I was sort of hoping that one of the Berbers would finish it off, so that we could have fresh meat for dinner tonight – but no such luck.
I awoke at and ventured out of camp to find a quiet spot for a pee, whilst not disturbing the various sleeping pods dotted around the desert floor. The moon had disappeared in readiness for the sunrise. The place was in total darkness, total silence – and the sky full with those glorious stars.
The winds of yesterday have completely died off. Just as well. My throat is raw and really sore from breathing in lung-fulls of sand and dust. As for yesterday’s nosebleed, it seems that a lot of people had them – a normal reaction of the body to breathing in all that sand.
I had some water, went back to bed and slept until nearly .
The encampment was bustling with everyone getting their preparations done for the day. I dragged myself out from my sleeping bag, washed and got dressed.
Breakfast was the usual porridge followed by egg sandwiches.
Bono and I went over to a nearby well to take some opportune pictures for one of my t-shirt sponsors. On arriving back at camp, everyone was in the throws of breaking it down, so we joined in. I then did my stretching and warm-up in advance, so that I could scribble the morning’s notes before we set off.
A quick application of sun cream and we’re about ready to go. It’s and 21°C (70°F) in the shade. It’s going to be a scorcher!
I noticed a small goatherd boy watching us, so I went to greet him and asked if I could take his photo. He agreed and I gave him a pen to say thanks. It was nice that he never asked for anything – unlike most of the Berber children we’ve come across so far.
Picture: Goatherd boy
We set off towards the giant dune and it took us about thirty minutes to get to its base. Whilst we were waiting for everyone to catch up, some children appeared from a Berber encampment a few hundred metres away – begging for whatever they could get.
Good or bad, I gave them a couple of dirhams. Some of our group gave them sweets, but it said in the literature not to, because they can’t afford the resulting dental treatment required when their teeth rot. Nevertheless, you can’t help but want to give something.
Picture: Going up the 1000 ft sand dune
Then we set up the dune. Half an hour later we were there – and what a prize! To the south we could see the hamada that we had walked across yesterday, stretching to the Jebl Bani mountains. To the north and west it was stereotypical desert as far as the eye could see.
Picture: Chgaga – the highest point of the trek
There were rounds of rapturous applause as each person reached the top to claim their prize. When everyone was up, we all gathered together and had a group photo taken with the Macmillan banner. It was, in more ways than one, the pinnacle of the week.
Then it was down. One by one, or sometimes in groups, we legged it down. Running was almost easier than walking – when with each step your feet sank deep into the sand, well over your boots. At least running, the downward momentum helped pull your trailing leg from behind – the trick being to propel it forward quickly enough, or else!
Picture: Down at speed – photo courtesy of Robin Cooper
At the bottom most took off their boots and socks to empty them of sand. So much sand came out from some people’s boots, I was surprised they’d had room for their feet! I had anticipated the problem in advance and had started the day using a double-sock system that, although hot, had stopped any sand from going into my boots.
The double-sock system is simply that you put on two pairs of long socks. When on, the top pair roll down over the top of the boot and the bottom pair roll just over the edge of the top pair. This basically creates the effect of a higher, skin-tight boot, so the sand can’t go into them.
Once we had regrouped and got our breath, we headed north-east with a view to boxing around the main large dunes. Nevertheless, we still had to go over plenty of smaller ones, whose fingers stretched far into the bush to the east. We gradually headed north and then the north-west, going around the main dunes.
The wind was beginning to stir up some sand and dust in the air, which made it feel very hot and dry – despite the temperature today being only 33°C (91°F).
We didn’t reach our place of lunch until – an hour later than we had been used to – which made the morning very difficult, both physically and mentally.
The place of lunch was right around to the north-west, along the route of a wadi (dry river bed). As a result, we didn’t get any advance warning of how far away our place of lunch was – we just had to keep walking and walking in a giant north-east to north-west arc, until it suddenly appeared.
Everyone collapsed onto the mats and made noises about what a pig this morning’s trek had been. However, after another delicious lunch – the usual, except lentils were the staple ingredient – everyone was refreshed. Except, it seemed, me.
At , we got moving. I tried to keep up with the main group, but my legs were seizing and I soon flagged. Even today’s lunch couldn’t provide enough energy quickly enough for me to keep a pace and before I knew it, I was near the back.
It’s not a race, I know, but psychologically, it is beneficial to be at the front of the midway point in the line. The benefits of being up front are that; a). you get a longer break when one is called; b). you get to camp first and, therefore a shower before the water runs out, and; c). you get the biscuits. The downside of being at the back is that you don’t get any of the above and you dwell on it – especially in the last hour before getting into camp, which makes the last hour seem like an eternity when you are hot, tired and hurting.
At around we took a short break and camel rides were offered to the non-sick for the first time, so that they could try it out. The camels soon found tired passengers, but I was determined not to have a go myself until the end. We set off again north-north-west.
By my legs were virtually seized up and I was struggling to put one foot in front of the other. I ate the last of the Lands End rock that my work colleague, Andy, had given me, but by the time its energy started to come through, my legs were seized and I was walking like Frankenstein’s monster through the dunes.
I realised that I was probably a bit dehydrated also and, at least, needed some salt to stop the cramps from hitting. It would be my first priority when I got to camp to take a couple of rehydrate sachets – which sort out your fluid and sodium levels. In the meantime I could see tonight’s camp about 5Km away – an hour tops at the earlier pace of the week, but at least two hours of torture now.
I was speaking with Tricia later in the evening and explaining that I would have felt a burden on the guides to have had them wait with me for half an hour whilst I got my act together. Tricia rightly pointed out that it’s what they got paid for. Nevertheless, when I looked behind, those who had taken the earlier camel ride were coming up fast. It was time for a camel ride of my own.
Picture: Camel rides
Shortly after we hit camp.
I was disappointed with myself in having to take the camel – especially as the final 2Km was across fairly flat plains. What I do know is that I pushed myself too hard both up and down this morning’s dune.
I really pushed my pace on the way up and enjoyed the feeling of my lungs and legs burning with effort. The same goes for getting down and I enjoyed the challenge of getting a magnificent speed and momentum going, without going arse about face. Or maybe I was just showing off!
The elation of the morning had gotten to me emotionally and I never recovered from it physically, which put a bit of a downer on the day. Either way, it was definitely a hard day and everyone agreed it was the hardest, but most rewarding so far.
We all managed to get showered tonight. Darren and Jim were, I think, a little embarrassed that we’d run out of water the other night and so made super-human effort taking the Land Rover back and forth to the well for refills.
Picture: Queue for the showers – not many takers for the toilets to the left
There was a constant queue of 6-7 bods for the three showers that were available. Getting clean – properly clean – after four days of sand and dust was just heaven.
I’ll not say much about the camel ride, only to say that it is an experience and one you must try sometime.
Dinner was served at tonight. Soup and even harder bread than yesterday followed by a Berber vegetarian casserole with potatoes, peas, carrots, onions and their special ingredient for today – sultanas! Trés bon!
As you can perhaps tell, my writing is getting tired and I think there will be a few of us up for an early night tonight. Tomorrow’s trek is, apparently, across flat, open salt-pans, so I’ll need all the energy I can get.
Friday 10th November 2000
I was awoken at 5am by the sound of a cockerel from a nearby Berber encampment, but managed to get back to sleep. It had apparently crowed all night through until sunrise when it went to sleep. Typical.
I re-awoke at 6.45am in a very good mood following yesterday’s downer, which was as much tiredness as anything. Before I knew it, I was up and dressed, had breakfast and was prepared for the day.
Today is the last official day of walking and I think everyone is more than a little sad that the week – although very hard in places – is coming to an end so soon. It looks like everyone is going to finish the challenge, despite the varying degrees of blistering, dehydration, heatstroke, sickness and/or the squirts. The mood in camp is good.
After breaking camp, Wal took his morning warm-up/aerobics class, which included a particularly special rendition of the Hokey Cokey. It’s 8.30am, 16°C (61°F) in the shade and 26°C (79°F) in the open.
Our guides gave us our brief for the day and advised that it is going to be a hot day without any shade and to take plenty of water. We’ve got 17Km ahead of us, over a section of the flat, open Iriki salt-pan.
We set off in a south-westerly direction and walked across a combination of hamada, bush and over the last fingers of dunes that were stretching out from the south. After an hour, we stopped for a rest and water refill. Everyone took the opportunity to use up some film from their cameras.
Flies from camp had piggy-backed a lift with us and had been on everyone’s backpacks during this mornings walk. Once we stopped, they swarmed around, trying to figure out who tasted best.
We’ve all watched the scenes on TV where children in the third-world hot countries have flies crawling all over them and how we think it’s disgusting. However, as the days pass by, you become more used to them and now think nothing of them crawling on your face and buzzing in your ears.
Picture: Water break
Jim handed out some boiled sweets and we prepared to head off again for the next stretch. We carried on south-west and before long we could see our lunch tent in the far distance.
Distance is a strange thing in the desert and very difficult to judge. It was 10am when we spotted our lunchtime target, which looked about 45 minutes to an hour away. However, we don’t typically have lunch until around midday, so it must be getting on for two hours walk away.
The terrain we are on now is flat salt-pan – baked, hard sand – flat enough in places for an aircraft to land.
Picture: Salt-pan with view of our lunchtime target in the distance
As the sun got higher in the sky, mirages begin to appear towards the horizon and they made very convincing lakes – particularly as the ground we were walking on had patches of dark sand, which looked wet. Of course, they were not.
Seeing shelter from the burning sun gave everyone a spurt of energy and we reached our lunchtime spot for 11.45am. It was 31°C (88°F) in the shade and the shade was created by the roof section of our former social-tent that the Berbers had erected in the middle of this vast, desolate place.
We had just done 10Km in two and a half hours, including our water break. Not bad considering the searing temperature and the deteriorated health of some of the group. Only another seven elating kilometres to go to complete our challenge. Most of us had packed a Macmillan t-shirt into our day sacks and we put them on in anticipation of getting to the end.
Lunch today was – wait for it – pasta, cheese and a very spicy vegetable casserole. Personally, I really enjoyed it – as I have with all the Berber dishes so far. There were a few groans at getting hot food in the middle of the burning day and someone pointed out their concern that the flies weren’t landing in today’s dish.
I just reckon that with the food being hot (temperature) and hot (spicy) enough to burn my mouth, the flies would simply burn their backsides and, therefore, decided instead to check-out some festering blisters.
Picture: Lunchtime oasis
After lunch we siesta’d in the shade as the hottest part of the day, an outside temperature of 45°C (113°F), passed by. I fell asleep in the shade, but it was still seriously hot!
Just after 1.30pm we prepared to move out and all topped up our water bottles with water and our skin with sun lotion. A few stayed snoozing and seemed unwilling to move. I think partly exhaustion and partly knowing that to get moving meant shortly ending this marathon trek.
Nevertheless, at just before 2pm we started walking again. It had cooled to 39°C (102°F) outside and the hottest part of the day had passed us by.
To help ensure that we all crossed the finishing line together, we budgeted two hours walking. Darren had taken a lift in the truck to go ahead and set up the finishing post and was very deceitful in choosing the camp site for tonight – just tucked around a bend in the foothills of the Jebl Bani’s so we couldn’t see it until only ten minutes walk away.
This made this afternoons walking quite an emotional strain as our eyes strained to find the finishing line. It was a jubilant moment when it was spotted.
Picture: Waiting for the stragglers
We all held up to wait for the camels that had been carrying our water and for Jane Graham, who had been on a camel for the past couple of days due to some really bad blistering on her feet. However, Jane had got off her camel and had bravely decided to walk the last few kilometres to the finishing line – which she did to shouts and cheers of approval, elation and joy. She crossed the finishing line at 3.57pm.
We spent the next fifteen minutes taking photos with every camera there was this side of the Jebl Bani mountains. Every possible combination of people was photographed to record the friendships forged over the past six days.
Picture: Group finish
It was what we had all come here for and it was more than a touch sad that it was now as good as over.
* * *
I ran up to the top of one of the foothills to catch the sunset and to view the salt-pan we had just walked over. The sunset over the mountains to the west was beautiful and I got a magnificent view of our camp to the east and the salt-pan that stretched to the, now, near-dark horizon.
As I was coming down, I met Tricia, Bono, Cath and Gorgeous George, who had also been up to see the sunset. Bono went on ahead with Cath, but the rest of us decided to say thank-you to the Cameleers in their camp, just outside ours.
Picture: Last sunset
They had constructed themselves a bunker made from the camel packs to protect themselves from the wind, and were making themselves some mint tea. Their nature and hospitality put us all to shame, as their first instinct was to offer us their freshly made tea, which we drank with humility, thanked them and went back to camp.
At 6.45pm we were treated to a glass of champagne to celebrate our efforts and a toast was raised to The Sahara Challenge on behalf of Macmillan Cancer Relief. As everyone celebrated and congratulated each other further, I volunteered a song in dedication to all those who had struggled over the week’s walk. It was a Willie Nelson number:
I’ve been too sick to pray Lord,
it’s why we ain’t talked in a while.
It’s been some of them days,
I thought I was on my last mile.
Well, I’m feeling OK Lord,
and I’m glad that I called you today.
Never needed you more,
I would have called you before,
but I’ve been too sick to pray.
It’s words obviously struck a note, as I was greeted with great applause at its end. Fortunately, before I could get too embarrassed, dinner was served.
Vegetable soup with very, very, very hard bread – which, incidentally, made very good croutons. And, for main course, would you believe it… chicken and chips. Brilliant!
A couple of flasks came around, one with Jack Daniels, the other with what Tricia and I identified as an Islay malt – pretty easy with its peaty after-taste.
Bono came in and announced that there is a ring around the moon. Ian told him to put his trousers back on. And Emma (Zola) Padley – having been first in the food queue all week, had not only served the Berbers tonight by way of thanks, but with Pauline Stewart, actually done the washing-up too.
Jim asked for a show of hands for those who wanted to get up early and start walking, rather than take the bumpy and dusty truck ride the rest of us would have to endure. There was a healthy show of hands, but this evenings festivities may reduce the numbers.
At 9pm the Berbers came into the social tent and Pauline thanked them in beautifully fluent French for their hospitality and especially for their music.
In return, Moha spoke in French on behalf of the Berbers and Pauline roughly translated as follows:
Really happy to meet and serve you all week. It is, frankly, everyone who has helped them and we thank you all very much. Again, we are really happy to meet you and you are all really nice people and welcome back to Morocco any time.
It was very humbling.
After the speeches, we enjoyed an auction of the last two bottles of wine, with the proceeds going to Macmillan. I must have scratched my head at the wrong time because I got the first bottle for £25 which I shared with anyone who fancied a sip. Ray got the second bottle.
Many of us then took our mattresses and headed out to the fire that had been built for us in the middle of camp and sat around singing Scout songs – starting with Ging Gang Goo – followed by a Berber song.
The Berbers sang and danced around, proud to show off their heritage and custom – which made ‘Ging Gang Goo’ and ‘I am the Music Man’, feel very embarrassing – but I loved every moment.
Just when we thought it was safe to sit by the campfire, someone decided to show the Berbers the Hokey Cokey. I think the Berbers struggled with the actions, but they soon got the hang of the ‘oh, hokey, cokey, cokey’ bit and raced towards the middle without hesitation. The air filled with dust and the campfire glowed in the fog.
I decided it was time for my bed. It’s 10.30pm.
I grabbed my mattress, gathered my sleeping bag and found a spot on the salt pan, about 100 metres east in the direction we had come from today. I settled down to the sound of the camp and the Berber music and slipped gently into sleep – totally content with the week, the desert, the hardships and the sounds around me. A perfect end to a perfect week.
I woke up for a pee at 12.30am to the sound of the camp still trying to party, but now beginning to fade – although I gather some went back to their sleeping tents and carried on drinking into the early hours.
I went back to sleep and woke again at , got up and went into camp. Those making an early start and planning to start walking were having breakfast. They set off at around to the south-west. As they left and disappeared into the darkness, I couldn’t help but notice that there weren’t quite as many people going as there was show of hands last night.
I drank some coffee and pulled up a mattress to the east side of camp and waited for the dawn.
Picture: Final sunrise
She came in with a blaze of glory at around only an hour after seeing the almost-full moon disappear over the foothills to the west. It was 9°C (48°F).
We now had another truck with us that I hadn’t noticed last night. I know it was cold, but I was gob-smacked when, to get the truck warmed up enough to start, the driver had lit a fire underneath it! It was our transport for the day.
I ate breakfast and helped reluctantly to break camp for the last time. I think everybody is ready to go home now, but see the journey required to get there as a chore.
Picture: Breaking last camp. The truck on the left was now warmed up
A small consolation of the journey home is that at least I can phone home to let my family know I’m OK and that we’ve done it!
I don’t think Chris got anything up by sat-phone during the week. I just hope all the families back home have been comfortable enough working on the basis that no news is good news.
We shall have a good party at the hotel tonight, but try to remember that we’ve got a start tomorrow morning. It’s going to be a long day! Right now, I guess it’s time to get on the back of the truck. It’s nigh-on 9am.
Picture: Sketch of our transport, courtesy of Ian Catley
Having said our goodbyes to the Cameleers, we got up onto the back of the trucks, standing on the mattresses that had been loaded on before us. It was now time to say goodbye to the desert and we waved goodbye to it and the Cameleers as we headed off to find the advance party who had set off on foot before dawn. The Land Rover raced ahead, followed by the freight truck, followed by us – herded like cattle, standing up in the back of the truck and holding on for dear life.
The advance party got the best of both worlds, but, despite previous warnings, I recommend the truck ride. It was the white-knuckle ride of a lifetime – a hot, dusty, desert roller-coaster, throwing us up, down and around in every direction possible. All without a harness! The trick was to keep your knees slightly bent to absorb each impact as the truck abused its suspension system at every opportunity. I think my legs got as good a workout during the following couple of hours as they’d had all week.
After an hour or so, travelling along a dirt track through the desert, we were stopped at a military checkpoint and our papers were examined once more. A few minutes drive later, we found the advance party – examining rocks for fossils.
They loaded up and we carried on until when we arrived at our rendezvous point with our coach. We loaded on the luggage, found our seats and set off to Ouarzazate.
* * *
It’s nice being back on the coach with its smooth drive, comfy seats and air conditioning. There were many comments about the awaiting showers at the hotel. We were all pretty dirty and dusty and were looking forward to getting properly clean.
We drove back through the small villages and the villagers were still sitting around and watching the world go by. The camels we saw were soon replaced by donkeys. Our driver occasionally beeped his horn to get the kids and men with their loaded donkeys out of our road and soon the palm trees reappeared. We were back in civilization and it felt good.
The desert landscape gradually disappeared as we weaved back along the road and back through the mountain pass. Inside the coach all fell silent as tired trekkers slept.
About 75Km from Ouarzazate, we pulled into a lay-by and were pleasantly surprised to see the Land Rover there with the field kitchen all laid out with our customary lunchtime salad – except this time we had fresh bread and the flies were few and far between.
Somehow though, for me at
least, it just wasn’t the same anymore and I didn’t know why. Like watching a live version of the cartoon,
Mr. Benn, all of the characters that had come out of our adventure changed back
into themselves again. Lord Litchfield
turned back into Ian; Sporty Spice into Perdy;
Sweet Cheeks turned into Isla; Chunk and Bono turned into their
respective Dave’s; Wal into Michael; and
The last field lunch, for me anyway, signalled a definite end to this great adventure. By we were on our way again.
* * *
I must have dozed off, but when I woke it was and we were heading through Quarzazate. Our hotel – the same one we had stayed in on the journey here – was a welcoming sight and some couldn’t wait to get in the pool. Some couldn’t wait to get Michael Walton into the pool, but all I heard was the splash and didn’t see anything. Honest Guv!
We checked in and went to our rooms. I shared again with Dave Chapman. He made a dash straight for the shower whilst I just threw my bags on the bed and went back downstairs to catch the coach leaving for town. I tried phoning home whilst I was waiting, but there was no answer, so I phoned my Mum and Mum-In-Law to let them know that we had all made it safe and well.
* * *
On arriving in Quarzazate city centre, I got myself some cash from a cash-point and set off to find myself some bargains. I wondered around the town market which, apart from the odd tourist stall, was full of stalls selling cloth, fresh spices, vegetables and fruit and I also witnessed a man choosing a chicken from a cage which was immediately taken out and its neck wrung. Very fresh chicken tonight for his family!
It wasn’t until I got into the main thoroughfare that I began to get hassled and soon learned to look like I was simply walking down the street with a purpose.
However, I soon found a store that I fancied and ventured inside. It was dark, but soon a light came on and I was gestured towards the back of the store where the storekeeper, his cousin and a friend were watching African Nations soccer on the box – which made it very easy for us to break the ice between us. Before long, David Beckham and Manchester United were being mentioned. I always thought it fiction and a PR exercise by MUFC when I had seen this scenario on TV, so was delighted at its authenticity and strange surrealism.
After ten minutes of watching the game, Aziz, the storekeeper, asked me to follow him further into the store to look at some goods. He held back a hanging rug and gestured for me to go through the door behind it, into a dark room beyond. I was more than a bit apprehensive, but then he put a light on and I saw that it was another Aladdin’s cave of pots, trinkets, jewellery and daggers.
However, I was still nervous about going into this hidden room. I weighed up the situation and considered my size against the three lads, decided what items in the room would make the best and most easily accessible weapons and looked over my shoulder. Aziz was following me in, but his cousin and friend were just sitting watching the footie. I was being paranoid. I was, after all, in a place of business on the main High Street and had obviously watched Pulp Fiction once too many times. My adrenaline levels subsided and Aziz took great delight in trying to sell me his wares.
I took my time and picked several items – each time asking the price and frowning slightly more at Aziz each time he answered me. By the end I had a wool & silk carpet for hanging at home; a small woollen carpet in pink with camels and things weaved into it – which I shall give to Sinéad and try to convince her that it’s a magic, flying carpet that can only be used in the desert when the going gets tough; a 45cm diameter shallow wooden bowl, encrusted with decorative metal and stones; a leather sewn bag with highly decorative embroidery on it – based on the traditional cameleers bag; and a ceramic pair of tom-tom drums, that when played, took me straight back into the desert. And, for good measure, Aziz threw in a wooden flute.
We calculated it all to 3800 dirhams – about £250. I offered him 1200 dirhams and listened while he explained to me in broken English, that it cost him nearly twice that! He offered me five percent off his original quote. I returned the gesture and laughed at him, explaining that I had very little money to spend and that there were plenty of other shops on the same street willing to take it. I upped my offer to 1500 dirhams and told him he could keep his wooden flute. He retorted and explained that he lived far away in a town called Mhamid – the town whose lights we had seen from the desert the previous Monday evening – and that he had family there to support. I explained in a disappointed tone that I too had a family to support and that my wife would kill me if she knew I was even considering spending so much money. And so it went on.
In the end, Aziz said he wanted both of us to be happy and could I pay him 2150 dirhams. We shook hands on 1850 dirhams – about £120 – and I kept the flute. I was happy, but had to go again to the cash-point to get some dosh for tonight.
The coach had left and returned to the hotel, so I stopped at a café and ordered myself a mint-tea in my best French, which I sat and drank slowly as the world of Ouarzazate passed by. I then caught a taxi back to the hotel.
* * *
It was time to get clean. The shower was heaven and I washed out so much sand, dust, dirt and grime, I was surprised any of the desert had been left behind. It took three soapings before the water ran clear. And I thought I had stayed reasonably clean out there!
I then dressed, packed for the early morning start and headed for dinner. Much more civilized. It’s .
In the bar we enjoyed the entertainment from the band and a belly-dancer. Michael Walton joined into the spirit of it when asked to get up to dance and soon had his belly on show. We then headed into the restaurant, ate drank and made merry!
Picture: My table for the evening.
Speaking with Dave Jordan over dinner, sitting to the left of me, I was interested in him telling me that in his experience of people management, when groups got together they went through several stages – 1. Form (get together); 2. Storm (find their place within the group); 3. Norm (normalise and become comfortable with position/function); and finally, 3. Perform.
He was telling me that groups have to go through these stages before they will perform as a team and was fascinated that, in all his years of knowledge, ours was the first time he had seen a group not go through the storming stage.
After dinner we headed back into the bar, drank some more, chatted with our newfound friends and enjoyed the night. At , I left them all to it and headed to bed. It would be an early start in the morning.
Nearly everyone knows somebody who has, sadly, been the victim of Cancer. That’s why I took part in The Sahara Challenge – a 104Km (65 mile) walk across a section of the Sahara Desert in Morocco – to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Relief.
My personal sponsorship target was to raise £2000 but with the exceptional support and charity of all my sponsors, the total figure I raised was £5300. On behalf of Macmillan, thank you all very, very much.
This journal is an account of my own personal experience of the desert and The Sahara Challenge, which no doubt, will hold different memories to some of my co-travellers. Nevertheless, these are my memories.
The three-month training regime was hard, but rewarding. The first month concentrated on losing weight and sorting out a suitable, healthy diet. During the second month I worked on building my strength and fitness. The third month, October, was about building stamina and working hard on my cardio-vascular fitness. By the end of the regime, I had reduced from 16 stones to 14 stones in weight.
I have always been able to walk distances and regularly go hill-walking. What I couldn’t prepare for was walking in the heat of the desert with the sun beating down on me. My training, therefore, worked on the basis that, if I could comfortably run 5Km in this climate, I should be able to manage walking 12-15Km in hotter conditions. For someone who previously got puffed-out just running down the road, I was pleased with my efforts.
The logistics of such an
expedition must have been difficult to organise in a country such as
The Sahara itself is the largest
desert in the world and covers an area of over 9 million square kilometres,
stretching across the African continent from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to
the Red Sea in the east and from the Mediterranean in the north to the Sahel
region in the south – which separates the desert from the forests of middle
Our expedition took place on the
edge of the
To give you an idea of how difficult and challenging the trek was as a group; consider that we had one doctor for all forty of us and she held two full surgeries every day! The bond between us trekkers grew very strong as we pushed and supported each other through the heat and pain. As someone said; we started the expedition as forty strangers and we would have died for each other by the end.
My most lasting memories of the desert were its vastness and, when times allowed, its silence. It is a magical, even mystical place that draws you in like nothing I’ve ever before experienced.
Day 1 –
Just sitting here in
It’s local time – which, incidentally, with the British clocks going back last week, means that I don’t have to reset my watch.
We landed here at around with our connecting flight to
Ouarzazate (pronounced Was-A-Zat) due to take off at . Having
left Heathrow at around 4.30 this afternoon, we took a quick detour to Tangier
to drop off/pick up some passengers.
Apparently, Royal Air Maroc – the airline we are travelling with – make this detour depending on a certain percentage of
passengers wanting to travel to/from there.
Either way, it was dark when we reached Tangier and even darker when we
As a result, I am disappointed
that everything inside the airport is closed and we’re not allowed out. I knew before we travelled that we wouldn’t
be able to leave the airport whilst waiting for our connecting flight, but I
did have an embarrassingly romantic and corny notion about sitting in an
airport bar, saying, “Play it again, Sam.” and, “Of all the gin-joints in all
the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Of course, the former was never actually
quoted in the movie
But for today, it’ll be three flights back to back – just about as many as I had previously done in my entire life.
* * *
Sinéad – my 6 year old daughter – has been playing up all week and is really concerned about me going away. I sat her down yesterday and we had a bit of a chinwag about why I am going away and how important it is in helping people with cancer. Trying to explain cancer in the language of a six year old is quite a challenge in itself. Nevertheless, she fortunately (or so I thought), seemed to know what charity was, telling me it was what Jesus did. Not wanting to shatter her illusion of her father, we cut the conversation short there.
We concluded by Sinéad asking me if I wanted the good news or the bad news. Taking the bad news on the chin, she told me that it was bad news that I was going away, but she wouldn’t ask me to stay, because the good news was that she could sleep in the bed with Mummy! Huh.
Anyway, at the airport, Sinéad was very clingy and Michelle – my wife – herself seemed very reluctant to say goodbye. She knows she can keep an eye on us via the website, but I’ve told her that if, for some reason, we can’t upload each days events, she will just have to work on the basis that no news is good news.
Megan, bless her – my 2 year old daughter – is totally oblivious to the whole thing, but she’ll know that I’ve gone.
* * *
We took off from
The landing at Ouarzazate was awful – even worse than the one at Tangier, which was worrying. At Ouarzazate, however, we thought the plane was going to topple sideways, having touched down on one wheel and then hurtling down the runway, wobbling from side to side, as the pilot trod the fine line between bringing the aircraft to a standstill in time, but not breaking too hard so as to create more sideways motion in this giant tricycle.
However, on leaving the aircraft the landing was soon forgotten, as we were greeted by the most incredible half-moon – lying back in the clear star-struck sky, with a comfortable glow around it’s semi-circular shape.
At this time of night, Ouarzazate airport seemed like a strip of concrete in the middle of nowhere. The dark airport just seemed like nothingness going into the night – although the car-park was like a forecourt for Land Rover, full of Defenders, loading up groups of visitors for expeditions into the desert.
We loaded onto our coach and headed off towards the town that, even at night-time, was very different to my expectations, with some quite glorious looking buildings that we passed by on our way to the hotel.
Morning will give me a clearer picture.
After checking into our hotel – The Club Hanane – and settling into our rooms, we headed off into the hotel oasis for a couple of beers. To our surprise, even at this time of night, there was a group of musicians playing traditional tunes and songs and it gave us half-an-hour or so to wind down and get to know some of our co-adventurer’s.