Like the opening scene of Lawrence Of Arabia I have returned to you from the depths of the dunes. I had the most amazing time, and will just not shut up about it.
It’s not really possible to get an idea of the scale of any part of it but I’m going to do my best to explain what happened when I left my world and ventured out of my comfort zone and into the unknown.
We flew from Gatwick to Casablanca and then Casablanca to Marrakech before an 8 hour jeep journey through the Atlas Mountains and out into the Sahara desert. I had never been to a desert before and was surprised (despite having been well informed beforehand) that only 20% of the Sahara desert is the sand dunes people associate with it. The rest is mountainous, rocky terrain intended to bend ankles and test patience.
We arrived at our first camp just in time to watch the sunset. Our guide Saaid presented us all with green headscarves (because the sixteen of us made up the green team) and we had some green tea. It should be noted that green tea in Morocco is an entirely different animal to green tea in the UK regardless of how well Clipper do in crafting it. They drink it in little glasses with plenty of sugar.
We were given the chance to unpack our equipment into the eight two-man tents which had kindly been erected prior to our arrival. From that point on we were responsible for putting up and taking down our own tents on a day to day basis. It is also worth stating there were five other groups of equal size doted about on the plains and whilst we were all in it together, there was a definite rivalry between the groups. We walked, ate and slept in packs and as the week progressed the sense of loyalty to one’s fellow hikers increased.
We were then presented with our first meal. As you can imagine my expectations were set low for the quality of food, as well as the toilet situation and the company. I was pleasantly surprised (apart from the toilets which can’t be helped and I’ll do my best to avoid describing). It is also worth noting that our cook Omar is not a professional chef and is in fact a local farmer hired by Epic Morocco to cater the group. We were given soup and then presented with a volcano of cous cous with a magma of chickpeas at its peak and chunks of tender beef on the bone with meat sauce. After spending the day travelling it was an absolute joy to eat a hearty meal and despite our serious attempts we could not clear the platters before us.
We spent some time chatting as it got dark before getting an early night ahead of our first day of trekking. As there was no light pollution the darkness was absolute once the sun had gone down and I fell asleep instantly.
We awoke early on our first morning in the desert. This would become protocol for our time there as it meant you could get some serious walking in before the heat became unbearable. Regardless, it was still twenty degrees. We got dressed, packed up our stuff, took down our tents and sat down for breakfast. Again, there was the threat that it wasn’t going to be the Crunchy Nut cornflakes or Eggs Benedict we were accustomed to but Omar smashed it. We were brought a vat of porridge, workhouse porridge, with the consistency of school time glue. This could be sweetened with the options of honey or jam. A number of people had just started to grumble when we were brought fried eggs, and thick pieces of fresh bread along with a pot of boiling water for teas, coffees and hot chocolates. It seemed so surreal to be sat on a tiny metal and fabric stool in my cargo trousers, t-shirt and scarf watching the sun rise and wiping the sleep from my eyes as I stared across the three directions of open, sparse landscape and then to the mountain stretch to our right which ran like a wall all the way to the horizon.
After breakfast Saaid made us fill our canteens and CamelBaks (or patent pending and poorly manufactured equivalent) while discussing our plans for the day.
‘Which direction are we heading in?’ someone asked, thumbing in either direction alongside the goliath wall of rock.
‘Over’ replied Saaid, pointing at the mountain whose side was lost in shadow. It was not going to be an easy start. For some reason the other teams were packed away and off up the path before we had finished breakfast. It set the pace for the majority of our actions as a group. We got a reputation for not just being the last to be at the next camp, but also as the loud group, the late night revelers and the early risers. Once we were on our way we soon set into a neat single file until we were overtaken by our camel (who we named Alan) and our camel handler (who was named Ali). Watching Alan make it up the mountain pass made the whole thing seem a lot more real. I don’t know what I had built the whole experience up to being in my head but this was as close to the fantasy as I was likely to get. I was swigging fresh water from a military canteen and following the trail of fresh, perfectly rounded camel pebbles up the side of a mountain in the desert breeze. My existence could not have been more removed from my life.
When we got to the top of the mountain we stopped for breath, not that we hadn’t done that on our steep and zigzagging path up in the first place but this was a real rest and a chance to pull out our cameras and get some wide sweeping shots of what we were putting ourselves through. It was then noticed that the green scarves we had been provided with were dyed, and that when mixed with the sweat escaping from us this dye ran. A number of the team had green foreheads and necks, depending on where they had tied them. I didn’t wear mine on skin for the rest of the week, but could often be found sporting it tied around my waist, which I found to be particularly useful when attempting to hide my thunder in a pair of harem pants on days two and five.
As we sat on the top of the world chewing on the sugared nuts and sweet dates that Saaid had dragged up the mountain in his day bag we saw Omar walking up the path. Within the blink of an eye he had made it to the top. It put our shallow-breathed and perspiring browed efforts to shame. He acted as if it was nothing, as though he could do it every day. In actuality he probably does.
From there we headed down the other side and into a valley where the groups all seemed to merge and disperse as people found their natural rhythm or fell by the wayside. Our team stayed together well, keeping the pace of the slowest walkers to ensure we all made it through. We stopped on top of another plateau and admired how far we had come from the sweeping mountain pass which bowed behind us. Ahead was just rock in varying forms, all the way to the horizon and then beyond. We ate some sweets for the energy and for the joy of tasting something other than water which continued to increase in temperature as the sun rose above us like a chuckling puppeteer. It was getting on for midday and Saaid advised us to cover our heads to prevent the risk of sunburn, sunstroke and every other kind of ailment which has ever had the prefix or suffix ‘sun’ included. We did as we were told and dosed up on sun cream.
Each step became harder as we walked in the midday heat. I had trained to walk the distance but there was no way of preparing myself for the intense heat which pulsed upon my head and back in those hours. My walks in Hockley Woods and Epping Forest disappeared as I struggled to keep the sweat from my eyes and reverted to wearing a bandana wrapped across my brow and tied at the back of my head. This is one of the only situations it is acceptable to attempt such a style faux pas. It did the trick and woulld be included in my list of essential travel equipment (along with Immodium and candy sticks if ou’re interested).
When our water was running low we were allowed to rest in the shadow of a giant withered tree and restock from the supply on Alan’s back. I blew my nose and it immediately gushed forth with blood, running in a sticky glow over my lip and gumming into the cracks between my teeth. Saaid quickly took action, covering a cotton wool pad in some kind of brown gel and twisting it up my nostril until it stuck fast.
‘Keep your head tipped back’ he said.
‘Tilt forward’ someone else replied.
Oh no I thought to myself, the continuing nosebleed debate. I’ve suffered with nosebleeds since I was very young. I’ll get a bout of them a couple of times a year and there’s no shock in it anymore. When I was two or three I awoke one morning to find a dark irratic circle of blood staining my pillow. When my parents asked me what had happened I replied simply and quickly ‘The crocodile came out of the sunshine’. I’m still not entirely sure what I meant, like some kind of dandy Nostradamus in a cot. The mixture of whatever was in my nose eventually stopped the bleeding.
Saaid told me as we walked on that it was very common. The air was full of dust and sand and it cut the inside of your nose when you breathed deeply enough. For the rest of the week I felt congested, and would periodically (possibly the wrong choice of word) blow a mixture of scabs and red snot into a tissue. Most people suffered similar ailments. Sleeping in the desert was also a cause of sore throats for the team.
Along the next stretch of our walk we were beside a dried out riverbed which was just cracked flat earth. I daydreamt about it overflowing with water. The idea of completely disappearing beneath the surface of a river overpowered me. I felt the heat claiming me. It was about this time that I started to integrate into the group a little better. Prior to the trek I had known one other person (Terri, my Sahara buddy), had met one (Emily), and was aware of another (Tom). Being thrown into a group of such bright young things had brought out the introvert in me momentarily but I soon found myself joking around with them and by the time we were to part ways again it yanked at my insides to see them go.
‘How do you feel on a scale of one to desert?’ asked Emma, who is a brilliant and wild outdoorsy type from Oxford. She spent the week laughing at my rubbish jokes and dressing like a jumble sale of hiking gear, tri-coloured Primark sunglasses and a baseball cap.
We used the 1 to Desert scale to describe our feelings, our activities and our gradual descent into heat born madness. The four words which were passed back and forth more than any other for our travels were ‘That is so desert’.
Eventually we came to a patch of greenery. Date trees and roughage created wide shadows for us to rest in and a well provided water to the camels. The other groups were all nestled nearby, eating lunches we could only dream of and getting lost in their own adventures. Two donkeys clomped about lazily in the attached field, one of them bloated with child, their front feet tethered together to stop them escaping and heading out into what I am sure was just more desert in whichever direction they chose to take.
Omar served up pasta, salad and bread, an incredible achievement given the fact the sixteen of us had only been able to serve up green necks, nosebleeds and bad puns. We lazed and even dozed before we were ushered back to our feet to complete the last two hours walking to our camp spot.
I walked the flat dry earth towards camp with Andreas, a chilled out Greek guy currently living and working in Dubai. He made the place sound as if it were a dream come true, a place to live the high life and an absolute must before the claws of growing up managed to pin you down. If I took one thing away from the people I met it is that I have not seen enough of the world. I understand that we are all different people and we have our own dreams and our own ambitions but their knowledge of the world and their understanding of different cultures and currencies and foods and systems and even geography made me feel young and naïve in comparison. That’s why I applied in the first place though. To get out of my bubble, even if just for a week at a time.
As if from nowhere the most relaxed man in all of the desert appeared. He was the doctor for the trek. The one man in charge of keeping us all on the road. In the week he was with us he saw around a third of the 97 people walking due to some kind of ailment. For the time being he was as chilled as a fucking cucumber though. I’ve never seen a man so laissez-faire about weather. I didn’t think that was even possible and yet here he was. Dressed in jeans and a wonderful denim shirt he strode past us as though on a conveyer belt, satchel thrown over one shoulder and a cigarette balanced between two fingers of the opposite hand. I called him Doctor Denim. Soon we all called him Doctor Denim.
The camp was on the horizon but it refused to grow. The perspective shifted. We gained ground but it appeared to be to no avail. It just sat on the line before the sky as though it were smirking at our attempts. Dots on top of other dots which were the other teams could already be seen relaxing in the shade of the large mess tents that had been erected. One member of our group, Louise, a woman who works in IT and keeps chickens was really suffering and whilst half the group pressed on for the shade of the camp, the others hung back so we could finish our first day together. It made arriving all the sweeter and as our camp was located at the front of the groups we were spared the slow claps and grimaces of the other groups as we emerged from the dry heat covered in blood, sweat and tears (which were for the most part metaphorical). Once we were washed (or wet wiped at least) and changed, Emma asked Terri and I if we fancied going for a little walk up a nearby hill. None of the others were interested. Anyone would think they had spent the day walking and could think of nothing worse than pushing themselves to go even further. I was dressed in my pyjamas, a pair of cotton check trousers and whatever t-shirt I could find because it was the most comfortable thing in my bag so the pictures of me at the top of the hill against the brilliant sunset look a little thrown together. It was still a fantastic view and worth the climb. When we came back down we played the Post It Note game, where the person to your immediate left chooses a celebrity for you to guess by sticking it to your forehead. I was Victoria Beckham. I struggled to get it until Amy, who was bored of the game, gave me some excellent clues to end my torture. We played until we couldn’t see each other’s notes anymore. Terri still had ‘The Queen’ on her head as we headed in for dinner.
That evening we ate lamb and rice before sitting around in a circle outside with Saaid and Omar as they sang traditional Moroccan and Berber songs to us. This consisted of a call and response system which we tried to adopt but mostly just invented our own hybrid of nonsense in order to join in. We tried to reciprocate by teaching them Wonderwall but it seriously wasn’t happening. We banged on water carriers and the floor to make a beat and this may have been the cause of us being tagged as the noisy group. Overhead the sky was the clearest and deepest I would get to see it. In a strip of creamy light that went over our heads like the Earth was wearing a head band the Milky Way showed off against a backdrop of stars which looked like smashed glass spread across the dome of the sky. It was like nothing I had ever seen.
Selected members of the other groups drew closer to the candles we were collected around and the screams and shouts we emitted as we tried to sing along. We became the hub of the camp. People waved phones and cameras in one another’s faces and a giant moth committed suicide in the waxy flames. Suddenly the people to my left jumped up and the music stopped. Somebody had seen a scorpion and the guides quickly gave chase, parting people effortlessly as they trailed it out of the camp again. When they came back they tried to claim it had been a mouse. It didn’t make it any easier to swallow. It just made us more aware of what the threats were. This was no holiday. For the second night in a row I slept like a baby, watching my own mobile of stars above the tent which was my crib.
When I woke up I waited for the ache to set in. The feeling that I had been walking for eight hours on the day before. It didn’t come. Alongside it I couldn’t hear the usual hum of the world that symbolises waking, the normal association. There’s always an electric buzz in the air, or a pipe humming for no good reason at all but here there was nothing. It was still pitch black outside. I don’t know what time it was but I lay as still as possible until I heard the tinkling approach of Saaid, mobile phone in hand, playing us our wake up call. He would sweep from tent to tent each morning, willing us awake with his croaky morning voice and then dropping a ‘yallah’ into the mix if someone was slow in moving under the searchlight of his phone.
We got up, got dressed and took down our tents, slightly quicker than the day before, eager to head out before the other groups could get a headstart. It was the only day we bothered with such a feat, it did us no good. After another breakfast of bread and jam and porridge and eggs and tea and coffee and hot chocolate we refilled out water bottles and rushed to the edge of the riverbed which was still just as dry. The sunrise was particularly beautiful and spread in a new kind of panorama wider than the eyes could manage. We walked away from it, having to rush Saaid out of the camp so we could be the forerunners of the day. We berated him as we jovially made our way down the path. Spirits were unbelievably high. We had got over the first bout of nerves, of not knowing one another and had hit upon an understanding. We were all very much in it together, and the best way to do that was to embrace it and laugh and enjoy it together. We passed a stagnant patch of water which passed in the Sahara for a lake. Beside it was a wide green plant, an odd blott on the otherwise orange and brown landscape. Saaid told us it was toxic to camels but someone pointed out that it just looked like a lettuce. Saaid also told us there had been a meteor shower recently and we should be on the lookout for bowls sized rocks (my point of reference there, not his) as they could be worth a small fortune if we got them back to Marrakech. We spent most of the day with our necks bent, our eyes scanning the tumble and jumble of rocks beneath our feet for a variety of reasons.
We started talking about university experiences. Everyone seemed to know somebody who knew someone who had been through something horrific and our laughter obounced off the high walls of rock to our side. We were due to pass up onto the ledge soon but didn’t bother to conserve any energy as tales of drunkenness and sex and faeces were swapped and laughed at. Jamie’s in particular was brutal!
When it came time to zigzag up the side of the mountain again I walked up with Ian and Feyza, talking about the joys of working in London and the places we called home. Louise had dropped behind again with Emma trying her best to will her along. When I eventually got to the top I was astounded. The other groups were yet to reach the peak and there were just the fourteen of us in a deep V of mountain looking out after what seemed like fields of more rocks and hills before the horizon was kissed by the thought of sanddunes. We could see our intended position but it would have to wait until the end of our third day before we even began to reach it.
We took turns at taking pictures of each other on the rocks. Terri had found what she referred to as her ‘Rafiki stick’ and stood on top of a big rock, shielding her face from the sun and posing.
Jamie asked if anyone wanted to climb up the sides of the mountain to the plateau we could see at the top. Everyone else sensibly decided to stay in the dip, their backs to the cool rock as they ate more dates and nuts.
Jamie and I raced up the side of the mountain. It would be fair to say he has a competitive edge and when I’m up against someone who has a competitive edge I tend to get a bit competitive in return (For more proof see Day 4 when I elbowed Emma during a race). I felt like Kerouac in The Dharma Bums, leaping from boulder to boulder like a mountain goat, overcoming nature in the most breathy of ways. There was also an element of Ethan Hunt climbing the rock face in the opening of MI:2. When we got to the top it was worth the hike. The view was cinematic, like Peter Jackson and Stanley Kubrick’s lovechild, stretching wide like arms going in for a hug. Jamie was sure we were high enough to see the curvature of the earth. It looked like the surface of a glass of water, slightly bowed in the middle and full of promise. We took photographs, waved to our teammates and then carefully climbed back down again, pleased we had got an extra bit of view on top of the others. It was our trophy.
When we got back down Louise had arrived and was sheltering with the others.
‘You know we are all climbing up there in a minute’ said Terri. I tried to pretend I knew that all along. I did not know that all along.
Other teams started to arrive and repeated the steps we had already made of finding shelter and drinking as much water as they could. We started on our way up the rock face again, before being passed by those cads in orange who undercut us against the steep path we were casting for ourselves to ensure they breached the surface before us. All it would have taken was one kick to turn their dream adventure to a trip home in a cedar wood box. Things were getting dark.
The problem with walking along the top of the hill face was that it was uneven and strewn with rubble. It flipped ankles up on themselves and caused constant stumbles. We had to focus on our feet just to stop ourselves from tumbling over the edge.
Whenever I’m near a steep ledge I get an overwhelming temptation to throw myself off of it. Apparently it’s a form of vertigo but I always placed that as being the extreme fear of heights and the sudden lurch that you could fall rather than the desire to do so. As an example Ian suffers from severe vertigo and acted like an absolute hero in getting across, albeit slowly and safely, his walking pole twisted so he could face away from the cliff’s edge. We stopped after an hour to eat dried bread and Laughing Cow cheese triangles or La vache qui rit (en francais). This was the kind of bohemian living I had been searching for all along. The luxury of Moroccan soups and culinary delights were us being spoilt but feeling abandoned on the edge of a cliff with a hunk of cheese and a red cow grinning maniacally at you from her foil wedge was pure beatnik. I just wished the bum fluff on my chin were a little more coarse.
When we took off again the group started to divide. Up front were the keen younglings who were sure they had caught sight of our next camp, back down past the dry riverbed and a hilly patch of land some distance away. Then there were the middlemen of which I was a part. We just wanted to make it alive, and to not burn or worse beforehand. This was a key thought, maybe even a motto. At the back was brave sir Ian, shaking and swearing at the wall of rock while Feyza tried to get him to carry more of her things and hurry along a little, simultaneously, along with Louise who was really struggling and Saaid. It was the first opportunity I really got to speak to some people. I talked to Jo about the scheme she was on at work and the pains of what they were expected to do as well as her time at King’s College, and I got to walk with Hannah and Jane who showed a sweet amount of interest in my dreams of being a writer as well as telling me about their families and partners. There was not one person I walked with that I didn’t want to know more about. Considering our proximity it was an absolute joy to learn about the way things are for different people. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in your own life and to forget that elsewhere people are doing the same things or very different things in similar climates or lost out in a different world. It’s very empowering to listen to other people. It makes you appreciate things an awful lot more.
It didn’t matter how hard we walked it was another day when we just didn’t seem to be drawing any closer to the camp. There was a dot on the horizon which may well have been a white tent but there was nothing we could do to draw it closer to us and it became painful.
When we took a break I sat with Andreas, my legs practically swinging out over the canyon as we talked.
‘Do you think you could find your way back to the first camp?’ he asked me, a sinister look in his eye. ‘And how long do you think the water would last?’
I didn’t know how to respond. We had enough water, a point alluded to by Saaid shouting ‘keep drinking’ at us every fifteen minutes. Of course it was because he had been out trekking with enough groups of gallivanting idiots to understand that if you didn’t drink then you probably wouldn’t make it.
Eventually of course we did get to the stop in the monotonous and monstrous rock and seeped down into a gully which sunk further into a ravine and onto the camp. Deep gorges had been built into the rock, and piled on either side were smaller stones to create high walls so there was no sight of a bed for the night for the first time in three hours. I decided I’d had enough of snaking behind everyone else and crawled myself out of the parapet to run for the camp.
It was still further than I had expected. Although the heat certainly wasn’t as severe as it had been the respite was minimal and there was no shade between me and my target. I struggled up the slope to the field where camp was and it all opened up to me. To the right of centre was our white tent, the sides flung up in salute and the first few of my team dowsing their feet in aloe vera and coiffing green tea with sugar. I heard the slow claps of the other groups, either through exhaustion or pity and collapsed onto the mattress to the left on the inside of our tent. Despite it not being a hard day it felt like the longest day, the most arduous and as my hands shook and sweated I had a plate of biscuits put down and knew I was going to be okay. By the time the slow claps picked up again I was upright and joining in, welcoming the others over the finish line.
We wondered how long Feyza and Ian would be and once they made it back safe we wondered how long it would take Louise and Saaid to join us. Before we saw them Doctor Denim grabbed his kit bag and headed off in one of the 4x4s to rescue someone. We watched it disappear down a ridge, the sun winking at us on the polished black. Before it returned two figures appeared on the horizon, one wrapped in a black headscarf and the other in green. It was the last horse to cross our finish line. Louise had made it.
Before we had fully recovered Kai and Lucy, the trip’s organisers, came a-knocking to ask if anyone fancied going for an 8km fun run. There are some things you don’t want to hear after struggling across 20km of desert rock and high up on that list is ‘8km fun run’.
Tom went, dressed in his chino shorts, designer t-shirt and Adidas shoes. He looked good even if he didn’t look the part. It was only once he had left that we were informed the other entrants were triathletes, tough mudders and semi-professional runners who train with Olympians. We laughed.
They were gone for over an hour. Nobody moved around if they could help it. I collected my leather bound notebook and tried to catch up on the day. I like to keep a journal whenever I’m doing something specifically different and incredible and this fell into both categories.
When Tom returned we cheered for him with renewed vigour and prepared ourselves for dinner.
Again this started with Moroccan soup but was followed by spaghetti bolognese which I needlessly slurped away at as the sun went down once more on our empire. There’s nothing quite as surreal as chowing down on spag bol against a desert sunset.
For the evenings entertainment the guides and cooks came out with tambourines, made us stand in a circle and we danced together. They then made a fire that somehow smelt of cinnamon and we gained the attention of the other groups again. Soon there was a circle of fifty people around the fire, clapping and wailing together.
Eventually Terri and I branched off to get some sleep before we headed back over the mountain again.
When I woke up for the third day of hiking I thought I had a blister. Don’t tell anyone else because this is as close as I got to an injury whilst everyone else started to really suffer and continued to push on with the kind of courage I would like to think I would have in the situation but hope I will never have to test. I wrapped it in a blister plaster and some zinc oxide tape (excellent suggestion Annabelle, also, thanks for the pen knife, I cut the sleeves off many a shirt with it). I Vaseline’d my feet and I was ready to go for another day. It sounds like a weird thing to do but Vaseline stops the rubbing which causes friction and blisters so make sure you lube up before you boot up. That could almost be a rhyme. Remember that you heard it here first.
Some people were having toilet issues. I said I would do my best to avoid talking toilet but it took up a lot of our time and conversations. Some girls, who I will not name, started referring to the act of excavating a turd as “completing the mission”. Since we arrived a number of them had not. There’s room for another reference to Mission Impossible but I won’t sink to it.
Lucy had delivered the most incredible blisters. They looked like 50’s teenagers blowing bubble gum. Jo was complaining she felt sick. Louise was up seven times in the night being ill so decided to rest up for the day in the hope she would be able to join us. Emily was walking on a dangerously swollen ankle. I kept quiet. I had no war wounds aside from the possible inkling of a blister.
I was very excited because it was the day Terri and I had decided we would treat ourselves to an Oasis. We had bought a bottle each at Gatwick airport and then agreed not to drink them. On the second evening we left them by the entrance to the tent so the freezing night air would get to them and they would be refrigerator cool by morning.
I feel obliged to explain exactly why we had opted for Oasis to be the one drink we took with us. It is worth noting that more than anything as a group we discussed our need for a Coca Cola, such is the power of their advertising. The huts on the way into the desert had the red and white flow of the soft drink font on them.
We had Oasis because it had been recommended to me by my very good friend Mex. He sent me a message a couple of days before I left giving me some helpful advice including taking a bottle of Oasis for the following three reasons:
1. It’s very refreshing.
2. You can point to it and say “Look guys, there’s an Oasis” and people will definitely laugh.
3. It’s wide enough that you can slip your cock in there to wee in the night if you really need to go.
That is why we had Oasis, and that morning it was so cold and joyful I could have cried.
We set off after most of the other groups, up the pass we had come down. When we got to the top Terri and I ripped open our bags and took out our cold bottles of Oasis. It looked perfect. I cracked open the lid and took a swig. After three days of nothing but water and sweet tea it tasted incredible. It woke up my tastebuds. When I brought the bottle back down there were thirsty eyes staring at me. I shared it between as many people as I could.
As we were coming down the mountain into the expanse of mountains and the eventual dunes on the horizon Emily’s ankle started to act up. She sat down with tears in her eyes, devastated at the thought of not being able to finish. Alan and Ali came past us. Saaid carefully took her shoes and sock off and applied a tube wrap which took the pressure off. She put her sock and shoe back on and didn’t say one more word about it. Fierce!
We finally got to the bottom of the other side of the mountain and were met with Mordor, or as close to Mordor as I think you can get outside of New Zealand or Middle Earth. There were these alien looking coils of dark rock. Terri and I walked around them talking about what makes us what we are. On the far side were a number of trees where the other groups were resting up, hidden from the sun which was already burning the place up. On the side of a huge hill tiny figures were hurtling their way up to the summit. We took shelter and watched for a while. Nobody seemed to be able to make it, but then Tom and I were goaded into giving it a try.
I strapped on the GoPro camera I had borrowed from my writing partner Ben (who also kindly let me borrow his sleeping bag which saved me from freezing) and we headed off assuming a slight jog as the incline increased to the point it burned the back of my legs to continue.
I consider myself to be fairly fit but getting to the top of that mountain was something else entirely. I went from being able to run, to being able to jog, to walking, and then to physically climbing, throwing my burning fingers around the edge of shards of rock and dragging myself up.
From the top I could have done anything. I lay down.
When I got back down everyone had recovered to a point where they could continue on. My breathing did not revert to normal until we stopped for lunch. As everyone stood to leave I noticed Jo was still laying on her side, with Emily slowly stroking her back. She threw up in the shade of the tree, announced she felt better and jumped up to continue with the rest of us, wiping her hand on tissues which were quickly passed across to her. Jo is hardcore!
I walked with Ian and talked about travelling and blogging. In the previous summer he had travelled across Mexico and written a blog about it, primarily about the food he had eaten. He confided in me that what he craved and what he wanted more than anything was a special beer cocktail they served up called a Michelada which had lime and Tabasco sauce in it as well as a salt-run rim on the glass. The look on his face as he thought about it was animal.
The sun continued to burn up the earth beneath us. It seemed to come from everywhere and the only sure protection was to keep your skin out of it’s sight. I put my hat and shemagh on but this just made the sweat pool in different places to the usual patch on my back beneath my bag. I walked with Jess and we talked about Twitter, and her love of hip hop. She taught me a lot about 50 Cent. We headed through another dry riverbed. For a desert the Sahara sure loves a useless riverbed. When we came to its mouth there were the dunes. They welcomed us but kept their distance. There was still a large area of scorched sand before we could get there. We started walking into the sun, taking one final stop under the last tree in sight. Once more Jo lay on the floor and was sick before getting up and walking on. For a moment we lost sight of Alan and Ali who had our water supplies and I wondered what we would do if they didn’t reemerge. I tried to work out who looked like they were holding the most water. I had a pen knife, I would cut them first.
Alan and Ali came over the hill and we were saved and I didn’t have to kill anyone, which was a bit of a disappointment to be honest.
The more we walked the more Lucy started to complain. She had made an incredible effort to keep on but it had got too much for her. Saaid radio’d in a jeep and when it arrived she slowly clambered in. Jo was on her hands and knees in the shadow of the jeep. We were all worried for her. I had never seen anyone so green, and I’m sure only part of it was down to the scarf she was still wearing.
‘Jo’ someone said, ‘if you get in the jeep now, and get back to the camp and see the doctor there is a chance you could be alright to walk tomorrow’.
Jo looked back at them, her face clammy and the colour of the waves on Southend seafront. ‘I’m not getting in the fucking jeep’ she said through gritted teeth and clambered back to her feet.
The jeep sped off to camp.
Five minutes later it returned and the driver threw Saaid a bottle of water. Saaid poured some water into his hand and told each of us in turn to shut our eyes. He would then hurl the hand of water into our faces. It had been collected from a well and it was so unbelievably cold that it took my breath away.
Spirits started to sink again soon after however. Nobody wanted to admit it but the heat was getting to people and the torment in joints and muscles was becoming overbearing. We pressed on.
The camp emerged on us suddenly, and although it was over a number of small dunes seeing it renewed us with vigour. Saaid pushed me along, urging me to run the half mile or so with him. As we gathered momentum we collected up other people who had been walking ahead of us. Saaid narrated the whole thing as though he were a sports commmentator, referring to me as ‘the English’ and then pushing himself, ‘the Berber’ to overtake before ‘the Turkish’ Feyza became a real threat. When we got to the camp everyone cheered and it felt like a real achievement. I dropped myself into a corner of our tent and waited for everyone else to arrive. Lucy was on a thin mattress on her front, with her legs covered in pink iodine or something to try and stop her curdling skin from getting infected. When Jo arrived she collapsed to the floor and started visibly shaking, I thought she had gone into shock from the way her body appeared to be spasming but it was just from the relief of having made it. Saaid threw water over her and fanned her as best he could. Eventually she calmed down and cooled down and sat up.
Tom was soon dragged off for another 8km run and this time Jamie went with him as well.
If you need one thing to make all of the pain we were suffering seem worthwhile it was what followed. As I was getting changed I heard Saaid call out to us. I ran out barefoot to meet him, crouched on a small dune. He didn’t say anything but just pointed to where the sun was going down beyond the sand. It was the perfect end to a chaotic and mentally and physically exhausting day and it made it all seem as though it hadn’t been that bad because of the incredible pay off. I started to realise that all of the things that I worried about at home, and all of the things I used to consume my time were fairly worthless in comparison to something so simple and natural and beautiful. I’m not saying I’m going to give up my MacBook and my guitars and head off into the void in search of some great kind of realisation but it’s good to know I can exist and be blissfully happy on so little.
Once the sun had completely disappeared we strapped on our head torches and headed back to our tent for dinner. I spoke to a number of people from different teams who were reporting similar problems with injuries. The most severe of which was a guy called Pat who had broken his ankle just weeks after it had set from a previous break. He walked the full 100km.
Omar served us chicken and chips. We screamed. After the lows we had reached during the day it was incredible to see something so close to home. Terri called it ‘Sahara Nandos’. Even Louise ate it, having made a pact five years before to not eat chicken. People’s morals really start to slip after a couple of days in the desert.
We took our sleeping mats out into the dunes and watched out for shooting stars, sharing embarrassing stories from our childhood and yawning up into the night before we turned in, ready to hit the endless beach.
On the fourth day God created sand, and he created it in abundance, stretching out for further than the eye could see. It felt cool and soft at first but eventually became so hot it melted the soles of Dr Denim’s shoes. Before you ask, they were not made from denim.
We woke up slowly, losing the beautiful dreams we had been lost in at the sound of others shuffling about. It was getting light, the sun was rising but Saaid had not been round with his usual routine wake up call. None of us had bothered to set an alarm, there had been no need to have any concept of time in the man made sense of the word. We still weren’t sure what timezone we had passed in to and out of on the stopover. Tom tiptoed over to our mess tent where Saaid was bunched over, sleeping softly.
‘Saaid, time to wake up‘.
Tom came running back to us in hysterics. He was so pleased he had managed to be the one to wake Saaid up. He said that the first thing Saaid did was sit bolt upright and shout ‘Omar!’ which was becoming one of his catchphrases. In fact, if Saaid were an action figure he would have a little button on his back that said ‘Suncream guys! Keep drinking! Omar! Yallah!’ on a loop.
As Saaid had neglected to wake us we decided there was absolutely no rush, and the whole day felt fairly casual compared to some of the others. We ate our usual porridge which seemed thicker and better than ever along with bread and jam and coffee before heading out into the dunes. This was so desert. Having taken the time to not just read the inventory list, but also to cross-reference it against those available online and the advice of travel-savvy friends, Terri and I had both packed a pair of gaitors. These are polyester or silk rolls of material which either zip up or are tied around hiking boots up to your shins in order to stop sand spilling in over the top of your boots and causing your blisters to rub against your socks like sandpaper. We were in the minority in having taken this step. Andreas walked barefoot for most of the morning. He was at one with the desert.
We didn’t even make it half a mile across the gentle dunes before Tom found another prize. He had started collecting weird things he found in the landscape, claiming he was going to take them back to work for ‘show and tell’. This time it was a tiny clay teapot which Saaid claimed had been left by some nomads. If that teapot had been a magic lamp I would have killed them all for the wishes. It wasn’t, as far as I know. Tom attached it to the tube of his CamelBak proudly. It is worth noting that his other prize was a watermelon about the size of a cricket ball which he claimed was a cure for rheumatism.
We had a fairly easy walk. The dunes continued to get bigger but everyone took to them in single file. There was a real level of comerarderie that had been reached. Photos were taken of our shadows across the dunes, as they stretched almost to the bottom trying to escape the sun. When we stopped people would share sweets and we had a league of shared stories and references which could be used to make one another laugh. It was a change to the way we had approached one another when we had first checked in to camp on the first day.
We stopped for an early lunch in the shadow of a collection of trees. I was reminded of our lunch spot of the first day because of how relaxed everyone felt and the way despite the foliage there was no breeze to blow it. As the sun headed over our heads the shade we had slimmed, so we slowly had to shift closer and closer to the shrubbery to protect ourselves. Emily meanwhile had dedicated the day to ‘getting her tan on’ and sat out, the straps of her top rolled off of her shoulders and her eyelids closed delicately.
Pasta was served along with a tomato salad. Again, we failed to clear the plates put before us but then skulked further into the shade for a little sleep. I sat out with Emily trying to write but when Saaid warned us the sun was getting into the middle of the sky and this signaled the hottest time I retreated under the leaves between Andreas and Jo. Despite not yet returning to a normal pallour or temperature Jo was in high spirits, judging the girls with me as they discussed the best places to get a cut and blow dry in Central London and their plans for having their nails done upon their return to the UK. I balanced my notebook on my knees and tried to catch up on the writing I had missed out on. Slowly people started to drift off to sleep.
Terri took out a pack of strawberry laces and we each placed the tip of one in our mouths and then raced to eat the whole thing without using our hands. Tom won each and every time. He said it was all in the tongue. I won’t elaborate.
Once we had enjoyed the kind of lunch period that the characters of Downton Abbey would consider indulgent we packed everything up, put on more sunscreen, topped up our water bottles and headed out once more.
The dunes were slightly bigger and while most people tried to skirt around the edges of them there were those who felt they had not punished themselves enough and insisted on taking on each and every dune available. I was one of them, along with Emma, Andreas and Jamie. They would run at a dune, senselessly pumping their legs and shouting encouragement to one another. We soon got into a pattern of racing each other. It was while attempting to race across three ten metre dunes that my competitive edge took over and I elbowed Emma. Sorry, not sorry.
By the time we made it back to the camp we had only been walking for about two hours from where we had stopped for lunch. It was the easiest day we had done, but there was a part of me that just hoped it was because we had got really good at walking across the desert, maybe we were even experts.
Saaid was able to secure us some water from a well. It was supposed to be used for cooking and cleaning but he cut off the bottoms of the five-litre bottles of water we had been carrying with us and poured enough water into each of them that we could wash. The feeling of a wet flannel on my skin was amazing. What I hadn’t taken into account was that my new flannel would lose some of its colour and dye on its first wash. I hadn’t bothered to give it a pre-Sahara wringing out so as soon as I put the flannel into the rationed water it turned turquoise. It didn’t stop me though. Everyone stripped down to swimming costumes or underwear and embraced the feel of nearly fresh, fairly cool water against their skin. It left everyone feeling happy and refreshed.
That evening we decided to set up our tents but only use them in order to keep our equipment out of the sand, which stormed across at intervals just to show that nature truly is the boss. All of us trekked out to the biggest sand dune we could find and took pictures and video’d the sunset. It was so nice for the group of us to collect along the great concave of a dune and watch the sun go down. It looked absolutely incredible and to make the picture all the more magical there were a group of camels walking right across our field of vision. We shared out some of Terri’s amaretto, posed and made shapes in the twilight and then ran back down the cool dunes for dinner.
Omar served us meat, couscous and spiced vegetables followed by hot bananas in yoghurt.
Now I will eat a lot of things. I cleared near enough every plate that was put in front of me, and was surprised it wasn’t as adventurous as my tastes would have ventured. Whenever I go away I try and have ’the thing’. I like to push myself. I’ve eaten frogs legs, oysters, snails, lobster, veal, rabbit. I will not draw a line when it comes to trying things and testing myself, but I really hate yoghurt. It’s not milk and it’s not cream and it thinks it can have a go at doing the job of both and it’s just awful. I don’t understand what is supposed to have happened to make it. I fear it.
I moved it to one side and got on with eating.
Some time later we started collecting in the mess tent, pulling in our sleeping bags and mats. Emma, Jamie and Andreas had spent the previous night sleeping out under the stars and had told anyone who would listen that they were massively missing out by locking themselves in their tent. So ten of us settled ourselves into nice little lines and slept under the breezy canopy of our big tent. It really was an amazing experience. Despite the ‘kids at a sleepover’ vibe we were all drifting off at half ten, and Saaid had to go and have words with another group who were making too much noise whilst his flock were trying to sleep. I don’t think I really slept at all. I just slowly dropped out and then reemerged again to appreciate where I was and what I was doing and who I was with. I was alone in that, and I can be sure because against the night air came the snores of my tent mates.
When everyone woke up the next morning Saaid played us his usual jangly wake up music. It was just after six. People requested other songs. He played Tracey Chapman followed by The Scorpions’ Rock You Like A Hurricane. I was the sole fan. My friend Joe once told me that waking up to 80’s power ballads was the best way to start a day. I would go a step further by saying waking up to 80’s power ballads in the desert tops that still.
We lay about chatting until someone came over from another group to tell us off. We snickered as they walked away.
Soon after people started to get up, to emerge. We were already the liveliest group. We got dressed and packed up our tents before our last breakfast. Someone pointed this fact out and I immediately wished they hadn’t. I strapped my gaitors on and we headed out of camp on foot for the last time.
Everyone seemed somber and conscious of the fact we were into the last fifth of our trek. It had been an incredible experience and while people were starting to talk of getting in a hot shower and having a cold drink I could have just kept going. I’m not saying indefinitely but at least for another week.
In the distance we could see some daunting looking dunes, some of which Saaid said would be 100m high. I needed to get up one of those dunes.
Andreas, Jamie, Emma and I (later joined by Terri) started out across the biggest dunes we could see, trying to keep our guide in sight as the girls took turns at riding on Alan. Ian and Feyza followed us, taking photos.
Each time we got to the top of a dune it felt final, as though we were the biggest in the desert and we had conquered it. There was always bigger.
Once more Doctor Denim appeared like an apparition. He implied there might be a treat for us when we got to the finish line. The only treat I could think of was shade.
When we realised we were approaching the finish line and the camp we rejoined Saaid and the others to make sure we all finished together. I didn’t want to finish. I didn’t want it to be over and to have to go back. I wanted more.
We listened to Destiny’s Child on Jess’s iPhone and Tom showed me how to slut drop. This was possibly when we realised the heat had really got to us.
As we came over the last dune we could see everyone coming out to greet us. Everyone had changed into their charity shirts so we were greeted by a sea of red and white. As we walked down the dune and onto the last bit of cracked earth we would encounter we started running. My heart was racing and pumping in my ears but I could still hear the woops and applause as we drew up to the finish line. When I stopped I didn’t know what to do or who to turn to, what to say or why we had stopped. Kai grabbed my hand and shook it firmly.
Everyone hugged one another and then we sat for group photos, yet to have the chance to take off our boots or get in the shade.
It still didn’t feel like it was happening. It was as though someone else had done those things and I was an imposter in sitting down, smiling, posing, holding the same expression as people ran up and down taking photos.
When we were released we escaped to our tent and collapsed. I don’t think anyone said anything for half an hour which was not like us at all.
I took out the bag of Haribo sweets I had been saving for when we finished. They had melted into a crushed car in a scrap heap block. I passed them round and people tugged bits of the mass and jammed them into their mouths.
As we had missed out earlier Saaid got three camels together and sent Ian, Tom and I out for a ride. Despite what I had heard of their reputation I found them to be no less accommodating than a London cabbie and more comfortable than a vomity backseat on a Friday night.
I know this is just desert talk but I felt like the reason he behaved is because I was so desert.
We got back to camp and prepared for dinner. Kai and Lucy had said they wanted to give a speech, and it would be the last chance we would all be together.
We sat at our low tables on our metal and cloth chairs and waited.
They began by introducing Charlie who owns and runs Epic Morocco who organised and ran our trip. He gave a short speech, thanking everyone who had been a part of the trip, both those we had seen and trekked with and those behind the scenes. He provided a breakdown of how much resource had been used. The figures were staggering.
They brought out a cooler of beers and soft drinks. Suddenly everyone’s attention shifted. Lucy and Kai presented the drinks to people who had won their awards, either for fundraising (WC), or heroic efforts (Pat) or best face plant. Tom won the award for best dressed. We tried not to show our hunger at the idea of a cold drink. After all it would only be another 24 hours before we would be back at the hotel. It didn’t change the murderous looks being exchanged.
‘We wanted to mark the end of this by thanking you all, and doing something special’ said Kai. ‘Thats why’ said Lucy, ‘we have 200 beers and 200 soft drinks for you guys!’
I didn’t hear the rest of their speech because everyone started screaming. Lucy later told me she had never seen people look or act the way they did as they approached the two huge blue coolers which were brought out.
People didn’t know what to do with themselves. I had drunk my quota of beer before I realised what was happening. Fortunately I had made friends with a number of girls who didn’t drink beer.
We took whatever we could carry back out to the dunes and shot the last of our sunset pictures. From then on there would always be some obstacle between us and the great beyond but this was it. This was open. This was free.
We collected round a fire but before long we had to call it a night, the booze laying heavy on our healthy bellies.
Terri and I dragged two mats away from the fire. We slept out in the open, with just the stars and whatever may be beyond them to protect us.
I fell into a deep sleep in the middle of a sentence.
I could tell you what happened the following day. How the journey back was, how I failed to know enough French for our driver, how we got lost and scared in Marrakech square but this is a post about the trek and I would like to hold something back for my book.
Before I go I need to thank Charlie, Saaid, Omar, Ali and everyone else involved at Epic Morocco. If you want a once in a lifetime experience then please look them up here.
I am also indebted to Kai and Lucy. To paraphrase the words of Costner in Field of Dreams; if you hadn’t booked it, they wouldn’t have come.
It was thanks to an email from the pair of you in August 2012 when I was staring out the window and thinking of what I was missing out on that this all happened.
I would also like to thank everyone who donated towards The Prince’s Trust, and everyone from the Trust itself.
Thank you to Ben, John, Annabelle and Simon for lending me so much kit, even where I had to steal it.
Lastly thanks to Terri, Andreas, Jamie, Louise, Lucy, Jane, Hannah, Tom, Emily, Amy, Emma, Jess, Jo, Ian and Feyza.
What we went through could never be replicated and I will hold onto it forever.
Whilst on our Sahara Trek I did the best I could to capture my experience.
The video footage I shot has been collated into the following.
If you’re interested in obtaining any of the individual videos then please drop me an email.