Sahara: A Bucket Load of Tears

Maries Million Boot Steps“Morning!”. Pauline’s greeting each morning never fails to make me smile. It’s 5:30 am and the camp has stirred. A couple of tents with music on, others quietly coming round. I fall into the latter, I like to gently wake, like the dawn turns night into day.  Even the Maroc Nature team seem to rise slowly and quietly, awaiting the first voice from our tent before beginning their morning routine. The mess tent is first to come down and pack away – breakfast in the open and then little by little they dismantle camp and load the train of camels.

We have eight camels in all. Each night they rest in camp, though we would discover they do wander. Even they have their own personalities. Those who rest together, the lone one who prefers his space away from the rest. And it seems tents with humans are no big deal to them either. You can’t beat waking in the middle of a moonlit night to the smell of a camel laying literally just the other side of your tent wall. Snuggle up why don’t you? 🙂 Each morning we leave them all behind as we set off to walk. Then silently they will almost creep up and catch us up. One will stay with the trekkers, while the rest go on ahead to our next camp, singing as they go. The camel men that is – not the camels. Because a singing camel would just be silly. Omar and a camel dropping off somewhere along the way to greet us with lunch.

But it’s time to rise for our first full day. Blocking out the noises which threaten to spoil the calming peace and tranquillity inside my head, I tune in to the gentle chatter and sounds coming from the camp team as they pack up. I wrap my sleeping bag around me and wriggle outside to try and capture the feeling. Rising is my first test as we each find a routine which works for us. Dressing in a confined space alongside someone, redistributing the rucksack and despatching it to a camel. Toilet and teeth! Then breakfast (porridge, “hobs” and a range of honeys and jams, tea and coffee), water bottles filled and we are off.

The next two days would see us follow the dry river bed, pass the tamarisk forest and then begin our trek into the real dune region. It is 7:55am. The air is cool at this time of day though I am still warm enough to not need a fleece. I didn’t expect that – which is probably a fair indication of the temperatures to come and so the group settles into a steadier pace. Claire is up front with Mstapha who is helping her manage her walking to protect her knees. There is a tangible air of anticipation and excitement. Despite another poor night’s sleep I feel great. Privileged.

Last night I sat and calculated how many boot steps I needed to take today to achieve my million. 8582 to be precise. Not quite 4 miles. So two hours away potentially. We walk, some chat, stopping for photos. We have around 6 hours walking ahead of us so it is important we each find our own rhythm. As the morning unfolds the conversations twist and turn.

It begins with the Doc asking about my Million Boot Steps challenge and the supportive tight group we have become. Our training. We drift into team dynamics and personality types. I love this topic. Understanding what makes people tick is a fascinating subject. If you have ever done any Myers Briggs or other personality type analysis, taken time to appreciate learning styles, motivators, then you will know what I mean. While all these tools can help you understand more about yourself, it also helps to understand how others function best. And that is where the real challenge lies. It’s not about saying “I am what I am because I am a ….”, it’s about having the strength and confidence to recognise that a simple shift in your own behaviour, be it in words or actions, is way more powerful.

Throughout the morning I walk with different friends. Subjects include mental health, depression, personality disorders. Life and death and WaterAid – apt as we find ourselves having to think about how to use water and deal with hygiene. Blisters, knees and hats. Each topic seamlessly leading on to another before ending with something as beautiful as seashells in the river bed, carried upstream in the rare times there is water in the river.

Rather like us I suppose. How we each found ourselves here, in the Sahara is a story for another day, each carried by something within and outside ourselves. Mstapha stops us every so often to take a little shade under a lone tree, make sure we are all drinking, top up water if needed. And by now we are seeing the farthest and highest dunes which await us tomorrow. From here they still look small on the horizon.

I settle in beside Jennifer, where silence is as easy as words. The time is passing quickly. “You must be almost there?”. I check my pedometer and show her the screen. 8602. She smiles and says, how far? I feel foolish – I have been willing this moment for almost a year and all I can whisper is “I’ve already done it”. There were no trumpets, no bells, my million had just passed while I was busy talking and listening.

Jennifer to the rescue! I was happy to let everyone know when we next stop but she is having none of it! “Stop!!!! She’s done it!”. I still feel nothing. Perhaps it’s the surroundings which seem to overshadow what was my huge challenge with something even stronger? I had imagined this moment, but it still felt as if my achievement was selfishly stealing everyone else’s time.

I needn’t have felt this way of course, because the Trekkers would never have let this moment pass without celebrating it. So it was hugs around and out came my carefully prepared “banner” for the photo. I was doing just fine, felt happy relief. Then I realised Claire was weepy and that was when I crumbled.

The morning passed with much the same patterns. Folk stopping off behind a welcome bush or clump of vegetation would join the rear and so the pack would shuffle. Our trail mix stop became our regular morning “milestone” – dried fruit and nuts for energy. At this point Jennifer and I switched our head gear to a traditional head scarf. That would be the last you would see of my Tilly hat!

Cooler and offering more protection around the neck and face. More sunscreen. Refill water. This became the regular routine ahead of the increasing temperatures. As we continued to walk in the dry Draa bed we looked across. Water! You can see what appears to be a lake away in the distance. Our first mirage. I look around and can see how easy it would be to get disorientated and be fooled by the tricks the Sahara plays on your eyes.

The final hour before lunch is when the temperatures would really start to rise. By lunch we were all ready to take off boots and socks, dry our feet, cool our heads and eat. And then rest. I for one was relieved to have time for the fuel to reach the parts of my body I needed to get energy to. Typically the days would split with 2/3 the distance being completed by lunch then a lesser distance in the latter part for a still very hot afternoon.

The final part of today took us into some more challenging dunes. The temptation was to follow the camel around valleys. But soon we realised that is where it is hottest and “up” was really the best place for breeze. So one by one we would climb up the ridge to the top and down the other side, up the ridge to the top and down the other side, up the ridge to the top, stop, breathe, and down the other side.

One foot in front of the other I concentrated on the patch of sand in front of my toes. The piece of sand my next boot would land on. Never looking up until I could stop and breathe. All the while being reminded small slow steps “Don’t stamp, Elle!” are better. With every climb we tired, and with that came the challenge. It seems training on Lossie sand dunes would never have prepared us for this.

The final climb of the day would test many of us. Up we go again. Pauline would look up at every dune and swear. I could easy have been tempted to follow the camel. By now my threatened migraine is in full swing, pounding with the effort. We keep going, forming a steady line, each encouraging the next until we eventually reach the top ridge. I felt nauseous, Susan too felt physically sick. Beads of sweat trickling down my head and the back of my neck.

I can feel a lump in my throat and try to swallow it back with water. Then Pauline arrives alongside, red faced and teary.  I can’t hold it back anymore, we simply hold onto each other as we weep. I am hot and exhausted.  ‘Look at us Pauline, how did we get here? I mean, really?’ We are in the Sahara up a sand dune. The views are amazing. The breeze is welcome and Pauline says through tears “thank you for making us come up here Mstapha”.

From here we can see how far we will go tomorrow and the two biggest dunes are in our sights. It looks a long way still, and they now appear mighty compared to those we have already tackled. Wow! Gulp…

“I am loving this! I AM LOVING THIS!!” said almost with her entire energetic body. Thanks Kirsty, you summed it up beautifully.

Down for the final time and we head for camp, tea and a good nights sleep.

My millionth boot step has been walked and now I am counting for fun. Maybe I could convert to a rather apt “500 miles” before leaving this beautiful land 😉

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