Hiking the Sahara for Women’s Shelters

I’ve been back from Morocco since December, and am still absorbing this life changing experience. When you put a big group of like minded Realtors together you get amazing results – not only did we raise tons of money for women’s shelters, we talked, laughed, shed some tears, and formed lifelong bonds while walking through the Sahara and travelling Morocco together. So much happened in those 10 days. In the first days while getting to know my trekmates better and learning about Moroccan culture, we heard more about what our desert life would be like, toured Marrakech, drove through the High Atlas Mountains, and had the first of our big laughs together. Below is the final part of my journey but if you want to read Part 1 CLICK HERE or Part 2 CLICK HERE or Part 3 CLICK HERE.

Part 4 –  It’s a wrap

Leaving the desert, I could hardly wait to bank the hours until it was morning in Ottawa and I could reconnect with my family. I have so many stories to share, but the vastness of the desert and the range of emotions and challenges I’ve experienced in the last 5 days leave me without a place to begin the telling.

As we are loading bags onto 4x4s, nomad children wander through, asking us for ‘des cadeaux’. One girl points to my watch and necklace, questioning whether I will give her these items. A boy comes to me and points to the woven bracelet I wear to see if that could be for him. I wonder what life is like for these kids. How often they have a group like us to whom they can sell their handmade camels and beaded necklaces; how it is here for them in the middle a vast dry place with no running water or electricity. A fellow trekker reaches into his bag to find a pen to give away and our driver Moha has to step in to stop the surrounding children from fighting over a bag of snacks that was given earlier.

photo credit to Sebastian Albrecht

Driving back to Ourzazate took us through the small Atlas Mountains, where villages that seem nothing more than a few mud huts erupted from the sand. In other bustling towns along the way, red sand buildings came to life with vibrantly coloured tiles and painted shutters and the minarets of mosques dotting each skyline. We took a snack break in the small town of Tinghir and most enjoy a nouss nouss – coffee with milk – but I buy myself the best bag of plain salted chips I have ever eaten.

We pass a huge marketplace to which you can see people walking in droves from all directions. Our driver Mustafa tells us they will find food, animals and other necessities at the market. A few minutes later, in the midst of a busy town, I saw a woman washing her clothes in the only river I remember seeing since arriving in Morocco.

Smaller towns seem comprised of well cared and tidy buildings mixed with crumbling mud walls and partially built, but lived in, homes. Many had second storey walls built but no roof yet. One of our drivers told us that when people have the money to do so, they build onto their homes. Otherwise, they sit partially built until the money to build more is found.

Back in Ourzazate, everyone wanders off to a private corner to re-connect with loved ones at home. Once tears are brushed away and currency is exchanged at the hotel, a few of us spent a couple of hours in the quieter market of Ourzazate; testing my negotiating skills again I bought a lovely rug and enjoyed a moroccan tea with this shop owner.

Arriving back in Marrakech the next day, sand was still seeping out of my hiking boots and bag, but I was wearing clean clothes and had freshly washed hair! It felt like I was coming back to a city I visited months before. The richness of the 7 previous days had changed my perspective. There was much less confusion at check in this time as we had adapted to the Moroccan pace and sense of order. As we head out to our final dinner together, conversations have turned to home life- kids, partners, and favourite foods, and travel plans for those going on travel elsewhere.

celebration dinner at a Riad in the Medina – photo credit Sebastian Albrecht

I don’t know how I chose to write my report on ‘Morocco’ when I was in grade 4, but it is since then that I have wanted to come here. The sound of the call to prayer, the warmth of the eroding red landscape and a shared tea with a shop owner will now forever be a part of me. Thank you for opening your heart to me Morocco.

Here is a map of our trek. Maps was create by Matthew Pfiefer

Part 3 – Desert Life is My Life Now

On the last day of our trek, we took more time in the morning to play in the dunes and take pictures. There were stops under the shade of trees in the first hours of the day that we haven’t done in previous days. 

Photo credits to Sebastian Albrecht

Eventually, though, we had to head back out to the flat dry terrain to walk to our final lunch tent in the desert. Every day, the hour before lunch has been the hardest for me. The heat of the sun almost heat strokes me, but not quite, because I always make it to the lunch tent.

photo credits to Sebastian Albrecht

We have walked for hours and days without seeing other people or houses and have come within 20 kilometres of the Algerian border. A broken toy horse, alone in the middle of the flats is the only evidence that other people have walked where we walked. That, and the bleached skull of a goat lying in the sand. Coming to our final camp however, we were greeted by 3 children who ran up the dune to greet us. They wait with smiles that pay off in gifts of candy from some of our group.

Throughout the 5 trekking days, we have been guided and helped and cheered on by Mohammed and Hussein, and others, along with the 3 camels who carried water and lunches for us. Mohammed dressed in the same long pants, fleece sweater and loosely laced sneakers everyday, while we were melting in our shorts and t-shirts. We figured out 2 things: the camels take the easiest route and when they are out of sight for awhile, we are about to do something hard; and when we take a break, and Mohammed offers us some delicious nuts and figs to eat, we are about to do something hard. :).

photo credit to Sebastian Albrecht

Each day, a member of our group reads a letter written to us from someone who has needed the shelter or benefited from the education program. One day, it was from a man who lost his mother to domestic violence. The silent moments after the reading are when most of us are wiping tears while we start to walk for the afternoon. Hearing the trauma that so many suffer through reinforces the importance of this journey and our fundraising.

photo credit to Sebastian Albrecht

Arriving at our final camp to warm delicious Moroccan tea and biscuits, there are lots of hugs and a few that can’t stop the tears from falling at this amazing thing we just accomplished. 

The wind comes up as dinner is served and the location of the nightly fire is moved from the courtyard of our camp to a downwind location. There are questions about whether tonight would be a good night to sleep under the stars again, and concerns about whether there will be another sandstorm to keep us awake and fill our tents with dust and grit.

The call for sleepy tea comes and not long after I am longing for my sleeping bag and pillow. Usually we are all going to bed by 9:00 but tonight I’m ready by 8:15. 

As I drift off to sleep, the sounds of Berber drums and song and voices from the campfire layer into my consciousness. This is the last night to hear this before heading back to civilization.

7:30a.m. breakfast is earlier than other days by half an hour and we awake to giggles from the men’s tent beside us. As keen as we are to get back to showers and flushing toilets in Ourzazate, it is tempting to stay cozy in the warmth of my sleeping bag until the last minute. No more clean clothes simplifies getting dressed and the bag just has to shut today, not get organized.

Long Days in the Heat – Part 2

Our first day is short. Starting to walk in the mid-afternoon limits our kilometres to 9 and we get our first hint of the vast unchanging terrain we will face for much of our walk. Our camp for Night 1 is nestled into the lee of a sand dune. Broad white canvas tents with red carpet floors surround the make-shift courtyard which will become our ‘common room’ while in the desert; the place to socialize, eat breakfast and dinner, have a nightly fire and consult with the doctor about our poor beat up feet.

’interior of tent photo’ credit to Matthew Pfiefer

Our tents are assigned to us (4 or 5 to a tent) and as we set up our home for the night, the sky changes to the yellows, pinks, vibrant oranges and reds of the most incredible sunset I’ve ever seen, then darkens to reveal Venus and Jupiter, the Milky Way, and a million stars under which some of our group will sleep in the following nights.

photo credit to Sebastian Albrecht

Before I left home, I had memorized our itinerary, so I knew the first day would be about 9 kilometres. Without reason to suspect a deviation from our itinerary, we began Day 2 of walking. According to the schedule, a reasonable 17k, to get us tuned up and ready for bigger days.

We climbed our first sand dune on this morning, taking 3 steps forward and falling 2 steps back. By lunch, we had walked 14k, and it was smoldering hot. Hot and dry enough to make it hard for me to swallow. 

photo credit to Sebastian Albrecht

photo credit to Cory Permack

What a relief to see the lunch tent set up in the distance and realize that we would be able to eat in the shade of a tent, with a chance to lay down on the carpeted floor and take off our boots for an hour. Still with no reason to believe our day would be longer than the 17k in our schedule, we set out after lunch, refreshed and ready to end the day early…..

As the sun was setting, and the desert was getting dark, we arrived at camp, having walked a total of 29k!! I was tired, but feeling good. Others in my group found this day to be the toughest, running out of water toward the end, slogging through soft sand in the vast, shadeless terrain while blistered developed. We spotted the camp tents in the distance and walked toward them for hours before they started getting bigger and bigger in our view, and we were finally home for the night.

After our second day walking, the wind started to howl in the middle of the night and our guide team was out hammering tent pegs further into the ground at 4am while we tossed and turned on our sleeping mats. Dragging ourselves out of sand dusted sleeping bags we found breakfast inside a tent instead of out in the open courtyard and someone jokes about taking a day off to recover from the rough night.

The wind died down though, in time for us to start Day 3 by making our way through a deep gorge with eroding ledges towering on either side. This is the first day that the vastness of the Sahara was really present for me, as we walked out to miles of cracked, creviced and flat plains.The day was shorter than Day 2, but it was a tough one for me. My feet hurt; my body was tired, and I missed my guys back home in Ottawa. BUT, we saw a wild baby camel!!

Our afternoon took us in different directions. The very brave walked up and along the spine of a staggering dune called King Dune. No picture will ever do this sand mountain justice. Others take a route over the lower side of the dune, and finally, those of us who coined ourselves Team Camel took the gentle slope, walking along the deep sand with our 4 legged support team. From our vantage point, our colleagues along the spine of King Dune appeared the size of ants on top of a giant mountain of sand.

Photo credits – guide & camels – to Cory Permack

The easiest terrain has been the wide open flats that look like a dried up ocean floor. So dried that the top layer has peeled up into huge chocolate flakes that crunch under our feet as we walk. My least favourite had been the wide open flats that are littered with grapefruit sized jagged rocks that require concentration at every step.

photo credit to Sebastian Albrecht

Night 3 in the desert would be the night I had my first camp ‘shower’. 3 scoops of water in a bowl, taken into a 3×3 tent nestled among the toilet tents that offered minimal privacy with its partially closing flap door. 5 minutes later though, and I’m a new woman. With a rumour of a cell tower somewhere close, I sneak to my phone and exchange a text with my husband, see that it is Sunday morning in Ottawa and he is at the park with the dogs. A place and activity that is so far removed from my desert life, but such a comfort to connect with what is going on at home. We are used to the routine in the desert by now – soup and dinner under the stars, teeth brushed and ready for bed by 9pm at the very latest. In the dark, the glow of head lamps from the toilet tents lets us know which are occupied…but when your light isn’t bright enough, you might experience a loss of privacy as a trek mate tries to pull open the tent door! haha.  At this point in the trek, I am counting down the days until I get to say goodbye to these nasty tent-potties.

I finished day 4 in the desert feeling good. Better than yesterday. It was so hot in the middle of the day and the landscape was unchanging but I think my cold is getting better (oh yeah, I have been sick with a head cold since Day 1 in the desert). The doctor properly taped up my pinky toes this morning and wow, feet feel great now! The view of sand dunes and camels still hasn’t gotten old. Camels are such funny animals – Beautiful, but definitely not graceful.

As I arrive back at camp, one of my fellow trekkers lets out a series of whoops and hollers from her tent, saying goodbye to day 4. There is lots of anticipation in the air with only one day of walking left. People are starting to talk about what they are looking forward to when back at the hotel, and talking about food. Someone mentions chips, and someone else hotdogs and hamburgers. A tentmate says she is having mac n’ cheese as soon as she gets home and my mouth waters at the thought.

photo credit to Sebastian Albrecht

I am anticipating our last day with guarded curiosity. We know that on the last trek, the last day was by far the hardest, and we threw the scheduled itinerary out the window when Day 2 changed from 17k – 29k as the day went.

Just as we are all lamenting our favourite foods, we were served a Moroccan version of mac n’ cheese for dinner and it was sooooo good! After dinner jokes across the table were met with big laughs and groans as the fire is lit and our nightly chamomile ‘sleepy’ tea is prepared by our guide team.

The sky is far away and as vast as the desert tonight. I feel good about our last day. In the nightly briefing, we are told to expect about 20k tomorrow.

photo credit to Cory Permack

Marrakech and into the Desert (Part 1)

What have I gotten myself into I wonder again as we fly over the sand coloured landscape and start our descent into Marrakech. My nerves have been frayed thinking about walking 100k through the hot desert, sleeping in tents that scorpions could climb into, and sharing space for 10 days with 32 other people I have never met. I’m worried about being away from my family and my business for 2 weeks. Then I think of the private message I got last night from a friend in which she told me she has recently escaped a violent home. Her message touched me deeply, and pushes me forward through my nerves and will everyday in the desert when I think I’m too tired or too hot to do anymore. 

I’ve arranged to meet fellow trekkers at the airport, so I don’t have to haggle for a taxi to the hotel on my own. We negotiate the price down from 400 dirham to 200 dirham, and find out later we still paid too much for our ride. 🙂
Our first Group 2 meeting took place in the lush hotel lobby that evening. The meeting was filled with discussion about snakes and spiders and scorpions, and where to go to the toilet in the desert….all the things that have been on our minds for weeks. 

With our first dinner together in our bellies, I joined a few of my newly-met trekmates for a walk around Marrakech’s chaotic night market. A thriving, loud, Djemaa El Fna square was filled with people, wafts of delicious meats coming for a multitude of food stalls, and shop owners trying to pull us into their shop to spend money.  After wandering through winding alley after alley, we needed directions from a local to get back to the main square. Turns and offshoots every hundred metres, shops that all look the same, and no street names mean you could spend weeks in this sprawling market and still not know your way around.

Our second day was spent getting to know each other better while touring around Marrakech – we saw the Koutoubia Mosque, the  beautiful and peaceful Saadien Tombs in which the king built the most lavish tomb for his mother, and the Bahia Palace with architecture that made me drool – incredible windows and doors and tilework at every turn.

Delicious chicken with preserved lemons and olives came to the table still bubbling in its tagine and for the first time, I heard the muezzin’s call to prayer from minarets throughout the city during our rooftop lunch. It was haunting and beautiful, and made me wish for more time to get to know this city and people. Wandering through the souk in the afternoon was an adventure when the chaos was at maximum intensity with bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles, donkeys pulling carts, and pedestrians all vying for space in alleys no broader than sidewalks I am used to back home. 

I haggled for my purchases for the first time this afternoon and I loved it!…even though I know I paid more for my bracelet that I should have done. 🙂 It was a bit of a dance, with prices only ‘revealed’ once I had settled on all of the items I wanted to buy. The shop owner then suggested a price at which I laughed; I suggested a price and he shook his head ‘no way’ and pretended to walk away. Eventually we took to paper and crossed out the numbers until there was a price on which we could both agree. A handshake to seal the deal, and then another 20 minutes to wait while my parcel was wrapped and I was able to pay.

Our 3rd day started with a quick breakfast, then loading into our rides to head south toward Ourzazate. It’s hard not to feel a tiny bit badass being whisked through towns and mountains in a convoy of 4x4s like I imagine Indiana Jones might have done if he were a real person. After all, we are heading to Ourzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco, where virtually all films set in the desert are filmed.

Our driver Moha plays rhythmic and repetitive Berber music as we pass on blind corners and colourful roadside shops flash by. Moha does a hilarious impersonation of an American tourist, cracking us all up and distracting us from the crazy drive. After we returned home, we heard there had been snow on the mountain roads a few days after we went through – we had white knuckles on dry roads….It would have been pure terror to drive them while it snowed!

On Day 4, the unknown of the days ahead is thick in the air as we load into our 4×4 trucks to make the long drive to the desert drop-off point. We don’t know where we will be dropped off and have been told repeatedly that in Morocco, we will have to go with the flow and not worry about what comes next. Our drive today is less harrowing than the drive through the High Atlas Mountains the day before, with small towns and villages dotting the first hours of our route. Bathroom and food stops come with no warning or request, and we go with the flow, getting out of the trucks to see what the stop is for, and say hi to our trekmates in other trucks. 

When we hit the edge of the desert and there are no more villages to pass, we keep driving. We pass 3 young boys on bicycles, presumably coming from one of the brightly painted school houses we have seen, even out in the desert, where there do not seem to be enough houses to have a school at all. There aren’t any roads after a while, just tire tracks from other trucks. Our caravan of 7 vehicles followed one after the other for a while, then fanned out, each making its own road, kicking up a wide spray of dust as we go. Whenever our convoy is spotted by children, they come sprinting across the sand, usually in bare feet, to wave as we drive by. Trying to go with the flow, I don’t ask the driver how much further we will drive. I just wait until, as seemingly spontaneously as the rest stops, all vehicles stop, and we assume it is time to get out and walk in the desert.

I will be sharing the rest of my journey over the next month so stay tuned for the next part of my journey.