Day 6 - Thank You

There isn’t much more to say about the rest of our time in the Sahara. We got Wi-Fi back (our notifications flooded our phones – hi 2019), slept in our huts, packed up our stuff at the break of dawn and got on the 8 hour bus journey to Marrakech via the same mountain passes and desert towns we had gone past before. It took another 24 hours before muscle ache kicked in and we all tried to combat this is different ways – some hung out by the pool, other went into the souk in Marrakech, and some got massages and hammams (a ritual cleansing of the body). The only thing for me to do now is thank a few people who helped us along the way.

Thank you firstly to our guides and camel riders who guided us across the desert for over 100kms. You were quick, informative, helpful and a fun group of guys who helped us out every step of the way – we literally couldn’t have done it without you. An even huger thanks to our six camels (Monty, Kevin, Perry, Charlie, Bogart and Slim) for carrying our food, water, tents and supplies - you were the best “ships of the desert” a group of Londoners could ask for! Thank you to our cook Samir, for the excellent food at every single meal – we never expected to eat so well with so little resource and our entire group holds you in extremely high regard.

The Sahara Six (seven including myself), thank you for being such an amazing group of trekkers and making my job out in the desert almost non-existent! For months before we trekked out I was extremely nervous about a range of potential issues – from our fitness levels to a lack of preparation or anticipation of what was to come. We trekked further than we expected in a shorter time period than we expected to do it in and barely had a scratch on us by the end (only James’s gammy hamstring). Also a big well done to all of you for completing this trip – 7 started and 7 finished! We left as individuals and came back as a group – you all rock.

Thank you to my Dad and siblings for their constant support and campaigning for funds, to Lucy, Ali and the whole Pancreatic Cancer Action team for their support and help with fundraising, to Chloe for being my No.1 cheerleader throughout this whole experience and to all mine and everyone else’s friends for the good wishes and support when we were out there – it was noticed and we are all humbled by it.

The biggest thanks I have is to you- all of you who have read this blog about our journey and every single person who donated to Climb 4 Kim for this trek – the total stands currently at over £12000, which is far more than I had expected we would raise by nearly double! I am overwhelmed and inspired by so many people’s generosities and I am in debt to you all.

Finally to my amazing mother - the “Kim” in “Climb 4 Kim”. Because of you I have climbed from the peaks of the Atlas Mountains to the golden sands of the Sahara desert. Over £50000 has been raised in your name, and that will only rise in the upcoming years. I will always love and miss you Kimbo and hope I’ve made you proud with all of these endeavours.

Until next time folks!

Jamie :)

Day 5 - Hamstrings and Hawaii

Scorpions, mice and snake threats weren’t enough to stop me from having my best night’s sleep of the entire trek – mainly due to the fact that I was so tired from the heavy hiking days and the blazing heat of the sun. I admire the Spanish siesta so much, because when it is hot it makes so much sense to simply have a nap! This was to be our final night in tents as we would be spending our last Sahara night in huts instead, much to our joy – our tents didn’t treat us badly but they aren’t as good as solid walls and ceilings.

The previous night we’d spotted some lights in the distance – this was our aim for the day,to reach the small Saharan town of Mhamid (a mere 10km away from Algeria). We started across the dunes once again in more jovial spirits as we could now see the end of our trek after walking 80kms in 3 days. There were 2 highlights in the morning for me, the first of which involved James and our cook Samir singing the BeeGees classic “Staying Alive” arm in arm at the bottom of one of the dunes, with full falsetto voices in flow – the desert is a strange place! The second highlight started when I challenged Seref to a dune running race, where we both had to run to the bottom of a dune before sprinting up the next one, with the winner being whoever reached the top first. I can safely say that Seref thrashed me in this race, sports isn’t my forte.

The second race was between Saul and James; however this race did not end as impressively. After running at full pelt to the bottom of the dune, James pulled up clutching his hamstring and fell to the floor in pain. Obviously this should not be a highlight in anyone’s mind but our guide and first aider Hussain reacted brilliantly to this injury. First he observed the leg for all of 5 seconds before following by saying “its ok” and kicking James in the injured leg – not funny but also extremely funny. This injury however raised concerns about if James would complete this trek or not, which would have been unfortunate since the last time we went on a trek he suffered from a bout of altitude sickness, however Charlie the camel was at the ready to take him across the desert if needed!

 After lending James one of my walking poles (with Liam taking the other) we continued trekking until lunch, earlier than anticipated since wind had been forecast for the afternoon, so a quick lunch is all we were able to do. A surprising fact about the Sahara is just how animals live out here – from snakes and scorpions to mice and fennec foxes. The most surprising animal in abundance for me though was the sheer number of butterflies there were under every tree in the desert, hundreds of them due to the desert bloom – Beautiful and unexpected.

After a quick lunch of pasta and salad we headed out on the final straight before Mhamid, where the winds picked up. A lot. We covered our faces and persevered through the strongest winds we had encountered so far, sand was flying into our faces regardless. Crusting our eyelashes, going into our ears, mouths and beards for some of us! Shelter was sparse and what was meant to be a 90 minute walk turned into a 2 and a half hour one, until as if by magic the sand started to dissipate from the air and palm trees started to appear in the distance. Once we hit these palm trees we saw some tourist going for a camel ride, we say hi and they said hello back – they were English tourists! 30 seconds later we had arrived at a road, where Mhamid awaited.

Our first interaction with civilisation came with a small shop on the corner of a quiet road, where Callum bought everyone a soft drink packed with sugar to celebrate. I was pining for a Fanta since Arabic/African Fanta is arguably the king of all soft drinks, however this shop didn’t have any so I went for a tropical fizzy drink called “Haway” – meant to be a variety on the word Hawaii but spelled like a Geordie term for encouragement. This coconutty passion fruit drink was the third and final American discovery – the immediate sugar rush was sheer bliss as this wasn’t just our first soft drinks in 5 days, but also our first cold drink in 5 days too – Howay the Haway!

We walked another 10 minutes until we entered a complex with lots of mud huts, where we would be staying for the night. A huge improvement since the huts included actual beds and genuine insulation from the elements. This whole trek was happening during the Jewish festival of Succot, where the Jewish people stayed in huts during their time wandering the desert. Its apparently a mitzvah (good deed) to sleep in one of these huts during the festival – the jews and non-jews alike nailed that particular mitzvah!

This complex also had showers and toilets – not ponds and sand, real showers and toilets! The feeling after getting out of the shower and hitting the Saharan air clean is one I will remember for a while, the breeze felt amazing without sand bedded into your face. For the first time in nearly a week, we were clean and sitting inside a building eating our food (chicken and olives) while drinking tea and water – utter bliss! The music played out for a bit, we had emptied some of our snacks onto the table as a dessert (along with some honeydew melon), before heading into our “succahs” for the night. Our time in the desert was coming to an end!

Day 4 - Blowing in the Wind

With our porridge eaten, water bottles filled, and sun cream applied we set off across the sand dunes. I had expected this to be the toughest part of our trek – wading through the soft sand and climbing up the steep dunes was surely going to turn our legs into jelly! This morning was in fact the most fun part of the trek – running down the dunes, music playing out of James’s rucksack and the cool climate (since the sun hadn’t fully risen yet) was such a good laugh. After an hour of walking we sat on top of the largest of the Bougern dunes and looked out at the unbelievable views that surrounded us. This is why I came to the Sahara.

An hour before we stopped for lunch, conditions started deteriorating. For starters, the pristine sand we had been walking across had become rocky and the light breeze that was so refreshing on the sand dunes had become larger gusts of wind, taking bucket loads of loose sand with it. As we were walking, I was humming the Bob Dylan song “Blowing in the Wind” to myself and thinking about the lyrics in detail. I came to the conclusion that if Bob Dylan had written his songs in the Sahara and that the answers to all of his questions were blowing in the wind, then every answer would be sand. How many times must the cannon balls fly before they are forever banned? Sand. Sand amount of times Bob.

Lunch was a lot less relaxing today, with the sand filled wind picking up pace and our settings being the shade of a small tree, where the shadow was moving at an alarmingly quick rate. If possible we were all more dehydrated than usual and conversation was slower for the first few minutes after we sat down. At which point I became the hero with my sheer lack of understanding when it came to polarised lenses, and tried to take a picture through polarised sunglasses to make the image magically disappear. This didn’t work and everyone laughed, with tea arriving just in time to shade me from further embarrassment. To his utmost credit Samir cooked us an egg dish with lentils and beans, which was absolutely superb and an almost miraculous meal considering he made it in sandstorm conditions and just as it always did, our energy levels were back in time for the second half of our trek.

What I have learnt from doing a few of these treks is what makes a good team of trekkers, especially how they react when times get tough. On Toubkal, I was constantly looking around at people helping others through the tough times and making sure that they were safe. I saw the same camaraderie when we got to our base camp and the wind was blowing hard, yet everyone banded together to get all 5 tents up as quickly as possible. Lightweight material like canvas is very difficult to pin down in the wind, and is even tougher when you are trying to pin it into sand! This is what makes the fact that all tents were up in 15 minutes even more impressive, and made me extremely proud to be spearheading the Sahara Seven.

With the wind in full force we retreated to the large white tent for shelter and tea, while trying to clean our faces full of sand and drink water until we had recovered. Callum and I left the tent after about 45 minutes to see if the wind had died down, and stood on a dune looking out at the vast nothingness of the desert and simply focused on how awesome this place truly is when it’s not trying to bury us in sand! A few minutes later the rest of the group followed and a few of the guys played catch with the guides – normalcy had resumed.

By Day 4, all of our bread was stale and hard – not inedible but bordering on it, which is why it was such a relief to hear that Samir would be making bread with dinner tonight. There are many things in this world that give satisfaction like freshly baked bread, and with the fire that the camel herders were making this bread would be good! We all circled around one of the camel herders as he kneaded a huge piece of dough, and were all quite surprised when they started sifting the fire to the side and began to dig a hole where the ashes were. Sure enough they put the big piece of dough into the sand and covered it with the embers to cook it, to which Liam (the most meat and 2 veg of our group) declared that he was out – no sandy bread for him. When they finally uncovered this bread they batted it down with a cloth to remove all of the excess sand around the crust to reveal what was effectively a giant pitta bread…and what also turned out to be my second American discovery of the trip! Unbelievable bread.

After our very stern warning about the dangers of scorpions on day one, not one of these fearsome creatures had been traced near our campsite, however on Day 4 this all changed. After dinner, 5 of the team were hanging out inside the main food tent, when Liam very calmly stated “Guys, I think I have just seen our first scorpion” in the same sort of voice tone of remembering the name of a book that nobody had asked to see. Sure enough on the sole of Saul’s flip-flop was a small scorpion (apparently one of the more dangerous ones), which caused Hussain, Mohammed (one of our camel supervisors), and Samir to rush towards our tent like a bomb was about to go off. Samir saw the scorpion and stamped on it repeatedly until it was no longer a threat. It was time to sleep. Just before we went to bed, James spotted a small desert mouse outside our tent and was talking about how cute it was – my only thought was that its predator is the desert viper… sweet dreams indeed.

Day 3 - The Wasteland Walk

It’s 6.30am and I’ve been asleep for 10 hours. The insomnia and illness from the previous night has gone and the cool desert air is a huge relief from the blazing heat of the day. Many people told us before we went about how the desert is freezing at night and can drop below zero regularly – this was not the case at all for us and 12 degrees is frankly a delight to sleep in. The bleating of a donkey though is enough to wake up most people regardless of the balmy temperature so I got up pretty quickly after. These were donkeys that belong to a goat herder nearby and had just decided to hang out right behind mine and James’s tent, the only time I was jealous of James’s earplugs.

We were all aware of the task ahead – keep walking until we reach the sand dunes, where we would camp between them. After even more porridge, we filled up our water bottles and headed off towards the Sahara. After trekking through the rocky valleys for about an hour, we stopped at a set of 4 small stone huts where we were greeted by a man, woman and young girl who offered us tea while we passed through. While our energy levels were high we all were quite keen to keep the momentum of our walk going, but this was an experience so we sat amongst the huts next to 2 goats (less noisy than the day before) and sipped a small glass of tea. It turns out these people are nomads with permanent residents, so rather than travel across the 8 Saharan countries the Moroccan government pays them to stay put in lands which for many years have been disputed between the Moroccans and Algeria, with hope being that the nomadic residents inherit a national allegiance to Morocco and cement the claim of the land – simple an apparently very effective.

What followed our nomadic visit is what became known as the “Wasteland Walk” – arguably the hardest part of the entire trek. Our guide Rashid told us that we needed to walk until we got to the sand, where we would set up and have lunch, and the feeling is this would take just over a couple of hours with a quick break in the shade. There is no shade in the wasteland. All the trees in this areas are sparsely populated, about half a metre high and covered in spikes, and the sand we were trying to reach was not visible on the horizon after 2 hours with water in short supply – it was a psychological challenge but we all knew that the only way past this was to keep walking. The rocky terrain started to become more sandy/less of an ankle hazard but this was at the time when the sun started to heat up….not fun.

3 and a half hours after leaving the nomads, we arrived at the base of the first Sahara dunes – a magnificent site that was much more appreciated after we had topped up our water! We found a shady place to rest, recover and discuss the mad walk we had all just done while eating lentils, cheese, pasta and salad with bread (that was slowly going stale). Every day we walked, the transformation of the group post lunch was almost miraculous – energy levels were high and we even played catch in the sand, which would have seemed unthinkable only an hour earlier. We knew we didn’t have far to travel to our camp site from here so we set off with 2 of our camels (Monty and his apprentice Charlie) towards it. The dunes started off fairly easily, with a few more rocky hills to contend with in between, however after about an hour the full majesty of the Chigaga dunes became apparent. There were sandy hills for miles around and every direction you looked felt like you were watching a computer screensaver – nothing looked real! We finally saw the largest of the dunes, where we could either walk around it, or climb to the top – there was only one answer. Once we hit the top, we all sat and admired our new surroundings. On one side of the dune was a small tourist group with a jeep, since this is the spot that one night excursions are taken to bask in the Sahara without the inconvenience of walking across it (amateurs). On the other side was our base camp for the night, so after a bit of picture taking and more admiration of sand we ran down the dune and set up our tents.

Whenever our family would try a new and amazing food, my mum would always refer to it as an American discovery, in which the food stuff is so good that it is on par with Columbus discovering the Americas – the next food I am going to talk about is one on these American discoveries. After every day of trekking, our cook Samir would prepare us a small snack with tea for us to have after we sorted our tents and bags. Today he made fried bread. I had always written off fried bread as the worst thing you could have on full English, or one of the quicker ways to have a heart attack. What Samir had done is taken the bread we had, flattened it all down and cut it up before frying it, and served it with honey, jam and chocolate spread. Maybe I am saying this because my energy levels were so low, but it is one of the nicest things I have ever eaten. I have videos on my phone of people singing and dancing while eating this fried bread – an absolute revelation in the post desert snack game and a true American discovery (take that Columbus!).

Dinner was all outside under the stars, where we stayed until the temperature cooled down enough to sleep comfortably. The next day was going to be trickier as we would be contending with a lot more dunes for a lot longer, so injury became more of a concern. However we all had more of a Delia Smith attitude to the day ahead – Come on dunes! Let’s be ‘avin you!

Day 2 - Loose Motion and Frog Fever

Before any sort of long exercise, the best thing that you can do is get a good night’s rest and recharge your batteries for the feat ahead. Everybody in the group managed to rest well and were cheery for the journey ahead, except for one person – me. I had a total of zero hours of sleep due to a bout of food poisoning, which had kept me up with stomach cramps and multiple trips to the toilet/desert in the dark (oh hi scorpions). Although drained, I wasn’t too worried since I had climbed to the summit of Mt. Toubkal with exactly the same amount of sleep to prepare me; however the conditions meant I was at serious risk of dehydration – nothing to shrug off there.

After a bowl of Moroccan porridge and dehydration sachet for me, we set off over the large mountain pass towards the dunes. The previous night we had all assumed that on the other side of the pass would be the start of the Sahara desert, but in fact it would take us a day and a half to reach it. We were hiking through the Zegora desert today, a much rockier and hilly terrain full of spectacular views. The best way I can describe this desert is that it looks a lot like it could be a set in Star Wars, where the Millennium Falcon and some tie fighters would have a pursuit style chase through the canyons. Would probably have been more pleasant too… I reckon Han Solo had some cracking air conditioning in there! The temperature started rising significantly after a couple of hours of walking and everyone became very aware that we were in a very dry place and a feeling of constant thirst during the day became common for the rest of the trip. Personally I was starting to get a strong headache and was just ploughing through until lunch where I could try and recover – no talking, just walking.

After 4 hours of walking and some good chatting to keep us entertained, we arrived at a small oasis of date trees (for shade),  and old school water well. The whole area looked very biblical and was covered in goats bleating crazy tones and inflections. I had seen YouTube videos of goats before where they would make unnaturally wild sounds, but because it was so ridiculous I had assumed that the videos had been dubbed – I am now very aware that when a goat makes a noise, there is a chance it can sound like a screaming alcoholic child. We ate pasta and salads with bread under the date trees and chilled for a couple of hours while the sun was at its peak, and when we continued walking the energy levels around everyone were noticeably higher.

We restarted our trek through a dried river before walking up and down the valleys of the Zegora until we reached our camp, which was a green area at the beginning of a pass next to even more dried river. Our cook Samir told us that there was a small area of fresh water nearby that we could wash ourselves in so we all rushed down to the spring, eager to wash and feel fresh. This water was not a spring. It was at best a big pond with a thin layer of dirt over the top. When we got to within 10 feet of the water, hundreds of frogs leapt inside with their beady eyes hovering over the surface to see what this group of intruders would do at their home. Saul, Callum, Seref, Danie and myself all decided just to dip our feet into the water – maybe it wouldn’t be too bad! And the water once you kicked the dirt away was quite cold and a nice relief to our tired feet. Then we started to see leeches sniffing close to our feet…time to go.

The food we had every day was fantastic – I cannot praise Samir any higher for the quality of the food he cooked for every meal on the trek. Today was no exception as he made lamb tagine with couscous, which my family know when done right is my favourite meal in the entire world. The stars were once again out in full force and the silence in the air around was unbelievable. As I hadn’t slept at all the previous night, I went into my tent early and crashed out about 8pm – wanted to be ready for our first dune encounters…

Day 1 - And away we go!

After an evening in Marrakech enjoying the last pleasures civilisation has to offer us, we were starting our journey to the Sahara desert. While a lot of key information was known about our day ahead (a man called Mohamed would be meeting us outside our hotel at 8.30am and 3 guides would be coming with us down south), I wasn't entirely sure how long this desert descent would take us. To keep group spirits up I chose a time frame that seemed reasonable, maybe 3 hours and 3 hours of walking to match? Maybe 5 hours and an hour to walk to our ready made camp? We had a lot of kilometres to walk so I had assumed we needed to crack on as soon as possible! It turns out that both of these thoughts of mine were wrong and we had 8 hours on a minibus to the Sahara, at which point the sun would be no walking for us! A good thing, since we wouldn't have to do any trekking after a ridiculously long coach journey, but also meant we would have to do more kilometres a day than we had initially anticipated.

Along with Mohamed were our 3 main guides; Rashid, our main journey navigator; Hussain, his co-guide/trek support and Samir, our cook who fed us on our previous trip to Toubkal and had done a stellar job in doing so, which boded very well for a time when supplies would be a lot more sparse!

Along the way we stopped past a few viewpoints to take in the views from the mountain pass while our minibus dodged constant roadworks next to quarries and silver mines, before beginning the descent where our landscape changed from green and mountainous to rocky and dry valleys as far as the eye could see. We stopped for lunch in Ouarzazate, famous as the town where a lot of the Russell Crowe epic 'Gladiator' was shot. As we tucked into our 'chicken' tagine, we started thinking about the campsite and just how ready it would be when we got there - i told everyone there would probably be huts to sleep in since day 1 would probably have more than just our group camping around us.

Another 3 hours passed before we reached Zagora to pick up our food supplies for the next 5 days, and use a 'proper toilet' for the last time in a while. This town looks very different to Marrakech or Ouarzazate - a lot more clay buildings, dusty roads and people dressed in headscarves (men and women). It felt a lot more like we were in Africa now as the European influences around Marrakech's buildings, signage and fashion were all but non existent. This is where we started seeing a lot more signs related to the nomadic way of life since this town is where the 52 day nomad journey to Timbuktu begins. "Imagine not using a toilet in 52 days" was the response from one of our group, although to me it suddenly made Mali seem surprisingly close!

After another 15 minutes of driving, the bus turned off into a random rocky terrain and stopped in front of 3 gentlemen and 6 camels (more on them later) who had found a good area to camp in...yet currently there was no camp! It transpired quickly that we needed to set up this camp ourselves, including putting our own tents up (not quite the huts I'd envisaged), but fortunately these were pop up tents that took 10 minutes to assemble when 2 people were working on it, which is lucky since the sun went down 30 minutes after we arrived.

After throwing our bags in our tents we sat in our main tent, where tea was provided and Hussain warned us about the dangers of the desert, namely scorpions. These critters live under large rocks and their sting can vary in severity from hospitalization to death. When you are sleeping and going to the toilet in a landscape covered in large rocks, it becomes a bit of a concern!

We were served warm soup with bread shortly after tea. Danie, who is a vegetarian and gluten-free in her diet asked Hussain if the soup had meat and flour in which the conversation went:
"Yes, it has meat and flour "
"Well I eat no meat and no flour"
"Ah - it has no meat or flour"
Needless to say, Danie didn't eat what turned out to be lentil soup with lots of flour to thicken it up, but it was pretty darn tasty and became a group favourite throughout the trip.
Once the sun had fully gone down, we decided to leave the tent to see if there were any stars in the sky - and were not disappointed. Not only was the sky a blanket of stars, but you could see constellations without much need of reference - an absolutely breathtaking site to behold! And this was before we hiked, when it all became a bit more difficult...