It was the end of The Atlas Expedition. The day had finally come. On October 27th 2020 the team and I walked into Ourzazate to be met by drummers and trumpeters and a whole village of people dancing in doorways, on rooftops and joining our parade. We were on the very last kilometres of our epic 1,400 km expedition on foot with the camels across the mountains of Morocco. The 68-day exploration began in Nador on the Mediterranean Coast in August, and finished at the mouth of the Sahara. We had faced the constant threat of abandonment due to Covid and none of us could really believe we had actually managed to do it. Addi, Brahim, Ali and I were exhausted and relieved and happy. How the camels felt I am not sure, but I think Hamish was smiling.
We had been walking through history. We began soon after Morocco’s strict lockdown had been lifted. Corona made everything extra difficult with extra logistical and health concerns – but it also made The Atlas Expedition extra fascinating. I also appreciated so much more deeply the privilege of being able to explore and to walk freely across the planet. The men shared that feeling after our lockdown incarceration.
It was the third part of my exploration trilogy of Morocco, including the disputed region of the Western Sahara. I was the first woman to walk the full Draa River in the first leg following that shortly after, by taking on 1,000 miles of the hottest desert on earth, the Sahara, in part two.
The Atlas Expedition team was me, my Amazigh guides – Brahim Ahalfi, Addi Bin Youssef and Ali Ahalfi – and the six camels: Hamish, Hector, Jock, Willie, Farquhar and Sausage. A vital member was Jean-Pierre Datcharry from Dar Daif, who was our organiser and back at HQ in Ouarzazate although he came to join us at points along the way, as did Abdellah Azizi, our brilliant cameraman. When I started my mammoth challenge in 2019 I had planned for many things from water shortages, to deadly animals and hostile environments, but I could never have imagined that I would be finishing the adventure during a worldwide pandemic.
Despite its overbearing presence, the expedition was not all about Covid. I called the expedition – the quest for dinosaurs- more in hope than expectation. So, it was fantastically exciting when we actually found dinosaur footprints in the area near Mgoun at the very end of the exploration after nine weeks of searching. JP had brought in climbing equipment (and a pink riding helmet for me) and we shimmied up the cliffs to reach and measure a series of prints made by Sauropods millions of years ago. At one point as I was perched on a ledge above a sheer 20 metre drop, with my tape measure in hand, I made the mistake of looking down and I did wonder what on earth I was doing. Putting my hand in that print from millions of years ago, though, was an unmissable, unforgettable, pretty untoppable experience.
Dinosaurs were a high point but honestly the more important part of the expedition turned out to be our opportunity to see and record how the rural communities have fared under Corona. I witnessed first-hand how even the most remote nomadic tribes had been affected. In the 1,400 km of walking, every single community we met, told us that they’d had no cases but the economic effects had been devastating.
The nomads of the region live a deeply traditional lifestyle dependent on their flocks and you would imagine that they would be relatively untouched as they live so close to the land and that hasn’t been affected. But, they sell their sheep and goats in order to buy essentials. Now, a sheep that would usually achieve 500MAD (£40) at market, gets only 100MAD (£8) as all the hotels and restaurants they used to supply have shut and households are cutting down on meat. The drastic loss of income, coupled with the ongoing drought and subsequent lack of grazing, has been catastrophic for the herdsmen. We saw nomads bringing animals to the local grocers and begging them to take them in exchange for sugar, tea and flour.
One of the great positives about being a woman on an expedition like this, and also having the languages (Arabic and basic Tashlaheet) means that I get to spend time with the women from these traditional communities I pass through and document their stories – something that would be impossible for a man.
Morocco is going through a period of great positive change now as universal education is implemented. In just one generation, the rate of girls’ literacy has leapt significantly, and this often means these girls want a different life from that of their mothers and grandmothers. The old ways are dying out but the young women I met are both respectful of their traditions and are hopeful for a bright future. It was fantastic to hear women and girls prioritising education like that and working towards something so positive even in the dark days of Corona.
The Atlas Expedition was a wonderful experience and as I finished I couldn’t really believe I had crossed the whole of Morocco*. It has been a blast: finding a lost city, exploring the tombs of the giants, dodging quicksands, walking through landmines. Exploration is something we can all do wherever we are – opening our eyes to the world we live in. I believe that’s incredibly important.
Even though it is the end of The Atlas Expedition, it will stay with me. This magnificent exploration, The Atlas Expedition, The Draa Expedition and The Sahara Expedition, was all done with my two trusted companions and now friends of my heart: Brahim and Addi. I could not have wished for better guides and fellow explorers. It was wonderful too to be joined for stretches by Ali Ahalfi, Brahim Boutkhoum, Lhou and Ychou. The last thought, though, has to be for the camels. Only Hamish and Sausage made it through all three expeditions and even though he was always the naughtiest, and did actually try to bite my head off, Hamish is still my favourite.
I think this has been my greatest adventure since cycling from Cairo to Cape Town. You can read about that one here.
- Including the disputed region of Western Sahara