In March 2019, I became the first woman to walk the length of the River Draa in Morocco. I discovered a lost city, found the tombs of the giants and was confronted with the dire effects of climate change on once viable land.
Adventure is addictive and now, I am taking on the Sahara, the biggest hot desert in the world – the Sahara Expedition. The expedition will cover 2000km, beginning in Oued Chbika on the Atlantic and ending at Morocco’s southernmost tip and its border with Mauritania, La Guera. It will take three months, beginning on 26 November 2019 (inchallah) and I will be travelling with my Draa Expedition team of three Amazigh (Berber) guides, Brahim Ahalfi, Brahim Boutkhoum and Addi ben Youssef, and five camels: Alasdair, Hamish, Callum, Murdo and Sausage. This time, though, one more camel is being added to the team to help carry water – Hunter, who was named after me – quite the honour I can assure you.
The expedition is being organised by Jean-Pierre Datcharry of Désert et Montagne Maroc who has 40 years of experience in the region.
The aim of the expedition is to explore this virtually unknown part of the Sahara. The people of this region are the Sahrawis who have roamed this hostile place for millennia and I will be travelling with them and (I hope!) learning their skills to survive. I will be tracking the deathstalker scorpion – at a safe distance preferably, hunting for meteorites, investigating the unique sand statues of the south and searching for the lost great bird monuments which lie hidden in the dunes. Vitally, I will be recording what is happening to the peoples and environment of the Sahara as the world heats up. In the last 100 years, the Sahara has expanded its territory by 10%, eating into arable land as desertification spreads.
The Sahara stretches 9,200,000 square kilometres (3,600,000 sq mi), dominating the African continent. It actually makes up 8% of the whole land mass of the planet and it is growing. Rainfall is virtually non-existent, there are no clouds, with bright sunshine over 91% of the time and the highest average daily temperature of 47 degrees was recorded here. But that is not the worst of it, sand and ground temperatures are even more extreme and can easily reach 80 °C or 176 °F in the daytime, which is hell on the feet. Coupled with the heat is extreme cold at night time. Temperatures will plummet to below freezing after sunset.
The history of this desert region is a complex and troubled one. “Western Sahara has never been a nation in the modern sense of the word,” according to Wikipedia. It has always been populated by fishermen on the coast, and nomads in the interior who live off their flocks and in ancient times plied the caravan trade from sub-Saharan Africa. It was colonised by Spain until the 1970s when they wanted to leave and promised the people a referendum on sovereignty. Mauritania and Morocco both protested this, saying the territory was theirs. The International Court of Justice ruled that their claims were notenough to give them control of the territory and that the Sahrawi people had a right to self-determination. Despite this, in 1976 Spain withdrew ceding the territories to Morocco and Mauritania. The next day, the Sahrawi popular movement, Polisario, declared the formation of the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
A series of conflicts ensued between the Polisario, based in Algeria, and Morocco and Mauritania until 1991 when a ceasefire was agreed. Now, 2/3s of the region is under Moroccan control, and it is this area that The Saharan Expedition will be crossing.
Peoples: The Sahrawis
Sahrawis means the people of the desert. They are primarily of Amazigh (Berber) descent but mixed with the Arab tribes who brought Islam to the region and also controlled the caravan trade. They have their own language, Hassaniyya, and forms of dress. The men wear blue robes embroidered in silver or gold called boubous and the women wear colourful wraps called milfas. The area cannot support much life and is very sparsely populated – with just over quarter of a million people recorded at the last census of whom 40% live in the main city of Laayoune.
The rest roam the sands with their herds, or cluster close to the coast with their fishing boats. I will be sharing hospitality with them along the route and learning from them how to live at one with the environment in even the toughest conditions. I will also be finding out how they are adapting to the modern world and how new technologies are changing their lives.
Extreme temperatures will be one of the greatest challenges the team will face. We are setting off at the end of November to try and minimise the heat but will still suffer on the burning sands and then from the night-time freeze. There is a serious risk of running out of water as there is no up-to-date information on where viable wells currently are. The Sahara Expedition organiser, Jean-Pierre, is putting a safety plan in place including provision drops and emergency water provision. Food for the camels is also a concern. We will be following the nomads’ grazing routes but if climate change has dried out the camels’ diet of small shrubs and acacia trees, the team will have to find and buy fodder. In the militarized areas, there is a risk of landmines and some areas will have to be avoided. Vipers and scorpions are common in the region and their bites and stings can cause death. We are equipped with anti-venom medicine but this doesn’t work for every species.
The Sahara Expedition would not be possible without my sponsors – Craghoppers and NTT DATA UK and I am so grateful to them. They share my belief that exploration and adventure are even more vital today than they were when much of earth was unmapped. We must discover the world about us and share what is really happening to our planet. On a lighter note, great and lovely kit really helps when you are walking through the wilderness and Craghoppers have equipped me with a brand new hiking wardrobe … which you’ll see in all the photos. I’m particularly excited by my pink (oh yes!) Expolite jacket and slinky merino base layers.
Follow the Adventure
I hope you’ll join me – at least online – I’ll be podcasting twice a month on Alice in Wanderland available on Spotify, Googleplay and iTunes. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking top right and then there’s