We got to Boujdor three days ago. After we came off the piste and met up with road, about thirty kilometres from the town, the first car that passed us just happened to be – of course – family of Madani’s who live in Boujdor. Inevitably, they are both extremely kind; and, extremely insistent we accept their hospitality. For me this came at a bit of a bad time, as after the hassles we had in Laayoune, I had planned to get to Boujdor, book a room for a couple of days, and get some articles written and sent off; catch up on correspondence, and generally have a bit of space for the first time in four months. But family is family, and so we have spent much of the past time in houses, being showered with kindness and generosity. I finally put my foot down and said I had to work; but I am giving up today, since my phone rang incessantly yesterday with outraged voices demanding why on earth I am in a hotel when there are endless homes for me to stay in? It is difficult to explain that to write I need just a bit of peace and quiet, and that is hard to find in a home with people everywhere.
But enough of the personal dilemmas – it is par for the course in Morocco and, as I have said, the family is incredibly kind and has taken care of us amazingly well, delivering water out to Mbarak at the camp and sparing nothing in order to aid us.
Thankfully the piste after Laayoune was a great deal better than the one before. The landscape was more varied, feed for the camels plentiful, and there were a few more water stops – although they are far from regular around here, and the wells are often very saline. We have been lucky to find large puddles from the left over rains, which is largely where we take water from; it is much fresher, if a bit brown in colour!
We hit some more big dunes through this stretch – quite startlingly beautiful, and dramatic from a distance. Although after we had plodded through them for half a day and seen no sight of relief, even Mbarak got a little tense, and sent Madani up to the top to see if they were ever going to end; dunes might look pretty, but as far as feed for the camels or water goes, they are far from desirable. Our camp that night, though out of the dunes, was a pretty barren, sparse affair, and we were glad to get back to the more familiar rocky hamada, where there is good vegetation and wood to build a fire for bread.
After here, we are on the final haul to Dakhla. It is a long stretch – 340 kilometres – without any kind of village in between. We have heard there is water about, and okay feed, but I think all of us are feeling a little nervous about such a long stretch of isolation. Generally, for the first six days of any walk, we can happily move twenty kilometres a day, and mentally are fine. But – and with time I have learned it is always after six days – gradually the mental and physical strain starts to show. Perhaps we have three nights where sleep is scarce because of the weather, or mosquitoes, or restless camels; often we walk four or five days straight into gale force head winds, which puts strain on us and the camels; or we might have several days running where our water is low and the camels haven’t eaten much, meaning we just have to stop when we find good feed, whether we have walked four kilometres or forty. Often on this trip people (usually the gendermerie, who seem to fancy themselves expert on all things, despite never having met a camel in their life) are surprised when we say that we only walk fifteen to twenty kilometres a day. Frequently there are comments to the tune that we should be doing thirty to forty. Back when Gary and I walked with packs, it was customary for us to average between 25 – 35 kilometres a day; although this pace, after a year, took it’s toll on our bodies. But there are many huge differences between this walk and that one. For starters, at the end of a six day stretch on the last walk, we would always find either a good established camp ground with showers and general civilisation to relax in, or – more likely – a cheap hotel to sloth about in for a few days. Here, there is no break from routine; this hotel is the first room I have stayed in since I went back to Spain, and even this is only for a night. And I feel horrendously guilty leaving Mbarak with the camp and camels – he needs a break, too. For us arriving in a town means simply a lot of problems – three hours here spent in the office of the gendermerie whilst they painstakingly traced our history via their colleagues through the desert, and went through all of our identification piece by piece. Buying all of the supplies necessary for a month out on the piste is time consuming, and finding a way of getting it all back out to the camp, often difficult. In between these things, family obligations, and trying to get some work done, there is little time for luxuries like a hammam, or finding the things really important – like sunscreen, which I ran out of on this stretch.
We are all much happier when we start walking again. But, as I said, at the end of a six day stretch, we start to slow down, and this time it will be very hard to take a break – probably around twenty days walking for this stretch, and nowhere, really, to stop, unless we find a good well. We are hoping too. There is a lot to do when we finish our walk; finding wood and making a big fire to cook the bread, and dinner (we try to save the portagas for when conditions are really bad). Preparing the dough for the sand bread, organising the tent if weather is bad, repairing things, keeping a close eye on the camels, since there are a lot of other camel herds grazing through these parts, meaning our camels get either bolshy (if the herd is male) or extremely excited and worked up (if they are females). We have had to get in between fighting camels a lot lately.
I don’t write all of this to moan about how difficult it is – these things are all just part of the walk, and I accept them and they do not detract from the experience. But it’s tough when people question our progress, especially when I know myself that this has been the slowest of any leg I have done on foot, but understand totally the reasons why. The weather during this stretch has been a big factor.
But we remain in general, in good humour, although I think we will all be glad to reach Dakhla and take some time out. For me I have learned so much, and will know a lot more about how to organise my camp for the following leg into Mauritania. I have spent most of the last year in Morocco; sometimes I think I am more at home here now than in my own culture. It is a far different country to the one I experienced when we walked through last year with packs – travelling with the camels, and being accepted as part of Madani and Mbarak’s family, makes me a part of the country rather than someone simply travelling through it. Sometimes now I knock into other tourists in town and I find myself without much to say. Two young blokes who are just setting out on a backpacking adventure told me that our excursion was “rad, man,” and that they would really love to come walking with us. I just smiled and said thanks, I would think about it. They wouldn’t last a week.
The walking itself is easy, and probably the most enjoyable time of every day – that, and sleeping out on the hamada at night, which, thankfully, we have been able to do again on this stretch. But although many people say they crave the isolation and peace of the desert, what few understand is the neverending socialisation that comes with it; there is rarely a day when we are not mixing with other nomads, visiting a tent or entertaining in our own, and here this is a long and often very traditional business. Answering the same questions day after day, resting in a tent and speaking another language, often for hours on end, and having to always be cheerful, takes it’s toll; as does running a camp of two Arabic men, who also miss their homes, lives, and women.
This post, I think, lacks my usual humour. I am not down and out, no need to worry, but sometimes I think it is also necessary to tell the other face of the story, give a complete picture. All things in life that are worthwhile and rewarding come with challenges attached, and this is no exception. For me the trade off is absolutely worth it; I fell in love with the desert the day I saw it, and it is a love affair that has only grown stronger with time. But it takes a lot of strength to get through life here as I have chosen it, and I am a different person to the one who set out from Mhamid.
We are heading off again tomorrow – if we don’t end up in another family home tonight – and, Insh’allah, we will be in Dakhla sometime at the start of April. I have absolutely no idea what happens after that. Much of my hopes about this part of the walk rested on getting some kind of publicity, in order to help sell my first book, and to raise some money. But there has been no media interest, although this is the first time any Westerner has crossed this part of the desert on foot; and never has a woman alone attempted anything like it. Part of me thinks I should be doing that horrible networking thing to get papers and TV interested; but something in me just balks at all of that. I am doing this because it is what I want to do, and I love it. All I can hope is that I will find a way to continue. I don’t really fancy hocking my soul to all and sundry to carry on; I have got this far. I just hope I can keep going.
So, I will leave it there, serious sounding as it all is. Contraband booze is off the agenda this far into the Sahara Occident, so it will have been a sober old two months by the time we hit Dakhla – where, I am told, there is a plethora of bars. Mbarak, Madani, and I have agreed that we will happily pay someone all of our combined petty cash to guard the camels for a night while we get pleasantly plastered in honour of our arrival. If any of you adventurous tourists out there are really serious about wanting to experience the desert, here’s your chance….!
Thanks again to all who send messages to the site – and I have to say a special hello and thankyou to the Morris family: my darling mate Jodie, whose emails get me through the tough times, Andrea, who has listened to all my moans a million times, and Helen and Tony, for sending me a lovely message and reminding me that I am very lucky to have such good friends and support.
I’ll see you at the end of Morocco.