Posted on: 19 February 2022
In 2016 eight of us took on the challenge to walk 70km across the Sahara to raise money for the Arthur Rank Hospice charity.
We had walked and camped in the Sahara, privately thinking that we were taking the sponsorship money under false pretences. Apart from a few minor inconveniences — no chairs, no toilets, no water to wash with, camping; and some mildly testing challenges —climbing a cliff face, scaling sand dunes the size of a block of flats… it was starting to be too easy, too enjoyable, like a mildly aggravating holiday. Then, on our penultimate day our guide, Jamal, had a call from his home in the mountains to say that it was snowing and that could mean bad weather for us.
We had walked over some magnificent dunes but were now walking across a nondescript wasteland of scattered rocks and stones. Jamal pointed out the red shadow above the horizon, like a net curtain hanging from a straight pole across the sky.
We came across a herd of camels with their young, dotted about the landscape but our attention was taken by the gathering wind and swirling sand. The wind grew stronger and our pace quickened. Jamal and the camel drivers were trying to find somewhere to pitch the big tent to shelter. Their concern transmitted itself to us, this was real danger.
We rounded a small dune, the sand rising from its peak like smoke from a chimney. Our guides had unpacked and erected the big tent, almost before we had taken our rucksacks off our backs and finished complaining about the sand in our eyes and mouths.
We all huddled in the tent, the cook set up his stove in the corner, we weren’t going to miss a meal simply because of a sandstorm. The wind got stronger, the light dimmed leaving us in a weird reddish twilight, visibility (if you dared put your head out of the tent) was less than thirty feet.
The camels wandered about or lay calmly as their panniers were unpacked, looking at us from under their heavy lashes as if to say “What’s all the fuss about”
We realised that the wind was so strong that we could lean against it, for the first time we could sit on the floor comfortably resting against the rigid sides of the tent. If the wind hadn’t kept changing direction it would have been perfect.
We had a cooked dinner then Jamal explained that we had to make a choice. We could stay where we were in the single tent and wait for the storm to blow itself out or we could walk through the sandstorm to the nearest village. Our original itinerary had been to walk for about an hour then set up camp over night and then have a relatively short walk to the village in the morning, before setting off on the nine hour drive across the Atlas Mountains. There was no way the small tents could be put up, so we either stayed put or walked the whole distance in the storm.
We took a vote. The result was unanimous. We all voted to walk. The thought of just sitting huddled in the tent, buffeted by the roaring wind, for hours could not be countenanced.
Once the decision had been made, it was all hands on deck to get the tent down, the camels reloaded and more importantly ourselves covered and our heads wrapped up against the stinging sand, leaving only our eyes visible behind glasses. We stood waiting while the camel handlers secured everything onto the camels and then the cook had to rummage around in the panniers again sending utensils and cooking pots flying as he tried to find two more scarves to wrap around the heads of those he considered inadequately covered.
Leaving nothing behind (they even managed to burn the rubbish in spite of the roaring wind) we set off. The camels pace picked up, not their gentle loping stride that we had got so used to. We all marched across the hard ground, over sand dunes, heads down we battled against the wind, the air was thick with sand. We kept close to each other and close to the camels. It was not possible to see the whole group as we walked, a few feet apart and people and camels disappeared into the swirling sand.
After about an hour and a half of brisk walking, we reached the dry river bed. We followed it until we came to a flat piece of ground with goal posts at either end and knew that we were close to the village. Our pace eased and, as we came out of the desert, the wind dropped a little and gradually we all relaxed. We were never so relieved as when we arrived at the mud walled huts that were to be our home for the night.