Three years ago, I heard about a mad idea. Someone I knew had signed up to walk across the Sahara Desert to raise money for St Catherine’s Hospice in Crawley, West Sussex. If you ask almost anyone in the Crawley area (including me), they have had some sort of heartfelt (and often heartbreaking) experience when it comes to St Catherine’s Hospice! My daughter, aged 13 at the time, was keen to come too and so we signed up to do the walk and make our contribution there and then. There were a few hurdles to overcome as my daughter was so young, but we trained, we fundraised and we packed. In fact, we were all ready to go in March 2020 when Covid hit. And for two years it felt like the Sahaha trek was never going to happen!
St Catherine’s Hospice
Like so many hospices, St Catherine’s supports society in a way that many of us don’t want to think about and never want to call upon. For those that don’t know them, St Catherine’s describe themselves as there, “to help everyone face death informed, supported and pain-free. Providing expert hospice care, we’re there for people in West Sussex and East Surrey when life comes full circle. We also pioneer standards in end-of-life care through collaboration, research, and training, reaching even more people facing death and bereavement.” But St Catherine’s is much more than that.
Anyone who has ever had contact with St Catherine’s will tell you that the people there are special. They go that extra mile with each and every person that they deal with. In 2020 – 21 (and despite the restrictions of the pandemic) they cared for more than 2,000 people and made around 290 contacts with patients each day, with around 4,000 visits to patients to allow them to stay at home. That certainly puts my lockdown experience to shame.
As we all know, lockdown was unbelievably hard on charities that rely so heavily on voluntary fundraising activities and St Catherine’s was no exception. However, for some time, St Catherine’s has also desperately needed new premises. They have a stunning new site and planning permission in place. But of course, that also means they need additional funding.
Borders opened and we had lift-off
And then it happened. Eye blinkingly early one Wednesday morning last month, my daughter and I found ourselves amidst a group of strangers at Gatwick North Terminal. The timing was not ideal with GCSEs next month (she’s not 13 anymore) and the stress of getting negative PCR results just hours before departure had nearly broken us. But we were flying to Morroco to walk the Sahara at last!
At this point, it’s worth noting, that I’ve never been very good at being a team player, and any relationship between a mother and their 16-year-old daughter can be tempestuous at the best of times. Let alone when put under pressure. We had revision notes in one hand, spare socks in the other, and long discussions about whether or not there would be Wifi in the desert. I learnt a great deal (as I suspect did the rest of the coach) on the long transfer from Marakesh to the desert about what matters to a 16-year-old. But the issue of who would kill who first remained undecided.
The Atlas Mountains and the road to Ouarzazate
In total, it’s roughly a 9-hour drive from Marakesh through the Atlas Mountains to the town of Ouarzazate and on to the desert where we were starting our trek. I hadn’t factored in the mountains or transfer in my pre-trip musings about what Morocco would be like but the mountains are magnificent (if a little never-ending). We left clouds and a fresh chill behind us as we climbed and turned, and climbed and turned, spotting snow-capped mountains, waterfalls and then the lush green valley that winds its way like a ribbon at the base of the mountains. Entire villages cling to the mountains looking like they are made out of no more than sand, straw and water and you realise that although Morocco is only a three-hour flight from London, you are a million miles away from home!
We were only passing through the mountains but they’re a good introduction to the diversity of Morocco. They’ve been improving the one road south to Ouarzazate for a number of years, but large sections remain half-built and incomplete making the journey an interesting one. But as we stopped to drink tea, buy trinkets, admire views (or admire the set of the odd Hollywood blockbuster) a strange thing started to happen … our group started to bond. I have always been told that if you can’t work out who the irritating one is in a group then it’s probably you and at this point, I was starting to get worried.
After pretty much a day and a half of travelling, our minibus pulled up on the side of the road and we were discharged. Our walking adventure had begun. I won’t bore you with the details of the walk suffice it to say we walked varying distances across four days starting in the morning and breaking for lunch. We walked the narrow sandy streets of desert villages, broke bread together (well a sort of pancake thing) for breakfast, discussed the toilet arrangements at length, gathered around the fire to sing and dance at night, slept under the stars and watched the sunset from the tops of the dunes. I had gone to the desert thinking I would have time to think (I needed to write something important and this would be my planning time) but the desert is an emotional and sensory overload. In a good way. And there was no time for creative thinking.
Whilst I won’t trouble you with the details of putting one foot in front of the other, I have tried to unpick, what, if anything I learnt from my trip to this desert, and it is this:
The desert is remarkably diverse. There is sand and sand dunes of course, but there are rocky, dried-up river beds, escarpments, flowers, date and palm tree groves, villages and even a graveyard! It’s also remarkably busy. We rounded one escarpment to find a bloke just sitting there with his goats, apparently in the middle of nowhere. And a little later we came across a man dressed in white looking for meteorites. As you do. A personal highlight for me was as I watched the sunset from the top of a sand dune, and saw a camel train disappearing into the distance. As hundreds have before them over hundreds of years.
It doesn’t matter how big your boots are, they will always be too small because your feet swell up in the heat to the size of a pair of watermelons. Oh, how I envied our Berber guide’s sandals. Actually, it wasn’t just his footwear that I admired but now is not the time.
April in the desert is windy. Very windy. And that means sand. Sand gets in places you didn’t know you had and there is such a thing as colonic exfoliation. I’m not a fan.
People are nice, really nice. Forget Lord of the Flies, our group came together and worked as one, supporting and encouraging each other and sharing supplies. I didn’t hear one bad word (well maybe the occasional expletive by me when caught short behind yet another sand dune). We all had our different challenges to face over the four days and we dealt with them as a team. It’s an interesting experience walking with a group because you drift from one person to another with the ebb and flow of the walk and I had an increasing sense of how lucky we were to be with such an inspirational and all-round thoroughly nice and interesting group of people.
People are awesome. It was Ramadan when we were in Morocco and whilst as a group, we were equipped with hiking boots, camel packs, energy drinks, walking poles, plasters and a great deal more, our guides walked through the desert in trainers and sandals and without drinking or eating between dawn and dusk. And not once did they moan or lower their astonishingly high standard of care of us. Humbled doesn’t come close.
There is 3G in the desert. One for the teenagers. There is also hope for all mother and teenage daughter combos. It came close, but we didn’t kill one another and are in fact still talking. Just! But I owe a debt of thanks to the rest of the group for putting themselves between us as we walked. That said, and whilst I suspect we both moan a great deal about the other, I am immensely proud of my daughter and the part she played in this adventure.
It doesn’t matter how well you sing What Can You Do With a Drunken Sailor, it will never sound as evocative or compelling as four Berber tribesmen singing La La La. While we’re on the subject, what the Berbers can do with an empty plastic container puts the rests of us to shame.
And the biggest lesson of all?
Do it. If you get the chance to do something like this, do it. Grab the opportunity with both hands and run with it as fast as you can. I’ve probably made it sound quite romantic but there was quite a lot of blood, sweat and tears involved too as no doubt you can imagine. But … at last count, my daughter and I have raised £5,110 and I’m told that the group as a whole has raised over £135,000. That’s serious money and to all those who have donated, I cannot thank you enough.
Apart from which, I suspect I’m not exaggerating when I say that for most of us it was either a once in a lifetime experience or for some, a life-changing experience, that has enriched our lives on many different levels. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat if I could although I did leave my boots in Marakesh so I might have to wear sandals next time.
You can read about St Catherine’s here (page 46): St Catherine’s Hospice
Or visit their website: St Catherine’s Hospice
And you can donate here: Just Giving