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Today we walked with Izza and Zahra and the goats. We counted them out of the enclosure, 210 goats and the little sheep, and then set up directly over the hill. Our aim was not to get to the next camp but to find enough food for the flock.
As we started up the hill, the air filled with scent as the goats trampled on the ubiquitous ormilus plant – which is a little bit like camomile. Izza led the way and Zahra was back stop, keeping an eye out for any stragglers and expertly throwing stones round the group to keep them together. She was also in charge of carrying the little sheep when he got tired. Zahra is 10.
She had been shy all week but out in her element, she was smiling and laughing and even got brave enough to tease me by calling me Nouri’s name for me which is Tamkhilawt – the mad one in Berber.
An hour into the walk, she popped over a hill crest and came skipping down. She reached into her pocket and brought out a beautiful white crystallized rock she had found on the trail as a present. She gave it to me with the biggest smile and my heart melted like a thornton’s in the microwave.
At lunch, we left Zahra and her Mum and went on to camp. Because it was our last full day with the family,we were having a feast with special dishes: Bread baked in hot stones, cous cous made by F atima and special kebabs made from offal. One of the goats was dispatched.
To make the bread, a fire is set on a pile of biggish, flatish stones. When these are really hot, the proven dough is set on top and small pebbles are poured on, another fire is set on top and it is left to cook for 40 minutes. When it came out, it was hot and fluffy and totally delicious.
In the meantime, the goat’s heart, kidneys and liver were being chopped up for the kebabs. Pieces of each were skewered on and then covered in fat to make them tasty and help them cook. These were cooked over the open fire beside the tent. The intestines were unravelled, squeezed out like tubes of toothpaste and cooked separately. As a Scot, I like my offal so enjoyed my kebabs immensely, but the intestines were a step too far.
We all sat down together to eat the cous cous and fresh water melon after and I got the chance to ask Zaid some wider questions. I wanted to understand the economics of it. He told me that he had built up his flock to 210 goats – the sheep having died in the drought. He has bucks and ewes so they breed naturally, a good goat can get £110 at market, a medium one makes around £65 and at Eid time, it can go up to £200. There are markets in the various towns they pass and he sells 3-5 goats at a good one. The money is then used for essentials like flour, tea, sugar, vegetables and anything else his family needs. He also needs money to buy transport animals and sometimes hire them in. Then there are school expenses for Maymoun, although Maymoun lodges with Zaid’s brother when he goes to school. His flock is his entire capital and also livelihood as he has no house, no car no possessions that can’t be carried on a donley or camel.
This way of life has existed for centuries and from my outside perspective it seems very hard but also good. What I wanted to know was what Zaid wanted for his children and this is what he said, “It is very hard to carry on as nomads. Electricity, television are coming and everything is changing. The government is building roads everywhere. I want my youngest children, Aisha and Hassan, to go to school. Maybe we will settle down with a small farm so they can do that. I have no choice. Change is here. ”
To meet Zaid and his family and share this journey: http://www.shepherdswalksholidays.co.uk
This afternoon, there was a violent rainstorm. As it drew closer, the whole family, sprang into action, covering the tent with a big sheet of plastic, doing the same to all the piles of provisions, bringing in anything that might get ruined by the rain and making sure the firewood had somewhere dry to sit.
There we were, our motley crew of foreigners and Berbers, with no languages in common but masses of goodwill. So, we did what all good people do when stuck in a rainstorm, we played a game guessing how many stones there were in everyone’s hands. In the UK it is a drinking game, here we did it with just mint tea. Everyone loved it.
Rain and water is the big preoccupation for Zaid and his family. There has been a drought in the region for the last three years and it has affected him badly. This year he spent over €1000 on feed for some sheep he had in his flock, but he lost 35 of them through starvation. Goats eat anything, but sheep are fussier. I am holding the lone survivor up above. We could see the lack of water even in the little wells and springs that dotted the route. All were just puddles.
For Zaid and his family to survive, everyone works and does their share. From first thing in the morning, even the little ones are working. The tea goes on, the family sit together and eat bread and olive oil or butter, then they are packing up the tent and provisions and getting the animals ready. The chicken is strapped to the mule, Zahra, picks up the little sheep, Zaid and Izza count the goats out of the enclosure and everyone sets off.
Sharing is instinctual here. On the walk, I had lent my poles to Maymoun to try out. He loved them, he was so proud, walking in front like our guide, checking back to make sure we were all following and joyously prodding every piece of dung on the route. But when I looked up 5 minutes later, he had made one of the poles shorter and given it to his little brother, Hassan, so they could both enjoy it.
It is a small illustration of the core value of this culture. It is completely communal, everyone sleeps in the same place, eats from the same bowl of food, takes their share of the work and sits together in rest time. It would be very hard to be lonely.
Tomorrow: Herding and endings
To do this walk: http://www.shepherdswalksholidays.co.uk
210 goats, 1 sheep, 7 mules, 10 camels, 3 donkeys, 2 dogs, 22 people and one chicken. It was crowded in the early morning light as we kicked off the first proper day of the migration. Izza and Zahra left before us with the goats, the dogs and Shaun the Sheep. Their job was to take the slow route and find as much grazing as possible on the way.
We set off in grand convoy, up to the first pass out of camp and down past the last road we would see for days. We were a motley bunch from Mohammed El Kabir, resplendent in robes, turban, and proper moustache to us with our fleeces, hats and walking poles. Mohammed El Kabir was very taken with my solar recharger and wanted to swap it for his enormous dagger (no, that is not a euphemism). After a spirited negotiation, he was even willing to throw in a donkey, but I wasn’t sure my landlord in Marrakech would go for that.
Our route was undulating with some rocky, sharp passes. The rhythm was completely new to me as I have never walked with a big convoy of animals before. We were slowing down and speeding up with them. Sometimes, it was hard even to watch. One small donkey was very heavily laden. Twice she fell over a boulder as she was going uphill and had to be hauled up to standing again by Zaid and the muleteers.
I was fascinated by the camels, especially by their feet. They walk very elegantly and precisely, and the soles of their feet puff up and down like little hover crafts. No obstacle seemed to phase them, and whenever they caught up to us, they would just stop and wait till we had gone a little way ahead, and then start again.
We got to camp by lunchtime. Then the rest of the work day started, the tents were put up, bread was baked, the chicken was taken off the mule and tethered in a little home made chicken hut and we all had tea and a siesta.
In the late afternoon, we walked up to a ridge and looked down onto a tiny farm which supported one family. Everywhere there is water, there is life. There, we appointed our tribal leader for the week, Paul became Dada Atta and for the rest of the trip, he was to hold sway. It is amazing how a well-wrapped turban can bestow authority.
We didn’t see Zahra and Izza with the goats till much later. around six, as they had spent all day foraging, Izza walking with Aisha slung round her back. By sundown and shortly after supper, we were all ready for bed.
That night, it was cold so I was in the mess tent with the boys. I drifted off easily and in the middle of the night, felt warm breath on my cheek as someone moved in for a kiss. It felt lovely, a little peck and nibble – nibble??!!! I sat up with a yelp to find the little lone Shaun the sheep looking at me earnestly. He had come into the tent to try and get warm and clearly thought I was his best bet.
Tomorrow: prodding camel poo, spinning, and the economics of goats.
To do this walk: http://www.shepherdswalksholidays.co.uk
Every year the Ait Atta nomads, who live in the Saghro Massif in southern Morocco, trek for two weeks to the high pastures of the Atlas Mountains with their flocks. They stay there all summer, feeding up the goats, and then walk back in September. This year, I went with them on the first part of their journey courtesy of http://www.shepherdswalksholidays.co.uk
We lived, walked, ate and slept with our host family and their animals to try and understand a little bit about their life – so far removed from our own. Our little band of adventurers had come from all over to be part of this – Australia, UK, and America.
The first day was to be one of the longest of the whole trek as we had to get to our rendezvous with Zaid and his family in their camp in the mountains. Until lunch, we were walking along a dried river bed and then over gently rolling, stony hills. The gradient was relatively easy but it was rocky and uneven underfoot and the sun was beating down hard. The last hour, especially, was tough, and there was mass relief when we came to the oasis where our picnic was laid out.
The oasis was typical of the area. A small amount of water is fully exploited: date palms, fig and pomegranate trees, vegetables and barley were all planted out and that is enough to support three or four families.
The heat and rocks had taken their toll and after lunch, a couple of members of our group had to take advantage of the ambulance mule. We had 6 mules with us to carry our food, gear and water for the week, but one of them doubled up as transport for when the going just got too tough. In Morocco, there is always a solution…. Animals here are not really given names, but we decided to call him George after George Clooney as he was so handsome and shiny, with just a hint of grey round the muzzle.
The only disadvantage of the ambulance mule from my perspective, was that I had to try and keep up with him, and his four long legs, were definitely quicker than my two shorter ones, so the second half of my day was a panting trot up a perpendicular hill.
Zaid’s campsite was perched on a small, flat plateau, surrounded by huge outcrops of dark rock. Volcanic plugs that had been smoothed and weathered into sheer faces. There were three tents pitched: the family’s, the mess tent and the most crucial of all, the toilet tent, complete with a beautiful white toilet seat and a view of the far valley.
Zaid was waiting for us with a very warm welcome. We were immediately brought down to the family tent, woven out of goat hair from their flock, and given the obligatory tea, made by Zaid’s mother, Aisha, the spiritual leader of his little tribe and the boss in many ways. There were nine family members to meet: Zaid and Aisha, Zaid’s wife, Izza and half sister, Fatimah, his three sons – Mohammed (14), Maymoun (8 and at school), and Hassan (3), his two daughters, Zahra (10) and Aisha (1). Over the next few days, we were to get to know, and fall a little bit in love with all of them.
Dinner was outside and as the dusk deepened a caravan of camels driven by a tall blue-clad figure straight from a cinema screen came up over the ridge, ready to join us the next day. I had imagined sleeping in the deep quiet under the majesty of the night sky, but the reality was rather different. The stars were indeed majestic but quiet was there none: goats are noisy, and so are shepherd dogs, especially when they spot rival shepherd dogs and get into a barking stand off, and that barking stand off is doubled through the amazing echoes of the rocks. But my mattress was comfy, my sleeping bag was warm and my legs were tired, so it wasn’t long before I drifted off.
Tomorrow: A little donkey, a new tribal leader and my first nomadic kiss
As I write that title, I still can’t fully believe it, that I made it, that I managed to run 250 kms across the desert in 6 days, carrying my own provisions. And that I did it in good form, with maximum joy and minimum suffering – plenty of pain, but minimum suffering.
I’m not going to try and write down everything that happened but just to try and give you an idea of what it was like, although even that is a bit of a struggle. After day one, Charlie, my running partner and the person who cajoled me into this, and I looked at each other and said, “We can’t describe it, it’s nothing like we expected, it isn’t the same.” Bearing in mind, that we live in Marrakech and had been training in the Agafay desert, and I had gone down to the dunes of Merzouga to run just a week before, that was a bit of a surprise.
I think it was just the sheer enormity of it. When we were standing at that start line on day one with over 1000 other competitors, looking out to our first 15 kms of dunes, with the sun bearing down, and Patrick, the owner of MdS on top of his truck, playing air guitar to ” Highway to Hell”, you could physically feel the excitement and the tension. We set off with a roar and a rush. And that was it, after nine months of training, fretting, cutting down my toothbrush to save nine grams of weight in my backpack, we were actually doing it.
Fantastic. What a feeling. And what a first day. Those first 15 kms of dunes were tough, especially for the majority of people who had just flown in and then were faced with them right from the start. I had done 17 kms the week before very close to the race start, so I knew I could do it, and I knew it would take me about 4 hours, which it did. I actually like running on the dunes because I can do little, baby steps on my toes up and then crash down the other side on my heels. There was one moment that stands out. We came over the first big set and could see them stretched out miles ahead, with MdS runners strung out like little beads ahead and behind.
The day evened out to more stony, steady inclines with some dunes at the end. And it was shorter than expected – 34kms rather than full marathon distance, so I felt comfortable.
Back in the tent, it felt like a rush to get things done. Shoes and socks and calf supports off, compression tights on, no blisters on day one, then lighting up my dinky little stove and boiling just enough water for my chilli concarne – pretty tasty – and a cup of rooibos – very tasty. By the time I had done all that, the boys (Bob the fireman who also owns a pet crematorium, Ally the helicopter pilot, Bruce the big,big plane pilot, Bill ex-services and very naughty, Neil who is both a psychologist and an entrepreneur, and Charlie of http://www.epicmorocco.co.uk) were already curled up and sleeping, Bob, snoring like a trout even though he claimed throughout the week that he barely slept.
Day two was longer and flatter and stonier and I felt like I suffered more. I made a big tactical error in that I started walking too early. And once you have started walking it can be pretty difficult to get the Saharan shuffle going again. But I got through it and felt good at the end. The messages from home were wonderful, they print them out and bring them to your tent every night. A real spirit lifter.
Day three was a favourite. We had a longish run into the first check point and then some really nice dunes to mash it up a bit. I had mastered my salt tablet consumption – one every half hour – and felt fresh for most of the day. I met some chatty Berber girls who jogged with me all the way to checkpoint three, telling me about their brothers and sisters and what they did at school. The sun was hot but not unbearable except for a middle section along a dried up lake bed. I hit it at around 4pm when it had had the whole day to absorb the heat ready to throw it up at me from below. That was tough. Baking underneath and the sun still hammering down from above. I broke out the shuffle just to try and get to the end as quickly as possible and had the disheartening experience of being passed by people walking. They were Scandinavians with unfeasibly long legs… but still.
All along the route, you meet and share time with different people, all running for different reasons, lots for charity, lots for the challenge and one man I met on that baking lake bed, running in memory of his stepson who had committed suicide a year earlier. He started to cry as he told me his story.
When the socks came off at the end of day three, my heart sank. BLISTERS. For some reason, sheer optimism or stupidity, I had been confident that I wouldn’t get them. I haven’t really had them before, so it was all new and unpleasant territory. Big white bubbles under four of my toes and one on the side of each big toe, as well as a showing on the side of each heel.
Off to Doc Trotters, the medical tent. There, you wash your feet and don a pair of blue, plastic booties and then wait your turn. There was a scream from inside, and someone came out saying that when they pierced his blisters the fluid shot right across the tent. Not helpful. But inside, I met Aurora, who was as gentle as could be and stroked my feet when she put the iodine into the wounds to make me feel better. It did.
Day four was the long day and we were all apprehensive. Mainly because it was a totally unknown quantity. I really wanted to do it in one, partly for the experience and partly so I could have a day off in the tent to recover. I had decided to not put any pressure on myself but just to go at it as well and steadily as I could and try not to stop.
MdS gives you no quarter on the route and we climbed our biggest hill of the entire competition near the beginning of the stage. They had fixed a rope at the top of the rocky, scrambly slope and we all ended up in a big queue with only a few intrepid souls trying to go off piste. Looking down on the helicopter and the competitors all crossing the plain below, and looking up at the queue of runners with their gaiters, hats and sunglasses waiting to summit.
The going up was easier than the going down. My feet protested as they turned on rocks and mulched down on already stressed skin, but there was lots more to come.
The day wore on, with salt lakes, rocky stretches and another Jabal. I kept going, just stopping at the check points to fill my bottles. My legs were strong and as the heat of the day ebbed, I felt a renewed surge of energy. There were some very magical moments. I walked through the sun setting and through the next day’s dawn rising. I ran down a dune into a valley in the dark, with just the tips of other dunes showing in the shadows, everything in total silence, all sounds muffled by the sand. I felt utter despair when I thought I was lost and could no longer see any guiding lights or head torches and then utter joy when John in his camouflage kilt turned up. I walked with Lynne, who set a cracking pace and got me through 20 kms much faster than I could have done it alone. And then I walked smack into a sand dune in the dark and did that whole British thing of looking behind me in case anyone had seen me. Should have gone to Specsavers.
I never wanted to give up or stop although the night did stretch on endlessly and my body hurt a lot. I could feel that there were bad things happening in my shoes but there was no point in looking as I just had to get through it and I knew that my feet were well taped. The company helped, and when John and I sprinted for the finish, we raised a cheer for Scotland.
Then the low point. I took my shoes off back in the tent and it was Armageddon. The feet were a disaster. Thick white skin and lots of fluid in the blisters, blood and pus around the heels and balloon-like swelling. We still had the last marathon the next day and I didn’t know how I would do it.
Because I had missed a whole night’s sleep, I slept brilliantly, and woke up without any soreness or tiredness, but my feet were really hurting. I stuffed down my porridge and hobbled to the start with Charlie. I knew I would do it and that I would finish but I was trying to get my head round the fact that I was going to be in serious pain for the whole distance and that it would probably take me the whole twelve hours to complete.
I had decided to try and run as walking was too sore even with the sticks and my shoes – Hokas – are a mid strike shoe so were hitting at the least sore part of a foot. And then a miracle occurred, ten minutes into the race, the pain killers kicked in, the shoes did their work, and the pain in my feet eased. I felt light and free and ran past check point one, check point two and on to check point three. And then there were only 10kms left of the Marathon Des Sables.
As I was walking up towards the crest of a stony hill, the man in front of me started jumping up and down and cheering. I knew he had seen the finish and so I ran up as fast as I could. When I saw the bivouac in the distance and heard the music playing, I felt like my heart was going to burst out of my chest with joy. Those moments only happen occasionally in life. All the training and long hours of slog, the humiliations and difficulties, the soreness and the exhaustion, were paid back, in full and with interest.
A day and night of Triumph and Tragedy
The 4th stage of the marathon des sables. 56 miles- 81.5 km over sand,dunes, rocks, mountains, through stony river beds and across endless dried lakes. Always with the sun beating down and the heat radiating up. Splendid torture. I could feel the pus seeping through into my socks from around 15km in. My feet were radiating balls of agony by the end. At four in the morning, I had a low point, my legs were swollen and barely moving and I couldn’t find any green route markers. But the moon came out and lit up the plateau, I found some energy and kilted John from Glasgow caught me up and we saw the dawn break two hours later as we sprinted through the line, 21hrs and 12mins after starting.
We felt like Olympians!
The euphoria is still there but am fearful for tomorrow as I can’t put weight on my feet
764th and 30 minutes up on previous days
Day 4 – stage 1 of 2 – finished in 635th place.
Mid pack in women competitors
Posted on behalf of Alice
Hot. Sandy. Hard . And have picked up blisters under two toes on both feet. So I’ll be running in blood tomorrow
Day 1 done . Feeling knackered but great 15km of dunes at the beginning. Thank you all for the wonderful messages that were brought to my tent! Roll on tomorrow
Title. MdS camp
We were lucky enough to arrive reasonably early yesterday. Our first sight of the over 100 black tents spread out in the plain in sight of the duNes made my heart sing and my stomach clench.
The tents are more or less nationally allocated although we have slipped in a South African. I’m sharing with Charlie and 5 other guys. All super cool. Special mention for Bob the Fireman who runs a Pet Crematorium
Today was governed by queues. To get ourselves checked and registered. But it is fun standing in line with a Flemish crocodile and a Japanese milk cow.
Best part of the day was going for a quick stretch out run. Funniest part of the day was having one of the MdS team demonstrate how to poo in the brown plastic bag. He was perched on top of a land rover and had props including a newspaper.
Set off is after 9am tomorrow morning. The forecast is hot and the stage is meant to be really hard over the dunes 37 km.