Sahara Desert Diary

The Idea

I was offered the chance to go to Morocco and trek through the Sahara desert for a week.

I said ‘yes’.

17 of us would go, along with Berber guides, cooks and quite a few camels.

Despite my aversion to camping, sharing confined spaces with strangers and shitting in the sand, I really had to go. I would be 51 by the time I went, and didn’t want to miss out. I might not get another chance.

I also had three lower vertebrae that had been x-rayed and showed signs of Degenerative Disc Disease and caused me a fair amount of pain, so I figured that a walk might do me good.

It had been a tough few years for me. My AA sponsor died, my business and marriage ended and I lost my Mum to cancer.

Looking after my little girl while working was tricky, and I had been too busy to grieve for my Mum and it was becoming an issue. I would often feel extremely emotional. Small things would make me want to sob my heart out but I couldn’t cry. I was unable to let my guard down. I had to be strong and hold it all together, but sensed that it was becoming bad for my health. I felt like there was an ocean of sadness waiting to come out and I was literally over-flowing.

So, I decided to do the Sahara trek as a tribute to my Mum (along with my AA sponsor, Simon and old music buddy, Paul) and to raise money for St. Michael’s Hospice (where all three had passed away) while I did it.

Simple. There was a synchronicity to it. I would be able to grieve as I trekked. I could let the grief out in the Sahara. While raising money. Perfect.

The Sahara measures nearly 3.6 million square miles, and reaches into 10 countries, so I figured I’d find a bit of space to be alone.

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The Diet

The first thing I needed to do was get in shape. I was about two stone too heavy, and unfit.

I had been inspired by seeing my cousin Sarah and her husband, Roger, get fit and I envied the happiness it brought them, so the trek became my focal point.

It was May 2014 and I had until February 2015 to lose weight and get a little more sprightly.

The first thing I did was radically change my diet. I simply cut out sugar, fat and a lot of carbohydrates. I stopped drinking tea and drank water instead.

I stopped having sugary, fizzy drinks, cakes, chocolate, crisps and ice cream, along with high fat or carby stuff like sausages, burgers, white bread, pasta. I ate a lot of natural yoghurt, fruit, grilled fish and protein and started walking a lot. I walked to work, getting faster each day, building up stamina gently but surely. I’d wear extra layers to sweat more, which seemed a logical step.

The first week was horrific. I didn’t know there was such a thing as sugar withdrawal. It was terrible, even for an quit-expert like me. I had given up alcohol, various drugs and cigarettes, so I was used to resisting cravings and knew I would do it, but it was surprisingly difficult, and intense. It affected my sleep, intestinal happiness and made me even more irritable than I usually am.

I wasn’t extremist about it – if I went out for the occasional dinner at a restaurant, I’d eat whatever I liked, but, generally, I was strict.

I started to go swimming twice, then three times a week and I went from 14st 6lbs to 12st 4lbs in 7 months, simply by changing my diet and doing a bit more exercise. I felt happier, more alert and, well, more attractive. It isn’t rocket science, but is very effective.

My BMI went down from 26.3 to 24.5. I assumed that was a good thing.

I tried out my walking boots and new lightweight shoes extensively, and both were comfortable. I broke them in over the course of 9 months. In the end, I opted to take just the shoes. They were so light and cool and very, very comfortable.

Luton to Marrakech

Boarding...
Boarding…

Our flight was at 6.45am, so I arrived at Luton airport at 4.35. I felt fine. I’d slept well, at the nearby Premier Inn. I was pretty excited to be heading off into the unknown on my own.

Aside from Niki, who jointly organised the trip, I knew absolutely no-one, but this wasn’t an issue. I had spent years in a rock band, travelling the UK and US in very close proximity to my bandmates, so was sure I could cope with 10 days of sharing rooms and tents with strangers.

I checked in and headed to the boarding gate.

The Ryanair flight was painless. I simply put my eyemask and iPod on and slept.

Riad Les Oliviers
Riad Les Oliviers

We arrived in Africa mid-morning, and, after a very long wait (the airport computers crashed), we were all admitted into Marrakech and I met my fellow travellers.

We were a mixed bunch of ages, from 23 to 64. There were 6 women and 11 men. I was happy that I wasn’t the oldest. Most of them seemed to know each other from previous excursions, so the banter started, which woke everyone up.

The bus ride to the centre of Marrakech was great. I hadn’t been to Africa before and found the architecture and street fashions really fascinating. The reds, browns and yellows everywhere were lovely.

I noticed that 99% of the world’s old Mercedes cars had been sent to Morocco to be used as taxis. Along with every single Renault 12.

Our resting place for the night, Riad Les Oliviers, lurked down a series of narrow, red, pink and yellow high-walled alleys. The heavy wooden door was small and I had to stoop.

The dark hallway was cool and the concierge wore a Beatle suit.

Incense and handshakes.

We had sweet tea and biscuits before heading to the terracotta roof terrace for ‘room allocation’.

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It was sunny and warm on the roof, such a welcome change from the cold and rain I’d left behind. I lay on a very comfy, mattress’d recliner and waited to hear which room I was in.

I was to share a room with two guys I’d never met, which was fine, until I was told I would have to share a bed with one of them, which wasn’t fine.

I remembered the bed-sharing scene from Planes, Trains & Automobiles.  

The room had two beds, a single and a double.

Rob The Riddler sensibly grabbed the single. Myself and Cinema Dec put our bags on the double.  I sensed neither of us were keen for a midnight cuddle.

“No offence Dec, but I’m not overly comfortable sharing a bed with a bloke. I think I’ll grab one of those mattresses off the roof and kip on the floor…”

“Yeah, good plan mate…”

The deal was done, and we went down to meet the rest of the group, talking about girlfriends, football and other heterosexual stuff.

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Marrakech

Marrakech smells. The sewage system needs attention. There, I’ve said it.

The snakes of alleyways are beautiful in every way. The shapes, colours and dimensions made me very, very happy – various shades of red and yellow against the bright blue sky.

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I decided that I needed to collect Marrakech doors. I would hang them on walls like paintings. I could have spent a day just photographing the doors in one alleyway…but I had to keep up with the group. Getting lost would have been too easy.

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I’ve led a charmed, irresponsible and selfish life. I have never learned to drive, and just get out of cars/ trains/planes when people tell me I’ve arrived and so have a very vague sense of direction. Marrakech, I could tell, would cause serious directional issues for me. Being distracted by the doors, colours and angles of the architecture didn’t help me make sense of where I was heading. So, I focused on following Big Neil, who was very tall and wearing a vivid red tee shirt.

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Following Big Neil…

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ساحة جامع الفناء

Jemaa el-Fnaa, Medina Quarter

We found a little place to change Pounds into Dirham, which was exciting. It seemed to work out at about £7.50 to 100DH.

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Food-wise, we settled on a little street cafe, and the owner seemed ecstatic to have a party of 17 descend on his establishment and he pushed six tables together for us.

I sat between Louli, a homeopath from London, and Rob The Riddler, a multi-talented ex-traveller, carpenter, juggler and word-association genius.

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I ordered something with chicken in it and a cold Coca Cola in the thickest glass bottle I’d ever seen.

Street vendors tried selling Rolex watches and iPhone 6’s, (genuine of course), but they were quiet, polite and didn’t hassle us.

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بُرقع.

In between chat, I watched the street.

Every shade of human skin colour went by, some in modern brand names, others in traditional robes and head wear. There were young women in makeup and tight jeans then others in full-length flowing Burqas.

Everyone had mobiles.

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Myself and Marian. Photo by Snapper Madden.

There was a large but discreet Police presence in the main square. I was told it was to keep the tourists safe and free from hassle. 10 million tourists visited Morocco in 2013, so it makes sense to keep them happy, safe and spending.

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سوق

The souks were more exciting and twice the fun I had anticipated. Haggling was compulsory and very entertaining. We all seemed to employ different techniques and bartering strategies, but everything was cheap, by UK standards, so everyone was a winner in the end. The best way to observe without being engaged by the traders, was to wear shades, avoid eye contact or pretend to be profoundly deaf.

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Luke had the best technique I’ve ever witnessed. He decided how much he was going to pay and just stood there, stone-faced and waited.

Vendor: “650”

Luke: “100”

Vendor: “No! 550”

Luke: “100”

Vendor: “My friend. For you, 450”

Luke: “100”

Vendor: “Look, today, best price, 350”

Luke: “100”

Vendor: “I can do them for 300. Ok? 300. Best price.”

Luke (walking away): “100”

Vendor: “Monsieur, come back. 200 and we have a deal, oui?”

Luke (by the door): “100”

Vendor: “Okay, okay, 150.”

Luke: “100”

Vendor (shaking his head, laughing): “Ok, 100.”

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The colours and smells were magical. Spices, incense, coffee and moped exhaust fumes.

The narrow lanes were crazy with mopeds. They raced, beeped and swerved but never seemed to crash. We all got used to it mighty quickly, pressing ourselves into the walls and breathing in as they screamed past.

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Some of the banter the locals used to lure us into cafes or restaurants was hilarious.

My favourite was: “guys, you been buying your clothes at Primark again?”

It made a change from the “guys, come on in, the best food in Morocco” or “buy one, get one free”.

سجادة‎

At certain points in the day, loudspeakers would broadcast prayers in Arabic. The tone and elongation of certain vowelly words become more and more frenetic. It was both exciting and slightly scary. In the main market square, groups of people would lay down their rugs (sajjāda), kneeling to pray and worship.

Back at the Riad, I had a hot bath and an early night, as the morning would bring a long drive.

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Marrakech to Zagora

From Marrakech, it was a ten hour drive through the Atlas mountains, to Zagora.

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We set off early in two long-wheel-base Ford Transit vans, the tents, cooking gear, mattresses etc loaded on the top.

I sat at the back, by the window, iPod at the ready. I put my shades on and hoped that if the grieving process started, I would be left alone.

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I was aware that my quietness might be seen as unfriendliness, so I did engage in conversation and banter, but making friends wasn’t an objective. I just wanted to get into the Sahara, start walking and see what happened.

I wanted to let the grief out, but not become a total mess, sobbing and falling around in the desert. I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, or appear miserable and ruin their trip. My hope was that I would find quiet times alone, amongst the chatter and camaraderie, to find some peace.

As we set off, I started to feel very calm. I was on the quieter of the two vehicles, and that was fine by me. I chatted a little to one of the guides, Larbi, but he soon lay on the back seat next to me and dozed off.

After about half an hour, Jacqueline Du Pre was giving it some serious cello, and my tears started falling. I felt pleased that I was free to grieve.

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It had been a hard few years. I had focused on working, raising my little girl and dealing with a difficult divorce. I hadn’t had a chance to think about how much I missed my Mum.

She was the funniest person I had ever known and we were very close. I had caused her a lot of worry and stress during my drinking years, but she was really happy that I had finally sobered up and we had a great relationship for her last 8 years.

The cancer kept returning and in the end it took her life.

She had become extremely close to my daughter, Katy, (her only grandchild) and her death was hard on a 5 year old.

Katy’s way of dealing with her Nanny’s death was lovely. She would look out of her bedroom window at night, point to the brightest star and say goodnight to Nanny. I would hold her when she cried and listen when she talked.

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She wrote ‘I love Nanny’ on her bedroom window in my Mum’s lipstick. It stayed there for three years, until we moved.

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The landscape became more dramatic as we climbed the weaving mountain roads and I felt elated. I was alive, healthy and on my way to the Sahara desert. I was dealing with my grief and travelling, alone, for the first time in 6 years. I was very, very lucky.

We stopped for lunch at midday in Tarmigt, Ouarzazate and it was hot. Only about 30 degrees, but felt hotter in the sun trap of the restaurant courtyard. A chicken tagine, another heavy bottle of Coke.

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جلابة

After an hour and a half of increasingly rough roads, we stopped at a place called Tansifte.

I had decided months ago that I would buy and wear a cheche, the linen head scarf worn by many desert people, including Berbers. Jamal advised me to buy white, rather than the indigo blue he wore, as it might permanently dye my skin. ‘Going Berber’ would be ok in the desert, but probably not in Sainsbury’s.

I saw a very elegant man in full blue Djellaba and headscarf, so I mimed and pointed and he opened a giant wardrobe filled with scarves. Before I knew it, my hat was off and he was tying the scarf, then wrapping it around my head, showing everyone how to tie them properly.

He sold ten of them. That long white piece of linen would prove to be the best £8 I ever spent.

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محاميد الغزلان

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By the time we reached our campsite in M’Hamid El Ghizlane, Zagora, my arse had gone to sleep and the rest of me was keen to join it.

It was dark and everyone was hungry, but excited. We were right on the edge of the desert, the ‘plain of gazelles’, and tomorrow we would walk into the Sahara.

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Dinner was served and everyone was very upbeat.

I had a long chat with ‘Commando Ray’ – ex-Army and the least retired man I’ve ever met. If I can be half as active as Ray when I’m 64, I will be very happy.

‘Commando Ray’ became our official record keeper. If we needed to know the time, temperature, altitude or location, we asked Ray. He charted the miles and times. He read a report at the evening dinners.

He is a gentleman and definitely a guy you would want on your team. He also had everything in his giant backpack. No-one ever asked for anything that he didn’t have.

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Our rooms were little huts made of local stone and red clay. They had single wooden beds, a thin mattress on each and a blanket. There were no doors, just an open arch with a heavy blanket nailed to the top, to keep the dust out. The floor was a giant rug over bamboo mats covering up bare earth. There was a plug socket and I charged my various Apple products.

I was sharing with Super Linda, Camper Chris and Hashy Harry, but, thankfully, we all had our own beds.

Safely cocooned in my bag, I watched the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey on my iphone, and fell asleep.

Oh, and we saw Saturn. Or Jupiter. I can’t remember. Someone had an app on their phone that identified it. I was well impressed.

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Into The Sahara

Day Of The Alien

We set off at 9 in the morning and everyone was buzzing. It was a thrill and a half to be walking into the famous Sahara desert.

The camels had been loaded up with tents, cooking gear, food, water, mattresses and sleeping bags. They didn’t look too happy about it, but they set off ahead of us with a few of the guides.

I have to say that a camel’s feet are outstanding. And their penises point backwards.

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By 10.30, it felt like we were really in the desert. I had expected just sand, but the terrain was extremely varied. There were wide expanses of flat, dark sand covered in small stones, patches of shrubs, soft sand and hard sand that broke underfoot with a satisfying crack.

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There were many tones in the sand, too, and I couldn’t work out if the sand was actually different colours or the light made it appear that way. At times it was pale yellow, magnolia even, then golden, then orange and red.

At first, the small dunes were separated by wide, flat, stony tracts, but as we walked deeper into the Sahara, the dunes rolled into each other.

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‘Florence Of Arabia’

At 2 o’clock-ish, we all noticed a sheltered spot in a circle of dunes and saw that the guides had set up a lunch camp for us under a shady tree.

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It looked like heaven.

We were given pots of sweet tea, infused with mint, which we poured into small glasses. It was delicious.

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Commando Ray.

Taking my shoes off was deeply, deeply pleasurable. And slightly alarming.

My shoes were full of sand, which was no great surprise, but my hi-tech socks seemed…wrong.

The pouches that were designed to divert sweat had filled up with wet sand and had rubbed the skin on my right foot to the point of a blister. This was not good.

I brushed the sand off and applied a Compeed blister plaster to the worst area – the ball of my right foot, behind my big toe.

I let my skin breathe, sliding my feet in the cool sand. I may have let out a horny moan. It felt superb.

The walk so far had been great. I knew I was reasonably fit and had stamina. I was happy and decided not to worry about my blister. It would be fine.

After all, my socks had “antibacterial finish” and were “almost certain to keep your feet in tip top condition no matter how far you hike.”

So I was covered.

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I felt something on my foot, looked down and saw an alien. A very small alien.

It was shiny silver. Metallic, polished aluminium Roswell silver. Alien space craft silver. There were many of them. And they were in the shape of…ants.

They were ants. Bright silver ants.

 Alien Ants

I tried to brush one away and it sank its head into my skin, biting me with fire-engine-red jaws. Thankfully, it was unable to break my skin.

The little silver ant bastard.

خبز‎

Lunch was rice with meat and vegetable tagine, tinned fish, salad and Khobz –  the flat, round bread I was falling in love with.

I had consumed about a litre of water from my pouch, so refilled it and went to take a few photographs. I climbed a dune and in every direction, there was nothing but yellow sand. It rolled and flowed like blonde hair. It was stunning and I became enveloped with awe.

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My AA sponsor, Simon, would have loved it. He would have been proud of me, too. He knew how much I liked comfort. And how much truly reluctant effort it had taken to get fit, lose weight and prepare for the trek.

I looked up at the blue, cloudless sky and smiled. I missed him. We had shared some great times, and had laughed together a lot. He had saved my life and I would never forget that.

Sobriety was amazing. I had been sober nearly 12 years. At one time, I couldn’t go for an hour without a drink or a drug. It would have been impossible for me. Now, I couldn’t imagine having a drink. I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t need it, didn’t want it.

Life went on, drunk or sober, but my reactions to life were very different sober. I found AA to be extremely useful and rewarding. I wasn’t religious, or believe in any particular God, but managed to find a way around that.

I believe that music is divine. So I believe in the power and sanctity of music.

I took a stick, wrote my Mum’s name in the dune and watched the fine sand blow over and bury it.

I cried a little,  then went back to the group.

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At 4pm, we set off again, and my feet were starting to hurt. Every time we went through the soft sand, up and over the dunes, my shoes, and socks, would fill up with sand which acted like sandpaper.

If the terrain had been more consistent, I would have taken my shoes off, but it kept changing from sand to stones and hard red clay.

I needed to sort it out.

Our Berber guide and leader, Jamal – one of the funniest, vaguest men I’ve ever met – suggested that we collect any loose branches or other wood for a camp fire. So, for two hours, we all dragged handfuls of long branches through the sand and stones.

Photo by David Madden.
Photo by David Madden.

By 7pm, we had set up camp in a flat dip surrounded by dunes. The eating tent was up, as was the cooking tent. We even had a chemical loo in a tiny tent of its own.

Luxury!

I had braced myself for squatting in the sand.

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I had been chatting to Remedy Mike while walking, about my reasons for doing the trip, his job as chief UK homeopath, and we had decided to become ‘tent-mates’.

Putting our tent up was hysterical. Neither of us knew what we were doing, and Super Linda (seasoned trekker, camper, OCD nutter and joint organiser) stepped in because we had managed to put the top layer on back to front, which meant that we had no possible way of getting in or out.

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      While waiting for dinner, most of the group sat on the dunes,      watching the sunset, chatting and laughing.

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Myself, Dave, Daisy & Luke

I spent half an hour on a dune with Dave, Luke and the youngest member, Daisy, just talking crap and laughing out loud. It was lovely. Luke really made me laugh.

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We sat in the food tent, in the glow of a gas lantern, waiting for dinner, watching moths flap and crash around the naked flame, unable to resist it’s deadly allure.

Commando Ray told us that we had walked 14.3 miles in about 6 hours. He congratulated us. That meant something, coming from Commando Ray.

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After dinner, Jamal and his group of guides sat around the campfire and sang songs in Arabic, beating out intricate rhythms on jerry cans and tin pans. Someone said that they were traditional Berber folk songs, but I wasn’t so sure. They could’ve been playing anything. Either way, it sounded pretty cool.

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My feet were complaining, so I took them to bed. In terms of my knackered old back, the sand was remarkably comfortable and, once the sun sank behind the dunes, it felt cold, so I was glad I spent a bit on my toasty sleeping bag.

I had a nice chat with Remedy Mike, put my eye-mask and ear-plugs in position, rolled over and flaked out.

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Night Of The Stars

Gold. The rising sun on the dunes.

Breakfast was mint tea, khobz with local honey.

Phtoto by David Madden
Phtoto by David Madden

We set off at 9 and by 9.05, my sock-pouches had filled up with little banks of wet sand and were hurting. Scraping. I kept up with the main group, but I was getting worried. I had five pairs of these fucking socks.

Following the advice of a very experienced trekker, I wore two pairs, so that the friction between the socks themselves would reduce wear on my skin.

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I distracted myself by chatting to Cinema Dec about favourite films, Snapper Madden about photography and then Louli about the nature of addiction.

The desert was amazing. It would often, quite suddenly, become extremely windy. The sand was very, very fine and the cheche I had bought was a God-send. You could breathe through it while covering your mouth and nose. My wrap-around shades kept it out of my eyes. Even with the scarf, we all had a sand cough in the evening and I won’t describe what I discovered when doing some late night nasal excavation.

I'm on the far left...
I’m on the far left…

Every morning, I asked Jamal to fix my cheche properly and it would stay on until I went to bed. I could have done it myself, true, but when Jamal did it, it stayed put.

The sand was so fine that when it was windy, you could see dunes alter before your eyes. It was startling how quickly the landscape changed. It must have made navigation, by landmarks at least, very difficult.

Someone said that the guides used the sun to navigate, but I think they also used GPS on their phones. I definitely had better signal in the Sahara than I did back home in Wales.

When the wind ceased, it felt really hot and, from time to time, I would spy a mirage, a lake or river up ahead. Sometimes, it was heat haze, shimmering, but other times it was just a lighter shade of sand, pool shaped.

I can only imagine what a psychological nightmare it must have been, to be tricked like that,  if you were running out of water.

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We finally reached camp, and I could have wept.

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It had been a hard walk for me. I didn’t tell anyone, but my feet were really painful and concerning me greatly. I had fallen behind and didn’t want to be in the position of slowing everyone down.

I’d broken my shoes in over the previous 6 months and had done quite a few 6 hour walks, so they should have been fine. It was the sand and the sock-pouches.

“…these superb liner socks do just that and more as they have been created using Coolmax technology that not only helps provide great warmth, but they also help draw moisture away from your skin to keep it fresh and cool.”

For the last hour or so, we had been walking through deep, soft, golden sand, up, along and down dunes, so I had stopped to take my shoes off. I had tried to take my socks off, too, but couldn’t. They were impossible to remove without causing me searing pain that made me nauseous. I didn’t want to know what they were stuck to.

When I started to walk in just my socks, the pain was so intense that I dropped to my knees and swore ferociously. I had to use my walking stick to get back up and support myself. The solution was to walk on my heels, rather than use the soles and balls of my feet. This wasn’t good.

Putting our tent up was an ordeal. Remedy Mike was really unwell with some form of heat-stroke and I could barely walk. Thankfully, Super Linda and Hashy Harry helped us out.

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Remedy Mike crawled in and lay down, and Commando Ray gave him a packet of Dioralyte rehydration powder while Louli brought him fresh water. It had been a hot one.

While Remedy Mike slept and everyone prepared for dinner, I borrowed the first aid kit and used the scissors to cut my socks off. I was shocked. My feet were in a really bad way.

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Exhibit A

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

My right foot was just a collection of blisters. Several large ones had burst and the skin was red and raw underneath. There was a lot of sand stuck to the wet skin, and I knew I needed to clean them up.

Both feet were swollen and extremely painful. It was a total disaster.

Rob The Riddler appeared and swore, clearly as shocked as I was.

I was hopeful that after I’d cleaned them up with wet wipes, they would dry out and heal up for tomorrow.

I took two codeine and paracetamol painkillers and hobbled to the food tent.

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Everyone was in fine spirits, telling jokes and stories and the food was great. The plan was to get up at 5 a.m and climb the massive dune in the distance and watch the sun come up, then come back, have breakfast, pack up and leave at around 10.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to climb the dune, and would let my feet rest for the few extra hours.

I was really bonding with two of the younger guys, Dave and Luke. We had some alternately deep and hysterically funny conversations.

They had hung back during the day, noticing I was having trouble walking. They had chatted to me, making me laugh and generally lifting my mood. I was genuinely moved by their generosity of spirit.

They were both young guys and wanted to be at the front of the group, but they both took time to drop back and chat to me for an hour or so. It meant an awful lot to me.

I sat in one of the corners of the tent, leaning back against a pole, my feet covered by my scarf so people wouldn’t be put off their dinner. They looked like a butcher’s window, and we had days left to trek. I was worried and a little subdued.

Mohammed, the cook, heard that Remedy Mike was ill and boiled up some plain rice for him, to help calm his stomach. I thought that was a beautiful thing to do.

By David Madden.
By David Madden.

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Before going to bed, I sat on a small dune and watched the sky. It was bright with stars and planets. It really was incredible. I’ve never seen a sky like it.

I thought of my old music buddy, Paul, who was far too young to die.

I smiled and remembered some of the crazy, drunken antics we became involved in. Staying up all night at Rockfield Studios, writing songs, smoking, drinking and stealing The Charlatans’ porno stash. Deliberately driving a car into every lamp post we saw. Outstanding times.

There’s a Leonard Cohen lyric that always reminds me of Paul:

Here’s to the few who forgive what you do – and the fewer who don’t even care.”

I will always miss the guy.

He would have loved to look up and see such a sky.

Tchak! & Desert Gut

Commando Ray went around every tent, letting us know it was nearly 5 a.m and asking if we wanted to climb the big dune.

Remedy Mike was even worse, and my feet were in no shape to go climbing, so we declined. My feet were burning and throbbing, so I took two more painkillers and went back to sleep.

The dune climbers returned, full of beans. It had been spectacular, and I was envious. I  would have loved to have watched the sun come up on such a massive dune, but hey-ho, it wasn’t to be.

Apparently, when they reached the top, they found about 30 German Christians, singing hymns as the sun came up. That sounded perfectly surreal.

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One of the group had come down with ‘Desert Gut’.

Big Neil was a big, strong chap and not one to give in easily, and I could see he was in a bad way. Diarrhea was a nightmare at home. In the Sahara desert, it was the sixth circle of hell.

Remedy Mike was also in a very poor state. He seemed dehydrated, very weak, dizzy and unable to eat.

It was decided that the camels could be loaded differently, so that Remedy Mike would be able to ride one for the day.

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For me, the first few hours were almost unbearable. The pain was extremely acute, and on two occasions I nearly passed out. My vision was flecked with bright white circles and I couldn’t hear properly. It was crazy.

I was used to a certain amount of pain, because of my back, but this was ridiculous. I had dislocated my knee a few years before and this was far more painful. And constant.

I basically walked on my heels, using my walking stick to take the weight off the front of my feet.

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I started finding ways to distract my mind. I had to stop focusing on the pain. I recited song lyrics to myself, and repeated certain AA prayers a lot, especially the ‘serenity prayer’:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can,

and wisdom to know the difference.

I looked around at the desert, drank from my water tube and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

At several points, I saw Remedy Mike, leaning to one side on the camel, and people shouting and rushing to wake him, because he had fallen asleep. The poor guy must have been really ill.

I was very conscious that I was considerably slower than everyone else, so kept forcing myself to get faster. The group would stop, have a drink, wait for me to catch up and set off again. It was a good strategy, because had I stopped, I don’t know if I could have got going again.

I took painkillers at 3 hour intervals, but they didn’t seem to work and the pain was simply horrific.

At several points, I laughed. It seemed such an unusually severe pain, in such an extreme environment that my brain started to look for meanings, spiritually.

Was this some kind of test? A punishment? A sign? Was my Mum trying to tell me something?

I settled on the fact that I had worn the wrong fucking socks and pressed on.

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I put my earphones in, switched the iPod on and Bob Dylan sang a song called ‘Every Grain Of Sand’.

I thought about my little girl, Katy, and how I wanted her to see that her Dad was prepared to put his words into actions. It was important to me. She had seen me lose weight, get fit and go to the desert to raise money for Nanny’s hospice. That was good for her.

The group had set up camp for lunch in the blue shade beneath a shrub-topped dune and as I limped towards them, I saw Remedy Mike asleep under a small tree, and saw how pale Big Neil had become, so resisted the urge to throw myself on the ground and sob like a little girl, demanding a helicopter.

I took my shoes off and someone handed me a sweet, minty glass of tea. I lay back in the cool sand and shook my head. I knew there would be four more hours of pain and I would have to just crack on with it.

My Mum kept going for years, fighting pain, treatment, despair, so I could walk a few days on broken feet! I had to ‘man up’.

There was a lot of laughter and banter in the group. It was wonderful. Jamal, the Berber boss, had introduced the word ‘Tchak’, which, he said, meant crazy. This phrase stuck, and was our battle cry.

Lying in the sand, eyes closed, my feet on fire, I smiled as humour spread through the group like a merry plague, lifting my spirits.

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Super Linda & Niki Nutjob. True legends.

قدمي على النار

I shouldn’t have taken my shoes off. Camper Chris had warned me. I knew it was a mistake, but I really wanted to get the sand out and let them breathe. Standing up was an ordeal and walking was excruciating.

I watched a massive bird settle on a naked tree branch. I was sure it was a vulture but didn’t want to break my steady rhythm to investigate.

The desert floor turned from hard sand to stony shrubland and I could hear shouts of Tchak! from the group ahead. They were all milling around, pointing, looking down, taking photographs. As I limped closer I could see that they were standing in a dried river bed.

The sand was clay-like, gold and yellow, and cracked into two or three foot squares. It was incredible. The cracks were deep, really deep.

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Photo by David Madden
Photo by David Madden

I kept walking.

As I passed by, I asked Snapper Madden and Camper Chris if they would take a few snaps for me, because I didn’t want to stop.

Photo by Mr Kelly
Photo by Mr Chris Kelly

Luke dropped back to chat, and we had some very entertaining and highly descriptive conversations about sex. I greatly appreciated his time. In fact, several people slowed down for a chat and offered to carry my back-pack or lend me a walking stick. It was very humbling.

I had been by myself for so, so long, keeping people at a distance,  that it really was an eye-opener for me – that people were so kind and generous.

I was struggling, and no-one gave me shit for being slow. They just waited for me to catch up and were encouraging. It was very moving. It definitely helped me keep going. I didn’t want to let them down. I wanted to keep up and not spoil anyone’s trip.

By five o’clock, I was really having a hard time. The pain was so bad, and now my heels were burning and the muscles up the backs of my calves were starting to feel crampy.

I was starting to weaken, psychologically. I could hear a little voice saying ‘I can’t fucking do this! I’ve got to stop!’ but I kept responding with ‘no chance, you can’t give in! You have to keep going!

It was seriously schizophrenic. I was rowing with myself for miles.

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Dave dropped back and started chatting, but I found it hard to get involved. I was in so much pain and was finding it hard to block it out.

“Are we setting up camp soon, Dave? I don’t know how much longer I can keep going?”

Dave was amazing. He really kept buoying me up, got me nattering and laughing. I can’t thank him enough. He saved me.

At the back, again, with Dave.
At the back, again, with Dave.

Up ahead, I saw Niki, Luke, a guide and a camel, waiting on a small dune. I didn’t dare think that I had reached camp, so kept my head down and pressed forward, step by step.

When I reached them, they told me to get on the camel.

“What about Mike?”, I asked.

“He’s alright. He’s over at the camp. Get on. Unless you fancy another walk?”

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Luke, me, Niki & Dave. Thanks to Cinema Dec for the photo.

I had tears in my eyes as I got on that camel. It was only a few hundred yards to the camp, but those few minutes on the camel were pure ecstasy.

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عاصفة رملية

I don’t remember putting the tent up. Remedy Mike was still really bad and I think it was done for us. I had a brief chat with him, but he just wanted to be left alone and snooze. Louli was looking after him, making sure he was hydrated and warm.

The wind started to pick up as the sun went down, and I was leaning against a corner pole in the food tent, happy that I’d made it and glad I was off my feet.

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According to Commando Ray, we had done over 12 miles, and when he said ‘so, well done everyone, especially Tim”, everyone started clapping! I nearly lost it. I was so touched.

I was really worried that I’d slowed them down and so grateful for those who had dropped back to chat to me. I think I said something along those lines, but can’t remember.

The food and chatter that night seemed more lovely than ever, and I realised that I was happy and, despite the pain, really glad to be there.

I was part of something, and it felt good.

Big Neil was not at dinner. He was in his tent, laid low with severe Desert Gut. One of the guides (I think it was Larbi), made him some plain boiled rice and tea, took it to Neil’s tent and made him eat and drink. He didn’t have to do that. He was genuinely concerned.

All the guides were the same – hard-working, polite, extremely good at their jobs, funny and kind.

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The wind had grown worse, and the food tent had to be better secured. Everyone went to bed early, mainly because the tents would have blown away without their occupants.

I tried to walk to the ‘loo tent’, but I simply couldn’t see. The storm was really blowing and the sand was blinding. If I put my arm out, I couldn’t see my hand. So, I just stood with my back to the moon and had a pee where I stood, hoping I wasn’t pissing on someone’s tent.

When I got back to the food tent, I was alone, so I grabbed my sleeping bag and decided to sleep where I was. I figured Remedy Mike would enjoy some privacy and I fancied sleeping in a proper Berber tent.

I had to cut my socks off again and nearly fainted when I saw the state of my feet. They looked bloody, dirty and swollen. I felt sick, so slid into my sleeping bag and lay down.

At some point, one of the guides joined me in the tent. I was aware of him doing his prayer ritual and felt comforted by his presence. I slept really well that night.

Photo by David Madden
Photo by David Madden

Desert Storm & International Rescue

No-one else slept well at all. The wind had made the tents extremely noisy, and it was unsettling.

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My feet were in a terrible state. Because the wind kept pouring sand over everything, I couldn’t clean them properly, so just put two pairs of socks over the damage and hoped for the best.

When I stood up, I had to sit down. Fuck. I didn’t know how I was going to walk another 6 hours. It took three goes to finally stand up. I used my stick to take my weight, breathing out, trying to adjust to the searing pain. Thankfully, I was on my own in the food tent, so no-one saw me struggle.

I didn’t want to let the group down, or make them feel bad, but I didn’t think I had a choice but to crawl. The pain was too much. I laughed out loud – “I’m going to be crawling through the Sahara desert like some kind of bizarre, hairy toddler! Great. I’m so excited.”

The wind was still very strong, which made packing up the tents particularly amusing. Everyone pitched in and helped.

I took a few tentative steps and had to sit down again. Remedy Mike came over and I was really pleased to see that he was feeling better.

Jamal was on the phone a lot, and the guides looked worried. We were told that there was a serious storm coming, and that we needed to walk a fair distance to get to more sheltered terrain. My heart sank. I just didn’t know what I was going to do. If I did manage to walk, I knew I would be really, really slow.

Everyone got ready, fully covered in coats, scarves and shades, and the mood was tense, sombre even. With slowly building despair, I watched the camels being loaded, one by one, mentally preparing myself for a day of terrible pain.

I saw one of the guides, holding a camel, beckoning me. Niki appeared through gusts of sand, completely hidden by her blue Berber cheche and told me I was riding today.

“What about Mike?” I asked.

“He’s fine today. Get on there, matey.”

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Once I was on that camel, I wept. I was wrapped in scarf and shades, so nobody saw me, but I cried with relief and gratitude. I had prepared myself for another day of intense pain and was now about 9 feet high, riding the lope of my new best friend, Colin The Camel.

It was beautiful. I took my shoes off and my feet swung free, either side of my lanky new ride. My eyes were about 13 feet off the ground, so I suddenly had a fantastic view of the Sahara. It really was both beautiful and vast.

It took a few minutes to adjust to the strange, seesaw motion of Colin, but I soon relaxed and went with it, perfecting the one-handed, nonchalant, experienced Camel-rider pose. It was paradise.

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The wind was intermittent, and we were all covered in sand. We all stayed close together, because visibility could, quite suddenly, become a major issue.

I got the distinct impression that Colin wasn’t happy to be carrying me. The hints were reasonably clear. Every hour or so, he would try and crush my legs by deliberately smashing into the side of another camel. I understood. I wouldn’t want to have carried him.

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Commando Ray had an enormous back-pack, with a Union Jack flag flying from the top of it. It weighed more than I did, but, being a squaddie, he carried it. It was in his DNA. The rest of us only carried our bare essentials and water, letting the camels take the rest, but not Ray. He had carried his own gear all his life, in the Army, and in Civvy Street. There had never been an exception.

So, after our 11 o’clock nut stop (where a giant sack of mixed dry, salty and honey-glazed nuts, dried dates and figs would be handed around), I looked up and saw Commando Ray’s rucksack on the camel in front of me.

I immediately turned and shouted to Dave, who was walking behind me, “Dave! What’s wrong with Ray?”

“Bad gut, mate. Both ends apparently.”

“Does he want to get on here?”

“Nah. He’d just have to keep stopping and getting off.”

Commando Ray had been struck down with Desert Gut, and had to keep stopping and heading off into the dunes. When I saw him lying on his side, covered in a blanket in the food tent, refusing lunch, I knew he must be bad.

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During lunch, there was a lot of phone calling and Jamal didn’t look happy. The weather was not good and for five minutes, I saw it rain in the Sahara desert.

The sky was dark and you could see the sand storm raging in the distance. It hadn’t reached us yet, but it was coming.

Jamal, Niki and Super Linda made the decision to call for help. A bad storm was on the way, and we would be stuck in it. We would probably be fine overnight, but no-one knew how long the storm would last. It would make walking and navigating very difficult. We could end up stuck in the Sahara desert.

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The 4X4s were called and we would be driven to safety. We would go back to our first campsite, in Zagora. Everyone was cool about it. No-one wanted to risk being stranded or getting lost.

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الإنقاذ من الصحراء

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So, we packed up and watched the camels and most of the guides disappear into the desert. For reasons I didn’t fully understand, Super Linda, Cinema Dec, Dave and Luke set off with them. Everyone else carried their gear to a nearby well to wait for the rescue vehicles. Camper Chris and Commando Ray were devastated not to be walking with the guides. The former had a blistered foot, and Commando Ray had a serious dose of Desert Gut.

I just wanted to get off my feet. The short, 100 metres to the well was agony.

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Just as the 4X4s arrived, everything changed. It went dark and the storm hit. It was intense and surprisingly vicious. The sand made visibility very poor. So, 6 of us squashed ourselves into the first car, and the rest into the old Landrover behind.

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We set off, all buoyant at the thought of chairs, toilets and even a shower, but after about 200 metres, we stopped. The driver kept checking his mirrors but the Landy with the rest of our group wasn’t moving. He got out and went to see what the trouble was. He was literally swallowed by the sand-storm after about 6 paces. He just disappeared.

We waited, trying to keep our spirits up, but Remedy Mike was still feeling dodgy, Commando Ray had ‘Desert Gut’ so we kept quiet and tried not to panic.

Somehow, someone had poured water into the diesel tank of the Land Rover!

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It took almost half an hour to rectify and the storm was raging. It was starting to become scary.

At last, we set off slowly, doing no more than 25 mph and visibility was atrocious. None of us could work out how the driver navigated.

We went up, over and down the smaller dunes and around the larger ones. It must have been hard for Commando Ray, sat in the back, on top of the wheels.

It took 40 minutes, but when we saw lights in the distance, we cheered.

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We got back to camp at 7pm and I was extremely happy to throw my rucksack and sleeping bag onto a bed. I was sharing with Big Neil and Remedy Mike, which was excellent. While they both had a snooze, I hobbled off to get a First Aid kit, so I could cut off the Compeed blister plasters and clean up my feet.

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It wasn’t a pleasant experience and took 38 minutes to get them as clean as I could. They were a mess.

Dave had lent me some flip-flops, so I shuffled off to make a phone call and find some tea.

The guides, camels, Super Linda, Dave, Luke and Cinema Dec arrived safely back at 10.30pm. It had been a hard 5 hour trek for them and they looked exhausted and half blind from the sand. Mohammed and Larbi brought out steaming bowls of soup and it felt good to have everyone back together.

An early night was enjoyed by all.

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Camel Racing & The Corner Shop

My eye-mask and ear-plugs had been a real help again, as the storm had raged all night, flinging the blankets, which acted as doors, making them slap and batter. I hadn’t heard a thing and slept like a baby. A sandy baby. I looked down and my sleeping bag and bed was covered in fine, yellow sand.

At breakfast, everyone was in fine spirits and it was decided that, aside from an organised camel race, we would do whatever we wanted. Some of the group wandered back into the Sahara to take some photographs, others found a nearby Hammam. Luke, Dave and Hashy Harry discovered a corner shop and brought me back an ice cold bottle of Coke. Superb.

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I couldn’t walk anywhere, so enjoyed the peace of the cool, comfortable dining room, feet up, listening to music and watching the beams of coloured light stream through the stained glass windows.

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I just wanted my feet to dry enough that I could get the dirt out from under the blisters.

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The Feet in all their glory. Thanks for the photo Daisy.

A few locals popped in to do their prayer routines across the room. I closed my eyes and let them get on with it.

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My mind kept wandering off and settling on thoughts of my Mum. Like anyone who has lost somebody close, the pain becomes easier to manage but it doesn’t go. I missed chatting on the phone, telling her what I was up to, laughing and being stupid. Her sense of humour was so lovely, and often quite wicked.

She was very, very funny – right up to the end.

The day before she died, the nurse at St. Michael’s Hospice quietly told me that if there was anything I wanted to say to her, I should do it within the next hour, because she would be upping the morphine dose (at my Mum’s request).

It was tricky. I managed to hold it together, held her hand and said “thanks for being a great Mum.”

She looked up at me, smiled and said “thanks for being a crap son.”

We laughed again, and it was a lovely moment.

Then she squeezed my hand, and told me how proud she was that I’d got sober and what a great Dad she thought I was.

Me and My Mum at St. Michael's Hospice.
Me and My Mum at St. Michael’s Hospice.

She died the following morning, but I still feel happy that we had shared those few moments, and some final laughter.

I dozed off listening to Leonard Cohen and awoke when it was lunch time.

The rest of the afternoon was spent generally arsing around with Luke, Dave, Big Neil, Daisy and Hashy Harry. It felt good to be off my feet and laughing.

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Dave & Luke
Harry
Harry
Me, Luke & Neil
Me, Luke & Neil

After dinner that night, Jamal and the guides sang and played music on various drums, then everyone started dancing. Except me, of course. For once, I had the perfect excuse. Nobody needed to see my idea of dancing. Along with Commando Ray, I retired early as the booze and hash came out, but apparently the revelry continued until two or three.

Good work, guys!

The Posse
The Posse

Pottery, Aït Benhaddou & Snow

We set off at 9 in our trusty Transit vans. I sat at the back again, behind Commando Ray and watched the brightly coloured doors, shopkeepers in robes, kids on their way to school and stunning Moroccan architecture.

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I had music in my ears and felt awesome. My feet had dried out significantly and the swelling had reduced. I just hoped they didn’t become infected, because I couldn’t get all the dirt and sand out.

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We stopped at Tamegroute, and had a squint at some pottery. Several people bought Tagines, but, in truth, I didn’t really like Moroccan food, so passed. I could quite happily live without tagine, couscous or chick peas again. The bowls and plates were lovely, but I didn’t have room to take any home.

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We arrived out our Riad, in Ait Benhaddou, at 6.30 and it was freezing. We had become accustomed to the heat and suddenly put on several layers.

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Dinner was more tagine and tea.

After having no wi-fi for a week, it was funny to watch everyone back on their phones, heads down, deep in Facebookery.

I slept really well, in a proper, clean, sand-free double bed.

The morning arrived, with a stunning view of the snow covered Atlas mountains. At breakfast, there was concern that the pass would be closed. The snow had been heavy through the night.

It was bizarre. One minute, we had heat enough to topple Remedy Mike and cause sunburn, then vicious sandstorms and now, roads closed due to snow.

I had the first hot shower in 8 days. No washing with chilly wet wipes today – I had soap and shampoo. Utter bliss.

Photo by David Madden
Photo by David Madden

At 10, we set off to see the famous UNESCO World Heritage city of Ait Benhaddou – used as a backdrop in Gladiator and a load of other films.

It was only a ten minute walk, which wasn’t too hard on my stupid, girly feet. I had been very keen to visit the place, and it was as beautiful as I had imagined it might be.

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Then, it was time to head off through the Atlas Mountains again, back to Marrakech.

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زيت الأركان

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Argan oil comes from the fruit of the Argan tree. Well, the two or three hard-shelled nut kernels inside, to be accurate. It is a hard and labour-intensive exercise to extract and grind the nuts, to capture the oil. It’s usually done by Berber women. The oil is meant to be good for you. It tasted quite nice, when I dipped some bread into it.

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We stopped in Zerkten, and, after a Berber omelette and local vegetable soup, I watched some women extracting Argan oil via grim, traditional methods. They didn’t look overly happy, but it wouldn’t be my job of choice either. I left a tip in a wooden bowl and went off to look at some Moroccan silver jewellery.

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The mountains were even more beautiful this time, having recently enjoyed a liberal coating of virgin-white snow. The temperature read ‘-9’ as we drove out of Zerkten.

Prostitutes, Getting Lost and The Last Supper

By 4pm, we were back at Riad Les Oliviers, in Marrakech. After an hour on the roof, sunbathing and drying my horror-show feet, I went for the second hot shower of the day.

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I couldn’t wear my trekking trousers for a single minute longer, so headed into town to buy some cheap alternatives. I bought a pair of Levi jeans, paid £22, put them on and threw my grubby, disgusting trousers in the first bin I passed. Nirvana was clean denim.

Later on, myself, Big Neil, Daisy, Hashy Harry, Dave and Luke found a nice local restaurant, way up on a terrace, five staircases high. The food was okay and the view superb. We watched the sun set, and the square erupt in smoke, colour and light. It was buzzing. We went for a wander and I bought a cool silver ring for next to nothing, and a little handbag for my daughter.

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When we returned to the Riad, something really weird but strangely fascinating occurred.

Being an avid people-watcher, I had been observing a lone German tourist across the room from our table. He appeared agitated, excited, and kept texting on his mobile. He just didn’t seem right, if you know what I mean.

After twenty minutes, the doorbell to the Riad chimed and one of the staff went to answer. The German chap stood up and followed. I assumed he had been waiting for a friend, who had arrived.

Thirty seconds later, a very dark-skinned lad of about 17 came into the tea room with the German. They chatted quietly and the German led him up a flight of stairs, heading for his room. The boy was clearly a prostitute. It was plain as day.

From the office burst the Riad manager, who chased the German and the young boy up the stairs. There was an altercation and the young black boy was escorted from the premises, unhappy and trying to demand money from the German, who rather sheepishly retired to his room, alone.

Curious.

Luke & The Pelican Omelette

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In the morning, a few of us went for breakfast in the town square. We settled on a cafe that looked tidy, busy and clean.

I ordered croissant and cafe au lait. If I ate one more tagine, I would die. I had reached my limit.

Everyone ordered fairly standard stuff…but not Luke. He ordered something no-one could pronounce.

It arrived in a mini tagine. When he lifted the lid, it appeared to be some manner of omelette, drowning in oil. There was a dark meat in it but none of us recognised its origin.

Luke tried the meat and had no idea what it was.

It was obviously a pelican omelette. There was no other explanation.

He valiantly ate it all but his face had me in hysterics. He went pale green and his discomfort made me even more amused.

I haven’t laughed so much for a long time.

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After breakfast, I decided to do some exploring on my own. I had been around other humans constantly and felt in need of some alone time.

Being a stranger in a foreign country is one of my all time favourite pastimes so I was feeling happy as I set off from our Riad.

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My feet hurt, but nowhere near the levels I’d experienced in the Sahara. They were healing nicely.

I found a cool Patisserie and bought some pain au chocolat for later and spied a little back street cafe that was full of locals. I ordered meat on skewers and it was superb.

I sat and watched Marrakech for ages and noticed that the only people who gave money to the beggars were local. None of the tourists, myself included, seemed to.

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I guessed there was no benefit system in Morocco. It’s a good job that Islam is based on both community and generosity.

I thoroughly enjoyed my quiet, observation time and slowly found my way back to the Riad and lounged on the sunny roof until Daisy, Dave and a few others came up, with wine, and the last evening began.

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نحن خسر

We got lost.

The alleyways got the better of us.

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In daylight, they looked very similar. At night, they were identical and indecipherable. I knew the name of the restaurant that Commando Ray had booked for us, so asked a local kid I saw loitering if he would show us the way.

His name was Mohammed, he said, and he was learning English at school. He was 14 and knew exactly where the restaurant was.

We arrived at our destination about 7 minutes later and I gave Mohammed all the coins I had in my pocket, which was about 35 Dirham. He looked disgusted, so I asked the rest of the posse to chip in. I think he ended up with about 75 Dirham, which was about £4. I thought that was a fair price for a short walk, but he got stroppy and protested. No-one was inclined to give him any more money, so he sloped off, whining.

Luke & Daisy
Luke & Daisy

There had been a communication error between Commando Ray and the restaurant, and we had no booking. Everyone shuffled about, unsure how to proceed, so our ever-resourceful leader, Niki, headed off through Marrakech in search of an alternative, her 16 little chicks following.

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At 9pm, after a couple of rejected venues, we sat in straw hats, on top of a tall building, 9 tables pushed together and had our last supper. It was a blast. Everyone was feeling good, happy, shouting Tchak! and glowed.

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The whole of Marrakech seemed to glow orange.

أكثر من المشي

I sat back and watched everyone laughing and chatting. I realised I had been through more than just a trek.

A tidal wave of grief hadn’t burst out of me, and perhaps it didn’t need to. Perhaps being busy, crying a little bit occasionally and looking after my little girl was how I was meant to deal with my Mum’s death. Maybe letting it out slowly, over a few years was better for me.

I learned that I had a certain degree of mental strength. I was pleased that I had walked and kept up with the group, despite being in some physical distress. I think I get that strength from my folks.

I am also very grateful to the group I trekked and travelled with. Certain people really helped me when I was in trouble, and no-one got arsey with me, even though I slowed them down. I really appreciate that.

My default setting has always been to keep people at arms length. I have been self-sufficient and not let people in for a long, long time. I have never felt that I need people and have developed strategies to actively keep people away.

On this trek, though, I did need people. I needed help and these strangers responded. There was no fanfare, no drama, they just quietly got on with it.

There are several people that I will keep in contact with for the rest of my life, and if they are ever in need, I know I will do whatever I can to help them.

So thank you Mighty Marian, Remedy Mike, Louli, Cinema Dec, Snapper Madden, Loopy Lisa, Camper Chris, Rob The Riddler, Commando Ray, Niki Nutjob, Super Linda, Delightful Daisy, Hashy Harry, Big Neil, Dave and Luke.

Back in the UK, halfway home, I decided to stop at some services for coffee and a snack.

I stood in line at Burger King, and in front of me were Dave and Luke. Like magic. It was lovely.

My feet are healed and I’m going swimming tonight. I want to keep reasonably fit.

It is my Mum’s birthday today, and I will cry a little, but that’s fine. It doesn’t mean I’m weak and I don’t need to cry for a month, but it’s okay for me to miss her and be sad.

Pat Prince
Pat Prince

It was a strange, painful, funny and beautiful trip and I don’t regret a single moment.

Well, apart from the fucking socks…obviously.

 IMG_3121

I raised just under £2,000 for St. Michael’s Hospice.

********************************************************************

The Kit

I acquired the kit I needed gradually, so the expense was spread out. I spent a fair bit of money, but wanted to be prepared.
I bought an Osprey Talon 22 backpack (extremely comfortable, light and robust), a Camelbak 2 litre ‘Unbottle’ with Antidote Reservoir (bloody brilliant – kept in the hydration pouch of the rucksack, it stayed cool – and worth the £37), a Fujifilm XP200 digital camera (it was shock and sand proof – and proved flawless and faultless), and a cracking Snugpak Special Forces 2 Sleeping Bag (again, this proved a great bargain – warm, comfortable and folded up pretty small).

The lightweight trousers, waterproof jacket and fleece I got in a sale at Mountain Warehouse and the wet wipes, antibacterial hand rub, small toothpaste and (the absolutely essential) Compeed blister plasters from Tesco.

I bought an Apple iPod Shuffle from Currys so I could listen to music on the plane/bus/trek and a solar charger for it (a YD-t011, which worked well, tied to my rucksack).

I also purchased ear-plugs and eye mask, which were really, really useful. Snoring can be an issue when tent/room sharing, and the ear-plugs worked well. The eye mask, too, was great for helping me get to sleep.

The lightweight running shoes were by Inov8 – called ‘Roclite’ 315’s. The reviews I had read online said that they were perfect for running through sand, as it simply flowed out through the fabric as quickly as it went in. That seemed a good idea.

Several bloggers had worn them for ‘desert running’ – so a 51 year-old ex-musician ambling through the Sahara for a few days should be a breeze.

The socks I bought were by Peter Storm – Unisex Multi-active Coolmax Liner Socks. The girl at Millets told me that they would be great for a long trek. They had special pouches to gather the sweat away from sensitive areas.

I never want to see those socks again.

** * * * * * * * * **

Thanks to David Madden for the good photos.

Thanks to Chris & Linda Kelly for the day pack – that I’ve still got. Ha!

Thanks to Nicola Rose for asking me to go.

Thanks to Imlil Trek Holidays & Jamal

http://www.imliltrek.com

IMG_3747
Jamal – our Berber leader and owner of Imlil Trek Holidays. I recommended him, his guides and company without hesitation.

13 responses to “Sahara Desert Diary

  1. An Absolutely fabulous read!! You have done amazing !!! You should feel incredibly proud!! ❤️snobby olive 😍

  2. What to say? I felt I was intruding at times. Intimate, personal, private. I felt a tear as I read along feeling you were trusting me, revealing a little bit of the real you. I’ve been on the same psychological journey in the past, so a lot of your feelings echoed down the alleyways of my past. I envy you the glamourous location. Mine was Luton! Strangely we were about the same age. I can assure you it does get better, as you seem to be discovering. A beautifully written piece. You should be proud of this. I was proud to have been given the chance to read it. Before I get bogged down in sentimental musings – thanks! A fucking good read!

  3. Darling Tim, I have to share with you my little story about why I was on this mad trek too. I had a friend who lived in Knighton, Preya, a lovely Sri Lankan who was married to an English guy with 3 wonderful children. I was drawn to her kind, open face, her funny expressions and wonderful accent and we became firm friends. She was an amazing cook, gardener, general know it all about the natural world and she loved sharing her knowledge and passion about wild life. We had lots of laughs, we shared walks in Knighton and beyond and we laughed about our kids and discussed our hopes and fears about the future.
    And then one day she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Completely out of the blue. It shouldn’t happen to her, a fit, beautiful woman aged 40 something. She never smoked, drank. What the hell? For the next two years she had so many bouts of chemo that she lost sensation in her feet and hands. I don’t understand how she drove her children to school, but she managed it, twice a day. She cooked and cleaned and kept house and gave birthday parties. She was truly amazing. And then a rogue cancer cell lodged in her brain and she died of a brain tumour. When I last saw her, two days before she died, she held my hand and whispered ‘come on, let’s go and DO something’.
    So, when Niki asked me whether I wanted to go on a trek to the Sahara I thought ‘yeh, right, that about sums me up’. But you know what, I know too many people that have died of cancer, and too many that are battling it too. Life is short, so for Preya, I thought, y’know what, I bloody will go and do something. So I did.
    I have read your fantastic diary through a tear streamed face. Thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts. I can’t imagine how you walked the days that you did, and you never let on just how much pain you were in. You’re a hero darlin’. keep in touch xx Lisa xx (less of the Loopy mind, what on earth do you mean? #spotonassessment

  4. Damned socks ! Oh prince…..I just finished your “book”…and expect to see it in the shops soon please. Did it ever dawn on you that possibly all your ‘co-walkers’ enjoyed the slow-down while you were so incapacitated ….I think that might just be true. I do hope your “stupid girly feet” ( huh-hummm ! )….are as good as new now….No Jumping Jacks for a bit ……Nurse Lea says so. I know a couple that are artists and the wife has done a book on doors around the European countries mostly….SHE will love your photos and the tale you have told. Another friend that is learning pottery will SO live the idea of the sunken potter’s ‘chair’….what a brilliant idea that is……. …..Well “CRAP-SON”…….thank you so much for this overwhelming story…the trials and tribulations of a man I love…( and I too fought back some tears ) ❤

  5. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing your personal journey. I loved reading it, it was beautiful and honest and really touching. I am so pleased you came on the trek and enjoyed it! Here’s to the next one….. (P.S. Now you’ve mentioned it Chris is a bit camp isn’t he it’s those chicken legs haha 😂😂😂)
    Big respect and big love, Linda x

  6. A lovely, moving story and very well written. Daisy (who is my cousin, just like Harry, and is indeed delightful) sent me the link. I went on a trek in Nepal years ago where there was one very slow trekker, and we didn’t mind waiting for her. I wonder if bare feet would have been better in the sand? But then you might have stepped on a scorpion, which would have been bad.

  7. Ha, you got me twice in one day! First, with the Bowie/Wild is the Wind post, and now this engaging story (enough to pre-empt my DVR’d episode of “Vikings”), which reminded me of a similar, though not as painful (those feet pics are hardcore, man!) trip to Tunisia I took not long ago. So glad I stumbled onto your blog!

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