I am a great believer in the power of The Universe to bring us what we need when we need it. Most of the epic things in my life began with a chance encounter, a coincidence or a whisper of an idea that planted a seed in my mind, which germinated, started sprouting shoots and flourished into the most beautiful bloom.
I met a friend for coffee and she dropped into the conversation that she was a bit bored and fancied a challenge. She told me that she had done a charity trek with Husky Dogs in Lapland and casually suggested that maybe we could do a challenge together. Now I have to add here that I am not sporty, I am not super fit and I am not known for my adventurous spirit. However, I am open minded so I checked out the website for the company she mentioned ‘Global Adventure challenges’ and a few days later a brochure dropped into my mailbox.
I love walking and leafing through the brochure of challenges that looked totally out of my league, I spotted a Sahara Desert trek of 5 days and the date shouted out at me, the 18th – 23rd Feb 2016, as the 20th Feb 2016 happened to be my 60th birthday. So the seed was planted. I then realised that this company helps people raise money for charity, so now there were two hooks, I could do something epic to celebrate my 60 years on the planet and raise funds for PAPYRUS a charity very close to my heart since I lost my son Toby to suicide. Now my seed was germinating.
I ummed and aahed, I procrastinated, I talked myself out of it, then I just decided to do it. It was made more important when my friend who suggested the idea had to pull out as she was diagnosed with cancer. All the more reason to grab life with both hands.
Fast forward many months and there I was standing at the top of a huge sand dune with my hands high in the air celebrating the completion of the most incredible experience of my life.
As the date of the trek came closer I became more and more scared. My biggest fear was that I was not fit enough and I would be the old fogey trailing along at the back holding everyone up. I only started serious training about 4 weeks before the trek but I threw myself into it, walking every day in all weathers and even doing circuit training at the YMCA. I was as fit and prepared as I was ever going to be. My second biggest fear was camping, with no running water and no flushing toilet.
These fears only existed in my head and once I got there they disappeared. I bonded with a group of people aged 20 to 40, I wasn’t the slowest; far from it, I laughed at the hole in the ground that served as the loo, and although the trek was challenging it was achievable.
I stepped outside my comfort zone and as a result had the most incredible life changing experience. Being in the middle of the Sahara desert and sitting on the apex of a huge sand dune with no sign of civilisation for miles and miles, looking at the moon and the stars, seeing the sun rise and set over the dunes, no TV, no phone, no wifi and with a group of like-minded people from all walks of life. Observing another world, another culture a world away from what I have known, it makes me realise we are one world, all connected.
Once I’d got over having a poo in a hole in the ground the camping was plain sailing. Of course the first bath when we got back to the hotel at the end was the best bath I’ve ever had, but not washing for a few days wasn’t that bad; baby wipes saved the day.
As I was the oldest I got dubbed Queen Anne of the desert and my fellow trekkers were amazed that I emerged from my tent each morning with my lippy on, well a Queen does have to uphold certain standards.
After arriving in Marrakech we had a five-hour minibus ride over the Atlas mountains which were covered in snow, to Ouarzazate where we stayed in a hotel overnight. The next morning we had another four hours in the minibus before transferring into 4x4s to take us deep into the desert. As we got further and further away from the hotel we could see civilization disappearing until the tarmac road just stopped. We started trekking late afternoon to spend our first night in camp. It gets cold in the desert at night and I was glad I had bought a season 3 sleeping bag at the last minute and packed thermals.
Our first full day trekking started with breakfast at 7.30 then ready to leave at 8.30. This was the day of my birthday, and I was touched to find someone had bought a card at Gatwick and the whole group had signed it. We walked for 8-9 hours, and the highlight of the day was our Berber guide singing happy birthday to me in Arabic and then English at the top of a dune on the morning of my 60th birthday.
There was blowing sand in the morning so we all donned blue scarves wrapped round head and face which had been supplied for just that purpose. After four hours walking we arrived to find mess tent pitched and lunch served. The food that the camp cooks whipped up with no gas or electricity and no shops within a hundred miles, was incredible. After returning from the trek in the evening, after Aziz our guide kept saying ‘six more dunes’ or ‘last push’ there was the wonderful sight as you got to the peak of the last dune and saw six little orange tents already pitched in a clearing. We ascended and within half an hour were being served mint tea, or chai tea with Moroccan doughnuts or pancakes.
Dinner was meat and a vast array of char-grilled vegetables, couscous, rice, potatoes, tagine, with fruit and camomile tea to finish, or ‘sleepy tea’ as they called it. Dinner was eaten in the mess tent by candlelight squatting on tiny camp stools and after dinner we amused ourselves with games or stories. The favourite was truth or lie where we had to say two things about ourselves, one true and one a lie and people had to guess which was which. This resulted in gasps of amazement and shrieks of laughter. Mine was I have been married four times and I had met George Clooney; surprisingly they believed the latter! On my birthday the camp chef miraculously whipped up a chocolate sponge, all cooked in a pan over a fire! It was the best birthday cake I had ever eaten.
After dinner the camp crew had collected wood and made a fire outside in a pit. They then gave an impromptu concert, singing and dancing using plastic containers and metal pans as their instruments. They wanted us to teach them a British song, we were short on inspiration but then I came up with the zany idea to teach them the hokey cokey and they seemed to love it.
If anyone had told me years ago I would be teaching the hokey cokey to a group of Berber guides in the Sahara desert on my 60th birthday I would have thought they were bonkers.
I retired to my tent before everyone else and I could hear the merriment going on as I fell asleep in my cosy sleeping bag in a tiny tent in the middle of the desert surrounded by camels.
Day 2 was the longest day as we had to be ready at 6 am to ascend the huge Chigaga dune to witness the sunrise. It was cold and dark, I huffed and puffed but I made it and we all huddled together to wait for the daylight to emerge.
The sun rise was not spectacular at first but as we made our way down the sun suddenly appeared huge and bright and a number of us wrote our loved ones’ names in the sand.
After another epic breakfast we prepared for another 8 hour trek but it was much warmer and calm today so we felt the desert heat beating down as we traversed dunes, and scrubland. We hardly saw any wildlife, but today we saw a few birds where there was some vegetation. The main desert dweller was the dung beetle and wherever we sat they scurried around leaving their little footprints in the sand. If you gently steered them away with a light shower of sand, they would emerge again and keep on going.
Lunch today was outside under a pine tree and another amazing array of salads and a kind of Moroccan pizza was served. Then we pushed on for the afternoon trek and it was at this point a few struggled due to the heat which was actually unseasonably cool compared to the normal temperature.
Our trusty guide Aziz led us on with the motivational ‘last push’. We were incredulous at how he navigated through miles and miles of sand and scrubland which all looked the same. I never did find out how he did it, but he had been leading treks for many years and of course had lived here all his life. He was incredibly knowledgeable and to lead treks in the desert you have to go through an intensive qualification process akin to having a degree. Another guide Ibrahim, that we all called Brian, was always at the back making sure no one wandered off for a pee never to be seen again, and of course the trusty emergency camel followed us at all times so if anyone sprained an ankle they could hitch a lift. The whole trek was organised like a finely oiled machine and at all times you felt completely safe and cared for. The guides were all Muslims and very religious and could be seen kneeling to pray several times a day.
Walking on sand was a challenge but you got used to it, huge dunes had to be climbed from the lowest point then up to the apex and along the ridge. The best strategy was to follow in someone else’s footsteps. Then there was the scary moment where you look down a sheer dune and you see the guide just stepping down to descend. You have to bravely step off the edge and then trust that the second foot will follow as you sashay down the dune, the momentum of the sand taking you down to the bottom. My strategy was to plant my foot sideways and then just let the other foot follow, I was glad of my walking pole for added stability. The whole trek Aziz wore sandals while we were all kitted out with expensive boots and gaiters.
On the final day we rose and packed up for the last time and although I was looking forward to that bath I was sad this incredible experience was in the final stages. We trekked to the edge of the desert and observed a nomad school, where the nomad children of all ages come to be educated. I had taken some coloured pencils and stickers for them and tried to teach them an English song I learned in the Brownies called ‘If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands’ but they all looked at me as if I was an alien.
Then it was time to get back in the 4x4s for a 2-hour roller coaster drive through the dunes back to civilization. There were 3 girls in the back and me in the front of one vehicle and at one stage we wondered if our driver Yusef was whisking us off into the wilderness to be sold as slaves, but we eventually arrived back in the real world, back in the minibus and back to Ouarzazate (pronounced ooerzazat) and running water, shampoo, flushing toilets and wine.
I couldn’t wait to get in the bath, but amazingly I felt relatively fine, no real aches or pains and not a single blister. My preparation and training had served me well. As we all gathered for our last supper, all freshly washed and coiffed, we had our first alcoholic drinks in 4 days and had a ceremony where we all got medals to celebrate our achievement and swapped more stories before relishing our hotel beds after 3 nights of sleeping on a thin mat on the ground.
The next day it was back through the winding roads over the mountains again although there was considerably less snow now, and we had time to experience the hustle and bustle of Marrakech before getting a late evening flight back home. After the tranquillity of the desert I recoiled at the crowds and constant hassling by the street traders but it was good to get a glimpse of the labyrinth that is the Souk market and the culture in the city before heading home.
So ‘I did it’. I don’t think there was ever any real doubt in my mind I would. I achieve most things I put my mind to. I did it in memory of Toby, to celebrate me still being here and most importantly to thank each and every person who supported me and gave money to PAPYRUS to help save young lives in memory of my son. I raised over £3,300 – nearly double my target. One bereaved father gave me £500 and I always thought that if I ever felt like giving up I would think of him and the faith he had in me, as I had helped him when he lost his son.
At 60 you realise life is all about experiences, love and friends, and one of the best things about this experience was the 11 new friends I made who shared this journey with me. Each one with their own inspirational story. Some of my best memories are sharing stories by candlelight, singing at the top of our lungs to Michael Jackson songs in the minibus, getting a helping hand to make it to the top of that dune in the darkness and laughing a lot.
So finally I would say if you are thinking of doing something that scares you, go for it, it could be the best thing you ever did.
To donate please go to www.justgiving.com/Anne-Thorn2