At the beginning of 2019, I embarked upon a trilogy of expeditions that would take me 4,000km right across Morocco.
I became the first woman ever to walk the length of the Draa River and, from there, crossing the Sahara to Guerguerat on the Mauritanian border.
I found a lost city, explored the tombs of the giants, ate lots of goat trachea wrapped in belly fat and intestines, and faced horned vipers, quicksands and the deathstalker scorpion along the way.
The third leg of my expedition was planned for June of this year. Then coronavirus hit.
I am an explorer. I love being outdoors and the freedom it gives you. I live in a family compound in a small village populated by the Amazigh people (also referred to as Berber) in the High Atlas Mountains, with the family cow under my bedroom, and a terrace that looks out at a panorama of 3,000m+ peaks with the minaret of the local mosque set in the middle.
So when Morocco went into strict lockdown on March 20, I felt imprisoned and claustrophobic. The rules meant no going outside your house at all except for essential shopping, and for that you needed a written permission from the government.
For 14 weeks, I raided the biscuit tin and looked out over the mountains longingly, but the law was clear and, especially as a foreigner, I didn’t want to break it. I watched enviously on social media as all my friends in the UK posted pictures of their walks, runs and bike rides outside and tried (and often failed!) to be glad for them.
One thing I was lucky to have was company. Life here is communal and there are four Amazigh families, with 15 children between them, and me and Squeaky the cat living inside our compound. I was never lonely, and because we were our own bubble, I still got my usual hugs and kisses from the little ones and shared hot buttered pancakes, daily gossip and sweet mint tea with the women mid-morning.
The minute the strict lockdown was lifted, I started planning the final stage of my Morocco crossing with my expedition organiser, Jean-Pierre Datcharry. Our route took us across areas of vast wilderness nowhere near any large towns.
No coronavirus at all had been recorded there or in my village, but still we had to persuade the authorities that we posed no risk. I took a test and my three three Amazigh guides Brahim, Ali, Addi and I stocked up on masks.
We set off in the boiling heat from Nador on the Mediterranean Coast, aiming for Ouarzazate, where I had started all those months ago, with 1,400km across the Atlas mountains ahead of us.
On our first day, the temperature reached 50 degrees. I couldn’t physically drink enough water, it just poured straight out of me and my Scottish face was a deep puce. Then Brahim, one of my guides, uttered the fatal phrase: ‘It’s too hot for the camels.’ Not words you want to hear at the start of an expedition.
One of the camels, Lachlan, simply went on strike. He sat down and refused to go any further until the sun lowered and the temperature dipped to a ‘mild’ 44 degrees. As we got higher and further south, the temperature dropped and we picked up our pace.
People showered us with hospitality as we passed. It was fig, apple and almond season and farmers would come running from their orchards with armfuls of them picked from the trees.
When we entered the high desert plateau of Rekkam, we were welcomed by the nomads who live there in their enormous black goats’ hair tents, woven by the women. The tribes trace their heritage back to the Arabian Peninsula and the first wave of Arabs who brought Islam to Morocco in the 8th Century. They told us proudly that they were ‘people of the Crescent Moon’ as they slaughtered a sheep in our honour and roasted it over the open fire.
It was fascinating to discover the traditional ways that people farm the land and herd their animals, using wooden ploughs, scything the hay by hand and gathering brushwood on their donkeys in the mountains for winter fuel. I felt like I had been transported back to a distant past before machines, when people had to work hard for their food and warmth.
When I mentioned that it was like something out of the Middle Ages, Brahim laughed. He pointed at the crowd who had gathered round us in the village and were filming us on their mobiles, and reminded me that was exactly what they were saying about us – ‘that we are from a legend.’
He was right. In our long cotton robes and headscarves to protect us from the sun and with our six camels, laden with tents and baggage, we were like the camel trains of their ancestors that used to travel up and down to West Africa trading gold and slaves and salt in centuries gone by.
Doing this exploration in the time of coronavirus was complicated and difficult. We did not come across one single case of the virus on our journey but like everywhere else local communities have been hard hit economically and socially. Schools and mosques were closed and many people had lost their incomes due to the collapse of the tourist industry and its knock-on effects.
This has been a terrible year by anyone’s reckoning and the world has been turned upside down, but I have been lucky enough to be able to pursue my dream of completing this expedition.
It was an enormous privilege for me and the team to walk through history in this way. Most importantly for me, though, was the freedom of being outside again exploring the wild and remote landscapes that remain untouched by our human troubles.
I now have a book to write about the expedition, so I will be spending winter hunched over a keyboard – but I am also planning my next adventures. I have two possible explorations lined up for next year but, of course, I will have to see how coronavirus pans out.
I am really optimistic though. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is how important our natural world is to us, how much we need to connect with it, and that we need other humans to survive and thrive.
I hope that the explorations I do and the stories I bring back can provide some new insights and understanding, as well as some much-needed escapism.
My Life through a Lens
My Life Through a Lens is an exciting series on Metro.co.uk that looks at one incredible photo, and shares the story that lies behind it. If you have an experience you would like to share, please email [email protected] with MLTAL as the subject.
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