Sunday, April 27, 2014

Alive in the Sahara

Sitting high up on the precarious ridge of sand, I felt the wind cooling my sweat-soaked body. And I felt as alive as I can remember feeling. We had spent all morning, the third in our four-day trek, climbing up a loose sandy track onto a rocky ledge, passable only in single file, with a rope secured on one side for support. Slowly, deliberately, we picked our way along the ledge. The rocks that lay perilously below to our right were an aspect of the Sahara I did not want to explore more closely, so I concentrated hard on following the instructions of David, my sighted guide for this particular part of the trek.

It was David, who also happened to be the CEO of the charity for which we were all undertaking this challenge, who had spoken about ‘risk’ on our first evening in the desert, gathered around a comforting fire beneath a bright moon and stars that seemed curious to know us. He read a poem, the upshot of which was ‘if you don’t ever take risks you are not living’. Sitting on that ridge, having walked along its length as it turned from rock to sand, dropping sharply on both sides who knows how far, I allowed myself a few moments to reflect on just how true those words had been.

For me, and for many of the group, this was the high point of the trek, both physically and emotionally. The peak of a trek that seemed to take an age to start. Having spent a day on aeroplanes and airport floors, it was a relief to finally be within striking distance of what we had come for. After a reasonably comfortable night in a budget hotel, we were ready to crack on, to put all that training to good use. After a few hours on buses, driving out into increasingly remote landscapes, it was with some trepidation that we were transferred into our off-road vehicles. It wasn’t quite cattle-class, but the stifling air inside our vans was thick with jokes about kidnapping and illegal immigrants. Another couple of hours into our journey and we were beyond fed up – it was desert enough for us, honest, and we would just love to start the trek now…let me out!!!

Eventually, a tired, somewhat dishevelled group of trekkers were dumped somewhere in the Moroccan Sahara and we were off!

I don’t mind admitting, that first night in the desert was tough. Lying in my tent with five complete strangers, three of whom were competing for the title of top trek snorer, the fatigue of the travelling combined with a realisation that there was no ducking out now. It wasn’t so much ‘I’m a celebrity get me out of here’ as ‘I’m a blind guy stuck in the desert with a bunch of other blind/partially-sighted people and I’d really like to go home now please’. Although my main bag felt heavy enough, neither Ant nor Dec had travelled with me from Newcastle, and I didn’t reckon my chances of getting a taxi home were that good. Had I thought about it more in advance, I would have been more prepared for my mild panic. Going away from a familiar environment like home or work, always renders me more disabled – not knowing where anything is, having to ask for help – it’s the kind of dependency that I try to avoid, and after many holidays and trips away I should expect this initial period of frustration as I adapt to my new environment.

There was little chance of this gloom lasting long – there was serious walking to be done, and some seriously good people to walk with. No doubt each of them was dealing with their own personal challenges, taking their own personal risks. Whilst we wanted for our creature comforts, kindness, mutual respect and support were in abundance, and friendships formed that I suspect will last for many miles to come. And we had a great mix of technical and professional skills – I tell you, if the Moroccans had wanted us to build a mail sorting office filled with very secure computers, lovely wooden furniture and excellent plumbing, we were the men/women for the job. It seems word hadn’t got through to the authorities, so instead we satisfied ourselves with putting one foot in front of the other until someone who seemed to know what they were doing guided us into a camp, where we were given nectar in the form of sweet mint tea, and replenished with excellent local food, patched up, medicated and congratulated on making it through the day.

Whilst my lack of central vision prevents me from enjoying the many photos that have since emerged of this adventure, the experiences are easily conjured back to mind…the sense of vast open space, the freedom of walking unaided across flat, baked earth, the joyful laughter of our hosts, the joy of a hot shower at the end.

And most of all, that sense of alertness, of living, of taking that risk, as I stood on that ridge high up in the Saharan sky, and ran forward…