Chris Treks The Sahara In Aid Of St. Catherine’s Hospice

St. Catherine’s Hospice is located in Crawley and provides end of life care and support to individuals and families from West Sussex and East Surrey. In 2019 they began organising a trek to the Sahara to raise important funds for the building of a new hospice in the Pease Pottage area of Crawley. The trek was originally due to happen in 2020 however to the Covid-19 pandemic, a series of delays meant that the two groups of sponsored trekkers did not arrive in Morocco to complete their trek until April 2022. I was in the first group, arriving at Marrakech airport on 20th April 2022 with a journey over the Atlas Mountains and a 50k trek over 4 days in the desert, ahead of us.

Usually when a group go away together, at some point someone will be heard to say ‘what happens in (enter location name)’ stays in ‘wherever’. Factually, our trip to trek the Sahara for St. Catherine’s Hospice was a simple one. Our diverse group arrived at Gatwick Airport at 4am on the Wednesday morning and finally flew, PCR tests in hand, to Morocco. For many, me included, this was their first trip to this country and North Africa.

Exiting the airport, we were greeted by our local trek team of Hassan, Lassan and Ishan and driven south through the Atlas Mountain range to Ouarzazate, a common jumping off point for the Sahara and the centre of the Moroccan film industry. We stayed the night here at a traditional Moroccan hotel, enjoying some amazing hospitality and a first proper meal on Moroccan soil.

The next morning, we journeyed along single-track roads and stretches of modern motorway further into the mountains. The countryside around us began to become sparser and alien, rocky vista’s and sun baked, silent Berber villages. After a few hours escaping the world behind us we reached our starting point, stopping to enjoy a traditional lunch under shady trees before commencing our four-day trek through the desert. This was where we met the train of camels that would accompany us for the first time.

The first afternoon saw us begin with a short 5k walk to acclimatise to the heat and ground, an opportunity to try out our camel packs and ensure any of the other equipment we had brought was fit for purpose. The stony ground eventually gave way to sand dunes, our first experience of this beautiful but challenging environment.

Arriving at our camp for the night, the sounds of the camels was twinned with many a tired sigh and stretching trekker. Our support team prepared an amazing meal which we shared under the cover of a main tent before enjoying a campfire under the stars. Our gracious hosts showed us their amazing drumming skills with only the use of empty water containers, singing us traditional songs. Our response (a rather terrible rendition of ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor’ didn’t quite cut the mustard!) We would have two further nights of such team spirit and fraternity but before those lay two days of 20k treks further into the heat of the desert.

Those two days were hot, dusty, sandy experiences with the wind at times providing relief but often adding to the difficulty of trekking through this environment. It was on one of these days that I had a moment that I hope will remain with me in the future. On entering a small village, the sense of excitement was palpable. As we meandered through the shady narrow streets, children would pop their heads out from behind corners and wave to us. It was here that a little boy came up to my side as I walked and said hello in French, asking me my name. I replied and asked him his in French to which he replied ‘Je m’appelle Omar, Marhaba!’ (‘My name is Omar, welcome!). On leaving the village, Lassan explained to us that the village was a very poor one but that they took great pride in tourists visiting as they were on the route for such desert treks.

As the trek progressed, each member of the team had to at varying points dig deep. Whether it was the heat or the wind, everyone had their own challenge to overcome but gradually a real sense of achievement was growing throughout the group and by the end of the third day, despite numerous aches and pains, sandy red eyes and sores, the group of mostly strangers at the start were now a real team, supporting one another in the common goal of completing the trek in support of St. Catherine’s.

On the last night, after the usual campfire entertainment from the support team, they taught the Berber method of baking bread in hot sand. This was some of the best bread I had ever tasted. That night I slept under the stars, waking at 3.30am to the sound of our hosts breaking fast and praying before they began to tidy up the camp.

The last day saw us complete the trek with a short 5k walk to our pickup point and then a nine-hour drive back to Marrakech. Despite the tired aching limbs, we would be taking back home everything and more from our time on this trek. Nothing would be staying in the desert except possibly a little piece of our hearts, forever stamped St. Catherine’s Hospice.

If you would like to find out more about St. Catherine’s Hospice, then please visit https://www.stch.org.uk/. As of the date of this blog, the Sahara Trek has nearly reached its fundraising target of £140,000, so if you would like to donate to support their work then please visit my Just Giving Page.

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