Helen Thayer’s Saharan Expedition

Helen Thayer, the world renowned adventurer, educator, and motivational speaker completed a trek across the Sahara last year. In this first-hand exclusive article for HikingLady.com, Helen uses her gift with words to share a glimpse of her journey and educate us about the lifestyle of the Berber people. Through her adventures we can learn from and be inspired by Helen’s tenacity to complete such journeys and more importantly her thoughtful insights and reflections garnered from her experiences at the far ends of the earth.

Helen Thayer, the founder of Adventure Classroom and her husband Bill, create educational programs for students, kindergarten through grade 12. Essential to Adventure Classroom is the inter-cultural awareness and respect program. Through lectures, images and writing, students are urged to increase their knowledge of remote cultures, cross the barriers of language and lifestyle, and promote intercultural respect no matter how remote or how different the lifestyles and beliefs of others.

In this latest 2012 expedition the team, both seniors, returned to the Sahara to travel 900 miles with members of the Berber tribe and their camels across some of the most dangerous and desolate desert on earth.

Helen trekking across the Sahara
Helen trekking across the Sahara, 2012

A 900-Mile Trek into a Blazing Sahara Wasteland

It was midnight. The remote, rarely traveled section of the Moroccan-Algerian border lay a quarter mile away bathed in the shadowy light of a quarter moon. We watched an Algerian border patrol drive by in a noisy jeep and disappear over a low hill in the wide-open desert.

Our Berber leader and family patriarch, Adeel, silently raised his hand to signal that we should all travel single file with no more talking. Bill and I fell in line hardly daring to breath as we picked our way through the baseball-sized rocks across the sparsely marked border. The only sound was the soft, almost silent padding of our camel’s feet and fourteen human, carefully placed footsteps. Soon we were safely across our first border and headed southeast on our way to walk from Morocco across Algeria, Mauritania and finally northern Mali to meet an awaiting family of relatives.

In 2012 Bill and I walked 900 miles with members of a Berber tribe. The family led 26 camels and we led our four camels all loaded with supplies and water. Our route followed an ancient camel trade route first documented in the eleventh century. Salt, gold, dates and slaves were transported from Timbuktu in Mali across the desert to the northern coast of Morocco to be sold and loaded on ships for transport to Europe and America.

Helen's husband Bill Thayer
Helen’s husband Bill Thayer

Berbers, the masters of survival in this unyielding land, welcomed Bill and I into the routine of their daily life. It was an opportunity to document an ancient culture’s lifestyle and beliefs for another project for Adventure Classroom, an educational program in which we take the four corners of the world to students in grades Kindergarten to grade twelve.

The Berber People

For thousands of years the Berber peoples of North Africa have clung to their distinct identity and many still follow a nomad’s lifestyle. This nomadic family regularly traveled with their herds across the desert plains and oases, settling close to reliable water and food supplies. In the past, country borders had not been a problem. The entire desert was their home. In the modern day era of border disputes and political unrest even nomadic Berbers must obtain permission to cross national borders. However the volatile political situation makes it impossible to gain the required consent. Many families solve the problem in their traditional way. They simply ignore those invisible lines that divide countries just as they had for past centuries.

Searching for Water

Drought and dropping water tables are a modern-day concern in a desert that is a hostile place of little rain. The lack of water for the family’s herds forced them to sell all but a few young goats and join extended family members and their large herd of sheep, goats and camels and relocate with them to a more reliable water supply. The goats were too young to keep pace with the camels so they were placed safely in the pack pouches.

Sand dunes in the Sahara
Sand dunes in the Sahara

We crossed vast plains that stretched ahead in naked folds and in places the baked earth was nearly sterilized by extreme drought that had long ago chased all living creatures to more friendly environments. At times we were confronted by horizons that seemed impossibly far.

At the end of the first week we breached a low rise among sand dunes and looked ahead to a moonscape of mile after mile of scorched earth, rocks, and flat barren earth that looked as though all life had fled the engulfing furnace and raking hot winds. A few lonesome wisps of dried grass showed above the parched earth. Camel fodder that night would have to be hay carried by the camels. Water would come later when we arrived at a well three days away.

Locating the water wells was crucial to our survival. To the Berbers navigation was a simple affair. They had no need for our GPS and maps. All they needed were the stars, the wind and a description of each well’s location that had been handed down through generations of nomadic travelers. Some wells showed clearly above ground while others were merely an obscure hole in the earth covered with a flat lid.

Prayers and tea: the Berbers’ morning ritual

Each day, just before dawn Adeel called all the men to morning prayers. To conserve precious water they used sand to wash. Then kneeling on their prayer mats they faced east and prayed to Allah. In the background the women silently tended a fire to heat water for the obligatory custom of tea drinking which we had discovered from a previous Sahara journey to be essential to desert existence. Only after at least three small glasses of sweetened tea were consumed could the camels be loaded and the day’s journey started. It seemed that tea was the desert lubrication that provided the ambition to face the day’s trek which began in the predawn soft light that quickly gave way to a rising sun that soon engulfed all living and non living things in shimmering heat that bore into every human core. Nights, although often 40 degrees cooler than noon temperatures, were a welcome relief to mind and body.

One step away from disaster

For generations Berbers had travelled as we now travelled across this ancient land. It was a journey into another world, although remarkable in its simplicity, we were well aware that a single mistake such as a missed well could spell disaster.

Each day we plodded on at a steady pace with regular breaks for tea and Islamic prayers and to allow the camels to grab whatever fodder was available. Some days we traveled through sand dunes where each step in the soft sand was an ordeal. The rocky plains were hard on feet and ankles. In places we looked ahead to mile after mile of flat land, cracked and naked, devoid of all plant life. A single moderately sized rock would have looked huge in proportion to the surrounding billiard table flatness.

As darkness settled we made camp. Our shelter was a simple floorless tent made of brown woven goat and camel hair fabric about twelve feet long and six feet wide with sides that could be dropped in strong winds to keep at least some of the sand at bay. The entire structure was propped up with wooden poles.

Dates, the energy food of the desert
Dates, the energy food of the desert

Firewood was gathered during the day’s travel to make the evening fire on which the women cooked a soup of vegetables and dried meat. Bread cooked in the hot embers of a shallow hole and covered with hot sand made a filling meal followed of course by several cups of sweet tea. Dates, the energy food of the desert, were always available for a quick snack during the day.

Occasionally we met others traveling with camels and livestock to a far off oasis. Conversation never began before the long drawn out greeting ritual took place in which each side echoes the other in enquiries about health, livestock and family.

Our gear and clothing were severely tested in the extreme environment. My favorite red Cordura shirt that I have worn to the ends of the earth and back, once more stood up to the extreme environment of abrasive sand, rocks and wind. We kept our camera lenses in plastic bags but even then the sand sneaked its way inside.

Day after day we plodded onward always on the watch for desert bandits who might steal camels and belongings.

Finally, on the horizon, we spied the long sought camp of the extended family members, some of whom came to meet us with hoops of joy at once more joining together as one large family. The next day was spent breaking camp and sorting the new addition’s belongings. After their eight camels were loaded we all turned north, our ranks swelled by six more people and their eight camels. On the forty-fifth day of our long journey we entered a shallow valley with a good well full of salt free water and sufficient fodder for the herds.

Rising temperatures threatening the Berber way of life

However water would continue to be an ongoing problem. If this well would run dry and animal fodder disappears, then the entire family would once again move to another location. Although nomads are used to following the water and fodder supply, the problem of finding enough salt free water to sustain themselves and their herds is unrelenting due to the effects of global warming and the continued expansion of hot dry deserts worldwide.

Read more about Helen Thayer on her website: http://www.helenthayer.com/

Hiking Lady’s Book Reviews:

  • Polar Dream, by Helen Thayer. Read a gripping account of Helen’s solo unsupported ski trek to the magnetic North Pole in 1988!
  • Walking the Gobi, by Helen Thayer. Helen tells of her and her husband Bill’s 1,600 mile walk across Mongolia, fighting inhospitable 126 degree temperatures, sand storms, smugglers, dehydration, and physical pain!


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