Scottish Adventurer and presenter of BBC2’s Morocco to Timbuktu series, Alice Hunter Morrison, has just completed an epic 2000km exploratory trek across the world’s biggest hot desert - the Sahara.
Morrison began her expedition on November 26th at Oued Chbika on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and ended it on February 12th at Guergerat on the Mauritanian border. The aim of the expedition was to explore the effects of climate change on the region and particularly how the long-term drought and increasing desertification is affecting the nomadic people who live there. Desertification is claiming up to 16 % of arable land every year and the Sahara has grown by 10%.
No stranger to epic adventures, Morrison was the first woman to walk the length of the River Draa in Morocco in March 2019 discovering a lost city and the tombs of the giants en route. Morrison used reenlisted members of her Draa Expedition team for her latest adventure including three local guides: Brahim Ahalfi, Lhou, Addi Bin Youssef and six camels: Hunter (named in honour of her by his handler), Hamish, Hector, Callum, Alasdair and Sausage.
The expedition threw up challenges from the start: “It’s been tough,” said Morrison, “Endless sandstorms, the constant struggle to find water, the sheer size and monotony of the landscape and the lack of life all made it a psychological battle to keep strong and positive and keep on walking – and then there were the encounters with snakes to contend with!”
The team were only able to survive with the help of the desert’s nomadic people, the Sahrawis, who gave them and their camels water as water sources were often as far as 200km apart. The Sahrawis haven’t experienced a good rainfall since 2014 and the vegetation that the camel herds graze on is disappearing at a worrying rate. Some nomads have adapted by using giant plastic storage bags for water which they ship in by lorry, but many are moving out.
During her journey, Morrison witnessed the migration of entire nomadic communities along with their hundreds of camels towards the east in search of more water.
“Exploration is as important as it has ever been. In the UK it feels like we have too much water, with floods destroying land and homes, in this part of the world, climate change is drying out the land. Although the Sahara has been a desert for thousands of years it has been able to sustain life until now. By walking these miles myself, I have seen first-hand the life that remains and the life that has vanished. From where the acacia trees are, to where hyenas can still be found, where there are plentiful hares and desert foxes to capture them, and also where the coruscating dryness means that there is no real life at all.”
It may have been tough, but Morrison says the expedition has also been full of excitement and discovery. The team found evidence of Stone Age peoples and ancient settlements along the route, often in areas where nomads still camp. There were also more hazardous unearthings – including an unexploded bomb next to the team’s camp which bear testament to the conflict in the region.
An interesting development on the expedition has been the unexpected knowledge Morrison has acquired about the secret sex lives of camels.
“We have been walking during the mating season and all six of our male camels are in heat. A male camel in heat is not a pretty thing. Every time our lot caught a whiff of female, they would literally foam at the mouth and then blow a huge pink “sex” bubble out the side of their mouths, while making a sound like the roaring of lions. The worst thing, though, is that to make themselves attractive to the girls, they stand with their legs apart, pee and whisk it up on to their backs – and my tent and luggage! – with their tails. I have basically spent three months drenched in camel wee.”
Alice Morrison Bio
Alice is a Scottish Adventurer, based in Morocco. In March 2019, she became the first woman to walk the 1500km length of the Draa River in Morocco. She has cycled 12,500km across Africa from Cairo to Cape Town and run the toughest footrace on earth, the Marathon des Sables. Recently, she retraced the ancient salt, gold and slave trading routes for the BBC 2 Series, Morocco to Timbuktu: An Arabian Adventure. She has published three books about her adventures: My 1001 Nights, Dodging Elephants and Morocco to Timbuktu. Her latest paperback Adventures in Morocco is out on the 20th February
(Very potted) History of Western Sahara
The history of this desert region is a complex and troubled one. “Western Sahara has never been a nation in the modern sense of the word,” according to Wikipedia. It has always been populated by fishermen on the coast, and nomads in the interior who live off their flocks and in ancient times plied the caravan trade from sub-Saharan Africa. It was part of the Moroccan Empire along with Mauritania. Laterally, it was colonised by Spain until the 1970s when they wanted to leave and promised the people a referendum on sovereignty. Mauritania and Morocco both protested this, saying the territory was theirs. The International Court of Justice ruled that their claims were notenough to give them control of the territory and that the Sahrawi people had a right to self-determination. Despite this, in 1976 Spain withdrew ceding the territories to Morocco and Mauritania. The next day, the Sahrawi popular movement, Polisario, declared the formation of the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
A series of conflicts ensued between the Polisario, based in and heavily supported by Algeria, and Morocco and Mauritania until 1991 when a ceasefire was agreed. Now, 2/3s of the region is under Moroccan control, and it is this area that The Saharan Expedition crossed.
Peoples: The Sahrawis
Sahrawis means the people of the desert. They have their own language, Hassaniyya, and forms of dress. The men wear blue robes embroidered in silver or gold called foukias and the women wear colourful wraps called milfas. The area cannot support much life and is one of the most sparsely populated areas on earth – with just over quarter of a million people recorded at the last census of whom 40% live in the main city of Laayoune.
The rest roam the sands with their herds, or cluster close to the coast with their fishing boats.
Alice’s sponsors commented –
Jim McNamara Craghoppers MD, "We knew that working with Alice would be an amazing experience. She really challenges herself with her expeditions and in turn puts our clothing and equipment through the toughest tests! We have watched in awe her achievement of walking the Sahara - such determination and such care for the people, animals and environments she encounters. We are proud that she chose us to help protect her on her journey and we look forward to the next adventure together!"
Kim Gray, Head of Diversity for NTT DATA UK:
“NTT DATA UK are delighted to be one of Alice Morrison’s Sponsors for the Sahara Expedition – Alice is an inspirational woman who demonstrates the art of the possible on a regular basis – she allows us to dream big through her amazing expeditions and then she shares her experiences with us through our Women’s Business Network. She is an amazing speaker; a fantastic person and it is a privilege to know her.”