First published on RunUltra
Sometimes opening your email inbox is like a kick to the stomach. However, on rare occasions it can be like opening a door into another world. When I opened my inbox and saw an email from Alice, I knew it would be the latter. The subject line was “Here you go!” and the message held a voice recording. It was like receiving an early Christmas present, or being sucked into an Indiana Jones film, or both.
Alice is an incredible lady. Many of you would know her from her days here at RunUltra. What she had sent me was a voice recording on the fifth day of her Atlas Expedition in Morocco, a trek which started back in January of 2019. She is currently on the third and final part of the series which traverses the entirety of the Draa River, from Nador to Ouarzazate.
She recorded the message as she was walking the daily allotment of kilometers along with the guides and their six beloved camels. The sound of gravel under foot, her interjections of Arabic as she chatted with the guides, and her own enthusiasm mesmerized me as I listened in.
But walking through the desert of Morocco isn’t normally all that exciting. It can be pretty boring at times, and exhausting when you are plodding out the routine twenty to twenty-five kilometers a day. It is even more tiring when your camels aren’t too keen on carrying all your stuff over those necessary kilometers. It seems as though diminished tourism due to COVID19, and a nationwide drought has left them without their necessary food to keep them in peak performance. But such is life for the explorer.
Yet amidst the rather mundane surroundings, Alice was living a riveting life. Camel coaxing and desert survival would have been fascinating enough, but the story she recorded was more. She shared how she found a lost city. Here I was, sitting in my kitchen, listening to a real life explorer explain how someone actually goes about finding a lost city, while walking through a desert!
To be fair, Alice lives in the mountains of Morocco and knows the country better than anyone I have ever known. She has hosted BBC programs, written books, spoken at conferences, and convinced me that I need to spend more than a day in Morocco! And that is saying something when my only experience in Morocco entailed a family altercation with a rather surly camel and ended with some very large medical bills! So, if anyone was going to find a lost city in the desert, I would place my bet on Alice.
The reason that Alice knows so much about Morocco is because she knows it from the inside. She is literally walking the country. She is doing something that I would never even dream of. She is exploring the country with her feet on the ground, the first woman ever recorded to walk the entirety of this river.
The sound of the camels’ hooves on the gravel, and Alice’s storytelling drew me into her world. She had been walking, following this dry river, and needed to get in touch with her mom, because you know, adventurers have mothers too. Which to be honest, I hadn’t really considered. I suppose every time I hear of someone doing something amazing there is probably some mother out there shaking her head and muttering about poor life choices involving deserts and camels. So I imagine that Alice tries to keep her mom informed. She left the caravan and scrambled up the side of this dry river bed. Family communication would be a time commitment of nearly an hour to get to a place with enough reception to make a call. She was in a desert after all.
She finally reached a place where she could sit down, high above her caravan, and called her mom. And this is all completely normal to Alice. You know, just walking through a desert with camels, climbing up mountains, pulling out a cell phone to chat with your family. And then in that moment she noticed something. It looked like a bunch of old stone buildings. She was staring at an settlement that stretched over three hills.
At this point I had completely zoned into her story. I was literally living this, imagining the movie Sahara, just more realistic and with fewer guns. Then my wife walked into the kitchen where I was leaning against the stove. Thankful she interrupted because I had gotten so engrossed that I had forgotten that I had started the kettle on the stove. If she wouldn’t have walked in it would have boiled over and down my backside.
So Alice looked up and there were these old buildings on three hilltops around her. Now, just a few kilometers down the river was an important archaeological site with cave drawings from nearly four thousand years ago. It was there that she was to meet up with the organizer of the expedition, Jean Pierre, the following day. When he showed up, Alice mentioned these ruins she had come across. He, nor any of the others, had heard of them. So Alice and Jean Pierre climbed the hillside again to get a look at the remnants of an obviously well-established people group. And they could find nothing documenting it! There was literally no information about what Alice had just stumbled across while calling her mum.
That is incredible to me. Here we are, living in an age of Google Earth and satellite maps, and there is a lady who finds a lost city. And she did it because she was doing two absolutely ordinary things. She was walking and she was calling her mother. That was it. Those two things. Walking and talking. Can you get more basic than that? The only difference is she was walking and talking in a place that most of us find uncomfortable, unappealing, and unexciting, the desert.
But therein lies an intriguing idea. How many steps do I take outside of my comfortable routine each day? What routes do I run which are new, or different? What would happen if I took the next street over, or got a coffee at the unknown cafe instead of the franchise, or talked with the rough looking fellow on the bench? What discoveries are possible but I will never make since I stick to the comfortable. And here is Alice, walking across a desert because she wants others to see something beautiful in the sand, something she has found and wants me to see.
And maybe ultra running is what has opened my eyes to this even more. Run a little farther. Run a littler higher. Run a little longer. There is something to be found out there and there is something I have found inside of me.
At the end of the voice mail, Alice kept walking and I had my tea. I keep checking my inbox, hoping for another message from her. And the next time you get the chance, you have to ask her to tell you a story.
Alice has an excellent collection of books, films, and stories about her adventures at https://alicemorrison.co.uk . Please head over there!