Going Solo

Going Solo

For most of us, that thirst foradventure comes with some built-in comfort zones. CharlotteFrancis meets a woman who's cast aside such soft ideasin her quest to cross the Sahara, on foot and, apartfrom a nomad guide, alone.

PaulaConstant had always dreamt of doing something differentthan the 9-5 routine. But when she decided on a trekacross the Sahara, a project that turned into a threeyear adventure, she encountered plenty of "ideaassassins". In the face of pressure to settle down,get a proper job and get on with life, Paula remainedsteadfast.

Writing had always been very much her dream and shesaw the trek as a building block to a future career."Anyone starting a business or embarking on anadventure says it takes three years to build and fiveyears to break even, so I kept that in the back of mymind the whole time."

Paula started out on the London to Cairo trek in August2004, reaching Morocco a year later, and has alreadywalked a staggering 12000km, of which 7200 have beenin desert terrain. Continuing on after the break upof her marriage six weeks into the west-to-east Saharacrossing from Mauritania to Cairo, Paula's trek wasforcibly interrupted due to political unrest in Nigerlast September. Undaunted, she will return to completeit later this year if the rebel situation has been broughtunder control, and plans to arrive in Cairo by May 2008.

The daughter of mould-breaking parents - her motherwas Australia's first female stenographer typist andher father sailed solo from Australia to England atthe age of 70 - Paula has also been inspired by explorerssuch as Sir Wilfred Thesiger and in more recent times,that other well known "camel lady", RobynDavidson. She confesses to having a noble view of hardshipin an alien environment.

The reality of conditions in the desert - where windscan gust for four to five days at a stretch, depositingsand in your ears and making it impossible to sleepor wash - soon put paid to Paula's romantic image ofa woman striding across the desert. Similarly, her ideaof having plenty of time to practise yoga and meditationnever quite materialised. "The dawn salutationsto the sun never happened, but I do yoga stretches andpacking up the camels each morning involves yogic movements."

Contrary to popular belief, the desert is a busy place."The Sahara is one of the most inhabited and socialplaces on earth. Tracts of it are isolated but peopledo live there and tents are concentrated around grazingand water." Paula says she finds more opportunitiesfor peace and seclusion in the bush and mountains aroundher hometown of Mansfield in Victoria.

"It is rare to go a day without meeting a nomad."She explains the strong sense of community in the Islamicand Bedouin cultures: "We're accustomed to ourown space but in the desert my space is your space,and you share your food, tea and tent in a very ritualisedway. The laws of hospitality in the desert are verystrict.

"Nomads are never in a rush and tea drinking canlast three hours, by which time the next lot turn up."Paula has learnt to switch off from clock watching,but needs to remain aware of the distance covered eachday. She has a strict rule not to stop at any tentswhile walking. "I would never have got beyond Tombouctou!"she laughs. "A tent visit may last six hours."

More tiring are the constant questions. "If youhave walked 30km in a day and are exhausted and needto prepare food, it can be tiring explaining yourselfto people who have never stepped out of their own environment."

She is repeatedly asked, "Where is your husband,will you marry me, do you ride the camels, give me money..."A white woman and three camels walking across the desertis, after all, a rare sight. As far as she is aware,when her trek is complete Paula will be the first womanto have crossed the Sahara solo and on foot.

Although perceived as a wealthy white woman in someareas and asked for anything and everything from herclothes to tea, sugar, rice and medical supplies, theBedouins living deep in the desert practise tolerance,acceptance and kindness towards all who pass. "Theywould never ask for anything and operate to a differentetiquette. It is very humbling. If you need their turbanor shoes, they will give it to you. And they alwaysfind something to laugh about."

Always fascinated by the Bedouin and Islamic culturesand keen to understand the geography and history ofsuch a dramatic desert landscape, she travels with anomad guide. Paula has a GPS, speaks some Arabic, plansher own route and looks after her three camels, butthe nomads speak the local languages - including Tamashekin Niger and Mali - and know the terrain and where tofind water and grazing. "As a white woman walkingalone in a male Islamic society, the nomad guides canalso act as a buffer zone," she says.

I ask about her other travelling companions, the camels."It took a while to love them," she confesses.She still has two of the three original camels thatshe started out with in Mauritania (a Tuareg chief iscurrently looking after them until she returns). "Theyare brave, faithful and funny, and I have learnt totrust them. They soon pick up on a bad guide and getbolshie."

It was her decision to sack her first guide in Nouadhibou,Mauritania, that led to one of her most challengingexperiences. Proud to have got rid of the guide, thingswere going well until a camel slipped his nose ringand took off with the pack containing her money andpassport in the direction of the landmines on the borderof the Western Sahara. Battling a urinary tract infection,Paula had no idea how to rope him and had to track himfor more than 30km.

"I felt sick and scared, and had never had tototally rely on my GPS and compass before or rope acamel at night. It took two hours to rope him once Idid find him. I was only two weeks into the expeditionat this stage." Although part of her felt a failure,Paula realised how much she learnt and the experiencehelped her to gain confidence. She also drew strengthfrom Sir Richard Branson's mantra in his autobiography,"Never Give up".

She didn't even though she often faced fear. "Youbecome very grounded where you are, stop panicking,and look at things calmly and rationally. You realiseit will all be okay, that the environment is not daunting;you just have to understand it and work with it."Neither did she ever feel in danger. "The Bedouinculture is open, trusting and non-violent."

She describes long-distance walking as a deep meditation,bringing, on some occasions, great clarity. En routeto Tombouctou, a 26 day stretch and with a prickle infectionin her feet, Paula recalls feeling "a weird senseof calm and gratitude for everything around me and thatevery night we found beautiful dunes to set up camp.It was coming up to the full moon when even the camelsdon't sleep. It gets very buzzy in the desert.

"Never mind how tricky the day has been, the halfhour of dusk after cooking and cleaning up, lookingout at the stars and the moon, is the best time of day,"she says. When she told one of her guide how she savouredthis magical time, he remarked, "Now you're a nomad!"She waxes lyrical about the sunsets and sunrises inthe desert, and describes the energy at night shiftingto a reassuring rhythm. "Here in Australia, thesky is different and you can't locate yourself."

In some ways the enforced break to her journey in Niger,while heartbreaking, turned out for the best, as Paulawas fighting a kidney infection and fatigue. The nextstage of the route would have been a stretch of 650kmwith only two wells. She would have needed to walk 45-50kmeach day and possibly through the night. "You can'tstop until you find food and water for the camels."Yet Paula stresses she would have carried on if herpassport had not been confiscated by the Minister ofthe Interior in Niger.

"I left the desert and had a very soft landingwith hot showers and chef-prepared food at the homeof the Canadian Consul (representing Australians inNiger) in Niamey (the capital). I ate hugely and puton 10 kilos in a week." Less glamorous was flyingback via London and dealing with the London Undergroundat rushhour.

While the lessons in the desert have helped her togain a clearer sense of her boundaries and expand hersense of gratitude and tolerance, her patience withwhingers in supermarkets queues or people complainingabout the size of a plane seat or the quality of inflightentertainment has lessened. "Flying back to Australiafrom London I was grateful to sit down for 24 hours,have meals brought to me and watch a bit of TV."

Paula is now preparing for her return to Niger to completethe remaining 3700km. "I am looking after my health,training with a polar expeditioner and building up musclemass. Weight loss is a problem as, deeper into the Sahara,countries are very poor and my diet is very restricted.I eat nuts, dates when available, rice, onions and tuna(if I can buy it), sweet biscuits, and sometimes I slaughtera goat bought from a nomad. And of course tea, strongtea with lots of sugar."

Apart from her Birkenstock shoes, her other "luxuries"are her GPS and satellite phone, the joy of a stripwash and her swag, made close to home in Mansfield.She misses talking to family and friends, and speakingher own language, and sometimes - in addition to writingher journal in the cool of the evening - she recordsa video diary just for the sake of speaking English.

Her trek through the desert has strengthened her appreciationof home. Coming home to Australia from Niger was shesays, "blissful". "If you tend to becontemptuous of Australia's materialism while you areaway, you forget the comfort of your own culture, howcomfortable, easy, polite and friendly it can be. Mygreatest joy is to sit in a pub with a glass of winewith no one staring at me.''

At the same time, Paula believes the Third World hasa lot to teach us about community. She has also foundthat the Islamic culture has a much healthier approachto body image than here in the West. Not only is fatbeautiful, but women are not embarrassed to be beautifuland even "ugly'" women have a strong senseof self worth. "It's a cultural issue and has changedmy perception of women." She also talks of herlove of Arabic poetry, which drew her to learning thelanguage, and the songs of the desert, songs about love,war and journeys. As well as writing her second bookabout her desert trek (her first book, Learningto Walk, is under negotiation with a publisher),Paula is interested in running workshops for women tobuild confidence and self esteem around body image.She is particularly concerned about anorexic teenagersand thinks we need to change the way women are perceived.

Paula is also walking to raise awareness of breastcancer, donating a percentage of the proceeds of herbook sales to the National Breast Cancer Foundationof Australia. Her mother has suffered the disease andis an ambassador for the charity.

She has no firm plans for future trips but fantasisesabout exploring more landscapes, and dreams of crossingthe Australian deserts and kayaking the Niger riveror even the Amazon. Once a nomad, always a nomad.