Walk­ing the Wilds

Asian Geographic - - Picturesque -

wind has been howl­ing across the Gobi Desert for weeks, day and night, in all di­rec­tions. Hud­dled in her tent, Sarah Mar­quis woke at 4am. “I in­stantly knew some­thing was dif­fer­ent: There was no wind out­side. And then I heard them.”

Mar­quis was sur­rounded by wolves. “That was a mag­i­cal mo­ment,” she re­calls, with awe, rather than fear.

In 2010, the 44-year-old Swiss ex­plorer set off to walk from Siberia to Aus­tralia – alone. The jour­ney took two years of prepa­ra­tion – plot­ting the route, or­gan­is­ing per­mits, learn­ing smat­ter­ings of lan­guages, and study­ing the ter­rain – the moun­tains, the wa­ter sources, the veg­e­ta­tion, and the weather sys­tems.

Most of the prob­lems that she en­coun­tered on the ex­pe­di­tion across Asia were hu­man – groups of drunk men fol­low­ing her on horse­back in Mon­go­lia, drug deal­ers ha­rass­ing her in the Lao jun­gle, and get­ting ar­rested by the spe­cial forces in China.

Af­ter three years of walk­ing across the con­ti­nent, she ar­rived on the vast Nullar­bor Plain in South Aus­tralia. It was her long­est ex­pe­di­tion.

But, it was cer­tainly not her first. In 2000, she walked 4,260 kilo­me­tres across the United States, from the Cana­dian to the Mex­i­can bor­der. From 2002 to 2003, she walked 14,000 kilo­me­tres in the Aus­tralian out­back with her faith­ful dog, Joe. In 2006, she walked from Chile to Peru along the An­des; she walked 7,000 kilo­me­tres.

Be­fore a walk, Mar­quis piles on weight, and trains to carry 30 kilo­grams. The prepa­ra­tion is also psy­cho­log­i­cal, she shares. “By the time I take that first step, 50 per­cent of the ex­pe­di­tion is done! I know what to do from there. I know how to walk.”

In 2015, she faced her tough­est chal­lenge yet: cross­ing the sparse, hos­tile Kim­ber­ley in Aus­tralia. “My ques­tion was: Would I be able to sur­vive like the abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple sur­vived for thou­sands of years? I knew this ex­pe­di­tion would be the hard­est thing I would ever do. But, if I’d know how dif­fi­cult it was to be, I would have never started it.”

Un­like the ex­pe­di­tion across Asia, the chal­lenges of the Kim­ber­ley were not hu­man-re­lated. First, she faced the prob­lem of mov­ing her­self across an ex­cru­ci­at­ingly harsh land­scape. Then, she needed to catch her own food, and find wa­ter in an area that, or­di­nar­ily, has hardly any – even less so dur­ing the drought in which she found her­self. Mar­quis is also vege­tar­ian, al­though she has had to kill an­i­mals for food on pre­vi­ous ex­pe­di­tions. “I did not like that process at all,” she says. When she walked the Kim­berly, she stuck to fish. “There is a process of con­scious­ness go­ing through those steps in catch­ing it, clean­ing it, cook­ing it. Most of us don’t do this any­more. But when I’m on an ex­pe­di­tion I’m a hunter-gath­erer. I re­ally go back to our roots.”

De­spite con­ced­ing to this di­etary change, she was starv­ing – re­ally starv­ing. “To be that hun­gry is like hav­ing a mon­ster in­side of you. You think you’re strong in those mo­ments? No. But then you re­alise, you have to find that strength. You can­not die. So fi­nally, you open a door in­side you that you didn’t know you had. We are so strong; we ac­tu­ally have no idea.”

But worse than hunger was run­ning out of wa­ter. “Af­ter three days, I started to head into the red zone. It was over 40oc. The thirst com­pletely took over from the hunger.” She dug a hole in the dry riverbed and fi­nally, the wa­ter came up.

What about the snakes? I pitch in. “Snakes?” she scoffs jovially. “Snakes were OK. The man-eat­ing croc­o­diles on the other hand…”

At what point does she make the de­ci­sion to call for help? When she was in Laos, she con­tracted dengue fever. She tied her­self to a tree, so that she wouldn’t rush into the river in her delir­ium, and drown. “I knew the symp­toms. I knew it was dengue. I knew I had to just ride it out. I just had to get through three days of hell. You get ready. We are some­times more scared of the prospect of pain than the pain it­self.”

In Mon­go­lia, she had a tooth in­fec­tion. In that case, she had to be air­lifted out. “I could feel my brain go­ing numb. I in­stantly knew that this was life-threat­en­ing, and I made the call,” she says. Af­ter re­cov­er­ing, she re­turned to the ex­act same po­si­tion to con­tinue her jour­ney.

Beyond her ex­plo­rative cu­rios­ity, the mes­sage of her walk­ing is a call for us to re-es­tab­lish our language with Nature. “We have lost touch, and it’s im­por­tant that we re­con­nect. Peo­ple are re­luc­tant to make real changes be­cause they’re put out of their com­fort zone. I show peo­ple what hap­pens when you take your­self out of your com­fort zone: It is the most free­ing, in­cred­i­ble, re­fresh­ing sen­sa­tion you can have.” ag

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