The Sahara Desert In A Wheelchair
The Story of How It Happened
An account of this brave and unusual adventure.
- “I will crawl if I have to…”, Luisa Pearce.
- An official Guinness Book of World Records attempt; no precedence.
- Luisa’s medical condition was precarious… we were constantly tinkering with extraction options behind the scenes as we progressed in order to get her out should the need have arisen.
About 2 years ago, Luisa Pearce’s life was changed in an instant when a routine operation on her wrist left her partially paralysed; she is now in a wheelchair. Luisa is determined not to allow her disability to restrict her life; she believes she can achieve virtually anything an abled bodied person can. She looked for something to demonstrate this and having set up a Charity to help others (Freedom for Wheels), she came up with the Sahara.
Having been approached, we agreed to facilitate what was an exciting untried adventure, making adjustments where we thought necessary. Luisa had her own travelling support team, which included two Physiotherapists and several Personal Trainers. The team totalled 14 including herself.
The event attracted much media attention especially as an application for a World Record for the fastest crossing of the Sahara Desert in a wheelchair (North to South) was approved by the Guinness Book of World Records.
The agreed aim was to reach and summit Erg Zaher (nicknamed ‘Eric’), the largest sand dune in the Chigaga range of dunes within a 7 day trek. Abled bodied groups’ treks are 6 days, reaching Eric on day 3. We allowed an extra day so the plan was to summit on day 4.
During this period, abled bodied groups cover anywhere between 60 – 100km depending on the groups’ overall ability.
The seriousness of this challenge was beyond question; there was no precedence, how the chair would perform or how Luisa would hold up physically. We had a start and an aim and no idea what was going to happen afterwards; the stuff adventures are made of! That said, risk assessment completed, we had a good tried and tested support crew, additional manpower and water and an extraction plan in place should it be needed.
Luisa’s chair was an impressive looking beast, specially designed, lightweight with a long extension on the front housing a small front wheel and 2 rear larger wheels with fat mountain bike style tyres.
Within minutes of commencing the Challenge, the dry Draa river bed, with it rocks, presented a serious obstacle for the chair, albeit temporary but enough to slow Luisa to a crawl thus delivering the group into camp in darkness; we had covered around 3km. Not an ideal start and it was enough for our Moroccan Guides to start posing serious questions for what lie ahead.
Luisa wanted as little help as possible during the trekking phase and subsequently, progress was slow. By mid morning on day 2, it became clear that without periodic assistance (being pushed in the chair), reaching Eric was questionable. Reluctantly, Luisa agreed to the assistance.
And then the weather hit… day 2 and it rained heavily for a good number of hours turning the campsite into a quagmire. Whilst the group had a bit of a soaking, it hardened the sand making it easier to roll the wheels; an unexpected silver lining! The weather improved the next day and we were treated to 40 deg C cloudless sunshine from then on.
As these early days went by, constant adjustments were being made to the potential location of the night stops, invariably shortening the distance covered during the day. The route had been altered to keep the wheels off the softer and undulating sand dunes; no way would the wheelchair have gone across those without serious assistance.
Luisa’s personal goal soon came to the fore, taking herself out of the chair and walking on crutches for as long as possible but that also took its toll. The level of care Luisa needed at the end of each day and sometimes through the night, was greater than perhaps was envisaged and without the constant support and expert care of the 2 physiotherapists, this challenge would have ended on day 2. The welfare of any client is of paramount importance and we were, in conjunction with our superb guides, constantly tinkering with the itinerary and possible extraction options in order to allow Luisa to achieve her goal, within a safe invisible framework.
She completed over 13km on her crutches on one specific day; a formidable feat across the dunes and in the heat. It threw a question mark over the wheelchair World Record but that became an accepted secondary issue; reaching Eric was still her main aim.
Eric stands at about 1900’ (GPS recorded) and from the campsite it is about a mile over undulating sand dunes with 300 – 400’ of ascending on soft, golden, deep, steep sand; classic 3 steps up, slide 2 steps down scenario. It’s hard work even for able bodied people. It’s not uncommon for people to suffer from vertigo such is the steepness of the ridges on the way to the summit.
Luisa had no choice but to use her crutches (with sand pads) on this section. Her hands were already blistered, the daily ritual of taping complete. A strong group of 5 – 6 guys were with her all the way, including her 16 year old son, encouraging, motivating, nudging, pushing, pulling. Having slogged her way to the ridges, the crutches had to be ditched as the steepness of the ridges rendered them useless. It was then literally a case of crawling, hopping, pushing, pulling and anything else physically possible to cover every inch of sand to the summit. The rest of the group were singing her ‘ain’t no mountain high enough’ anthem song to help her as best they could and she eventually reached the summit exhausted but elated; mission achieved, tears all round. It took her about 2 hrs of hard work.
Luisa said she would crawl if she had to and indeed she had to. She was finally able to sit on top of Eric, with her son, watching the fabulous sunset, like anyone else. A wonderful moment.
It took 5 days to reach Eric and as a result, extraction was going to be by 4×4; it was a matter of where from. The location of campsites eventually dictated the end of the challenge rather than how far the group could get. Distance was now irrelevant, although for the record, we covered just over 50km. The final campsite and sunset were a beautiful setting and whilst weary, it was time to exit the desert.
This was an incredibly brave undertaking and one that should not be underestimated. Given the name of the Challenge and media interest in the wheelchair element (as well as the World Record application), it may seem surprising that Luisa opted for movement on crutches as much as possible but as we reported in our previous blog, this was a personal quest; the World Record came afterwards and she was prepared to sacrifice it if needed in order to reach Eric. Just 8 months ago she could hardly walk a step on crutches so to travel over 13km in one day is a huge personal achievement for her. Just summiting Eric was a massive physical task, let alone returning to camp, which was carried out in full darkness.
Was it a success? Absolutely. Travel and Trek’s role is to facilitate achievable goals and perhaps push boundaries where feasible and agreed. We did that thus allowing Luisa to achieve as much as she could in the manner she wanted to. Flexibility is the key and our extensive prior knowledge of the ground allowed this adventure to be launched very early on.
Our Moroccan colleagues also have to be congratulated on their dedication, flexibility, patience and compassion on what was an unusual and sometimes worrying experience for them watching Luisa deal with the challenge.
Is the terrain suitable for wheelchairs? Yes it is, assuming the flatter route is followed in general. Even the wadi terrain can be bumpy with sand ruts and foliage but strong users would be able to propel their chairs across this surface. With assistance to push, practically any route may be possible within reason, it very much depends on the aim and how the user wishes to treat the trip. Short distances across the dunes is always going to be preferable to get the best experience of the desert. A completely wheelchair bound user could get to the base of Eric and be pulled up on a form of sledge. I would suggest that this is a great team challenge.
And the World Record? The Charity is responsible for submitting a journal with an account of the trek together with the coordinates recorded by GPS. We await the outcome.