November 18, 2022 12 min read
Alice Morrison is a traveller, adventurer and modern-day explorer who has been described as the ‘Indiana Jones for Girls.’ Born in Edinburgh and raised in Africa and the Middle East, Alice has traipsed all over the world and loves to walk in the footsteps of travellers. In case that isn’t impressive enough, Alice didn’t start adventuring until she was 48 years old, and in that time, she has written four books, produced a BBC documentary, and has documented her adventures all over social media. I had the absolute pleasure of catching up with Alice who told me more about her many incredible adventures and offers some great advice for getting to know new places quickly. Her perseverance on these adventures is truly inspiring and sure has inspired me to step out of my comfort zone more!
Alice and a Camel
Thank you so much for joining us Alice! How would your friends and family describe you?
Well, my family would probably describe me as annoying sometimes. I hope my friends would describe me as very loyal, and a good friend. I think they will also describe me as energetic and addicted to adventure.
You left your job and took part in the Tour d’Afrique, a 100 day, 12,500 bike race from Cairo to Cape Town. Could you tell us a little bit more about the race and what made you decide to take this challenge on?
Yeah, this was a real turning point in my life. I was actually the chief executive of a company so I had a nice car, a lovely home in the Peak District, nice clothes, plenty of money, and certainly a good salary. I built the company from scratch to 10 million pounds a year turnover, and had 40 staff. We were a public private company, and the Tory government came in and our funding was removed. I then had to fold into a bigger company, which meant I had to wind them something that I built from scratch, which was extremely difficult and made me very sad. And of course, making other people redundant is absolutely horrific, so it was a very crushing experience. But rather than just be crushed by it, I thought, right, I'm going to do something I really want to do. And in the back of my mind, years before a friend had shown me this race which is three times longer than the Tour de France, and you cycle from Cairo to Cape Town, and I was brought up in Africa. So I thought, right, this year, I'm going to reconnect those roots, I want to go back to Africa and what better way to see it than on a bike. So I signed up and it was great!
I would urge anyone to do something if you possibly can, give in to those positive urges. When something bad is happening, if you can do something positive, it will stand you in good stead and it really helps you. The race itself was absolutely incredible. There were 63 of us, 11 women and 52 men, and we all cycled from Cairo to Cape Town, there was a stage every day with rest days. Everyday you were given a set distance to cycle, there was a rough map sketched up on a whiteboard, and then you had to follow orange tape. We cycled across the whole continent. We cycled through 50 degree temperatures, we cycled through mud up to our hips in Tanzania, I saw giraffes and antelopes by the roadside, I was chased by the elephant, hence the name of my first book. It was really an adventure, like an incredible adventure.
What's incredible about that adventure is when I started it, I was in quite good physical shape but I hadn't done enough bike training. There were literally six weeks between when I signed up and when I left and it was winter, it was a particularly snowy and icy winter so I could barely get out on my bike. My training was on a turbo eating chocolate.
I got to Egypt and it was like, sorry to swear, but it was like a what the bleep, this is so hard! That first 10 days on the bike, I suffered.
Alice on the Tour d’Afrique (Credit: Kristian Pletten)
Was there any point of it that you wanted to give up?
I think by day three, I was lying in my tent, and actually my tent blew down that night cause we were in a storm, but that’s another story. I remember lying in my tent and thinking oh my god, what have I done this is absolutely awful and I’ve got like four months of it. And then I just decided that I couldn't think like that because if I thought like that I would just be miserable the whole time. I just put the future completely out of my mind and just cracked on with it. But it was amazing, it was one of the best experiences of my life.
Through all of this, you have produced 4 books about your travels as well as a BBC2 documentary series ‘From Morocco to Timbuktu: An Arabian Adventure’. Your first book is called ‘Dodging Elephants’ and was about your experience in the Tour d’Afrique. You faced elephant charges, bandit attacks, and saddle sores. Could you tell us a little bit more about the obstacles you faced along the way?
When you’re doing a very long adventure like this which is taking a physical toll on you every day, there are some serious dangers. At one point on that trip, I really actually believed I was going to die but I’m afraid you’ll have to read my book to find out why! But just talking about the day to day, I think the most important thing to do on these longer adventures and in fact, on any adventure, when you get to that extremely difficult stage physically, you feel like crap, the thing to do is to stay in the moment and just keep going. Just keep going, and you will feel better. It may not be that day, and it may not even be the next day. But you will feel better and do not allow your mind to overtake your body. Do not start thinking about what if, do not start thinking about maybe I could give up, do not start thinking about how much time you have left of it. Get that thought out your mind because then you'll stop. The only way to do this stuff is just to keep going, that's really what I've learned.
I will tell you my saddle sore story, which was really horrible. It was in the Sudan, it was 50 degree heat and as you can imagine, I was sweating. We were on roads that were corrugated iron roads, they’re dirt roads but they’ve been smashed into ridges by big lorries passing over them. So you have to pedal every stroke, you can't free wheel because you're going over tiny bumps all the time. That destroys your nether regions. Literally hanging onto the saddle with every pedal stroke. When you're doing 50 to 80 miles a day, it was absolute hell. I come to the end of day three of this, we didn’t have any water to wash in at all. Everything you wear is stained white from the salt coming out of your body. I can't even describe it, it's pretty grim. We had a very handsome tour doctor, and I had what I thought was a saddle sore. I was like oh man, I cannot go and spread my butt cheeks and show him my saddle sores! The humiliation was just too strong. Fortunately, we had a wonderful doctor as one of the riders, she is originally Ethiopian American. And she was just the kindest, loveliest person and she was cycling with her husband. So I got off the bike and I went to her tent and I was like ‘we’ve only known each other for 10 days, but I really need you to look at my butt crack to see if I’ve got a saddle sore!’ So she banished her husband from the tent, put on her little torch and I pulled down my sweaty shorts, and she very kindly had a look. Turns out I actually didn’t have a saddle sore, there were just little cuts, my saddle sore came much later. That is true friendship. told you she was very tightly fried in between the punch sheets to find the size of my saddle sore. We’re still friends to this day but that memory was quickly wiped away!
(Credit: Kristian Pletten)
Another one of your incredible endeavours was when you ran the toughest footrace on earth - the Marathon des Sables. This involved 6 marathons in 6 days across the Sahara. You had never run a marathon prior to signing up. How did you prepare for this physically and mentally? How did the difficulty of this compare to other adventures?
Excellent question. I signed up for this in August, and the race was in April. For this one, I trained, because I realised that I couldn’t do it otherwise. I started off by doing a lot of running and walking in the Peak District which is very similar to the Pentlands, you know, rolling hills, and that was fantastic training. I did a lot of very heavy hiking in the mountains of Morocco, I went over for a few trips. I did like six days, 20k a day, but really steep mountains with very rocky descents. I was just trying to strengthen my body and my mind, and then I actually moved to Morocco in January because I can work from anywhere and I thought right, I’m going to make a real effort. So I moved to Morocco, and I trained here and I trained in the desert, and then I went down to the south and I did two days worth of training in the dunes in the area where we would be running, and that was the most useful thing ever because it got me acclimatised to sand. I think that was probably the best sort of training I did.
In terms of the difficulty of this adventure compared to other ones, I was the most scared of the Everest expedition. However, I found the Marathon des Sables a very terrifying prospect because the terrain was so difficult and the thought of running in the sand and heat really frightened me. It was doable, but there were two very difficult things. One was the long stage where you do two marathons in a go so 52 miles at once. You start off in the daytime, and you basically run and walk through the night. It was incredibly difficult, you get extremely sore, everything hurts your hips, your legs, your back, your feet are massacred. Literally every part of your body is in pain. However it was a very magical experience, because you know, I was running down sand dunes by moonlight. I was aware while I was doing it that it was something very extraordinary. I think that really helps, if you can keep in your mind that you’re doing something magnificent and heroic, it does keep you going even when your legs hurt. The next morning we had a bit of extra rest because I finished in good time. When I took my shoes and socks off after that long race, my feet were shredded from the sweat, the pressure and the physical attrition. I had huge blisters and big puffy holes in my heels so I couldn't bear to put weights on them and I still had a marathon to do the next day. Psychologically, I was so miserable. I couldn't bear to put weight on my feet. I had them bandaged up and looked at so that was good, but my friend Charlie came up with the best advice (and don’t do this to anyone at home!), but he said how many painkillers have we got left? I had ten left so I took six pain killers at the start line and I was high as a kite! But you know what, it worked. I then took one every hour after that to keep me going until the end. So there was me, high as a kite, and that day was actually my best run yet. As I say, don’t do this at home but they definitely worked.
Alice on the Marathon des Sables (Credit: Marathon des Sables)
Was it this race that brought you to Morocco? What was it that made you want to stay and live there?
It was, I came here to train. I arrived in January, and I was only really going to stay until April or May and then I just fell in love with the country and stayed and I'm here eight years later. It was a combination of things that made me fall in love with it, the landscapes in Morocco are extraordinary. There are deserts, mountains, and the ocean, it's incredibly varied so you have so much beautiful nature that you can go and explore. But in the end, it was the people. I’m sure it helped that I speak Arabic but I was just greeted with affection and hospitality, humour, I just felt that I was welcomed so warmly, and people reached out to me the whole time. People here say ‘guests are from god’.
Alice with Amazighs (Berbers)
Could you tell us a little bit more about the Atlas to Atlantic hike? What sort of terrain and wildlife did you encounter?
Atlas to Atlantic was a world’s first,My expedition partner and I walked from the top of Mount Toubkal, the highest point in North Africa, straight across the Atlas mountains to the Atlantic ocean. It took 12 days, sometimes walking from dawn, through sunset and on into the small hours of the morning. We lived off the land, often relying on Berber hospitality in remote villages for our food and water. The Atlas Mountains are very harsh, they are like death to all trainers and walking shoes because there’s lots of sharp rocks, and you're either going straight up or you're going straight down, or you're wading through a river. It's proper, wild, wild terrain. Scotland has its fair share of really difficult terrain, but the difference I'd say between Scotland and the Atlas Mountains is it's all rock and stone in the Atlas, so you don't get the peaty areas, and it's very unrelenting. You know, we're following goat tracks, or no paths at all, so you're really going for it. In terms of wildlife, we met lots of shepherds on the way because we're right out in the wilderness where shepherds raise their flocks and stay there overnight in their little shelters. We did also see two wild turtles, it was so exciting. We were walking up a river valley through the shallows and up over the rocks to cut through this valley rather than going up the mountain on either side. So we're pushing through completely wild terrain. We stopped to have a look in the pools And we still have we look at the pools because there are pools and that’s where we saw the turtles.look at me. We also saw eagles and buzzards, and there are wolves in the mountains and you can hear them but I didn't see any because they’re quite rare now because the shepherds kill them unfortunately.
In March 2019, you became the first woman to walk the Draa River in Morocco. How did that come about? What were the highlights?
It was a very extraordinary thing. It came about because I wanted to do an adventure, I thought I'm living in Morocco, I haven't done a big adventure, I've done the Atlas to Atlantic hike, but there was still a lot more of Morocco to do. A river is a very logical adventure if you want to walk, because it’s got a source and the sea, and this particular one goes through different landscapes, you start off in the mountains of doom, which of these rocky mountains, you go through the oasis where all the date palms are grown, and then you end up at the sea. It was also a good opportunity for me to investigate what effect the damming of the Draa River and manmade intervention has had on the lower regions. The adventure itself was quite extraordinary - there were five camels, and I had three Amazighr, which is the correct word for Berber. It was a voyage of discovery, I found the lost city, we explored the tombs of the giants, we found those spaceships in the desert. It was an incredible voyage of discovery it was perhaps the time that I found the most things. And it became the first part of my book Walking with Nomads which has just come out.
Adventures are always exciting. I mean, there are often lots of days where nothing much happens on adventures, but in the Draa, even in the camp we would find prehistoric tools buried in the sand, we found fossilised ostrich shells at the bottom of the dunes, it was really exciting.
Alice with Camels
What drives you to undertake these challenges?
The drive to undertake them is just the curiosity about the world. I love being out in the wild. I love being outdoors all the time with purpose. And if you have an adventure, if you have a goal that gives you purpose. I’m really curious, I like to learn thing and I like to be with people from different countries and speak their language and find out as much as I can about how they live. Their lives are often so different to mine and what enriches me is finding out the commonality of the human experience and how much we have in common and how good people are and how kind they are, if you give them a chance.
Does walking change the way that you experience a place?
It fundamentally does. I think it was John Muir actually the famous Scot that said ‘the slower you travel, the more you learn.’ That quote, to me just sums it up. When you're walking, you literally experience everything, the smell, the physical feel of the air. You can see everything, you can stop and watch an ant building its nest. Walking is the perfect way to explore.
You’ve moved around the world a lot - do you have a shortcut for getting to know new places quickly?
Yes I do actually, my advice to anyone going anywhere is learn 10 words of the local language, whatever it is, because that will immediately open up a part of people's hearts to you. You will just be getting a different kind of welcome. That would be my top tip for getting to know places quickly.
Do you have a favourite motto?
‘Everyone has an inner adventurer, unleash yours.’
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