From ravines to pageantry; when we strip everything back we find the gold
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (May 8th 2023)
Laughs, companionship and 75km of trekking - the joy of the first Noon Tour
Hello on this rainy Bank Holiday Monday where the lushness of the green of the unfurling leaves and the blue froth of bluebells sings against the grey sky.
It’s been quite the week for contrasts. I’ve just returned from our first ever Noon Tour;we trekked 75km, through ravines and over mountains, by gushing rivers full of snow-melt and poppy-filled fields of wheat. We were high in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, seven hours from Marrakesh in the Valley of the Roses, which were blooming and being fragrantly harvested all around us.
The giddying chasm between the pageantry we returned to and our stripped-back life on the trek has made me ponder. By living so simply we gained such richness. The rooms had no furniture so we sat on mats on the floor, close together, passing plates and glasses down the line, sharing simple platters – the small spaces, or courtyards, not constricting but alive with laughter. Often there was one loo, one shower between all of us. No one complained. We shared and accommodated each other. I didn’t hear a single cross word.
And, Oh the laughter; we giggled and cackled, guffawed and belly laughed. It was a core workout to make a pilates teacher proud. I laughed so much last week my stomach hurt. The kind of uncontrollable heaving mirth that takes only a fleeting catch of another’s eye to start you off again, wheezing with shared hilarity. The best of times.
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They say laughter is the best medicine – I would agree. Particularly when coupled with biblical scenery – red rocks reminiscent of Utah, Uluru or the Grand Canyon. The immensity of the mountains, the glare of the sun, the tweeting of birds, the soft steps of thirteen women walking as one up hill and down dale.
We began as strangers, really. Seven days later we were all firm friends.
I write in these newsletters a lot about the benefits of a new tribe in midlife – how being with a group who don’t know you as a colleague, or a wife, or mother or friend, who have no preconceptions about what or who you are, what you are like, what you can do – is immensely liberating. Well this week we saw that in action. We arrived tired and jaded. Many of the women were wan with care; bearing the burdens of bereavement, or caring for partners or children in trouble, or weighed down by many demands; single motherhood, big jobs, that sense that Covid has shrunk our worlds, loss of confidence, previous ill health, elderly parents, marital problems…the full Queenager gamut . “The wonderful thing about this week is that no-one has wanted anything from me” said one woman. “There have been no demands. I have felt totally free, to be me, to let it all go, to talk about myself, to go deep, to be vulnerable – and to laugh, of course”.
As the days passed by and the miles ticked up we all shed the loads we’d been carrying. Complexions brightened and years fell off, as the emotional baggage was shed. Big decisions were made and new ways forward became clear where once they had felt impossible. Some were habitual trekkers, some had never been on a trip like this before. “I haven’t climbed a mountain for twenty years” said one Queenager. “I’d forgotten the exhilaration of looking down on creation.”
When one of us faltered – and oh yes there were tears – the group rallied round to support; maybe with an energy-boosting sweet, a Compeed plaster, a bear hug, an understanding squeeze of the arm, a long empathetic chat or just a loving look. There were no cliques or factions, the group switched around, we all walked with everyone, up hill and down dale we shared our deepest secrets, our hopes, our fears: there was often a cry of, “there are people who have known me for 30 years who don’t know any of this stuff”. We were all processing, talking it out. The backdrop to this inner journey was that endless timeless landscape, where water brings green and life – and otherwise there was just sand and rock. As we accustomed ourselves to the rhythm of the days and the trek there was space for everything, time to talk and reflect. And most importantly, perhaps, to unburden, to just let go. And throughout, the thud of boots on rocks, the murmur of confidences exchanged, the cackles of exuberant laughter and joie-de-vivre.
It wasn’t luxurious. We lived like Berbers. Some nights we slept six to a room – dormitory style, joshing each other about snoring and mess (I win the prize there, I was put in the corner where my exploding rucksack could be contained). We were led by Mamma Bia, 61 – a true Queenager who became Morocco’s first female mountain guide at 55; talk about finding your purpose in midlife. She climbed mountains without breaking sweat in top-to-toe crimson velour, with thick leggings underneath and woolly socks. At 14, she was married to a Nomad and had her first child as she walked a circuit of 900km; everyday her job was to scout for and carry back water to the camp, while her husband and tribe tended 5000 goats. Walking up an 1800m pass we bumped into one of her relatives who was temporarily residing in a stone hut by the path with her goats and seven children. I peered into her tent – a plastic sheet weighed down with rocks, the bed a simple cotton lungi laid over the stony ground. My own thin sleeping mat from the night before suddenly felt like the bed of kings.
At lunch Mamma Bia made us bread, Berber style. Burying the dough in the earth and covering it with hot coals stoked with a blazing juniper bush. For shelter from the sun, we ate in a Berber cave, like something out of Jean M Auel’s Mammoth Hunters. People have been living like this here for centuries. It was humbling. In one village she pointed out the adult graveyard; about 40 rocks which marked the burial places. A few steps further on there was another: this one littered with rock headstones, 100s of them. It was the children’s graveyard. “Berber women are strong, they are not supposed to cry when their babies die. They move near the fire, where if their eyes water they can blame it on the smoke,” said Mamma Bia. It made me cry.
After 23km we reached our spartan guest house and collapsed gratefully on its terrace, feet aching, triumphant at having endured. We drank mint tea and lolled on mats looking over the verdant river valley and chatting while our guides decorated our hands and feet lovingly with henna. Together. Unified. Laughing and hanging out.
We all pushed our limits. At the top of the pass I felt exultant – on top of the world. Half an hour later 21km in, on a scree-covered path littered with large rocks from the storms the week before, I hit a wall. I asked our other lovely Berber guide Sarah, 29, how far there was to go: “About two and a half hours” she said. My immediate reaction – and that of a CEO Queenager in the group – was to question the timeline. Say that it was unacceptable. That we needed a different answer. We found ourselves saying: “No, surely only 20 minutes?” The guide shook her head, smiling. “Sorry! Two hours, probably more,” We looked at each other and laughed. There was no negotiating on this one. The walk would take as long as it took. We might not like it but no amount of pressure or persuasion would change the mountain. It was a good lesson. We laughed about our ludicrous sense that we could talk it into not being so. We drank some water, steeled ourselves and walked down the mountain. Eyes to the ground so we wouldn’t slip. Later we reckoned it was a great lesson in mindfulness – there was only the here and the now. We could think or worry about nothing else. We made it.
The next day we had to ford and re-ford a river. The current was strong. Alone we could have been whisked away. Together we were indomitable.
We formed a queenager wall, holding onto each other’s arms, facing the river; stronger together, strong enough to cross safely. It was a good metaphor for the trip. When one faltered, the others had her back. We formed a loving unit – a truly safe space for any weakness or vulnerability. the group held us all.
It was magical.
Back in Marrakesh we went to the Hammam. Moroccan women go once a week, it is the only place they meet to chat outside the home. What is said in the Hammam, stays in the Hammam. It is run by a phalanx of strong women, who lay you on a mat and scrub you all (and I mean ALL) over. I haven’t been washed like that by another woman since I was a child. It was curiously moving; sensual yet municipal not sexual. The breasts of the Queen of the Hammam dropped down to her knees, she rinsed all of our crevices, saw all of our secrets even lifting the flap of my stomach so she could wash underneath it. We laughed so hard we thought we might get evicted. It was a fitting way to end the trip. Clean, scrubbed – they kept pointing to the ‘spaghetti’ of dirt they’d scoured out of our skin – reborn.
I want to thank ALL of you for making it such a wonderful week. But particularly my friend and Noon Advisory Board member Lisa McCauley (Founder and CEO of Silver Travel Advisory) who organised our trip – and was the anchor of our group, sweeping at the back yelling at us all to “keep your eyes on the path, no selfies, concentrate” when it was steep or tricky. I couldn’t have done it without you Lisa– here’s to the next one (we’re thinking Jordan next year, watch this space if you fancy coming too).
I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much, shared so much, witnessed so much beauty or so much change. I set up Noon.org.uk because I truly believe that when women support women, we can do anything, be anything, help each other into an amazing next chapter. This week I saw that in motion. It was beautiful, moving, special. Proof that we are not done – that there is,as the Noon motto goes: So Much More to Come. Thank you everyone for making it such a wonderful week.
I can’t wait for the next one.
Lots of love to you all
By Eleanor Mills