Five go to the Sahara

I have been on writing retreats before but nothing like the one I have just returned from.

When I received the email last August from author Linda Cracknell asking if I would be interested in joining her on a writing retreat at Café Tissardmine, in the Sahara desert, I didn’t have to consider too long. In fact I replied within the hour.

Sunrise the first morning
Sunrise the first morning

Extreme environments intrigue me and I always knew one day I would visit a desert.

The retreat group gathered in Marrakesh before we headed east. Five women writers all approaching or just passing sixty years of age. Two I knew already, two I’d only just met, but we quickly bonded as we sat sipping mint tea on a balcony above Place Jemaa el-Fna, watching the sun go down and swapping our plans for the retreat.

Our driver, Mohammed, picked us up at 9.00am next day and we set off on a ten hour road trip that took us through the Atlas Mountains, past the vast movie studio at Ouarzazate, and skirting the Draa Valley. We were almost at the Algerian border before we drew off the asphalt road and stopped.

‘You transfer now,’ Mohammed informed us. Like something out of an action movie being shot back at the studio up the road, the dust kicked up on the horizon, a white Landrover emerged and sped towards us. This was Youssef, who transferred our bags and took us the thirty minute off road section to Café Tissardmine.

The settlement of Tissardmine with the huge sand dune Erg Chebbi in the background

It was almost dark when we arrived.

The first thing that strikes you about founder and director, Karen Hadfield is her height. She is 6ft 1in tall. Her sun bleached hair was roughly pushed behind her ears and she was well wrapped up against the chill of the night air in traditional clothes .

She welcomed us with tea and peanuts and showed us our individual tents set in a cosy enclosure.  The tents are traditional Berber with the added comfort of an en-suite toilet and shower.

After choosing our tents and dumping our luggage we were served a delicious meal prepared by cook Hadijah. This was the beginning of our gastronomic delight of tagines, stews, daals, soups, eggy breakfasts and fresh baked cakes for tea times.  Every meal Hadijah cooked was delicious, traditional and very filling. She needs to write her own cookbook.

A night under the stars

There is no internet or phone signal at Tissardmine so we all had to adjust to being out of contact with our loved ones and the world for a while. It didn’t take long.

We had been warned that it grows cold in the desert when the sun is down. The first morning I rose early to catch the sunrise and was glad I’d brought my duvet jacket with me.

After breakfast Karen gave us a tour of the café compound and adjoining settlement. She laid out the schedule for meals which were regular and worked well with our writing day.  Because this was a retreat we were free to do as we wished. There were no workshops planned and no need to share our work although we did do a couple of shared exercises which were great fun.

I very soon settled into a good writing routine and was delighted that my fellow writers had a similar discipline. The retreat space offers lots of sunny and shady areas to work in.

We were welcome to walk around the village without being hassled by local kids because Karen had organised a local market for us to buy the crafted goods they had to sell. One morning I went for a run. I had expected the desert to be quiet but from the high point of my run I noticed quite a lot of activity from nearly Erg Chebbi, a large dune that attracts lots of tourist. On the way back from my run I was overtaken by a passing car rally.

Sunset at Erg Chebbi

Karen had arranged a camel ride and overnight camping trip which was the highlight of my stay. We were looked after by the chameliers, who served the food prepared in advance by Hadijah and made us breakfast in the morning. We had sleeping bags and blankets and were able to sleep under the magnificent starry sky. Our early morning walk to watch the sunrise was an experience I will never forget.

Before we left we were given another treat. A ride out to Erg Chebbi to join the tourists in watching the sunset. Despite the tourism around the dunes they are spectacular and unspoiled. I’m glad I had the opportunity to visit.

Enjoying good food and good company under the stars

Karen was a wonderful host and being a writer herself, joined us in many activities. She became one of the group.

This retreat made a big impact on me. Karen is a unique individual who has chosen a different (some would say difficult) life to most women her age, but Tissardmine is her passion and I can see why. The value of older women seems to be increasingly overlooked in our society. As I grow older I feel myself becoming more invisible every day. To spend time in such a special place with strong, talented and accomplished women was a privileged. By the time I left Café Tissardmine to rejoin the world of everyday worries I felt empowered not just as a writer but as a woman.

My favourite scene from the trip. Local children playing football at sunset.




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