"I'm able to wake up each morning and be enthralled by the day that greatest me. I accept it as a single, unique day, where each little detail makes the ensemble of my days extraordinary.”
Photo via NY Times
Sarah Marquis (b. 1972) is a Swiss adventurer and explorer. From 2010 to 2013, she walked 20,000 kilometres alone from Siberia to the Gobi Desert, into China, Laos, Thailand, and then across Australia. In 2011, she gave a TED talk and in 2014 she was named one of National Geographic's Adventurers of the Year.
From the NY Times: Sarah Marquis has spent three of the past four years walking about 10,000 miles by herself, from Siberia through the Gobi Desert, China, Laos and Thailand, then taking a cargo boat to Brisbane, Australia, and walking across that continent. Along the way, like Scott, she has starved, she has frozen, she has (wo)man-hauled. She has pushed herself at great physical cost to places she wanted to love but ended up feeling, as Scott wrote of the South Pole in his journal: “Great God! This is an awful place.” Despite planning a ludicrous trip, and dying on it, Scott became beloved and, somewhat improbably, hugely respected. Marquis, meanwhile, can be confounding. “You tell people what you’re doing, and they say, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Marquis told me. “It’s never: ‘Cool project, Sarah! Go for it.’ ” Perhaps this is because the territory Marquis explores is really internal — the nature of fear, the limits of stamina and self-reliance and the meaning of traveling in nature as a female human animal, alone.
Marquis’s desire to travel began to coalesce around the question of whether she could survive by herself in nature. First, she decided to ride a horse across Turkey. On that trip, she ate apricots off trees and slept with her head on her saddle. Muslim women bathed her in warm goat’s milk. But after that, Marquis’s itineraries veered away from romance and pleasure into solitude and suffering. In her early 20s she flew to New Zealand and set out on a four-day backpacking trip with some noodles, a huge radio and three or four books — “everything except what I needed.” The outing, by typical standards, was a fiasco. Day 1 it poured; Marquis didn’t know how to set up her tent, and she was freezing and bored because, she now said wryly, “at night there was nothing to do.” But near the end of the trip she had a sort-of epiphany. “Something happened,” she said. (Articulating her reasons for pursuing her travels is not one of Marquis’s strengths.) “Over the years I’ve had this feeling again and again.” Chasing that inexplicable sensation is why she walks.
Marquis spent the winter after that trip earning money by bartending in Verbier, a fancy off-piste ski resort in the Alps. The next summer she returned to New Zealand. This time she walked into the South Island’s Kahurangi National Park without food to see if she could survive for 30 days. That trip, too, was a trial. Marquis failed at spearfishing, consumed only mussels and lost 20 pounds. But she not only recaptured that inchoate feeling she craved; she also glimpsed the savageness of her desire. “That was the first time I actually got in touch with the wild,” Marquis said. “You know when you’re really, really hungry? You have to teach yourself that food is not a big issue. You just need sleep and sweet water.”
Marquis returned to Switzerland and embraced the cycle — work for money, then leave on some extreme challenge she devised for herself. She canoed through Canada’s Algonquin park without knowing how to portage; she was attacked by beavers camping near water in Patagonia; she hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. She remained captivated by what she describes as “this wild call from inside me” and decided to walk 8,700 miles around Australia.
For that trip, Marquis lined up her first sponsor, the North Face. She doesn’t think she impressed the company by her pitch. She believes it gave her a few backpacks, a couple of tents and some clothes because, she said, “when I told them what I was going to do, they thought, We can’t let that little thing go out without gear.” To supplement the inadequate supply of noodles she could carry, Marquis brought a slingshot, a blow gun, some wire to make snares and a net for catching insects. In the warm months, Marquis ate goannas, geckos and bearded dragons. In the cold months, when the reptiles hid, she subsisted on an Aboriginal standby, witchetty grubs — white, caterpillar-size moth larvae that live in the roots of Mulga trees. (Raw, Marquis said, they taste like unsweetened condensed milk; seared in hot sand, they crisp up nicely.) Throughout, Marquis tried to minimize human contact. She hid her femininity with loose clothes, big sunglasses, hair piled up in a hat. When water was scarce, she collected condensation, either by digging a deep hole and lining the cool bottom with plastic or by tying a tarp around a bush. If those techniques didn’t yield enough liquid — and they rarely did — she drank snake blood. At night Marquis slept close to the trunks of trees, touching the bark in a way that she describes as “almost carnal.” She fell in love with a particular twisted and wind-bent Western myall tree on Australia’s Nullarbor Plain.