“One night, I opened my tent in the middle of the night to find five horsemen squatting down 50 centimeters away from my face,” remembers explorer Sarah Marquis, 41, of her time in Mongolia’s vast, green steppe. “Some nights they would gallop by one after another trying to catch the top of my tent. They live in this open space. There are no rules. And, suddenly, there was one white woman in the middle of it.”
Marquis was less than halfway through her three-year, extreme walk from Siberia to the southern Australian coast (connecting by cargo ship from Bangkok to Australia) when the group of horsemen began to harass her each night at dusk. In order to lose them, she never lit a fire or turned on her headlamp, rested behind rocks instead of setting up camp, and stuck to hard ground so they couldn’t follow the tracks of the cart she used to drag supplies with her across the deserts and steppes. Finally, she found refuge in a culvert under a dirt road where she could sleep without getting harassed.
“It was like a palace. I was living like a rat, but it didn’t matter,” Marquis laughs.
Marquis’s encounter with the horsemen in Mongolia was only one of struggles she faced as a woman walking alone through remote places before she arrived at her end point on May 17, 2013. Along the way, she spent three days sick with dengue fever in the Laos jungle with her left leg tied to a tree so that she wouldn’t drown herself in the nearby river should she experience a fit of fever-induced delirium. Days later, she was held hostage and harassed for four hours then robbed by a group of 15 men with automatic weapons. She spent more than six months in the Gobi desert gathering water to drink by using a plastic bag to collect drops of condensation. Nevertheless, Marquis insists that she never wanted to stop walking.
“That doesn’t happen in my world,” she says. “I would go through it all again.”
The “trouble,” as she puts it, started when, at eight years old, Marquis left her parents' home in Montsevelier, Switzerland, one afternoon to go exploring with her dog. She discovered a cave, and, fascinated by the bats coating the ceiling, decided to spend the night while her mother, horrified that she had lost her daughter, frantically notified the police.
At 17, Marquis learned how to ride a horse—when she crossed Central Anatolia in Turkey on horseback. In 2002 and 2003, Marquis spent 17 months walking 8,700 miles around the Australian continent. In 2000, she walked across the U.S. from the Canadian border to the Mexican border in four months and six days. In 2006, she spent eight months walking 4,350 miles through the Andes. On June 20, 2010, her 38th birthday, Marquis left the city of Irkutsk in Siberia and started walking south.
“I just followed my heart,” she says. “At the beginning of my expedition, everybody was saying, ‘She’s so crazy! She’s not normal!’ Then I went on TV one day, and they said ‘Oh, she’s so cool! She’s unbelievable!’ I passed from crazy to unbelievable overnight—I was the same.”
The journey took two years of careful planning. As no trail runs the length of her route, Marquis had to collect topographic maps, plot her own path, and arrange her own resupply points. The temperature varied from minus 22°F to 124°F, the terrain varied from dense jungle to immense expanses of deserts, and the gear she needed varied with the environment.
She used a SPOT Adventure [GPS device] to let people at home know that she had made it safely through each day. She communicated with officials at border crossings and locals in the towns she passed through with hand signals. Aside from these broken conversations, she had minimal contact with other humans. Gradually, her thoughts grew quiet, and she found herself living entirely in the moment with her other senses heightened to keep her safe.
“After six months of an expedition, the noise stops in my head,” Marquis explains. “I just go back to a basic animal connection. I’m hunting sometimes. I’m surviving, basically. Being with nature for a thousand days in a tent, with no water, no wash—my idea in doing this is to be a voice for nature.”
Adventure: So you really didn’t get a real night of sleep for an entire two months in Mongolia?
Sarah Marquis: Really, for two months. I had those guys in my camp every single night. You have to picture it: there is nothing around, nobody around. They always came right before it was pitch-dark, during that time when you can see just a little bit. It was like a good joke for them. Don’t get me wrong, they’re really sweet people—except when they get drunk. The vodka has done a lot of damage in the steppes of Mongolia.
A: Did they ever actually try to harm you?
SM: Things came close to disaster many times, but that’s where my 20 years of experience doing this kicked in. I didn’t show them any weakness, or react the way they expected me to. Like, when they galloped their horses through my camp hoping to catch the top of my tent and blow the tent away with me inside, rather than getting out and getting crazy, I just stayed in the tent. They never saw me. There is a big step between doing something really wrong and doing something wrong because it’s there. It’s always that little step that can save you.
A: What other ways have you learned to keep yourself safe?
SM: I disguise myself as a man. I have my hat covering everything and I’ve always got my sunglasses on. Every time I meet somebody, I quickly feel out if it’s a good guy or a bad guy and scan them to see if they’ve got anything they could harm me with. Most of the time you can’t talk because you don’t speak the same language.
Before I set up my camp, I sit down, and wait, and look around, then walk further. I never make a fire, or if I do, it’s in a big, deep hole. If I catch food that I want to cook, I cook it, I eat it, and then I move and I sleep in another place. I try not to leave tracks on the ground, because the guys in South America, in Australia, in Mongolia, in the jungle—they’re good trackers. That’s how they survive. It’s a lot of secrecy—tricks that I’ve learned over the years, because, as a woman, it’s really, really hard.
A: Was there ever a time when you wanted to stop walking? Or be done with what you were doing?
SM: No, never, because you have to put up with yourself. You can’t just think about the arrival point. You can’t think, ‘I still have 1,002 days to go, 995 days to go.’ You’d get crazy. So, you live the moment.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
A: Is there a moment or a story from your trip that defines the journey in your eyes?
SM: After six months of an expedition, the noise stops in my head. You know how when you think about somebody you hear their voice in your head? You’ve got their picture in your head? After six months, it starts to fade. After two years, you become nature. You go through hell, don’t get me wrong. It’s hard, it’s painful, it’s everything. But at the core of it is this unbelievable connection with nature.
A: You said that your senses heightened after being alone for so long. Can you give me an example?
SM: I can smell an animal from far away and I can smell a human really far away. I had a really clear example of a tourist in the Gobi—I smelled the shampoo of her hair one kilometer away, and I was like, Oh my God, there’s a human around!
A: After such a massive undertaking, how long does it typically take for you to start thinking about the next journey?
SM: After a year, year and a half, I get this urge to go. I get cranky. And my family says, ‘All right, it’s time to go.’ The profile of the next expedition shows up around that time. But I miss the bush already. I don’t feel in the right spot anywhere.
A: Why do you go on these expeditions?
SM: For me, walking is more than walking. I’m like a little bridge between humans and nature. I’m just there to try to communicate this connection that we’ve all got. It takes determination, a lot of courage, and a lot of perseverance. It takes a lot, but anybody can do it.