500 Miles Through Water-Starved Outback Tests Adventurer’s Abilities

In the days and weeks after September 6, National Geographic explorer Sarah Marquis developed the odd habit of walking to her refrigerator, opening the door, and browsing through its contents. Then, closing the door, and she would go back about her day.

Because the 43-year-old Swiss adventurer, who became a 2014 Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year for walking from Siberia to Australia, appreciates something about refrigerators that most people don’t: the food they hold fresh and ready for us is a modern miracle. And after her three-month survivalist walk through Australia’s Kimberley region, Marquis was not about to take food for granted.

The last we heard from Marquis, she had rambled from the bush into a resupply at the mid-point of her 500-mile trek.

After living on nothing but the food she could scavenge from a drought-scarred landscape (and 100 grams of flour a day), Marquis was “scary skinny.” Her job during her rest stop was simple: gain weight. But after six weeks in the bush, her body became so accustomed to a lack of calories, it began rejecting them.

“My stomach couldn’t handle much food,” Marquis explains. “It was a difficult time because I was overeating to gain weight, and then I would throw up. So I had to eat a little bit every hour or so.” After two weeks, Marquis was impatient and healthy enough to get back to the wilderness.

Burdened under a 75-pound pack and 25 extra pounds of water, Marquis didn’t satisfy the recommendation of weighing twice as much as the pack she carried, and she quickly injured herself carrying the load.

For most people, a pulled shoulder muscle isn’t much cause for concern. But in the Kimberley, Marquis had reason to worry.

“Everything I was doing took so much effort, so much energy to still be alive at the end of the day,” she explains. “From 3:30 in the morning, to 7 at night, it’s about surviving. You can’t just go to grab some water. You have to bring your knife with you, you have to have some gear to rescue yourself just in case something happens. Every time you do the most simple task, you have to think ‘If things go wrong, how can I get out of here by myself?’”

And Marquis still struggled to find food. But in her state of semi-starvation, Marquis felt better connected with the animals performing the same life-and-death calculations all around her. She wrote in her journal: “I realized by using the same water as the rest of the living things around me makes me one of them. This fact alone is a tremendous bond with the landscape.”

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Another excerpt from her journal reads:
“Surviving ripped me apart, destroying all my knowledge about myself and my certainty. Surviving tore my guts out into the open. Surviving ran like a bull through my soul and played with my body fat. Surviving pushed me further and further again into a dark corner or into an incredible place; either place, I wouldn’t visit naturally – it’s only visited through extreme discomforts.”

Marquis says that this survivalist expedition was the hardest that she has ever done. But she’s glad she did it. She says that everybody should try it. Her time in the wilderness reminded her of something that she thinks people have forgotten: that we aren’t separate from nature. We’re part of it.

“We think we need so much stuff around us, but it’s not true. It’s just a made up story that we tell ourselves. But we don’t need much. That’s what I discovered on this journey. We don’t need all of that.”

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