A New Way To Experience Travel

See Ability Trek Group at Mount Toubkal Summit
I am always open to new experiences, but little did I know that watching a tv programme back in March would lead to a new way to experience travel this October. All thanks to watching ‘Travelling Blind’ with Amar Latif, his company Traveleyes and the charity SeeAbility celebrating 220 years with an epic challenge, I got to trek the Atlas Mountains in Morocco with a whole new outlook on life.

SeeAbility wanted a special event to celebrate the fact that they have been helping people with visually impairment, autism and learning difficulties to live a more inclusive life for 220 years. So they teamed up with award-winning travel company Traveleyes to plan a trek through the Atlas Mountains to the highest peak in North Africa. Hiking up to the summit of Mount Toubkal at 4,167 mtrs is a challenge in itself, but SeeAbility and Traveleyes wanted to do it with visually impaired and sighted people to fundraise, but more importantly show just what can be achieved when people work together to make things achievable for everyone involved.

I joined the group quite late and can’t thank them enough for letting me on it, because it was a truly special experience. My dad started to lose his eyesight when I was little and was registered blind, but died when I was fourteen. I never took the time to understand his condition and watching the tv programme brought it home to me, just how much I rely on my eyes when I travel, when I want to be creative, for my job as a photographer and just how I never paid attention as to hard it was for my mum and dad when he was told he would lose his sight. Dad just coped as far as I was concerned and we always had a positive outlook on it as a family, but now I’m much older, I understand life is not always that straight forward. I asked to join the trek as I felt, too late in the day I must add, that I should understand what it is really like to be without your eyesight.

The point of a Traveleyes trip and our trek was that sighted people would act as guides for those with visual impairment and every visual impairment could be different and people would prefer to be guided in different ways. We did a little training in Surrey, but this was nothing on what I was about to experience in Morocco.
Trek group at the start

On my first morning of guiding the wonderful Tom on the trek, he took a tumble and then I found myself over compensating by describing every little step and stone after that. Tom did joke at the end of the trek that one of his highlights was ‘breaking in’ the new sighted guides and he is a bit of an independent dare devil that is a coach for the sport GoalBall to give you an idea of his drive in life and how this fall was really not a problem – phew!

To put it in to perspective, lots of people, both sighted and visually impaired tripped at some point on the trek as this was no flat path! It was up, up and up with no level, or down paths at any points, which is unusual for a mountain hike. The terrain was tough and being a sighted guide you find yourself constantly staring at where your feet are going and anticipating where your fellow hiker is going to place their feet. I even had to think about how short in height I was compared to some of the guys I was helping and that my strides, steps and feet size would be different to theirs and hence affect where they would walk and step.

We all laughed at the language us sighted guides would use to describe the terrain and how it may affect our companions. Things such as, “It’s bumpy, bumpy here”, “Catwalk” (to imply it was narrow and you needed to walk like a cat does with one foot in front of the other), and most crucially “If anything, lean to your left as there is a big drop to your right!”
Trekkers starting on paths of Atlas Mountains
Trekker crossing water on foot
Tom and Joanne feeling Moroccan rugs texture
Sighted guiding visually impaired up mountain paths
See Ability Trek Group in Atlas Mountains rest stop
Rocky landscape of Atlas Mountains

I had considered the physicality of the trek before I went, but not the mental fatigue of explaining my footfall, as opposed to the scenery. It is also not like it stops, just because you arrive at a place. I learned it was helpful to explain where the different foods were on a plate, help with room orientation about what is where in a place, along with explaining what a long drop toilet is and how to use one without getting your feet wet. (Luckily something I was used to with having travelled in my time.)

The main thing that I really came to realise was that as tiring as it was for me with this new experience, this is life for my new friends all the time. Every new place, is a new experience that they have to navigate. There is so much about travel I take for granted and I feel truly humbled that every single one of my fellow visually impaired trekkers trusted me to help them and nobody ever complained, tutted, laughed at me, or made me feel like I was a bumbling idiot.
Rows of sighted guides leading visually impaired along mountain paths
Visually impaired being guided on mountain trek rocky terrain
Rocky terrain and spike plant life on Atlas Mountains
Sighted guide leading visually impaired trekker passed mountain mule
Walking boots navigating rocky terrain

Our trek consisted on day one of a full day’s trek to the mountain refuge which we reached as the light went down. Staying in a basic dorm, with no gaps between the bunkbeds was an experience of little sleep, but it only helped to make us friends very quickly. Setting off in the dark the next morning was the first challenge, followed by a proper scramble up rocks where you are using your hands and feet to climb, which was a tough start to this challenging hike. I have to say I was drained near the top and I wasn’t even guiding anyone on this summit day. Thanks to Jen for sharing her water with rehydration salts in, I found the energy to summit and it was actually very strange to be at the top of a mountain without Damian. My first mountain climb without him. I had actually done it, without having a meltdown, which I kept inside when I was struggling near the top.
Landscape of Atlas Mountains with blue sky and clouds
Sighted guides leading visually impaired. Helen. Amar. Alex. Jane
Sighted guide Lex assisting visually impaired Aamer up the mountain
Mountain guide smiling and waiting for trekkers coming up
Black and white photos of guides helping visually impaired trekkers on mountain paths
Mountain goats and orange glow of Moroccan sun on Atlas mountains
Helen Fospero guiding Amar Latif up the Atlas Mountains dwarfed by the landscape
Trekkers walking through rocks, water and plant life
Trekkers heading up mountains as light goes down
See Ability trekkers reaching Atlas Mountains refuge after sun has set
See Ability trekkers in mountain refuge dorm

Mount Toubkal was a real challenge and thankfully our group of 8 visually impaired and 16 sighted trekkers formed a bond that meant we all came home feeling like we had achieved something awesome. Out of the group 2 visually impaired and 13 sighted friends made it to the summit. Everyone made it up to the mountain refuge though and several attempted the summit. The most awesome thing was that everyone was happy with what they achieved and felt they had done their absolute best. Nobody came back disappointed and wow what an incredible set of people these guys are to have an attitude like that. To be around people that are happy, not comparing themselves to anyone but their best ability and to have an outlook on life that is about pure positivity is a total breath of fresh air.
Sunrise as trekkers set off for Mount Toubkal summit
Trekkers walking up rocky mountains with snow patches
Amar, Helen, Mountain guide, Caroll on summit day
Atlas mountains with snow patches and misty clouds
Helen Fospero guiding Amar Latif through icy Atlas Mountains
Landscape of Atlas mountain dramatic ridges
Helen Fospero and Amar Latif reaching Mount Toubkal summit
Mount Toubkal summit sign, Barbary ground squirrel, visually impaired Nayoung listening to phone
Amar Latif and Helen Fospero laughing at Mount Toubkal Summit
Joanne Withers at Mount Toubkal Summit
See Ability charity trek group at Mount Toubkal Summit sign
Landscape views from Mount Toubkal summit
Sloping, rocky mountain path descent with bright blue sky
Amar and Nayoung being assisted down the icy mountains by Moroccan mountain guides
Trekkers enjoying the descent down from Toubkal summit
Mountain refuge in the landscape as seen from above it
Jane assisting Tom down refuge steps in darker early morning hours
Smiles of See Ability trekkers on route down from refuge
See Ability trekkers group photo half way down mountain
Toubkal National Park sign with See Ability trekkers
See Ability Charity Trek group photo at end of trek
Group picnic in the mountain village with sunshine

Having completed our ‘little jaunt’ – erh yeah right! – we got to spend a day in Marrakesh on a city tour. I had only just been to Marrakesh the year before, so this was also how I got to experience travel from a new perspective. Spending the day with Aamer from Canada, I found myself paying more attention to my other senses. He could smell bread before I could and we were both highly aware of all the noises of the souks. I found my creative brain in full use as I tried to describe Moroccan tiles and wood carvings. I closed my eyes to take in the smell of spices and loved being back in Marrakesh, but with a whole new take on it.
Joanne with See Ability and Traveleyes travellers in Marrakesh
See Ability and Traveleyes travellers in Marrakesh museum and garden courtyard
See Ability and Traveleyes travellers smelling spices in Marrakesh

I trekked and travelled with people that have children, are retired, have a British Empire Medal and are listed in the top 100 most influential people with disability in the UK, who have served our country in the military, live all over the world, teach, have high profile careers and who have said ‘No’ to a system that makes life difficult for them. Amar, who is the founder and director of Traveleyes is a force of change and an absolute joy to be around and do take the time to watch his TED talk. He was guided by the equally wonderful Helen Fospero, who you will recognise as a TV journalist. Caroll Pattison was our Traveleyes guide and we were so lucky to have her sorting us all out. I have not mentioned everyone and have only put a few links below to give you an idea of the fabulous people that I was lucky enough to meet, but all of these people are amazing.

I have included some quotes in this blog that are personal to my experience of my dad, my life, my travel experiences and I do this with respect to my new friends.

“The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.”
John Muir.
Atlas Mountain landscape of rolling mountains and Moroccan sunlight
This reminds me of my dad. Not in that he would not see the world because of his eyesight going. Amar Latif is proof with founding Traveleyes in that visually impaired people can still see the world through a new experience. This quote is more about that I want to see the world because my dad’s life was taken far too early and it reminds me every day, to not take it for granted.

“Discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”
Marcel Proust.
Amar Latif and Helen Fospero looking out at Mount Toubkal summit
This sums up my Moroccan experience. This was not a new land for me, but it was about experiencing it from somebody else’s point of view.

Finally, a huge heartfelt thank you goes out to all of you I trekked with. This mountain journey has a special place in my memories and I can’t thank you all enough for your friendship, support, laughter, guidance and everything you taught me that you probably aren’t even aware of. An awesome group for an epic challenge.

Thanks to everyone who generously donated to my trek as you helped me raise a massive £1,107.21. (I gave £700 on top of this for the cost of my place on the trek, so the whole amount I raised goes to the charity.) As a whole challenge we raised £40,000 for See Ability – wow!

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/joanne-withers1

Links for further reading and watching:

Traveleyes
https://www.traveleyes-international.com

SeeAbility
https://www.seeability.org

Travelling Blind
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00031c7

Meet Tom
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jun/03/goalball-rescued-me-from-my-slump-visual-impairment-blind

Meet Amar
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXsRvpS2yc8

Meet Scott
https://www.seeability.org/news/scott-watkin-bem-influencial-disabled-people

Photography Credit: Not all of these images were taken by me, so thank you to the group for sharing their photos with me.

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