Renowned explorer recounts treks

Snohomish resident Helen Thayer, a National Geographic explorer, speaks to Rotary Club of Arlington members about her experiences walking across Africa. - Adam Rudnick
Snohomish resident Helen Thayer, a National Geographic explorer, speaks to Rotary Club of Arlington members about her experiences walking across Africa.
— image credit: Adam Rudnick

ARLINGTON — Helen Thayer’s journeys have always been on foot.

Whether it was hiking across the Sahara Desert or meandering treacherous terrain as she climbed the Atlas Mountains, Thayer has put one foot in front of the other to get to where she’s going.

“It demonstrates that we’re not special — we’re the same as the people we meet,” Thayer recently told a group of Arlington Rotarians.

Thayer was the Rotary Club of Arlington’s special guest speaker on Thursday, May 27, at Gleneagle Restaurant.

During her approximately 30-minute presentation, the Snohomish resident, originally from New Zealand, talked about her and her husband’s walking treks through Africa.

Thayer, a National Geographic explorer, has authored three books — “Polar Dream,” “Three Among the Wolves” and “Walking the Gobi.” She was the first woman to travel alone to the magnetic North Pole and across the Sahara and Gobi deserts, and speaks to corporations, organizations and schools about her experiences.

While speaking with the Rotary group, Thayer highlighted some of the people she’s stayed with, the animals she’s seen and the cultural differences she’s experienced during her travels.

She remarked casually about having been kidnapped during her six-month hike across the Sahara — the world’s largest desert that stretches across northern Africa — in the late 1990s.

“We were about to be shot, but we squeezed out the predicament,” Thayer said.

Helping Thayer tell her stories were her photographs, which documented the landscape she crossed.

One slide showed her husband, Bill, standing next to the camels they had borrowed to carry their supplies.

“We were following a slave trade route, and we had to load our camels well. Otherwise, it would be a lot of bellowing,” Thayer said. “It was a long journey, but it was well worth it.”

After she finished speaking about her desert trek, Thayer spoke about hiking through the Atlas Mountains, which stretch about 1,600 miles through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

During their time there in 2000, Thayer and her husband lived with the native people who inhabit the mountains.

“It’s a very, very tough lifestyle,” Thayer said. “Their culture is Muslim, so I buttoned up my sleeves and put a skirt on and didn’t look up. We always try to respect their culture.”

From there, Thayer spoke about the couple’s experiences living with the Maasai people of Tanzania in November of 2009, as well as residing with the Bushmen earlier this year.

The latter lived the same as they did 10,000 years ago, Thayer said.

“It’s an extremely basic lifestyle,” she said. “We went hunting with them and when they would walk across the land, they wouldn’t make any noises. We sounded like elephants moving across the ground.”

While traveling with the Bushmen, Thayer was able to photograph a variety of African wildlife including wildebeests, zebras, lions, cheetahs and elephants.

“We got right in the middle of it,” she said.

After the presentation, Rotary member Bruce Ballon said that Thayer had spoken to the group last year about her voyage to the North Pole.

Arlington Rotary President Kurt McVay said that he was most impressed with how Thayer and her husband walked everywhere they went.

“It’s such a different way to experience the world,” McVay said.

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