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Talking Heads -

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PETER THOMPSON: Welcome to Talking Heads. My guest this week, Paula Constant, has a rather
remarkable passion. I mean, you else decides to walk thousands of kilometres across the Sahara?
Paula's had an extraordinary transformation. From a primary school teacher to expeditionary. She's
walked more than 12,000km, she's lost a husband along the way, and discovered the way to a camel's
heart. Paula, welcome to Talking Heads.

PAULA CONSTANT: Thank you very much.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, you have perhaps walked further than any other woman, unassisted. You did walk
through much of the Sahara.

PAULA CONSTANT: Yeah, every step.

PETER THOMPSON: Why do you walk?

PAULA CONSTANT: I enjoy it. I really, really enjoy the process of walking, which I realise I might
have taken to the slight extreme, but-

PETER THOMPSON: Most people get satisfied by walking a kilometre.

PAULA CONSTANT: Exactly, but there's something very rhythmic and very meditative about walking for
long distances each day, repeatedly. And, also, it gives you such an opportunity to meet every
single piece of ground and person along the way, on a very, very personal level. So, you're not
missing anything. Very much a complete immersion in the experience.

PETER THOMPSON: You set off from England, just explain where you have walked.

PAULA CONSTANT: I started from Trafalgar Square, in 2004, and then all the way down through France,
through Paris, down to the border of Spain. Across the Pyrenees, and along the Camino de Santiago,
the pilgrimage trail. Then down south through Portugal, back into Spain. Then, down to Algeciras,
across to Morocco. All the way down to the bottom of Morocco, so it's another 3,000km down through
the western Sahara, after the first 5,000km through Europe. And then another 4,500km from
Mauritania across through Mali and into Niger.

PETER THOMPSON: The average Westerner, if they're setting out on such an adventure, would normally
go, where possible, by 4WD. But you disdained that.

PAULA CONSTANT: I think I disdained it less than what I did. I've got a great appreciation for the
invention of the wheel, now.

PETER THOMPSON: What about camels? They've got a reputation for being cantankerous beasts.

PAULA CONSTANT: Camels are much maligned, I think. If you don't know how to handle them, and I
didn't, they can be difficult. They're extraordinarily intelligent animals, and very tolerant. Far
more patient and wise I think, than horses are.

PETER THOMPSON: I thought you were going to say people.

PAULA CONSTANT: Oh, no. They're far better than people. No, but they're tough, and they're quite
honourable. So, they-


PAULA CONSTANT: I believe they're honourable. I may now sound like I've spent way too much time
with camels.

PETER THOMPSON: How are they honourable?

PAULA CONSTANT: You watch camels, I've watched camels, especially mine when things were hard, and
they'll haul themselves up and they will tramp after you. You can see part of it is trust, but part
of it is almost their pride as well. They'll get up and they'll keep going. There's something very
noble about that. And I grew to really love and honour them for that. I'd never completed anything,
I wasn't too sure if I could. This will sound extraordinarily arrogant - I felt that I had a
tremendous amount of intelligence and ability. Every day that I wasn't doing something with it, I
felt like I was failing myself. All I ever wanted to do was write. I wanted a grand adventure,
absolutely. By doing the walk I knew that I was giving myself the time to write, the mental space
and, I suppose, the self-belief to do it.

PETER THOMPSON: Does walking solve your troubles?

PAULA CONSTANT: I think it helps you, it gives you a resilience to deal with them. I think that the
best thing I would take out of that long stretch of walking, is that I do know that there's nothing
you can't actually walk through.

When I was five, we moved up to Mansfield, which was really where I spent my childhood and what I
relate to as home. I was permanently excited, there was always something to do, whether it was
lilo-ing down a river, or jumping on a horse, or going skiing.

My father's name was Francis James Walsh. He was known as Frank. He could be very unpredictable. He
had a terrible temper and at times could be quite cruel with his observations and very critical of
us as children. But equally, extremely amusing, and very affectionate. In about 1960, he bought a
ticket to go on a bus from England across to Solone. But when they got to the bus, there was no
driver. So, my father, in his inimitable fashion, got together a small coterie of the travellers
and they made a pact that they would drive this bus all the way across Europe. He was absolutely
enthralled by the cultures all around him. He spoke to me when I was small about sitting up on a
rooftop in Turkey drinking red wine and watching the sun go down over all the white roofs and being
entertained with exceptional hospitality. I remember being mesmerised as a child and always wanting
him to talk about it much more than what he actually would.

My mother was born Beverly Ann Cloud. Mum left school at 15 and went to work in the bank, much to
her disgust. She wanted to be a journalist but her parents didn't approve of that. So, my mother
promptly proceeded to not be nice in the best possible way and danced with Greek boys in cafes in
Kings Cross, and joined an acting group, and altogether threw herself into life with gay abandon.

I love to read everything and anything. I love losing myself in worlds, particularly fairytale
worlds and stories of ancient culture. I did love the warrior, Diana. I can recall a picture of her
striding along in felt boots with a knife at her hip and I thought she was beautiful and strong and
tough. I adored her.

Gary and I married in 1999. Although Gary owned a house in the suburbs in Melbourne, we agreed to
rent that house out and move to Broome. We didn't really have much of an idea about what our plan
was except that Gary wanted to take photographs, and I wanted to write books. We decided that,
while we were still young enough and didn't have children, that this was the time to do Africa. We
were sitting down, having a glass of wine on Cable Beach, awfully pleasant thing to do, and the
camels were walking past. I said to Gary - I think I'd like to walk. For Gary, he jumped on board
straightaway and said - Yeah. Well, we can't afford to drive, so, that's a good plan.

PETER THOMPSON: I get the impression you were quite directionless. And full of a lot of

PAULA CONSTANT: Yeah. I think that's a fairly good assessment.

PETER THOMPSON: Obvious secret to good living is to get passionate about something. Were you
passionate about anything before the idea of the great walk?

PAULA CONSTANT: I was passionate about everything. I was going to be a cheesemaker there for
awhile, you name it. Pretty much, there's lots of things. Photography, I was passionate about. The
one thing that I really desperately wanted to do, and it's taken me a decade to see that I was to
scared to be passionate about it. All I ever wanted to do was write. But do you think I ever tried
to write anything? I think I was just way too scared that I'd fail.

PETER THOMPSON: Paula, one of the people to inspire you in your reading was the books, the works of
Wilfred Thesiger. Who was he?

PAULA CONSTANT: Wilfred Thesiger was known as the last of the great explorers. He was an English
aristocrat, a product of all that that entailed in the late 19th century. Who decided very early on
as a child in Abyssinia, that he wanted to spend a life travelling. He went on to map the Empty
Quarter of the Arabian Desert. Lived amongst the Marsh Arabs in Iraq. He really lived the most
extraordinary life. I can just remember feeling, thinking - this is it. He was still alive at that
time. I thought - this man's lived the life I want. That's what I want, that's what I want to do.

PETER THOMPSON: You decide to walk in Broome. You take yourself to London to get ready for the
walk, it takes two-and-a-half years.

PAULA CONSTANT: Mmm. Yeah, it did.

PETER THOMPSON: It must have driven you mad.

PAULA CONSTANT: It did. Um, it did. Yep. And it was a process. It was probably only 10 months
before we left where I got very, very brutal about it and said - we're going on this date. And
that's one of the best things I've ever done. After setting off from London, it took us ten days to
walk down to Dover. From Dover, we took the ferry over to Calais. And we walked to Amiens, down to
Paris, and down from Paris to Chartres, Tours, Poitiers, down to Bordeaux And then, we were picking
up the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route through northern Spain. It was an absolutely
wonderful time, there weren't too many people walking it. The people who were, were just wonderful
company, and remain to this day, our very good friends. We walked through Portugal until April. And
then we re-entered Spain in Andalucia. By the time we were down at Algeciras, at the edge of Spain,
ready to go to Morocco, we were coming into the height of summer. We entered Morocco at Tangier and
walked straight down the coast to Rabat, then Casablanca, then inland to Marrakech, then straight
down through the Atlas Mountains. Eventually to Mhamid where the road fundamentally runs out, and
the desert begins. There was very little sense of pride in the journey at that stage. All I saw was
that the first leg was out of the way, and it was onto the second leg now and let's get on with it.
We've still got so very far to go. But by this stage we had a real understanding of just how hard
it was going to be.

PETER THOMPSON: You're walking, perhaps, 20km to 30km a day. How is it different from going to work
at a job?

PAULA CONSTANT: It does become a job relatively quickly. I would say by the time we were in the
south of France it had become-

PETER THOMPSON: An unpaid job.

PAULA CONSTANT: Yeah, an unpaid job. Absolutely.

PETER THOMPSON: We're talking about 5,000km here, between London and Morocco. This is a long way.

PAULA CONSTANT: The difference is it's my choice, I chose it. And every day brings something new.
And every day did feel as if I was really living, for the first time in my life. And I began to
feel quite separate from the world around me. Because, even in Europe, if you're always on foot and
you're not jumping on buses and you're not lobbing into backpackers, you're in a totally different
world. So, we stayed in cottages with people who didn't speak a word of English. I learnt to speak
French very quickly because we actually had to to find out if we could put the tent up, or where
there was water, or could we camp out in their shed. So, it's much different experience. On this
European walk, you suddenly stop and the writer's block that's been hovering there, for your whole
life, is burst.

PAULA CONSTANT: Yeah. And I can remember hovering over the keyboard with my fingers and I was
actually shaking and I felt scared and tearful and I thought - oh, I can't do this. And then I just
started and that was it. And I was almost too scared to go to bed in case I broke the spell. Slow
Journey South was largely written in that week.

PETER THOMPSON: One of the questions which puzzles me is - if you want to walk the Sahara, why do
you spend 5,000km walking to get to the Sahara?

PAULA CONSTANT: You really can laugh at this. I had the idea that this would be a good idea as a
training walk. It was actually quite good logic, I defend myself. In essence, because I really did
think that this was going to be a struggle, I thought I need to get my languages under control. I
need to know at least French, and some Arabic. Then, it was a case of - I want to know if I can
actually, physically do this. Because if I get 1,000km into the Sahara and decide I can't do it,
there are not too many options for an exit.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, even the best relationships are tested by a short journey. You're going on a
very long journey. What was happening to your relationship?

PAULA CONSTANT: I was aware of a sense of change coming. I felt as if I was at the edge of some
sort of precipice. At that stage I had an agent who was touting my book around to publishers. Gary
hadn't made inroads professionally for photography I felt that was his fault, whether it was or
wasn't is irrelevant. But, I was feeling resentful. I just really did hope that once we got out and
started walking, it would drop away.

We had already worked out that we were going to go and do a six-month training walk through the
Moroccan desert. Neither Gary nor I had any experience with camels, Navigation in the desert,
anything. And we wanted somebody else to set that up. So, we paid Habib to hire us a guide. He
hired an older gentleman called MBarak, who was wonderful. He didn't speak any French. By this
stage, I spoke reasonably good French, and we needed somebody who could make the bridge. And that's
where Madani came in, a young cousin of Habib's. Madani spoke beautiful French. I, in turn, was the
bridge between MBarak, Madani, and Gary. We set off, the four of us.

Tensions had already arisen between Gary and I before we left Mhamid. I had stopped even pretending
to be patient with Gary. My anger was at the surface by this stage. I could barely open my mouth
for the anger and resentment I felt. In addition to that, I was finding Habib incredibly
attractive. He was an escape route, he has a very magnetic personality, he was obviously besotted
by me. He spoke six languages, he understood camels in the desert, he was in his domain. I've never
been unfaithful in my life, and I had no intention of being unfaithful. I just saw it as a symptom
of the marital woes, and I really thought that, once we got out into the desert, we would fixed
those woes. We'd go back to being the team we were through Europe, the walk would take over, and
everything would be OK.

But we were five weeks into the walk when Gary said he wanted to leave. Strangely enough, given how
angry and resentful I did feel by that stage, it was a diabolical shock. We agreed on the point
that Gary was going to leave the walk. We made camp outside that town, Habib came down to visit us.
I felt very, very rejected by Gary and, at that point, I had a sexual relationship with Habib. The
following day, Gary decided that actually maybe all this was maybe too fast for him and I told him
about Habib. That was the nail in the coffin that ended the marriage really. At that point, I
actually ended up insisting that Gary leave and I was suddenly alone with these two men. No Habib,
no Gary - just another 2,000km of desert to walk.

PETER THOMPSON: You must have faced a decision to leave the walk, you could have left the walk any
day. But when Gary exits the walk, it must have been a moment where you weighed up whether, if you
stayed, you'd maybe for keeps, in terms of separation.

PAULA CONSTANT: I weighed that up for 2,500km. It just about killed me. Just about drove me insane.
That's one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. Every single day, I thought, do I get a
plane? Do I get to the next town and find some way out of here? I was locked in my own private
hell, I couldn't talk to anybody about what was going on. I missed Gary desperately. And the walk,
on some other level, was all I had left. It was what I wanted to do. It was my dream and it felt
right. It felt like it's what I should be doing. I would think, so I leave this all for what? I
don't think I have a marriage left to go back to. And if I do, and if I leave this walk to do it,
is that going to work, really? So I thought, well, at the very least, let me walk this section, let
me finish this section that we've paid for and agreed on. And then, you know, I'd go back and we'd
take it from there. But of course, by the time I'd done that, he was gone.

PETER THOMPSON: Does the desert itself play a role in this?

PAULA CONSTANT: I think it did. There's wind and you don't hear very much. You've very locked in
your own eternal world. For me, I'm actually physically wrapped up in a swathe of material. So,
physically cocooned as well as mentally. Then the nights, you're just so insignificant under this
immense carpet of stars and I don't think you can hide from yourself in the desert. Not at all.

PETER THOMPSON: You need to, obviously, have lots of skills in the desert and one of them,
unfortunately, was having a knife or what might be a landmine.

PAULA CONSTANT: Yeah, I didn't have any combat skills as such before I set out, never done any
territorial army stuff. The first I knew of land mines was I nearly weed on one. (LAUGHS) Goodness,
what's that?

PETER THOMPSON: What an introduction.

PAULA CONSTANT: I learnt to recognise them fairly quickly and certainly learnt to recognise the way
that the ground felt where you were likely to find them. You can't ever know that, that's why there
a million nomads walking around the Western Sahara with one arm missing or a leg missing.

Preparing for the second walk was a much different thing. I knew what I was in for this time. I
realised that it was the desert that had always drawn me. It was a desert that I was obsessed with,
that was what I wanted more than anything. I set off from Nouadhibou through Atar down to
Tidjikdja, Ayoun el-Atrouss, Nema and then into Mali, Timbuktu. I had four guides through
Mauritania. Only one lousy choice, that was my first one, made under pressure but then, after that,
a chain of extremely honourable, wise, wonderful men, all of whom I remember with a great deal of
affection, warmth and respect. Habus, who was an ex-military man and also a map maker - he was a
tough man, he respected what I did right from the beginning. But he also understood that I needed
help. He made me practise and practise and practise and he made me do all my own navigation. He
would put me in the middle of big dunes and he would tell me, where do I go now? He made me own my
expedition and I've got so much to be grateful to him for. He, in turn, introduced me to a lovely,
shambling old man, with one tooth, called Mohammed, who we met on the road and Habus took one look
at, spoke to for five minutes and said he'll be your next guide. I thought, "You must be joking."
The guy's about to drop down dead any second. Mohammed was beautiful. He of all my guides was the
most like a father. Often, we would walk on almost for days without barely exchanging a word and
didn't need to but we'd notice the same things as being funny or we'd choose the same campsite. We
didn't have to talk a lot to communicate.

In turn, it was with Mohammed that I met Ali. We walked one of the toughest stretches together. We
were walking through dreadful prickles. Very tough bandit country, some in national uniform. Ali
and I arrived in Tomboctou in late January 2007. One of the most proud moments of my life, I think,
was standing and seeing the lights of Tomboctou exactly where they were supposed to be. I had a
particularly bad guide out of Tomboctou, I made a bad choice. It started from there and went
downhill really. By the time I sort of came around to Gou, and I was heading towards Menaka, I was
heartily sick of Mali. I want so much to make it to Egypt, you have no idea how much I want to get
there. I keep thinking I'm just never going to be satisfied if I have to stop before that. I'm not
going to give up because something's hard anymore.

Fundamentally, when I left for Menaka, I had a guide called Ibrahim who was gold. So we were
looking at walking about 1,000, 1,200km together and I was looking forward to it. By the time we
were halfway to Tillia, the weather was turning, it was hot. So it was 50 degrees in the middle of
the day and the nights never really felt much below 30. I had been battling a urinary-tract
infection, it just kept coming back and each time, it was worse. It begun to scare me and, within
24 hours, I knew I was very, very sick. Walked into Tillia, just desperate to see a doctor, get my
passport stamped and get on with it, and I was brought to a very abrupt halt.

PETER THOMPSON: It was the government of Niger which said you can't go on?

PAULA CONSTANT: Yes, absolutely, and gave me no quarter whatsoever. Didn't even have a discussion.
Just said you're done, you're finished.

PETER THOMPSON: You're out of here.

PAULA CONSTANT: You're out of here, yeah. Very brutally.

PETER THOMPSON: What do you feel as you look back at these images of your trek?

PAULA CONSTANT: Terribly sad. I feel the failure, the sense of failure over again.

PETER THOMPSON: You haven't let go of that dream, even though the difficulties, the objective
difficulties made it impossible.

PAULA CONSTANT: I have nights where I can't sleep, thinking about going back and finishing it. But
three years since it stopped. The political situation in that region is so bad. I know what it's
like to walk through, terrified that every vehicle is going to shoot at you or that there are
landmines that you're going to walk over, I did that already, I don't want to do that again.

PETER THOMPSON: On the other hand, what you've just said indicates that you could see it too, that
you were a target.

PAULA CONSTANT: This is a difficult one for me. I believe that people knew I was coming. A lot of
people knew I was coming and by the time I got handed on to another guide. Once that culture
decides that you are their responsibility, once a clan, a family takes you, it's their
responsibility. They would sooner slit their own throat than see any harm come to you.

PETER THOMPSON: This sense of the aching hyperactivity that comes through a lot of what you write,
you're sort of contained and you're wanting to break out.

PAULA CONSTANT: Yes, yes. I think that's a very perceptive comment. Yes. And I think that's why
walking was so good because I was expending so much energy, it allowed my mind to work probably in
the most calm manner it ever has done. Gradually, now, three years after I've stopped walking, I'm
realising that I still need to work hard to find that balance - to be constructive, to work in a
constructive way.

PETER THOMPSON: If I go to Europe, I come back and I'm full of it. Someone says, "How was it?" And
then after a minute, we need to change subject.

PAULA CONSTANT: (LAUGHS) Yeah, I completely empathise with that, yes.

PETER THOMPSON: So with your experience, walking for years, how did people relate to it?

PAULA CONSTANT: What a wonderful question. I found it so very difficult when I first came back. So
very frequently, when anybody asked, I'd just say, oh, it was really good. It was a great
experience. That was it. It took me probably two years to start to look back at it from an
objective position.

PETER THOMPSON: Your new partner Graham says maybe you suffered a bit of post-traumatic stress.

PAULA CONSTANT: Yes, Graham was trying to tell me that for the first 12 months I was back and the
poor, patient man got very short shrift from me every time he did it. But, yes, having been on his
own in the North Pole, worrying about polar bears coming through his tent - he knew what it was
that was waking me up screaming a lot of nights. I came back to a relationship. Graham and I had
decided that we were prepared to take a punt again (CHUCKLES) of romance. Graham is an adventurer.
He was the first Australian to ski to the North Pole on an international team 20 years ago. He's a
veteran of over 20 expeditions worldwide. He understands my need to do what I do. Chloe took to
calling me her step-mother some time ago. Although, I suspect I lack any real authority. I think
Chloe's only question is why didn't you buy an extra camel so you could ride it? I wrote Sahara
here. Writing Sahara was very much harder than Slow Journey South. Not once the marriage bit
finished, but up until then, it took a long time. One of the reasons I took so long to start
writing Sahara was because I thought I was going back. After a year, I thought, well, I'd better do
something otherwise this whole thing is just going to be forgotten. One of the greatest gifts that
this walk has given me is the knowledge that I can write and that possibly one of the things I've
been most proud of.

PETER THOMPSON: Paula, it's ten years since the idea of the big walk first took shape when you were
living in Broome. How much have you changed in that time?

PAULA CONSTANT: I spent an awful lot of my 20s wondering what I was going to do with my life. Well,
I won't let that happen again. So, I'm prepared to work pretty hard to chase things now.

PETER THOMPSON: And what might they be?

PAULA CONSTANT: I want to keep writing, so that's what I'm focusing on at the moment. I want to
make the shift to fiction. That's what I want to do.

PETER THOMPSON: Could you stay home and really be at home with yourself?

PAULA CONSTANT: Yes, I think so. As long as I was writing, yes. I still haven't really made a home
for myself yet so ask me that in another five years.

PETER THOMPSON: We'll check in a bit later in life.


PETER THOMPSON: Paula, it's been great talking to you. Thanks for coming.

PAULA CONSTANT: Thank you very much for having me.