By Craig Petter
For two gruelling weeks in November, realtor Jennifer Stewart was absent from open houses because she was trekking through the open desert.
The latter half of Diane & Jen Ottawa Realtors, Stewart tackled a 100-kilometre hike in sweltering Morocco as a participant in the Royal LePage Shelter Foundation’s Sahara Desert Challenge for Shelter. Aiming to safeguard women and children fleeing domestic abuse, Stewart and more than 100 other Canadian realtors raised nearly one million dollars prior to embarking on the hike.
When I spoke to her before the trip, Stewart was experiencing a flurry of emotions that could only be expressed as feeling “frazzled.”
“I’m feeling physically prepared, I’ve done a lot of training,” she said, “but I feel like I have a lot of stuff to gather. I’m a little overwhelmed with all the things I have to do to get ready for the actual trip. But I’m excited.”
As daunting as walking the equivalent of two and a half marathons through sand may seem, Stewart is no stranger to treks. In 2017, she participated in the Shelter Foundation’s previous hike through mountains and gorges in Iceland. In preparation for the Moroccan trek, she pushed herself to the extreme, conquering sand dunes in Cape Cod and climbing a mountain in Curacao.
Despite her substantial experience, Stewart pinpointed some looming challenges in her next adventure.
“The big challenge for me will be the heat,” she explained. “I don’t like the heat. I’m a skier, I like to snowshoe, I can do anything in the winter. I don’t like being trapped in heat.”
Another potential obstacle for Stewart was the unfamiliarity of the Moroccan desert. A polar opposite of Canada’s landscape, Stewart was wary of the psychological shock posed by an arid, desolate environment. Nonetheless, she remained confident thanks to her investment in the cause.
The Royal LePage Shelter Foundation is a charity across Canada. As well as participating in fundraisers, Stewart consistently donates a portion of her commissions to the foundation. In anticipation of the trek, Stewart boosted her affiliation with the charity by crushing the minimum fundraising goal of $5,000 for participants by raising closer to $7,000.
Proceeds from the trek will be split 80-20, with 20 per cent being funnelled into the Shelter Foundation’s national programs and the rest going to local shelters chosen by the participants. Stewart has pledged to two shelters, the Lanark County Interval House and the Ottawa Interval House which has a unique pet sanctuary program so women in trouble have a place to take their pets.
“Women will stay in abusive situations because their pets are often being threatened or they’re worried for their pets’ safety,” she noted. “They don’t have a place they can go and bring their pet.”
Inspired by her causes, Stewart was unfazed by the logistics of the hike itself. Upon arriving in Marrakech, Stewart’s group of around 30 realtors departed the next day for the desert, where the group was dropped off “with some camels and some Bedouin tents.”
Each portable tent houses four or five people and one smaller tent is carried along as a designated bathroom. There are no showers for the sweat-soaked 11 days, and Stewart suspected that the bathroom would likely only include a “bucket setup.”
The realtors are accompanied by guides, cooks and a volunteer doctor to treat any ailments, including snakebites and scorpion stings. Stewart did not fixate on the danger of snakes and scorpions and instead anticipated the undeniable perks, such as the food. Cooks provide three meals a day, all traditional Moroccan fare. Stewart had heard only praise for the cuisine, which would doubtlessly be a far cry from the “porridge, fish and horse-meat spaghetti” she ate in Iceland.
For Stewart, the passion for these treks outweighs the risks and fears. She diagnoses herself as a “thrill-seeker” but also loves the comradery forged between realtors from all over Canada. She stresses, however, that the primary motivator for her is always the cause.
“When you’re walking along for eight hours, slogging it and feeling sorry for yourself, you realize that some people go home and get beaten up. In their home. For no reason. You realize that if you have a safe place to stay at the end of the day you’re pretty lucky.”
So despite the scorching heat, stinging scorpions and suboptimal toilets, Stewart was willing to walk through hellish terrain because of the countless women who already did.
Craig Petter is a first-year journalism and humanities student at Carleton University who regularly covers sports for Carleton’s independent student newspaper. Twitter:@Cpett_19