OUTDOOR WOMAN’S VOICE: Susan Elliott (aka Hadija)

The universe at times can do its wonders and connect people who share similar aspirations.  In this case, the shared aspiration happens to be Jordan Trail.  If you happen to be following the Outdoor Women’s Voices series, you’d remember one of our features, Vix Harris, who planned to trek the Jordan Trail.  Shortly after her feature was published, I met Susan who has done the Jordan Trail herself a few years prior.  I was delighted to find out that both women knew of each other before my knowing either one.  It further amazed me to learn that Susan happens to be the oldest female hiker to complete the Jordan Trail at the age of 65!

I’m beyond honored to have the opportunity to meet Susan.  Ever since we first chatted about her being featured on the Outdoor Women’s Voices series, she’s been hiking non-stop.  To me, Susan’s life and her dedication to hiking serve as the ultimate inspiration because her relationship with hiking entails challenges including her own unique set of physical challenges that render hiking a much more difficult pursuit to her as compared to most of us.  What impresses me the most about Susan is her determination to do it anyway.  Her “can do” attitude is contagious.  In my world, she has impacted my level of self-confidence in that no matter what difficulties come my way in my pursuit of becoming a mountain nomad, there’s no other way to handle it but to forge ahead.  I also appreciate her ability to break the norms by showing the world that age should not deter you from pursuing your passion.

Feature Outdoor Woman’s Voice

Susan Elliott aka Hadija was born in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands and grew up in Mbabane, Swaziland from age 7 to 16.  Circumstances require her to divide her time between Maui, USA; Kent, UK; and Jordan, Middle East!  Currently, she’s looking after her health and giving aromatherapy massage in Maui; working in UK as a healthcare assistant in a psychiatric hospital; visiting her daughter and three grandchildren, who are between 1 and 5 years old, in their Bedouin village in Jordan…and hiking in all three locations.

When and how did you start hiking?  

You could say I started hiking, together with  my love of the outdoor world, when I was inside my mother who was five months pregnant and who, with my father, was hiking for a week across the Falkland Islands camping and carrying equipment and  food in big heavy old fashioned rucksacks! Once I could walk, I was struggling through peat bogs to a beach for fishing with my parents.

Who or what inspires you to hike?   

My parents definitely inspired me, although as a teenager, I did not appreciate going on long hikes in Swaziland’s mountains every Sunday! Thank you so much my school friends, Yda Gibbon and Cynthia Hooper, for coming on some of these hikes. Then, as a young adult, I just took for granted my love of the outdoors and hiking. Only when I got older did I realise what a gift my parents had given me. Sadly, they had both died before I thought to thank them.

What do you like the most about hiking?  

The solitude and beauty of the natural world and being free of the daily complexities and troubles of our world. Some may say escapism but for me crucial renewal time and space.

What do you like the least about it?  

Nowadays, the pain and fatigue which comes with having fibromyalgia and arthritic knees, but overall hiking still rejuvenates me!  

What is your most memorable hiking experience to date?  

Definitely hiking the Jordan Trail! Not only because I accomplished this not inconsiderable challenge at 65 years of age,  but also because for the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to hike a long distance trail – one of my dreams. The Jordan Trail gave me everything I needed and at exactly the right moment when hiking – miracles of iced water, sweet energising tea, thick coffee; beautiful flowers to focus on when the way was long and tiring; soaring wheeling birds of prey uplifting me from the rain; camping spot surrounded by mountains alive with animal bells and distant adhans; nourishing food prepared with love by strangers and their unconditional kindness;  mountain rock colours soothing my tiredness; space to allow my inner intuition to find the route and to be safe; making new friends when I joined the Jordan Trail Association technical thru hike for the final trail sections.

My tent at remote Wadi Gsieb, November 14, 2016.

What are some lessons you’ve learned from hiking?    

“Mindfulness” and extra discipline since, in remote areas, one has no choice but to keep going to the end of the hike! Truly, hiking teaches the importance of being mindful and in the present, without wishing it were different and without fearing it will always be this way.

What advice would you give to those new to hiking?  

Set realistic goals taking into consideration your physical stamina and strength, distance, difficulty of terrain and climate, availability of food and water, nearest assistance. Plan thoroughly with a back up plan or two for changes which are guaranteed to happen in the natural world – such as  a weather change or delay in finding the way. Take blister care items and support bandages for twisted knees or ankles. Better to start with modest goals and enjoy your hiking than try to do too much too soon and end up in difficulties. When you go to hike, communicate your plans in detail to those close to you.

Susan shares with us her 3 favorite hiking photos.

(Alas, I have only taken digital photos over the last three years so cannot depict my wide range of hiking. Also, I didn’t have a camera/ smart phone for my first Jordan Trail trip.)

The quintessence of an English right of way for walkers on the 1066 Trail at Winchelsea, Kent! Beautiful stone stile, clear waymark signpost, nearby bench, information board for ancient ruins, no rubbish, well-maintained, December 7, 2016.

Skyline Ridge Trail at 10,000ft,  Haleakala, Maui. One of my recent hikes on January 22, 2017, for my WALK 1000 MILES 2017.

A surprise on a Maui neighbourhood walk – part of my WALK 1000 MILES 2017 challenge, February 10, 2017.

What treks/trips do you have still on your bucket list?

Sinai Trail   

Lebanon Mountain Trail   

Turkey –  the Sufi Trail   

Turkey – Lycian Way   

What challenges have you faced if anything as a female hiker?

A real challenge has been finding other women among my friends  to hike with me due to factors such as terrain, distance, speed, elevation.  Also, as the years went by, I became more wary about hiking alone in Maui in remote areas in case I fell – bodies of fallen hikers have been found from time to time in Maui! Hiking the rural and new Jordan Trail as a solo woman was especially challenging since rural women do not hike, although some women will be out alone grazing their family’s goats or sheep. Indeed, hiking, in general, for Jordanians seems a new concept. Everyone felt responsible for my “plight,” and drivers wanted to “rescue” me and take me to a town. Others were reluctant to help me find a taxi driver to take me to my daily start/end locations! The taxi driver in turn would be reluctant. I was repeatedly warned of the dangers such as wild animals, the cold, finding my way, and once of bad men!

One of the wild animals! The two side-winder snakes didn’t hang around long enough for a portrait. November 13, 2016.

How did you overcome these challenges?

In England, I made new friends who had a similar hiking style – one from a yoga class and the other a sponsor for my War Child hike in Jordan. In Maui, I joined a Sunday Meetup Hiking group whose key members are strong hikers and who explore new territory. I’m challenged to keep up at times, but they always wait for me! In Jordan, since I was a woman in a Muslim country, I kept my arms, legs, and hair covered, and when the trail sometimes followed small roads, I hiked with my eyes down when vehicles passed. This worked really well. Only cars with families stopped, a couple of police cars, and two trucks with secret service agents.  All along the Jordan Trail, I showed those whom I met a laminated card with information in Arabic about the newly developed Jordan Trail, who I was, and why I was hiking. Not everyone could read, but the card still seemed to help allay concerns.

I proceeded to ask Susan about her Jordan Trail journey.  She happens to be the oldest female hiker to have completed it.

I hiked the Jordan Trail which tracks 650 km (405 miles)  from Um Qais in the far north of Jordan to the Red Sea not far from the border with Saudi Arabia in the south of Jordan. The trail crosses rolling fertile hills in the north, plunges into 1000 metre wadis, climbs steeply back up to the plateau overlooking the Dead Sea, meanders through the fabulous ancient city of Petra with its carved pink sandstone facades, winds through spectacular remote canyons, and crosses over the deserts and multi-coloured mountains in the south. At 65 years old, I am the oldest person and the oldest woman to have hiked the Jordan trail, although it took me two trips to complete.

November 21, 2016, I finished the 650 km Jordan Trail for War Child at the Red Sea south of Aqaba!

When did you do it?   

February 23 to April 1, 2016 and November 3 to 21, 2016.

What was the itinerary?

Since my first trip was in the spring with unpredictable rain and cold, I first hiked from Ais to Petra.  I rested and then moved north to the beginning of the trail at Um Qais, skipping the Dead Sea Wadis, and finishing at Ais. On my second trip, I tackled the tough Dead Sea Wadis, and then completed the Jordan Trail by hiking the final sections from Petra to Wadi Rum to the Red Sea south of Aqaba.

A total of 42 hiking days: 27 days in February/March and 15 days in November. 30 days solo finding the route solely by GPS (which I had never used before!), 3 days with a guide between Feynan Ecolodge and Qbour Al-Wahdat,  and the last 9 days with the Jordan Trail Association technical thru hike and walking 18 to 30 km (11 to 19 ml) a day.

Have you done something like this in the past? 

No, but in spring 1980, my husband and I spent two months travelling among the mountain areas of Spain, camping and hiking along the way.  Also, when growing up in Africa, I travelled widely with my parents camping and hiking every long school holiday.  In 1962, we drove by car all the way from Swaziland to Alexandria in  Egypt. Then, we caught a boat to Lebanon and continued by road through Europe, finishing in England.

Tell us about the logistics of this trek.  

Originally,  I planned to hike the Jordan Trail camping and using the excellent Dixon Roller Pack to carry my equipment,  food, and water.

Pulling my Dixon Rollerpack after Ma’tan Siq on Day 3, February 25, 2016.

Photo by Leon McCarron, adventure traveller and filmmaker.

Unfortunately, much of the terrain turned out to be vastly more rugged, rocky, and steep than anticipated! Consequently, on my first trip, I only camped a few nights. The rest of the time, I stayed in family home stays along the way or stayed at a basic hotel for 3 or 4 days and hiked along the nearby Jordan Trail, using local buses or taxis to my daily trail start and end points.

My room at Rocky Mountain Hotel, Wadi Musa, near Petra, November 10, 2016.

I was bitterly disappointed to abandon camping, but even with today’s ultra-light equipment,  I couldn’t backpack the weight with my arthritic knees and fibromyalgia. On my second trip, I joined the Jordan Trail Association technical thru hike for the final nine days of remote hiking with camping at night. Thus, solving the problems of food and water, since we had support vehicles to bring supplies and carry our bags.

My tent – near Jebel Kharazeh, November 16, 2016.

Did you receive any help or support from anyone or any organization to accomplish this?

I  relied totally on information from the Jordan Trail website. Indeed, once I got to Jordan, I was very strongly discouraged from continuing after only three days. My ability, organisation, planning, and experience were severely questioned. I think perhaps because of my age and the unsuitable Dixon Rollerpack! So I abandoned pulling the Dixon, pressed on, and kept a very low profile.

On my second trip, the Jordan Trail Association took the risk of allowing me to join their technical thru hike for the final nine days which are impossible without support for food and water. I will be forever grateful for the team’s openness and welcome, in spite of their reservations. I feel very honoured to have had this opportunity to hike with the three Jordanian women, Dinah Aqel, Duha Fayyad, and Karmah Tabbaa – the first women to accomplish the thru hike – and with Olivia Mason, talented researcher.    

Practical essential help in the UK came from a great friend, Jill, who trained with me every week through miles of mud on English footpaths, and from her husband, Paul, who loaded all the GPX files on my Garmin eTrex 30x and lent me a power charging pack. My grateful thanks to you both and to Minnie, who sent me off with a kilo of super healthy flapjacks!

How did you come up with this idea  for a trek?

I have always wanted to hike a long distance trail but life, work, job, health, and family responsibilities did not give me enough space until recently. My daughter and three grandchildren live in Jordan, so when I heard about the new Jordan Trail, that was the  perfect choice, especially as I don’t like the cold and rain of the UK. Then, War Child found me, and their work in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan became the final piece of the puzzle.

What inspired you to do this?

I like challenge, and the Jordan Trail became a personal challenge in memory of my parents who planted the seeds for my love of hiking in the wild. My father, Frank K Elliott, who lived to 103, was an extremely accomplished rock climber and Antarctic explorer as well as, along with my mother, a life-long traveller and hiker.

What was the purpose?

My journey, in a small way, was also about helping to create positive understanding about this part of the world. I wanted to give some hope and support via War Child to children of our future and do something beautiful for God in our troubled world.

Did you do it solo or with others?

30 days solo; 3 days with a guide Feynan Ecolodge to QbourAl-Wahdat; 9 days with group Jordan Trail Association technical thru hike.

Have you hiked solo before? 

I often do solo day hikes and am looking forward to some long weekend hikes this year as part of my WALK 1000 MILES 2017. Although I very much enjoy hiking with a friend, I also like the freedom of being on my own, pausing when I want, and  not having any thoughts concerning my companion’s needs. Indeed, I can be gloriously selfish!

How did you decide to do a fundraiser for this trek?  

War Child found me! I was travelling through London with a big backpack when I was stopped by a War Child volunteer. I had never heard of this organisation,  but when I did my research and discovered their work with children in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, I knew this was the perfect cause to motivate me on my Jordan Trail challenge. Since I work in a psychiatric hospital, I was delighted that post-trauma counselling was available for the children from war-torn Syria. My commitment to the Syrian children, who were given hope and the tools with which to live positive lives, helped to keep my legs moving forward since the Jordan Trail was a tough challenge for me, physically,  mentally,  and emotionally.

So far donations total £2,691/$3,560(53% of my goal of £5,000).  This money will be used by War Child for their work with Syrian refugee children in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. War Child focuses on mental health first-aid, trauma counselling, creation of ‘Safe Spaces’ and provision of informal education to help the children heal from their traumas, as well as training of local staff in psycho-social care.

The money I have raised will make a real difference to children like Nour, whose lives have been devastated by conflicts around the world. After Nour fled her home in Syria, she was withdrawn and aggressive, lashing out at her younger sister. With War Child’s help, she’s beginning to recover – she’s making friends and is a lot calmer. It’s just the start and War Child will continue to help Nour and her family cope with their experiences. Through “I Deal” counselling sessions, I have helped War Child reach the most vulnerable and traumatised children like Nour, and their families, to help them better cope with everyday life after conflict, bringing happiness and hope back into their lives. It’s not a simple or quick fix and it’s down to people like myself that War Child is able to provide long-term support to children and their families.

War Child is the only organisation dedicated to delivering this kind of specialist support for children affected by conflicts around the world.  

What were the challenges you encountered on the trek?

Every day in the north, I had to deal with groups of stray dogs. Often they would be asleep in the bushes and wake up when I was almost on top of them. However,  I just had to pick up a rock, and they’d mostly run, not knowing my aim was useless! Once some men watched me walk up a long hill. When I got closer, they went into the house and left me to the mercy of  a pack of very fierce dogs. Some of the dogs were loose and others bouncing around in a frenzy on huge chains! Wielding my pointy trekking poles helped me feel a bit safer! Thankfully, the Bedouin shepherds always called their well-trained dogs off me.

Dehydration was a constant struggle most days, as I just didn’t seem to be able to drink enough to counteract sweat loss on the steep hills. This meant I only needed one toilet stop, but oh what a challenge as there always seemed to be a village in view, or a farmer or a shepherd somewhere on the surrounding mountains, and no cover. One day my kind taxi driver had bought me cardamon coffee so in time the bathroom break became all consuming. Then, when I was finding my way down a mountain with no trail, I found a perfect deep grassy pit where I was completely hidden! So often the Jordan Trail gave me exactly what I needed!

My almost total lack of Arabic made me very sad as most people I met had little English, so our communication was very limited. A language miracle was when a policeman  stopped his car when he saw me at a bus stop in a village and phoned a number I had and arranged instant transport,  with price, to my accommodation with a driver with no English.  

My first trip was also bitterly cold at times, especially on the high plateau.  One night in a small hotel, I needed two extremely heavy thick woollen blankets from Iran. My thick socks regularly took 2 days to dry after washing. The cold probably contributed to my loss of 12 pounds in weight, in spite of forcing myself to eat more than usual!

How did you overcome them?

I was so happy to start walking each day and leave behind everyone’s worries and could just concentrate on finding the way and not falling down! Each day was spectacular and full of interest. Miracles occurred when I needed something in particular.

Susan shares with us her 3 favorite moments along the Jordan Trail.

Elegantly scattered black rocks – so beautiful.

Miracle of crocuses bursting out of the rocky ground. 

Surprise of new friends! Dina Aqel is one of the three warrior women who were the first women to complete the whole 650 km Jordan Trail in the technical thru hike. 

I was unbelievably touched when just before we got to the Red Sea, the thru hike team waited for me – I was lagging behind with horrendous blisters on blisters. We had to go under the road by a tunnel, and as I went through, one of the Mohammads played his flute and everyone clapped and sang. For me, that was the ultimate recognition for finishing the Jordan Trail!

What did you hope to accomplish from the trek?

Simply to hike the 650 km from Um Qais to the Red Sea, taking as much time as I needed to be safe and to enjoy the experience, and to raise £5,000 for War Child’s Children of Syria Appeal. The first goal was accomplished, but I am still working on my target for donations!

How did it impact you as a person?

The Jordan Trail touched my soul. On the trail I felt whole, no fragmentation, deeply at peace, and in awe of the beauty of creation. The Jordan Trail experience made me feel more confident again. I realise now that gradually and subtly my confidence had lessened over recent years. Probably due to a combination of increasing age, three bouts of early breast cancer with surgery and radiation, and onset of fibromyalgia and arthritic knees. I had to give up my Hapkido training and rethink my limits. My world seemed to be shrinking, especially as friends died. Not only did  the Jordan Trail broaden my horizons – literally, as well as physically, mentally, and emotionally – but the trail also introduced me to some wonderful new friends!

How was it like interacting with the locals along the way?

I had such heart warming experiences.  For example:

Day 1: The one man who did not seem alarmed by a lone woman walking down the road heading for wilderness was the driver of a minibus with special education children and their staff. I stood at the window in the rain near Ais and was introduced to the ladies and children, and he cheerfully said that he would see me in Aqaba at the end of the Jordan Trail, on TV. He beamed so much positive energy, and I thought someone who works with challenged children understands more is possible than most of us can imagine – I smiled.

Day 4:  Not far from Feynan Lodge, a woman’s  voice called me, literally from inside some bushes! Nearby, another woman and a young boy were squatting by a tiny fire and offered me shai. An old cup was rinsed and tea poured for me. We tried to communicate and the voice in the bushes joined in, but all I could understand was the Shahadah. I was offered a donkey ride to my destination, but had to refuse since I had to walk the whole Jordan Trail. I left some money with the child for the shai – somehow they seemed extra poor.  The voice in the bushes remained a puzzle.

Day 10: A few miles north of  Little Petra, at the start of the day, some children and their Aunt invited me into their traditional goat’s hair Bedouin tent for shai. These tents are very strong and last for years, but this one had holes in the roof and the recent rains must have poured through onto the family and their few belongings. Of course,  I am again hampered by my lack of Arabic, so I gave the twelve-year-old girl my explanation sheet. In spite of its complexity and the unfamiliar material about War Child, she read the piece aloud so beautifully and with so much energy and expression. Her Aunt looked so proud of her, and I was really moved. When I left, to thank them for my tea and the reading, I gave the girl 5 JOD. Alas, I cannot remember her name.

Are you currently trekking or doing a project?  

Yes, I have joined the WALK 1000 MILES 2017 challenge to continue to raise funds for War Child’s work with Syrian refugee children and young people in Jordan.   

 Tell us about it!

The aim is to walk a 1000 miles in 2017. I am challenging myself to walk on planned walks beyond my usual everyday running around. I am motivated by the well publicised health benefits of walking. I am continuing to raise funds for War Child’s Children of Syria Appeal to reach my target of £5000/$6500. I’m excited to return to the beginning of the Jordan Trail on March 31, 2017, for some of the first public Jordan Trail thru hike –  an historic event.

WALK 1000 MILES 2017: Waikalai Ridge, West Maui Mountains, February 19, 2017.

WALK 1000 MILES 2017: Iao River close to my apartment in Maui and good for the daily walks, February 13, 2017.

WALK 1000 MILES 2017: Another neighbourhood for daily walks – Sugar Cove, Spreckelsville, Maui.           February 7, 2017.

WALK 1000 MILES 2017: Bewl Water, Kent, UK.  A 13 mile circuit, March 10, 2017.

Susan then shares with us her favorite quote on and off trails.

“Breathe and Believe.”  A friend of almost 50 years who is now severely limited in her own mobility courageously and generously gave me these wise words before my Jordan Trail hike. The many long steep ascents were “breathe and believe” moments! I send my utmost respect to this friend and to whom I dedicate this piece of writing.

To wrap up, Susan noted the following gratitude for her life-changing adventures:

I cannot say enough about how honoured I was, in the final nine days of my Jordan Trail journey, to meet and hike with some of the pioneers of the long and difficult development of the world-class Jordan Trail, especially Amjad Shahrour,  Mark Khano, Bashir Daoud, David Landis, and Nasser Tabbaa. Not forgetting Mahmoud Bdoul, Zaid Anwar Kalbouneh, Ali Barqawi, and Mohammad Al-Homran and Mohammad Al-Zaeadeen – the first two Jordanians to complete the thru hike, October, 2016.

One day, I hope to meet Tony Howard and Di Taylor, cornerstone pioneers of the Jordan Trail over many, many years!

Finally, my heartfelt thanks to all my sponsors so far  and for all the words of encouragement from friends, family, and strangers which keep me going as I walk towards my £5,000/$6,500 target for War Child’s  Children of Syria Appeal.

Thanks, Susan!  I wish you more amazing trail journeys and hope to hear from you as you forge ahead!

You can follow Susan via her fundraiser page through Just Giving.   

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