What now?

Five years ago, I wrote about a plan to climb a trekking peak in the Himalaya. At the time I knew of only two – Mera Peak and Island Peak, both in the Nepal Himalaya. I’d met a guide on the flight out to Everest Base Camp who was climbing Island Peak, and our guide, a mountaineer from the UK, was talking about running an expedition to the same mountain. Nothing came of that, but I was interested.  I did some research to see what was involved. Not surprisingly, money was involved. An expedition to Island Peak (on the way to base camp) or Mera Peak (off to the east) was a 20 day + trek with acclimatisation days and bad weather days built in. While neither mountain required technical climbing skills, both required technical kit (ice axe, crampons, climbing harness and helmet) and the ability to use them. I couldn’t afford everything in one go, and I’d need time to prepare, so I decided to collect bits of kit in sales and using special offers to keep the costs down.

I saw this as a long term challenge because I would have to get much fitter than I had for Everest Base Camp, and would be reaching 7-800m higher than base camp, around 6200m. It gave me something to aim for. My decision to climb Kilimanjaro was mostly to see how I got on at those kinds of altitudes, and whether I could reach the level of fitness needed to consider going higher. I got to the top of Kili, and it was hard going. But I got there, the effects of altitude were manageable, and I enjoyed (most of) it.

Onwards and upwards, as they say. Except that circumstances changed and I inherited a Rufus. As part of welcoming him in as a permanent member of my life, I promised not to leave him for any length of time (and after a few days where he stayed at a kennel and was thoroughly miserable the whole time, not to leave him at all). I knew that the day would come when he wouldn’t be with me any more and I wanted us to have a great time together. We had four amazing, adventurous years together which I wouldn’t have exchanged for anything.

After he left me, and thanks to the fitness which I had maintained thanks to a demanding hound keeping me honest, I was able at short notice to climb Jebel Toubkal in Morocco. One of the big attractions of this mountain was that I would get two days of ice axe and crampon training and experience, which brought me back on track with my plan to summit a 6000m peak. One day of sliding down mountains practicing ice axe arrests (“Is this your ice axe, sir? I’m afraid I shall have to take it into custody”) and stomping about jamming crampon spikes into 45 degree ice and another of putting it all into practice climbing the mountain itself. I found it harder than expected because we didn’t have much chance to acclimatise (1700m to 3200m in one day and 3200m to 4160m the next when the recommended safe ascent is 300m per day). But it was (mostly) as enjoyable as Kili.

I started to look at trekking peak again and found that there were more than two, and they weren’t all in Nepal. In Morocco, I had been talking to a fellow trekker who was thinking about climbing Stok Kangri in the Northern Indian Himalaya. Then I found out that the company I trek with (Exodus) were offering a new trek this year to the same region as Stok Kangri, but to a peak called Dzo Jongo. I liked the idea of a new trek (I’ll be on the first commercial running of it) and that it is generally a much quieter mountain than the more famous ones.

Dzo Jongo (not the best name for a mountain – Crag Hard, Ben Nochance and Mount Doom are all better) is 6180m high. Or 6280m according to some websites. Hopefully it’ll be sorted by the time I go. It requires no mountaineering skills but I will probably be roped up to the others during the final summit traverse along a snowy ridge. At the time of year I’m going, the plastic, highly insulated high altitude boots that would normally be needed to cope with the temperatures are not required. Since they cost between £500-800, a significant fraction of the cost of the trip, that’s good news. I’ve still had to invest in a climbing helmet (the risk of rockfall is present) and a climbing harness (which looks like a prop left over from one of the ’50 Shades’ movies) but both were discounted in New Year sales so I saved quite a bit. I have my ice axe and crampons, so the expensive stuff is already out of the way.

Getting all this stuff to Ladakh in Northern India will be fun. As a friend pointed out this week, ‘you’re carrying a sharp pick axe, spikes and bondage equipment to a remote part of India – good luck with that’. Having learnt from previous treks (particularly Kili), I know that I will initially over pack. Bearing in mind this is a high altitude trek (average altitude for the 16 days is  4500m), bacteria doesn’t grow in the low oxygen environment and so it’s perfectly hygienic to wear underwear and clothes for several days at a time. It’s a camping trek, so the important things are a good sleeping bag and a working inflatable mattress – the former I have and can confirm is so warm even in -10c conditions that it is almost impossible to leave for a wee break in the early hours. The latter I have now, my previous one refusing to inflate during the Kili trek and allowing me to feel every pebble of the mountainside.

So all that’s really left now is getting fit. Really fit. There are many hills and mountains to come. I’m sure you’ll hear about some of them.

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Sahara

All scarved up, we went out to meet the camels. Six camels knelt in the sand near our Auberge. They were restless and our guide, Abdul, explained that they would all be male. Then he offered an explanation for why they might be restless. ‘It’s the mating season,’ he said with a grin. We were warned not to approach too closely until the camel driver called us over. The lead camel was already working up a great gob of spit which was leaking from its mouth. ‘If they don’t like you or your camera,’ said Abdul, ‘they’ll spit at you or it’. I used the telephoto end of my lens to snap the camels.

The driver chose which camels we would ride based on size. I was second from last on the second smallest camel, which I promptly named Herbie for no reason other than I couldn’t think of anything else to call him. I just about managed to get my leg high enough to clear Herbie’s back and managed to shuffle awkwardly on top. To Herbie’s credit, he let me shuffle and didn’t try to get up. I had been warned by friends that when they get up, there is a rapid and potentially disastrous movement up and forward, which if you are not ready for it will tip you over the camel’s head. Abdul said hang on, and the driver let go of Herbie, who promptly got up back end first and tried to throw me over his head. But I was leaning back and gripping the T bar attached to the saddle in front of me tightly and after an equally violent backward motion as Herbie rose up fully, I was 6 feet off the ground and could relax a little.

They guy in front was next and he struggled to get on to the camel having shorter legs than mine. His camel didn’t know what was going on and became nervous. This, in turn, made Herbie and the last camel in line nervous and they both paced back and forth as much as the rope tether would let them. I continued to grip the T bar just in case.

Eventually, we were all mounted and ready to go. The camel driver led us off at a slow pace away from the Auberge. It was much cooler than I was expecting now as the sun was on its way down again. Once I’d got the hang of the motion of the camel, a gentle swaying forward and back, I started to enjoy the experience and a few minutes later, I felt confident enough to let go of the T bar with one hand and take some photos. Abdul was walking along side us and every now and then he’d take a snap shot with his phone. The gentle motion of the camel was soothing and all the nerves I’d had before starting off were soon gone. And then we started to go down a gently sloping dune! Ciaran’s camel (the one behind me) wanted to go faster than my camel, which meant it started to overtake me. Herbie was having none of it and it felt as if he was digging his hooves into the sand to hold the other camel back. This meant I was being jerked forward with every step. Both hands gripped the T bar again and I lent back, just in case. And then I felt a gentle caress on my left leg and looked down to find Ciaran’s camel nudging it with its lips. A brief recall of Abdul’s ‘it’s the mating season’ flashed through my head.

We ambled on with the occasional love tap on my leg to assure me that Ciaran’s camel was keeping up. Every time we went down a slope I’d be jerked forward and my new friend would appear alongside me. I wanted to tickle it behind the ears but given the season, I thought that might end badly for all concerned.

Then I started noticing that I was slipping off ever so slightly to the right, so I shuffled back towards the left. I had to do this a couple of times but Herbie didn’t seem to mind. I was concentrating on this and so didn’t notice Abdul slipping away to the top of a nearby dune. The first I knew was the sound of some traditional Arabic music playing in the distance. I looked up to see Abdul filming us as we walked along in line. He later sent me the video, and the music has come out on the sound track. I look ungainly and Ciaran’s camel is clearly interested in my left leg.

When the music stopped I noticed the sound Herbie was making as he plodded along. It was a gentle swishing noise and when I looked, all the camels were lightly dragging their feet through the sand rather than picking their feet up with each step. Every now and again, a camel would utter a deep, rumbling sound as if their bellies were full of wind. And then there’d be a loud, extended farting as the wind escaped. They also made very high pitched, bird-like noises, which was completely unexpected. And they spluttered a bit, which I was expecting. There was no spitting though so I guess they must have been content,

After just under an hour, we reached our camp for the night. It was hidden in the lee of a large dune and we stopped about 30 yards from it on a flat stretch of sand. Now came the adventure of getting off. I waited for the driver, who took my bag, and I somehow managed to half climb, half stagger off Herbie without kicking him or the camel behind us. There was some spluttering and rumbling but no farting or spitting, so I guess it was okay. I half expected my legs to collapse as they’d been aching a bit as we went, but all was fine. Everyone got off without incident and as the camels were led away, we were shown around the camp site.

The night at the camp was memorable mainly because of the absolutely stunning night sky. From horizon to horizon were the brightest stars I had ever seen. And I’ve been to dark sky sites in Britain. There was no comparison, with no stray light, cloud or pollution to dim the brightness or to interfere with the delicate colours of the Milky Way. I spent a lot of time just looking at the sky; I had expected it to be spectacular and it far exceeded those expectations.

At 7.20 the following morning we all gathered in the pre-dawn light to make our way to where the camels would be waiting. Although the sun was still half an hour below the horizon, it was light enough to see the way clearly. High above us a crescent moon shone down. The sand was a dull pink colour as we left the camp and climbed up to the flat area of sand where our camels knelt in anticipation of the antics to come.

Ciaran and I managed to mount our camels – the same ones as yesterday – and I survived Herbie’s attempts to hurl me off over his head again as he got up. But the guy in front was having difficulty getting on and after the first attempt, his camel thought it was okay to get up. When the driver pushed it back down again, Herbie decided to kneel too and I was thrown violently forward once more. Fortunately, I’d managed to anticipate the move a split second before it happened and I hung on. There followed five minutes of skittish behaviour from Herbie and Ciaran’s camel, while the chap ahead struggled to get on. In the end the driver pushed him on and shortly afterwards, we were all loaded and ready to set off.

By now the sand was turning a deeper pink colour as the dawn approached. The plan was to walk for about 15 minutes and then dismount, climb a nearby dune and watch the sunrise. With all the games that had just taken place, part of me thought it would be nice to watch the sunrise from Herbie’s back. We set off at a faster pace that the journey out yesterday but the camels were up to it and so were we.

With the sand and sky brightening every minute, we stopped at the dune and the camels behaved well enough to allow us to dismount and make the short climb. With the dunes glowing a deep reddish pink, the sun appeared over the dunes in the distance and we all watched in silence as it rose until the whole disc was visible. It was immediately noticeably warmer and for a few minutes we enjoyed the spectacle, watching the sand fade from a deep red to brown before we headed back down to the camels, waiting patiently at the bottom of the dune. Remounting was a little easier and we were soon on our way again, keeping the pace up.

Around the next dune I spotted two camels on their own and as I watched, I noticed one move awkwardly forward. They had both been hobbled by tying the left leg up with a piece of rope. It didn’t seem to bother them as they stood but it prevented them from moving any distance. I later found out that they belonged to our camel driver and as they weren’t needed for our group, they had been left there.

Unfortunately, they spotted their fellow camels and decided they wanted to join in. As they began to slowly lollop over Herbie and the camel behind us became quite agitated and without warning decided to run away. As they were tied to the rest of the camels in our train, they didn’t get far but instead at the end of the rope, they did a kind of tail skid, twisting around to the left and doing their best to throw us in the process. Anticipating a forward throw, I wasn’t prepared for the sideways motion and quick reflexes were the only thing that saved me from flying off to the left. Ciaran also managed to stay on as both camels tried to get away from the two individuals, who by this time had given up trying to get to us. The camel driver was quickly alongside us and calmed Herbie and his mate down enough so that he could go and see to the two hobbled camels. Abdul led us away and the camel driver made sure his two individuals stayed where they were.

Our driver finally met up with us just before we got to the Auberge and we dismounted with no trouble. There was a lot of huffing and spluttering and that high pitched whining from the camels, which I took to mean that they were happy we weren’t on their backs anymore, but no spitting, so we hadn’t been awful. With a couple of group photos taken, we said goodbye to the camel driver and I waved to Herbie, who was eyeing up the greenery near the oasis.

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Sorrow, Joy and the combat pigeons – tales from my sparrow farm

I’ve taken some time over the years to turn my garden from a chaotic mess to a planned mess. I don’t like gardening, so I wanted a low maintenance space where wildlife could find a refuge but that I could enjoy and move through without risking attack from wild animals. When I started, I didn’t know what was living in there and risked serious injury every time I ventured beyond the patio. Little by little (as I said, I don’t like gardening), I tamed the flora and catalogued the fauna. It took 5 years to manage a large patch of brambles and unidentified bushes and I discovered a small pond beneath the undergrowth. I removed old ornamental bushes, spent a few years growing apples before the apple tree stopped working and generally managed the garden back to something I’m happy with. It took 10 years altogether.

An important part of the plan was to create a space that insects and birds could thrive in. I also wanted to grow vegetables and continue to harvest the blackberries that appear every year. It’s only in the last couple of years that the plans have started to bear fruit (yes, pun intended).

And so to this year. After Rufus passed away, I decided to encourage the fox back into the garden and if you’ve followed my social media posts you’ll have seen that it was successful. I used to see her often when Rufus and I went walking around the houses in the evenings and before he lived with me she was an occasional visitor as a young vixen. But this year it was obvious that she was suckling young and I was rewarded when she started bringing her cub with her. It was playful and inquisitive and while she ate from the bowl, it would wander about looking into the bushes and under the spud plants. She would feed it from her mouth and it would have a snuffle around the bowl before they both disappeared again on their way to their next meal.

A couple of weeks ago I was attracted to the garden by the sound of several crows squawking and making a fuss in the sycamore tree. It was clear they weren’t happy and my immediate thought was that the fox cub was somewhere at the top of the garden. I chased the birds away and in doing so, disturbed the cub who darted into the garden and under some bushes. Not wanting to scare it, I headed back to the house but the cub almost immediately darted back to it’s hiding place in the rubbish at the top of the garden, where I let it be. The crows didn’t return and I avoided any unnecessary disturbance. The cub accompanied it’s mother that evening and I was happy.

Sparrows have come to see my garden as a sanctuary. I feed them ( I have to – if I’m a few minutes late filling the feeders they start to make a racket and flit about in the bushes to express their annoyance) and they’ve taken over an old bucket under a bush as their watering hole. Earlier this year, there was the faint sound of romantic bird song and I caught the occasional glimpse of candle lights near the feeders as the boys wooed the girls and not long after I was rewarded with a flock of little sparrows, all making a noise as they tried to fly between branches. You could see they were just learning to fly as their clumsy attempts to land gracefully on branch, bucket and feeder were comical. But over the next few days, they got better at it. For some reason, their gathering place was under the green canopy of my potato plants and I would often see a writhing mass of sparrows dusting themselves in the shade. Trying to count them was nearly impossible and the best I came up with was losing count at 20. I would guess there are between 20 and 25 sparrows regularly visiting the garden.

All those sparrows aren’t good for the spuds. I’ve had to re-cover them several times as their dusting and other antics have exposed the potatoes themselves. There are rows of little indentations in the soil where individual birds have dug themselves baths. I’ve watched them follow each other around like a gang of teenagers, one or two finding a perch and all the rest coming to joint them. Branches sag and birds fall off. There are often scuffles at the water bucket as they all vie for a place on the rim. And while they all fly off into the higher branches when I go out in the garden, they don’t go far in case I’m filling up the feeders. Recently, I have heard the romantic songs and spotted the little candles again so I suspect there will be additions of the flock before long.

Inevitably, where there are feeders there is grain that had fallen from the mesh to the ground. The pigeons prefer this grain and will wait for the sparrows to dislodge it as the youngsters crash into the feeder in their attempt to emulate the older, more skillful birds. I have also noticed that when the sparrows aren’t around to dislodge the seed, the pigeons will jump on the feeder to do it themselves. The pigeons (and a couple of doves) chase each other around the garden on foot, waddling along the lawn to make sure that everyone knows who the boss is. Of course, there is a different boss every day. One pigeon, not having any interest in all the fuss, just settles down in a little dip to sunbathe. But the real pigeon combat takes place out of sight in the sycamore tree. They go up there to loudly settle disputes and I wouldn’t be surprised if a little betting goes on as well. The pigeons love drinking from the water bowl I have set up on the patio wall. They dip their beaks and necks in the water and once one comes over to drink, they all follow. I watched five gather around the bowl the other day. There wasn’t room for all of them, mainly because one had decided to stand in the water.

Also inevitably, where there is grain there are small mammals. I’ve seen brown rats climbing the bushes where the feeders used to be sited, balancing out along the branches and reaching out to grab the feeder. I once surprised two who were dining on bird food and in their desperation to get away, they were climbing over each other. Recently, with the fox a regular visitor, I haven’t seen any rats. I did see a small bank vole though – I know because I’ve recently completed a mammal ID course for the National Trust.

I have two regular magpie visitors. I dislike magpies in general and refuse to give them the courtesy of saying the rhyme (“One for sorrow, two for joy etc”) as they used to torment my blind and deaf old stray cat (now long gone). But these two are little characters and have been named for the rhyme. This morning, they were both drinking from a bowl of water I’d set up for the purpose, and then they decided to explore the mostly dry pond. All I could see was the occasional head popping up to see what was going on.

I have a pair of blackbirds that have been regulars in the garden for years. They were here earlier in the year, gathering nesting material from the pond and taking advantage of the sheep’s wool I’d put out for the purpose. But the nest was elsewhere. They’re back again and today they have been gathering more nesting material, and feeding on the dried worms I put down in their favourite quiet spot.

I have seagulls – they steal the food that I put down for the fox. And today, I had a special visitor. I was sat in the garden reading and watching the antics of the sparrows, pigeons and blackbirds when I started to notice everything going quiet. The normally vocal sparrows were disappearing deep into the bushes. The pigeon fighting in the tree stopped. The blackbirds flew off and the magpies followed them. There was no activity in the garden. I noticed a few seagulls wheeling about high up and then a red kite flew low over the garden. It was at the same height as the tree and had taken an interest in my garden for some reason. I managed to grab the camera (it’s always to hand) and went out to get some photos. I expected the kite to fly off or at least climb higher but it continued to wheel and float about 30 feet above me. The gulls weren’t happy but weren’t interfering like they normally do. I had a full five minute flying display as the kite flew off and came back again. It was such a beautiful sight and I felt privileged to see this magnificent wild bird hunting. Ironically, I’d been at the bird of prey centre at the Botanical Gardens on Friday, watching kites on display.

Also in my garden, the visitor can see butterflies (my next project is to try and attract more) bees, wasps, plenty of flies, spiders and in recent years (although not this year) a frog. In the fading autumn evening light, bats can be seen flying over the garden. In the past I’ve had a hedgehog or two. a squirrel, robins, blue tits and starlings. It’s a lovely place to spend an hour or so just sitting and watching (and listening to) the world go by.

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Time Travel

I’m sinking almost imperceptibly into the mud, which means that I’m travelling very very slowly back through time. On Monday, we raced back 6 or 7 centuries in as many hours but now I’m down to perhaps a year every hour as the ground slowly swallows my boots. I’m not helping by gently digging into the ground around me. No this is not an episode of Dr Who, it’s an archaeological dig.

I saw a Tweet about some community Archaeological projects being run in Rhossili by the Gower Landscape Project, Black Mountain Archaeology and ArchaeoDomus and although I’d missed many of them, a dig at the site of the medieval village in Rhossili was yet to happen. Last year I took part in a field walk on ‘The Vile’, part of the medieval field system at Rhossili. The purpose was to try and find evidence of flint working in relation to the near by hill fort. At that event, there was mention of a possible dig at the old village and I was keen to take part. Now was my opportunity. I rushed off an email to express my interest, and I was accepted onto the dig.

I turned up on day one not sure what to expect. The weather was perfect, the location stunning and very soon I was off down to the Warren, the bracken covered dune system just above the beach level. I joined a number of other volunteers from the area, the four professional archaeologists and the National Trust ranger for a safety briefing and overview of the project, it’s aims and objectives.

The basic idea was to involve members of the local community in investigating the extent of the medieval village. In the early 80s, the Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust had excavated in the middle of the village site and uncovered a church and a house. These were recorded and covered over to preserve them and the site scheduled as an ancient monument, meaning it couldn’t be dug. We would be looking outside that area, which was carefully marked out before any digging took place.

The first objective was to clear away the great mass of sand that had accumulated and may well have been the cause of the abandonment of the old village for the new. Archaeologists and volunteers watched as the mechanical digger stripped away the sand, making sure that the digger kept to the line of the plan, and ensuring that no archaeology was accidentally lost to the big metal bucket. This took most of the day and only at the very end were we able to get into the trenches and see what was going on. In the last few minutes we found the medieval land surface in trench 2.

Day two was hotter and now we were in the trenches, as much as 2 metres below surface level, there was no cooling onshore breeze. But I found that I was completely distracted from the conditions by the activities and the fact that we’d just got our first find, a medieval dog or fox jaw bone, complete with teeth. Today, I was using an augur to bore holes beneath the bottom of the trenches to identify what was going on and whether it was worth the time and effort to go deeper. It was tough going, even in sand, to get the augur down more than 50cm but eventually, with people hanging off the handles, twisting and turning the augur, we managed to get a few samples from nearly 2m below the base of the trench, perhaps 3.5m deep in total. These were telling us that we were just beginning to reach the natural medieval layer. The decision was taken to concentrate on just two trenches and the other was filled back in.

On day three and four I was cleaning the edges of our latest trench to provide a clear record of the soil levels, cleaning off the surface of the trench itself and then gently scraping back the sand and earth from a section of stones at one end of the trench. The latter was remarkably calming work, and time went quickly as I slowly lowered the level of the surface of the trench, revealing more of the stones. Next to me, a colleague was picking out bits of pottery and shell but I seemed to be on the wrong side as there was nothing in my bit.

At the end of day four we had found animal bone, cow’s teeth, several large bits of pottery and a deeper level of loam and shell fragments, which was most likely a midden, or rubbish deposit. A large piece of pottery remained within it and as would this need careful work to retrieve it, we decided to leave it until the next day so that it wasn’t rushed. It was protected with a bucket and we headed home.

Day five was a controlled rush to get the pottery, dig carefully but quickly below it to see what was going on, collect samples of the shell-filled loam and to record the trench features accurately for future reference. And all of this was being done in humid conditions which threatened and then did turn into rain, and in clouds of midges. As the rain fell, the clay levels at the bottom of the trench got wetter, supporting an earlier suggestion that there may have been a water course here. With all the recording done, the areas of interest in the trench were protected with plastic and the trench was filled in. It took considerably less time to cover them up that it did to dig them out. At the end of the day, all that was left were patches of sand in the bracken, and these would soon be covered by foliage.

I’ve always been interested in archaeology but I never expected to be able to take part in a dig. For me, the experience was amazing, and a bonus was the involvement of professional archaeologists who were prepared to give time and effort to share knowledge and skills with the volunteers. Not only did I learn what to do, but I was able to understand why it was done that way. I’ve always found that the part of history that interests me most is the stuff that happens to individuals. During this week I was able to handle pottery that was used by real people more than 600 years ago, walk on the land surface they would have trodden on and rummage through their rubbish dump. And all this reasonably close to my own home.

I think I may be hooked on this time travel lark!

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Marrakech Express

“Give me back my debit card!”

“Non!”

“S’il vous plait?”

“Non!”

My schoolboy French negotiating vocabulary exhausted, my conversation with the cash machine just up the road from the hotel in Marrakech ended in defeat. I wasn’t quite penniless, thanks to the friends I’d met on the trek who all offered to lend me local currency. But I was afraid to use my credit card lest it go the same way, and I wondered what would happen to the debit card now it was in the bowels of some machine in Morocco. For the sake of literary tension, and to encourage reading the whole blog, I shall now time travel back six days to my arrival in Marrakech before telling you the outcome.

I hate the actual, mundane physical travel part of ‘travelling’. If you read a recent blog ‘Travel Fun’ you’ll get a few of the stories. Getting to Marrakech was no different. I flew from Gatwick and I have to say I preferred the experience to that at Heathrow, thanks largely to it being a smaller airport and having better transport links to the local hotels. A slight delay due to armed police confronting and arresting a man on the outskirts of the airport aside, the journey to my seat on the plane was straight forward.

The plane set off for the runway, and 5 minutes later was still taxiing. I decided that we were clearly going to drive to Morocco and I wondered who we’d get through the Channel Tunnel. But eventually, the plane found the right bit of the airport and, in an effort to put aside any more fears of hesitancy, the pilot swung on the the runway and accelerated without first pausing. We were off. There is always a moment as I’m pushed back into my seat that I wonder what on earth I’m doing subjecting myself to man made flight. But it soon goes as I look out of the window seconds later to see a live version of Google Earth below me. Today was slightly different, in that someone had painted the ground a slightly grey white colour, similar to the colour of clouds but no matter. I was soon chatting to my neighbour, a geography teacher from London, and we quickly found a common interest in trekking when I explained where I was going.

The flight was relatively short, about 3 hours plus taxiing time, and Marrakech was warm and sunny when I arrived. The following extract from ‘Travel Fun’ sums up the airport transfer:

“After a mix up with the transfer arrangements, I was taken in a car to the hotel. The driver was clearly under orders to get there and back as quickly as possible and so we shot off at high speed. My attempts at conversation were hampered by my lack of Arabic, my poor schoolboy French and the drivers need to concentrate on the road lest he hit something. Except he didn’t really seem to mind about the impact side of things in his mission to get to the hotel in record time. We sped across pedestrian crossing barely missing people who were already half way across the road. I watched in horror as the face of one man, mouth agape, passed by inches from the side window. We overtook on corners, undertook on other corners, undertook on roundabouts, forced motorcycles out of the way and generally sped through the busy streets to finally arrive outside the hotel. To be fair, we hit nothing, knocked no one over and got to the hotel in half the time it took to transfer back at the end of the trek.”

The mix up involved a second group of people, a group of Cypriot cyclists on a biking tour of this part of Morocco, and the transfer bus. It sounds like the start of a complicated joke that inevitably won’t live up to the promise. It was, in a roundabout way, as the group were in the same hotel as my group, and we had our briefing immediately after them. It turned out they were not a happy bunch as they were expecting a better hotel (there was nothing wrong with the hotel), and they let their guide know in no uncertain terms. When we saw him after their briefing, he was clearly stressed. “They are definitely not from Britain,” was his cryptic remark to our guide as he left, probably for a mint tea and a lie down.

Marrakech is a beautiful place. It’s called ‘The Red City’ because most of the buildings are painted with an ochre wash, which glows pinky red in the sunrise and sunset. The French, in an act of wisdom, developed a new city around the old town and left the ancient settlement alone, preserving the style and culture of Marrakech in the process. The old town, or Medina as it is known, is surrounded by a mud brick wall and a number of towers. Within, the narrow streets are lined with little shops, restaurants and pavement cafes. On our last day there, we had a tour of the southern part of the town in the morning and I explored the northern part of the town walls in the afternoon. Our morning tour, led by Mustapha, was interesting and frustrating at the same time. Interesting because he took us to all the right places to get a flavour of the old town in the limited time we had. I would not have know to go to half the places he led us, and we managed to avoid the crowds (it was a local school holiday) because of his timing. Frustrating because his English was poor and heavily accented and it was hard to understand what he was telling us. It was a shame because he clearly knew his stuff. But by concentrating hard to understand what he was saying, we risked missing the sights, and sadly we concentrated on the sights and not his narrative.

In the afternoon, I walked around the outside of the town walls and at one point ventured in to a decidedly untouristy area, which I immediately sought to leave. I had a feeling of unease and while nothing happened (other than the classic scam of someone telling me the main square was ‘that way’ when I knew it wasn’t), I was glad to be away from that bit of the town.

All roads lead to Jemaa el Fna, which translates variously as the ‘place of the lost’ or ‘the place of the dead’. The latter is most appropriate as it was hear that the heads of criminals and conquered foes were displayed many centuries ago. Now the only victims here during the day are the may tourists who are hassled for money when stopping to watch the snake charmers or Barbary Ape owners. Both are cheap tourist traps and when I was there they looked tacky and, to be honest, fake. The animals were real enough, and clearly unhappy and I wasn’t happy even being in the square with them around. I read later that the apes are an endangered species and people like those in the square only make the situation worse. Anyone who gives them money is funding the problem. There was little else to hold my interest but I knew that come sundown, the place changed it’s vibe to one more like the descriptions in the guidebooks. The previous night, as we’d waited for a bus following our celebratory meal, the exotic drumming and music, the lights and smoke bearing the delicious aroma of freshly cooked tagines all combined to make me want to return.

We made our way back to the square the following night. In the dark, it was exciting, definitely exotic and a little scary, particularly when the girls in the group were accosted by a large woman offering henna tattoos. It was quite a persistent sales pitch and when the woman finally got the message, she left saying “if you change your mind, remember Fat Mamma”. We stifled giggles, because she was quite a large lady. We did laugh, however, when one of our group pointed out that she had probably said “remember Fatima”.

There was no sign of the cheap tourist acts. Here were little groups of talented musicians playing tradition music on traditional instruments for the gathered crowd. There were dancing and whirling performers, singers, drummers and story tellers. This was what I had expected and it hadn’t disappointed. I quickly overcame my initial nervousness at the large crowds, mostly locals, and relaxed to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells. In a long line at the centre of the square tables radiated out from large stalls on which tagines were simmering enticingly. The touts for each stall were very enthusiastic but as we had eaten we didn’t partake. One waiter even told us that his prices were “cheaper that Aldi”.

We wandered around, taking in the atmosphere. On the periphery of the square were carts selling figs, prunes and other fresh fruit. Stalls sold mint tea, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice and for 4dh (about 30p) we each had a glass. It was gorgeous. We must have spent over an hour in the square altogether and it was late enough that some of the traders were starting to pack up. While one of our group haggled over a couple of decorative metal candle holders, I took a few photos and then we left.

As we reached the edge of the square, I was suddenly surrounded by six or seven little boys, all clutching glow sticks in their hands and hassling me to buy one. In the past, I’ve usually dealt with this kind of thing by a curt ‘no thanks’ followed by completely ignoring them but it didn’t work this time, so I took a side step to try and break out of the ring of kids. By now I was isolated from the rest of the group by the kids and before I knew it, I could feel a hand dragging the zip of my left hand jacket pocket down. I slapped it out of the way and shouted “this kid is trying to pick my pockets” loud enough that the others could hear me. I pointed at the kid and he looked scared, unsure of what I was going to do. And then I felt the zip of my right hand coat pocket being undone, so I turned and pointed at that kid, shouting the same thing again. As I did so, a local man cuffed him on the head, and the kids all disappeared. My camera, in the left pocket, was safe. My phone, in the right pocket, was almost completely out and in another second or so it would have gone.

I was a little shaken for a few minutes but soon overcame the shock. And I refused to let it taint the impression of Marrakech that I had got to that point. I don’t know what drove the kids to picking pockets. It’s simplistic to say they steal for personal gain. That may be so but its more likely that there was some threat to them if they didn’t bring back a certain amount of goods or money each night.

And the card? I phoned the bank straight away and despite having to provide details that were only on the card, I managed to get it cancelled within 10 minutes of losing it. And two days after I got back, the replacement arrived. One of my friends changed £20 into local currency and I ended up changing £30 of local currency back to sterling at the airport, which saw me through the journey home.

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Climbing Jebel Toubkal

As usual, the riskiest part of any climb is the descent. You’ve concentrated hard to get to the top, expended all your energy, sweated all your sweat and all the training, planning and mental preparation has been to get you to the summit. At the top, you’re cold or dehydrated or tired, or all three. Coming down is an afterthought (although quite an important one). Anyway, it’s all downhill from here, right?

We had three nights booked in the Atlas Mountain Refuge des Mouflons. Mouflons, I hear you ask? It’s a kind of mountain goat local to those parts. So yes, I was in a mountain goat refuge. Get the jokes over with now so I can continue.

The plan was to quickly get to the refuge on day 1, climb Toubkal on day 2, climb Ouanoukrim (another 4000m peak) on day three and combine a swift ascent of Tizi n Ouanoums with the descent back to Marrakech on the fourth day. The trek started well – we got to our start point, where the technical kit was handed out. I’d picked this particular trek because of the winter skills training and experience and so I was expecting the crampons and ice axes. I wasn’t expecting the avalanche transceiver, which we all had and were told had to be worn at all times while we were in the mountains. The transceiver would enable members of the group to find other members of the group in the event some were buried by an avalanche. Or it would enable the trekking company to recover their ice axe and crampons. Either way, the concept that we were at risk of an avalanche was sobering.

We walked for 7 hours in the increasing heat of a North African day to get to the mountain goat refuge. It was tough going – climbing around 1300m in total. The accepted norm once you get to the mountain sickness altitudes is to climb no more than 300m per day. But the idea was that we would be at altitude for no more than three days and it shouldn’t be a problem. And apart from exhaustion, it wasn’t. Almost immediately after we got to the refuge, we started our technical training with the ‘ice axe arrest’. Rather than some local constabulary technique for apprehending villains, this was a skill that would (hopefully) stop us from sliding too far down a snow or ice covered slope while climbing. The basic drill is this: Once you find yourself sliding towards a horrible and drawn out end, you twist and roll and dig the sharp bit of the ice axe into the snow/ice. The skill is in the twist, in the grasp of the ice axe and in not skewering yourself with the sharp bits of the axe. Our instructor picked a gentle slope, created a slippery channel in the snow and demonstrated a perfect ice axe arrest. Then it was our turn.

The risk was minimal – if we got it wrong on this bit there would be laughter which would probably continue as the unfortunate soul trudged back up the slope to have another go but no drawn out slide as the refuge was in the way. One by one we shot down the slope, twisting like it was last summer and rolling like it was the 1950s. Eventually, we got it and we took the opportunity to keep practising because it was important to do it without thinking and not because it was great fun. Then we tried it left handed.

They all laughed as I lost control of the ice axe and ended up sliding head first for a few yards until the slope tailed off. I did too. And I laughed as other people got it wrong. But in the end we were pretty good at the ice axe arrest, as we found out the following day when one of the group slipped for real on a properly steep section of ice and executed a perfect arrest. We all clapped. And we all gripped our ice axes a little tighter.

The morning after our training we were due to climb Toubkal. But we woke up to a howling gale, sleet and mist. Our guide said it was too dangerous to go up and indeed we saw the group that had left the refuge early to catch the sunrise returning a few hours later, having turned back before the top. The weather cleared up in the late morning but it was too late safely climb and descend the mountain, so we went on an acclimatisation walk up the valley for a couple of hours and practiced more crampon techniques. It was here that our real ice axe arrest took place.

On the second full day with the mountain goats, the weather was perfect for an attempt on the mountain so we set off just after dawn. Despite being only a few miles north of the Sahara desert, there were great sheets of frozen snow for most of the climb up and the technical kit was most definitely needed; the first 2 hours would have been impossible without crampons, and the next hour extremely difficult. Unusually, the higher we got the less snow there was an the final hour of climbing was on relatively snow free scree and rock. Our crampons had been left at the snow line. The wind picked up at around 4000m and despite the strong sun and cloud free sky, it was bitterly cold. The summit marker, a large pyramid frame, was invisible on the way up until we were only a few tens of yards away. It was a welcome sight as we had climbed another 1000m in 4 hours. Our guide later told us it was -8c on the top but I didn’t feel any of that.

The views from the top were fantastic. As the highest peak in the High Atlas, there was a 360 degree panorama of North Africa, with the Sahara just visible as a hazy patch to the south and the village we’d set off from three days before to the north. East and west, the High Atlas mountains stretched as far as I could see. The guide pointed out a squirrel, slightly smaller than the UK native brown ones, and with stripes running the length of its back and tail. It was checking out the latest batch of visitors to see what scraps we’d leave behind. Rock thrushes and Alpine Chough also waited patiently for tidbits. We had the top to ourselves and after the inevitable summit photos, there was a chance to just stop and take in the beauty of the place, and the achievement we’d managed.

All too soon it was time to descend. Our guide pointed out clouds edging in from the north, from where the wind was blowing. We set off down and for the first time I realised how steep it really was. The loose rock and gravel was extremely treacherous and we all slipped and slid on the way down. The danger with descent is that any fall forward is usually a fall down the slope and far worse that falling on the way up, where the fall is usually uphill. At some points we were negotiation narrow sections with steeper drops either side and while we were on the scree, there would be no ice axe or crampons to help.

Eventually, with aching knees, we got to the snow line and a chance for a rest and a mini picnic. The wind was cold here, at 4000m, and as I tied the straps of my crampons on I could feel my fingers aching and stiffening with the chill. It was important to get the straps as tight as possible as any slippage would translate to difficult walking and possibly a demonstration of exactly how good I was with the ice axe.

It took about two hours to walk down the snow slope. It was steep and hard going on the knees and thighs and by the time I’d zigged and zagged down, all the while stomping to make sure the spikes dug in and gripped, I was shattered. But I remained upright. Just.

There was a subdued celebration as we were all tired, and an early night with the prediction of bad weather for tomorrow. It’s the nature of the High Atlas that the weather changes completely from day to day. A few year ago, heavy rainfall combined with melting snow to cause flash floods in the foothill villages that killed 60 people and destroyed vital farmland Only now are they restoring the land to production.

Sure enough, the following morning was grim with high winds and driving snow coming up the valley, and temperatures well below zero. There was no question of us doing the short walk tot he mountain pass. Instead we delayed departing for Marrakech as long as possible in case the weather improved. It didn’t, and we set off in a blizzard that had deposited more than 18″ of snow overnight. The path down, so obvious in the sunny weather when we’d come up, was hidden, as were the valley sides. We trudged along, bent forward against the wind and with faces covered, in the footsteps of our guide. Here was the sense in paying that little extra fro a professional, experienced trek leader. Cheaper guides were available in the foothills but as we were to find out, they didn’t care about the people they were guiding, just about getting their money.

Very soon after leaving the refuge, our guide stopped us and pointed out a large shoulder of fresh snow. “Avalanche”, he said. “It’s just happened.” All hands dived inside jackets to ensure the transceivers were switched on. We made our way quickly over the snow, which was hard going as it was soft and deep. It had come down from the left but I couldn’t see where because of the poor visibility. We carried on as fast as the conditions would allow. Little rocks and stones hidden by the snow threatened to turn ankles and I was grateful for decent walking boots, which saved me a couple of times.

On a flatter section we stopped for a few minutes to regroup and take a breather. We were still at altitude and it was below freezing. I could feel snow and ice on my beard and my sunglasses (despite the cloud and mist it was too bright not to have sunglasses on at this altitude). There was a layer of ice on the glasses and in my beard. It was the only positive I’d felt so far – I’ve always wanted a photograph of me with ice in my beard.

It took us another 7 hours to get back to the little hotel where our bus was waiting to take us to Marrakech. For most of that time we were walking in blizzard conditions with the wind directly in our faces. For the last hour, the wind abated and we walked in decreasing mist but on slushy ground which was equally slippery as the snow and ice further up.

The steaming glass of mint tea, known as Berber Whiskey in these parts, that was waiting for us in the hotel was delicious.

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Travel Fun

I’ve just been travelling. I love visiting new places, seeing new things and particularly experiencing new cultures that challenge my way of thinking. I have been fortunate to visit Nepal, Tanzania and Morocco and each one brought new adventures and challenges and a completely different attitude and approach to doing things. I’ve been to various places in Europe and America and while the culture is general familiar, there are always little characteristics that make a place special. I love that. But there was one common element to each of those trips that I hated. Getting there.

We can fly across the world. It is now possible to fly non-stop to Australia thanks to technology. I can check the weather in the High Atlas, chat to friends over the internet from the top of Kilimanjaro and send electronic postcards almost instantly from Everest Base Camp. But it still takes 6 hours to get to Gatwick, via a bus and I still have to walk several hundred yards to get me and my baggage from bus to check-in. And at the other end, I have to walk the same amount again to get my bag and drag it out of the airport. And lets not talk about airport transfers.

In Nepal, the airport at Kathmandu was an experience I wasn’t keen on repeating. I had to queue for a visa and for the 30 minutes I was there, I was subjecting to the same repeating jingle advertising the Rum Doodle restaurant. It had an annoying jingle followed the the statement “There are two steps – one leads to Everest, the other leads to Rum Doodle”. By the time I had my visa, I had been subtly brainwashed, as had all the trekkers on my trip. We successfully got to base camp, and on our return to Kathmandu, we ate at Rum Doodle.

Outside the airport, we were assaulted by a chaos of Nepali boys and young men all trying to carry our baggage. Fortunately, we were being met by the hotel transfer bus but in the few minutes it took to identify and make contact with the bus driver, several boys had tried to pick my bag up (it was very heavy, so they couldn’t whisk it away) and I’d managed to grab it back from all of them. I loaded my bag and helped load others and still they asked me for tips and money for carrying my bag. And all the while, A Nepalese policeman with a rifle on his back almost as long as he was blew a whistle to try and regain order.

To get to the start of our trek, we had to take an internal flight to Lukla. Google ‘Worlds most dangerous airport’. It’s usually Lukla. The flight was an event in itself and while I wouldn’t quite lump it in with the nightmare of ‘getting there’, it is definitely not for those who dislike flight. The little plane climbs constantly to lift itself over the mountains that surround Kathmandu, and then continues to climb in amongst the lower Himalayan mountains until, weaving through a narrow valley, the pilots line up with an elongated postage stamp of a runway for which there is no ‘go-around’ procedure and land. If the clouds swirl up, obscuring the runway at the last minute, it’s tough. And in many cases, its tough and fiery.

On the way back, if the weather is good, the take-off is only marginally less challenging. As the air heats up during the day, it gets thinner and less able to support aeroplanes, particularly ones loaded with trekkers and heavy trekking gear. At the end of the runway is a steep drop of some 2000 feet. I watched one aircraft, late in the morning, drop off the end of the runway and only reappear 20 seconds later as it struggled to gain height to clear the mountains beyond. And the next flight out was ours.

Flying to Tanzania was via Nairobi airport. Nairobi had been bombed the year before and although security was tight, more than half the airport was closed due tot he damage caused by the bomb and subsequent fire. So transferring, we were crammed into a dark and dingy semi circular corridor that looked as if it had been built in the 70’s and promptly forgotten again, only to be rediscovered when they need ed the space. “What’s behind this door?” “No idea, lets see…”

The flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International airport was via a large twin prop passenger plane. It looked modern and inside the cabin was clean and spacious. But then I watched them loading the luggage – by hand through a door in the side between us and the pilot. The bags were stacked haphazardly behind a curtain in the front bulkhead. I didn’t see my bag being loaded but when I picked it up at the end of the flight, it had been ripped at the seams and was unusable.

The transfer from Kili airport to Arusha was an exciting hour along the main road, fairly busy with slow buses and lorries and our minibus, only slightly faster. But the driver insisted on overtaking everything, even if it took 5 minutes. We stopped looking in the end as oncoming traffic got closer and closer. We passed overturned lorries and buses and this should have been enough to warn the driver. But we survived, and turned off the main road to get to the hotel. It was along a track that had never seem any form of tarmac and was, instead, created entirely from potholes creatively linked by ruts.

The transfer from the hotel to the start of the trek was equally adventurous. After leaving the main road, we drove on rough tracks for a while before leaving roads completely and driving along what I could only describe as a muddy river bed. The ruts in the mud, enlarged by flood water which had mercifully drained since, were deep enough the the bus grounded several times on the drive up to the park gate. At one pint, we passed another bus coming the other way and only just avoided rolling down a bank into a field.

In Morocco, I flew in to Marrakech airport and after a mix up with the transfer arrangements, I was taken in a car to the hotel. The driver was clearly under orders to get there and back as quickly as possible and so we shot off at high speed. My attempts at conversation were hampered by my lack of Arabic, my poor schoolboy French and the drivers need to concentrate on the road lest he hit something. Except he didn’t really seem to mind about the impact side of things in his mission to get to the hotel in record time. We sped across pedestrian crossing barely missing people who were already half way across the road. I watched in horror as the face of one man, mouth agape, passed by inches from the side window. We overtook on corners, undertook on other corners, undertook on roundabouts, forced motorcycles out of the way and generally sped through the busy streets to finally arrive outside the hotel. To be fair, we hit nothing, knocked no one over and got to the hotel in half the time it took to transfer back at the end of the trek.

You could argue that these experiences are just part of the fun of travel, and I guess you’d be right. But sometimes, after a long flight crammed in to the seat, dehydrated and tired, arms aching from carrying bags and brain frazzled from trying to understand what the passport checking police man has just asked you, you just want a gentle transfer and to wake up in a comfy bed ready for the adventure. We’ll get there one day.

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