Let’s all do the Konga (Ri)

My bid to climb the 6200m Dzo Jongo in Ladakh was thwarted by climate change in the form of an unusual short but intense rain and snow storm. It was disappointing but that summit was only one of a series of amazing sights, challenge and achievements in the 10 days we trekked through the Stok mountain range. And we did bag a summit, the 5750m Konga Ri. This is my experience of it.

We had trekked from the village of Stok over 6 passes ranging from 4700m to 5300m in height. It had rained for two days and we spent one afternoon walking through a blizzard. On one day as we climbed up to Gongmaru La we followed the river through its gorge, wading across it 14 times as the path weaved and twisted along its banks. The river was in full spate due to the snow and rain on the mountains the fed it. We later found out that we had been cut off from the rest of Ladakh for several days due to floods and landslides.

On the day after the blizzard, we found that our original base camp was under a foot of snow and, more seriously, under the threat of avalanche from an overhanging serac. The summit ridge was heavily corniced and the approach was waist deep in snow. We got the message. So our experienced guide (Valerie has been leading treks in the region for more than 30 years) pointed to a low, rounded summit to the left of Dzo Jongo and said ‘we’ll do that one instead’.

The plan was to ascend to the Lhalung La pass, at 5320m. There we would split with those who had chosen not to attempt Konga Ri, who would drop down towards the camp with the ponies and crew and await our return. Those going on would have to commit to the climb, as the only escape routes were over Konga Ri or back the way we’d come.

We set off around 8am, taking an easy line up the side of the valley. As we reached the snow it made the going that much harder. Feet slipped back with every step forward and as the sun rose it became warm and then hot. The light was bright and reflecting off the snow and I was glad of my sunglasses which dealt with the intense radiation. I’d covered myself in sun cream and was liberally applying lip protection but I could still feel the sun burning my lips.

It took us a couple of slow hours to reach the pass, a flat plateau of thick white snow at 5300m with fantastic views all around. We gathered slowly at a cairn and took a break while the stragglers arrived. In every direction there were snow covered mountains.

We said goodbye to the people that weren’t making the attempt on Konga Ri and set off to the right, ironically heading directly towards Dzo Jongo. The route was flat to start with but the snow and altitude made even that walking more tiring that usual. Before long, the path started to descend slightly as we crossed over to the ridge that would lead up to the summit. I could see that beyond the dip in the ridge there was a steeper pull up the side of the mountain. We walked slowly, pacing ourselves and saving energy for the climb but even so the altitude began to tell.

Tamchos, our guide, suddenly stopped us and I tried to see what he was staring at. He said he’d spotted three wolves in the distance, following the path we would be taking up the side of the mountain. I couldn’t see anything and I stared ahead trying to spot the movement. My sunglasses have prescription lenses but they are so curved that it’s a compromise and my vision isn’t as good with them as with my usual glasses. I aimed my camera in the general direction and snapped away. Later, I found one image where I can see three dots which correspond to the place Tamchos was pointing.

We moved on a little and bumped into two trekkers who had been following our group and staying in the same campsites. We’d got to know Andy and Phil, the latter was a photographer and movie maker who was carrying around a lot of camera kit that had attracted my attention. They and their guide were stationary also watching the dots in the distance through telephoto lenses. They were convinced it was a snow leopard and two cubs. Tamchos didn’t agree but didn’t argue. However a few minutes after we left Phil and Andy, we came across paw prints in the snow. The general opinion was that they were cat like, not dog like as dogs cannot retract their claws and there were no claw marks. We only saw one set, which were adult leopard sized and they followed the route we were taking, leading up to where we’d spotted the dots.

Now we started to climb again and once the excitement of the wildlife spotting had faded, it began to get tough. The snow was deep, the path indistinct and the gradient rapidly became steep. We must have been around 5500m, higher then Everest Base Camp, and the gradient began to take its toll. I tried to maintain Tamchos’ pace as we climbed the side of the mountain but found it increasingly hard to do as my feet were slipping in the snow, dropping me back half a pace for every one I took forward. I expected him to zig zag up the slope but he attacked it full on.

We reached the top of the climb exhausted and panting only to find it was a false summit. We set off again with Tamchos explaining that there were two more such false summits but that it wasn’t far. The next section was very steep and although I overtook a couple of our group (I’m not sure who as I had my head down) I did so very, very slowly and as I recall, they had stopped to rest or to remove a layer. As I reached the top of the second climb I had to stop. It was getting increasingly hot now and I had to remove a layer and take a drink or risk overheating. Tamchos had taken a pause but set off again almost as soon as I reached him. I didn’t dare look up to see how far was left because now I was in a world of my own; my own breathing was the only sound I could hear. My feet were all I could see and my pace was the only pace. In my head, thoughts were racing between the ‘this is do-able’ mantra I had used on all the other passes and ‘I can’t do this’, which I dismissed several times as I was clearly doing it.

Suddenly, in my head, I decided that there was another false summit ahead. At the same time I felt all my energy just draining away, a strange feeling I’ve never come across before. It really was as if a tap had been opened and my energy was spilling onto the floor. I slowed to a crawl, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. I took a couple of staggering footsteps and looked up, ready for another slope ahead and the inevitable defeat.

It was flat. The way ahead was a plateau with Tamchos about 10m in front of me. I stopped for a couple of breaths, unable or unwilling to accept that I had done the hard bit. Then I thought I’d better keep going or I might never move again. Each step was an effort but also a reward. I was there and all I had to do was walk about 50m and I could rest. I don’t know how long those 50m took me to walk, but I made it and stopped, only able to stand and grin as Tamchos congratulated me. I had done it and it felt really, really good. Then Tamchos offered me a piece of cherry cake and that felt even better. It was 2.55pm, seven hours after we’d left camp.

The others staggered in over the next few minutes until everyone who had set out to get here was standing or sitting around the cairn. There were congratulations and selfies. I had more cherry cake and some digestive biscuits. I finished the last of my Snickers off, and had a few squares of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut.

By now, I was starting to regain breath, energy and my senses. And I started to look around at the view from the top of this mountain. Everywhere I looked there were snow capped mountains. To the south was the extended ridge of Dzo Jongo. It was clear how the cornice of snow would have halted our progress over the final ridge; we wouldn’t have known whether we were stepping on solid ground or a thin covering of snow over a sheer drop of some 500m. Roped up or not, it would have been extremely dangerous. I don’t think anyone had any doubts that Valerie’s assessment was the wisest and, in reality, the only decision. Other peaks were characterised by long sharp ridges with steep sides and few accessible slopes. In the distance, the horizon was made up of the whole Himalaya and such was the perspective that between our white plateau and the white tops of the distant peaks was a darker strip that could have been placed there just to enhance my photographs.

The brilliant blue sky and intense sunshine that had accompanied us on our climb so far was being threatened by clouds coming in from the south. But we were still in brilliant sunshine and I didn’t want to leave this hard gained summit. We gathered around the cairn, which was adorned with a complete yak skull and horns, and a group photo was taken. Then, after another piece of cherry cake, we prepared to leave. At least it was all downhill from here.

Tamchos set off and soon he was outpacing us and I was finding it hard to walk in the deep snow. In places it was up to my knees and mostly way above my ankles so I was having to lift my legs higher to avoid dragging them through the snow. Under the snow, the ground was rocky and so now and again my foot would slip and twist on a hidden rock or dip, making progress harder. And this was before we’d reached the serious slope.

The downhill gradient started to pick up but rather than it being easier to walk, it was just as hard as coming up, as my feet were slipping, failing to get purchase on the uneven ground beneath the fresh snow. There was a steep drop to my left as we descended and I did consider getting my ice axe out, but it was rocky and it would have been unlikely to do much; I was better off using my walking pole to maintain balance.

We continued down for about 30 minutes until Tamchos stopped to check the route ahead, I welcomed the break and looked back to see that we had outdistanced the others. It made me feel a little better that I wasn’t the only one suffering and my aching legs relished the short rest. But cramp threatened to set in and I was eager to set off again.

We took a slightly different bearing that led through deeper and steeper snow. My feet continued to slip but now I found that occasionally, I could control the slip to ease the impact on my knees by deliberately sliding. Tamchos advised me to pick my own route so that the fresh snow would help prevent more serious slips and falls. We spread out and now some of the others caught me up. We descended the steepest part of the mountain in an extended line, overtaking and being passed as the conditions dictated. We later joked that one of the camp tea trays would have enabled us to slide down far quicker, although everyone admitted later that they hadn’t considered the stopping part.

After about an hour of slipping and sliding and giant steps down, we reached the snow line and shortly afterwards we stopped for a rest. It had been almost as exhausting coming down as the last part of going up, and it had certainly taken its toll on muscles I hadn’t been using until now.

We could see the green valley ahead and Valerie explained that just around the corner behind the rocks on our right were the tents. I half believed her, thinking it might just be a moral booster; the false summits earlier still played on my mind. We set off once more on ground that was much easier to walk on. It was green and rocky and muddy in places but now we could see the hazards and the slip risk was considerably less. Everything ached and the sun was beginning to warm me up again now we had left the cooling breeze of the descent. We kept together as an extended group as we walked over the flood plain and dropped lower until we were crossing the little tributaries that made up the river ahead. The red rocks of the mountain in front of us began to glow with the evening sun and contrasted with the greenery surrounding us.

And then, just as we walked down a particularly steep part of the plain, the white of the cook’s tent came into view ahead. As we rounded the spur of grey rock and scree, more tents became visible. The mess tent looked beautiful and inviting and as we neared we could see that all the tents had been put up. It had taken us 9 hours to complete the summit and return.

We all did the Konga (Ri).

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Do you ever get the feeling…?

Do you ever get the feeling that someone is trying to give you a hint?

“There’s been a change to your flights. You are now travelling with Virgin Atlantic as Jet Airways is no longer trading.”

“There’s bee a change to your flights. Please see the amended schedule.”

“There’s been a change to your flights. Please see the amended details.”

“Kashmir is in communication blackout, but it’s okay as Ladakh is still safe.”

Circumstances beyond anyone’s control have created a series of hitches, glitches and uncertainties that have made the run up to my latest trek rather like a stage of the Tour de France over cobbles in the rain and howling wind. Bumpy, uncomfortable and with the distinct possibility of a fall. Merde! When I think back to previous treks, I’m sure the build up wasn’t as challenging. Ok, so there was training on the Brecon Beacons in the winter for my second Everest Base Camp trip, battling gales and storms. I had to postpone Kilimanjaro when I injured my knee and when I resumed training, I got caught in a thunder storm on my last training walk in the mountains. There was last minute stress when I thought I needed a Yellow Fever jab to get into Tanzania. I even contemplated travelling to London to get one, as there weren’t available locally.

But this one! You may have read about the problems in Indian controlled Kashmir recently. Yep, Ladakh is right in the middle of Kashmir. The FCO and the local trek crew both confirm that it’s safe to travel there but there were moments when I was watching the news and thinking ‘really?’  Then, out of the blue, a strike by ground crew at Heathrow this week, with the promise of more to come. The strike was averted but a number of flights were canceled. Then more problems with British Airways IT systems caused delays and cancellations again. Now there are storms predicted for the airport this weekend. And it’s monsoon season in most of India (though not Ladakh, strangely).

And if you’ve been reading my Facebook output you’ll have noticed several posts about luggage weights. You may need a strong coffee and a pen and paper for the next bit and yes, I will be testing you at the end. The journey to the start of the trek involves two flights. An international one and a local flight. Both have weight limits on luggage, as you’d expect. Both are different with the internal flight weight limit being 15kg (8kg less than the international one). On the trek itself, there is a third weight limit for the porter’s load. It’s 3kg less than the internal flight limit. Simple, you say. Pack to the porter weight limit and all will be fine.

Well, yes, it would. But this trek involved a semi-technical climb of Dzo Jongo. For this I need a climbers helmet and harness, ice axe, crampons and crampon compatible boots and a thick down jacket. And my sleeping bag has to be rated to -10c. All of this stuff is heavy and bulky. In fact, all that kits comes to nearly 8kg. But to help a little, the technical kit (but not the jacket and sleeping bag) will be carried separately from the start of the trek, so suddenly I have an extra 4kg to play with.

Packing has been very much a compromise. I have learnt not to skimp on the warm stuff so although I have a lighter insulated jacket, the bigger one is coming with me as summit night will be cold. I wore it on Kilimanjaro and despite also wearing thermals, two fleeces and a windproof jacket, I could feel the cold. It’s surprising how much waterproofs, fleeces, thermal base layers and socks weight. I may not change my socks every day (sorry for handing you that thought) but from previous experience, the really bad smelling won’t start until we return to normal altitude as the bacteria can’t grow in low oxygen environments (I hope, I really hope). As long as I can seal them in bags, I’ll make it home without being accused of attempting biological warfare.

So, after all the planning and weighing and repacking and reweighing, my kitbag should now be around 15kg which means it will sail through the international flight and with fingers crossed that my scales are accurate, pass through the internal flight. But just when you though it was safe to relax, I have to tell you that my kitbag currently weights 21kg!

“Has he gone mad?”

No more than usual. I’m taking a load of donations for a local school that Exodus, the company I’m travelling with, support. They do this at all the destinations they run treks in and I think it’s a fantastic scheme. I have the spare capacity and so I’ve packed pens, pencils, geometry sets, paper, socks, toothpaste and tooth brushes. These will be taken from me at Delhi before the internal flight. I’ve also put more things from my carry on luggage in the kitbag to make boarding and leaving the plane much easier. Once in the hotel, I’ll have to do a lot of repacking to even out the weights (the back pack will be maxed out with camera gear).

Compared to all this, the physical training was simple.

The test: What is the international flight weight limit for my kit bag?

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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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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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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In High Places 4

If I’m perfectly honest, reaching Everest Base Camp on 21 November 2007 was a bit of an anticlimax.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the spectacular scenery around me – even at 5300m where we were, the snow covered mountains around soared more than 3km higher and the sky was a cloudless deep blue. It’s certainly not that it was an easy stroll – I read in my journal that at the time I found the trek across the rough, pathless Khumbu glacier harder than all but the last 10 minutes of climbing Kala Patthar. (That was a consequence of exhaustion and cold when I got back to Gorak Shep influencing my writing). I think it was a combination of having reached my motivational goal yesterday, at the top of Kala Patthar, not being able to see Everest from base camp and the realisation that from this point on, we were heading home.

Whatever it was, thinking about it later made me realise that while it’s good to set goals, and even better to set challenging ones, it’s no good just picking a thing like ‘getting to the top’. While it’s a clear, obvious target it can also be limiting. My initial interest in the trek was trigger by the magical phrase ‘Everest Base Camp’. It has an exciting, almost romantic sound to it. Thoughts of Mallory and Irving setting out on the final push (they actually went from the Northern side of Everest, as Nepal was closed to outsiders at the time). Images of the Commonwealth expedition of 1952, with Hilary and Tensing (their base camp was actually at Gorak Shep, where we stayed). When our trek leader said ‘here we are, Everest Base camp’ we were at a small pile of rocks on which some prayer flags had been tied. My journal says that I realised that if we were actually at base camp, we were at the southern extremity of it. That hid the understanding that actually, as our group were so slow, we had only just got to the vicinity of base camp when the leader called time, so that we would be able to get back to the lodge before the sun went down and it got cold. Having returned in 2011 when base camp was packed with expeditions waiting to climb the surrounding mountains, it was clear we had been short of the usual camp site.

Had my goal been base camp, I would have returned home ultimately disappointed. Given the country, the people and the stunning landscape through which we trekked, that would have been a crime. As it was, my driver for the trip was the scenery above base camp and the opportunity to photograph the mountains. I felt this was a more worthy goal but it was still narrow. Had we not reached Kala Patthar (which was a danger, see my previous post) I would still have returned home disappointed. When I went back in 2011, my motivation was to come back with a record in words and pictures of a trek in a new country, still adjusting to the 20th Century (let alone the 21st). I didn’t actually get to the top of Kala Patthar that time, due to an altitude induced headache and while I would very much have liked to, it didn’t ruin the trek.

Having a ‘get to the top’ goal can lead to all sorts of problems, as experienced mountaineers will tell you. Good climbers know when to turn back and they will value the journey as much as the triumph of the summit.

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