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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