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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Extremes

“Me! Me! Take a photo of me!”

As a photographer, I often hear the opposite. “Don’t point that camera at me” (usually followed by a giggle and a pose). One exception is Rufus, who realises that the time I spend taking photos is time that is not spent throwing stones or sticks or reaching for the treat bag. But yesterday, as I was taking photos of the flowers in the garden, one bee decided it wanted to be part of the image. If you look in the top left corner of the image of the purple flowers, you’ll see it diving into shot. Later, it demanded modelling fees.

I was taking some more macro photos of the tiny world in my garden. Half the challenge is finding a suitable subject and another significant problem is wind. Stop sniggering at the back there, I mean natural wind that blows flowers and leaves around. It can prevent insects flying, disturb them and make focusing well nigh impossible. Focusing is critical with close ups, as the amount of the picture that is in focus is tiny and the slightest movement can create blur.

I was using extension tubes, which move the lens away from the body of the camera. The ultimate effect of this is to reduce the closest distance that the lens will focus on, making the thing you are photographing very large in the final image. At one point the front of the lens was less than an inch from the leaf I was trying to photograph. Although I was using a ring flash at this point, which gives an even light across the subject, my shadow and that of the camera was falling across the leaf and had already disturbed a small fly I had originally spotted on it.

Fast forward about 9 hours and the same camera, with a different lens, was pointed skywards in the hope of catching a Perseid meteor. These are the tiny fragmented remains of comet Swift-Tuttle, the tail of which we pass through this time every year. For a brief moment they flare as bright as the moon before burning up and finally settling on the earth as a fine dust. I’ve seen figures that suggest around 60 tons of meteorite material falls on the earth every day. Don’t quote me on that, though, as it’s from the Internet.

So from trying to focus on a leaf around 2cm from the lens, to trying to capture the flare of a meteor at an altitude of around 80km, it’s been a day of extremes.

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Early morning

I’m up at the crack of dawn for work. Most mornings, it’s dark. Recently it’s been dark and wet. But this morning, there was a little more light in the sky than there has been of late. I was intrigued and when I looked out of the window I could see the sky was cloud frees, and there was a faint glow on the eastern horizon.

But better than a clear sky, there was the moon and Venus close together. I abandoned thoughts of breakfast and grabbed my camera. I spent 10 minutes snapping away.

After breakfast, and just before I left for work, I took another series of photos. The difference in the brightness of the sky was dramatic.

I varied the exposures on both sessions. The moon is a sunlit landscape so I manually set the exposure to record that. But in one photos, you can see I’ve exposed for the earth shine – the glow of the earth’s reflected light on the moon. The crescent lit by the sun is over exposed, as is Venus.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro 5: Up the hill

At 10.30pm on 24 January, I was awake and lying wrapped up against the cold in my sleeping bag. I’d gone to bed about 4 hours before wearing thermal long johns, lined trousers, socks, thermal base layer and a fleece. I’d managed a nervous 3 hours of sleep but had woken early. I was resting, and thinking about the climb to come. Reluctantly, I got out of the warm cocoon and donned another fleece, my duvet jacket and boots.

We were greeted in the mess tent with hot, sweet tea and porridge. I was getting fed up of porridge but there was no doubting it’s energy giving properties. I put a large spoonful of sugar in and downed the contents of the bowl. I took my last diamox tablet, drank another cup of tea and was ready.

Withe little fuss, we gathered outside, little pools of torchlight in a sea of darkness. Passian led us off towards the gap in the rocks that formed the first, steep climb out of School hut camp.  The scramble over, we started off on the path which climbed steeply right from the start. It was the beginning of a mindless, endless trudging that went on with little to show for the effort. The darkness hid any landmarks that could have shown the progress we were making, and that was probably a good thing.

We stopped for a short break after about an hour and I checked my altimeter. We’d climbed 100m. As we set off again, and aching limbs protested, I started to do the calculations. If we’d only done 100m in an hour, it would take us 12hrs to get to the top. It was a depressing thought and only after a few more minutes did I realise that I hadn’t recalibrated the altimeter at School Hut camp. I guessed the readings were wrong, and resolved not to look at the altimeter again.

We carried on along a series of zig zags, climbing steadily but with no idea of how far we’d come. I longed for each break, but when they came, they merely served to make me feel the cold and for my limbs to develop cramp. Starting off again was harder as a result.

Suddenly, ahead, I saw a line of tiny lights stretching down to my left and up to my right. We had reached the junction with the path from Kibo huts, another popular summit route and the lights were the head torches of the other climbers heading towards Uhuru Peak. We turned sharply right and joined the line. Behind, one group was singing but this soon petered out and there was a strange silence despite the number of people on the path. We stood to oe side to allow faster groups to pass, and we passed slower groups including some people clearly in trouble and being tended to by their guides.

We stopped briefly at Hans Meyer Cave, which I knew to be around 5300m. I had no idea how log it had taken and knowing we were about half way didn’t help either. After the cave, the zig zag legs got shorter and steeper. Lights high above gave an indication of the steepness. A chill wind picked up and blew across the face of the slope. This part of the climb was the hardest as by now I was digging deep for reserves of mental strength. The climb was never ending. Although the pace was very good, I began to have some doubts about whether I could get to the top.

But I started to think of the people who had supported me; my friend’s little boy who had drawn a good luck card which I had with me, and friends and colleagues who had helped me get ready. I also had in my head a song that I used to listen to when doing the harder parts of the training on the Brecon Beacons. All of that gave me an extra boost of determination, and I carried on placing one foot in front of the other as we climbed higher.

All of a sudden, the slope got steeper and we climbed over a series of rocks to a flat area and our guides stopped. They pulled out flasks and gave us all a welcome mug of hot sweet tea. It slowly dawned on my fuzzy brain that we had reached Gillman’s Point; the place where the steep path upwards crests the crater rim. Gradually, as the tea warmed me, I remembered that this was the end of the steep section and from now on the going would be much easier. To the North East, a faint glow was in the sky.

We set off from Gillman’s Point around the rim of the volcano towards Stella Point. By the time we reached the large sign, the sun was just below the horizon and the colour in the sky was deep and beautiful. We stopped to watch the sunrise from just beyond Stella Point, and the peak of Mawenzi was silhouetted against the sky and the layer of cloud hundreds of metres below.

Although the path was far less steep, there was still an incline and the altitude meant that it was still hard going. I passed a number of people sat by the side of the path, head in hands. None were alone so I wasn’t worried about leaving them. There were a number of false summits before I finally spotted the big sign that marked the highest point. I reached it at 7.15am local time.

The feeling of actually getting there after all the time spent preparing, the delays caused by injury and the last 8 days trekking, was amazing. It’s hard to put it into words even now. I’d read about this place but until recently I’d never dreamed I’d actually get here. The 45 minutes I spent on the summit went by in a blur and looking back, many of the memories are through the photos I took. Not because I didn’t stop to see with my own eyes, but because I was tired and my mind was trying to take everything in.

The crater of Kibo is still largely intact and had I been able to spend more time on the top, I would have loved to have descended into it to explore. But our time on top was limited, mainly because of the cold and the tiredness. Instead, I was able to look out onto the remains of the glaciers, and the snow lying on the path I’d just walked. The views from the top were magnificent. Beyond the Northern icefields was Mt Meru. Down to the south was our next goal, Barafu Camp.

All too soon Passian was motioning for us to leave and reluctantly, I followed him back down the pathway. We passed more people coming up and many were struggling in the thin air. We reached Stella Point and dropped over the side of the crate rim to begin the descent.

Passian set a fast pace down across the scree. The alternative was a three hour trudge down which would have played hell with my knees. Nevertheless, I was reluctant at first to follow him as I was conscious of the potential erosion. I compromised and sought a firm path down, occasionally skipping past the longer bits with a diversion across the scree. Passian and the others all but disappeared ahead of me but I could see where  we were heading and wasn’t too concerned. In no time we were down at Barafu camp, having descended 1300m in around 85 minutes. After a brief brunch stop, we descended further to Millennium camp, our overnight stop.

As we registered at the camp site, we were told that they were blasting to clear a site for a new toilet block. But my tired brain misheard and I thought the ranger said they were blasting to clear the toilet. I thought of an explosion in a cess pit and didn’t want to think any further. Shortly afterwards, there was a dull thud and we were allowed to go to the tents. I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down and after about an hour, I was woken by someone shaking the tent. It turned out they were blasting again. I staggered over to the ranger hut just in time to hear a much louder bang. A huge cloud of smoke and debris rose high in the air and over our part of the camp site. Back at the tents, we saw that one of them had been hit by debris which had torn through the fabric.

The following morning, after we’d distributed the tips and said good by to the crew, I took a last look at Kilimanjaro in the morning light, and then we headed of to begin the 2200m descent to the waiting minibus. By that afternoon, we were back at the poolside of the Ilboru Safari Lodge, showered and rested.

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Spooky

It’s not often I’m lost for words but trying to describe the feeling I had when sitting in the pitch dark on the first floor of Margam Castle this evening is one of those times.

We went on a ghost night last night. Traditional Welsh Cawl (a rich lamb stew) at the haunted Prince of Wales pub in Kenfig, followed by a tour of Margam Castle. We’ve been on several ghost tours and walks and they’ve each been great in their own way. Bath was atmospheric, York was well delivered and Dunster was an all round good night.

But last night was different again. It felt more personal when we were in the pub, where the landlord told us about the things that had happened to him during his 9 years running the pub. They were stories of mischief and general good humour. The spirits in the Prince of Wales were friendly and generally non-threatening.

We moved on to Margam Castle. We’ve been there many times during the day but immediately we got out of the car, the place had a completely different feel. It wasn’t completely dark and there the house stood out against the cloudless sky. The stars were clear and bright and we couldn’t have asked for better conditions.

After some history of the house and the family that lived there, we proceeded inside. With all the lights out, the atmosphere was eerie and every sound was magnified with the echo. Our host told stories about the malevolent spirits that occasionally showed themselves and we watched and waited, unsure of what we were going to see (or not see). Despite the lack of sights or sounds, the place was full of atmosphere and I would not have been surprised to either see or hear something myself, or find one of the other people claiming to have seen or heard something. But the spirits were shy tonight.

We went upstairs and sat in the pitch black silence. Now, as the guide spoke, I could make out a faint murmur beneath his voice. But as I realised it was the echo coming back, he mentioned this as a characteristic of the house and it’s central staircase. He told us about the times he’s been setting up and has felt something, and one of his theories is that the presence upstairs is an elemental spirits, that is, more ancient than human beings.

We heard nothing upstairs either, but as the night was drawing to an end, I became aware of a feeling inside me that I cannot describe. If you have ever walked in on the aftermath of an argument, when everyone is quiet and there is a feeling of awkwardness, you can only describe accurately that feeling to people who have experienced it themselves. How do you describe it to someone who has never felt it? That’s why I find it hard to describe how I felt on the upper landing of Margam Castle. I can only say that I was uncomfortable, uneasy and didn’t want to stay there. But I can’t say why.

It was a tremendous evening. We’ve been to Margam many times and it’s always a rewarding visit. But the ghost tour was by far the best visit I’ve had.

Painting with light

The translation of photography is ‘painting with light’. It’s also a technique of iluminating an object at night with a torch, or using a light source to draw patterns and shapes in the dark and photographing them. I’d ben readng up on the former and had been planning to try it out at Arthurs Stone, on Cefn Bryn one clear night. I wanted to get a starry sky in shot too.

There was a cloudless sky as I drove home and I decided that the combination of sky and snow would make a good photo opportunity. So after a snack I packed the camera bag, donned three fleeces and an insulated jacket and set off for Cefn Bryn. I enjoy driving at night and once I was away from the traffic it was fun. Fairwood Common was white with snow that hadn’t melted. I had to stop to avoid two small ponies wandering along in the middle of the road.

Heading up to Cefn Bryn, the road was icy and I could feel the car sliding now and again. I took it easy, avoided a big icy puddle and pulled off the road on the top of the hill. Walking across the deep snow in bright moonlight felt eerie. It was quiet and there were none of the familiar landmarks. Several times, my boots sank into semi frozen mud and although I had a head torch, it was hard to tell if I was heading in the right direction.

Eventually I saw the bulk of Arthur’s Stone silhouetted against the lights of Llanelli across the Loughor estuary. I set up the tripod and started taking photos. I was using a long exposure of between 20 and 30 seconds and during that time, I was shining a torch on and around the stone. The results weren’t quite what I was after; the technique needs some practice. I switched to normal long exposure shots and thanks to the moon and snow, I got some pleasing results. (Have a look here for a photo of me taking a photo).

The journey home  was even more exciting than the one out, as the temperature had dropped and more ice had formed on the roads.

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Road Test

I picked up my new car last night. It was sad to see the Audi go but I’m looking forward to having new adventures in the Freelander.

I only drove it for a short time last night – I picked Rufus up for our lads night in and took him home – 30 minutes at the most. Even a short detour to add some driving minutes wasn’t enough. So this morning, early, we set off for Cefn Bryn and a walk in the pre-dawn gloom. The car was covered in frost, but after two minutes of faffing (trying to set the Bluetooth reciever for the phone) the windscreen was clear and we set off.

It’s great. My 7 year old’s excitement was justified. It handled differently to the Audi – as you might expect, as the Audi was a sport model. But it was firm and positive on the road, not bouncy like a tall vehicle can be. The driving position is nice and high giving a great all round view. Rufus seemed comfy in the back – another important element as he’ll be in it a lot I expect.

On Cefn Bryn, I even took it off road. Well, slightly off road, on to the car park where other people take their normal cars. Still, it was off the road and that qualifies in my mind.

We wandered off towards Penmaen along the ridge, the moon shining brightly and Jupiter and some of the brighter stars shing in the sky. All the while we were watching the sky lighten in the east as the sun neared the horizon. It was cold but not excessively so, and Rufus was happy that there were a lot of new smells to investigate. A lot of sheep and horses were nearby.

By the time we reached the high point, the deep red top edge of the sun had just popped into view and I stopped for a few minutes to watch it climb above the sea. Then it was time to turn around and head back to the car. By now a chill wind had risen blowing out to see and I was heading into it. Over Broadpool, a low ribbon of mist hung, making drivers on the nearby road turn their headlights on.

We drove home through the mist and, taking a short cut through a small village, we hit large patches of ice on the road. It gave me a chance to legitimately change the terrain response control to the slippery conditions settings. I’d like to describe the instant change in handling and grip, but to be honest, I didn’t notice anything. After a small adventure in the petrol station, where I misjudged the size of the car and had to reverse twice to get to the pump (in my defence, it was a very tight turn), we got back safely.

I’m a happy 7 year old!

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