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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A walk on the worm

Rufus had his physiotherapy walk early this morning, around a still and mirror like Broadpool. Apart from the odd car, the silence was broken only by birdsong and the occasional call of a cow to it’s calf.

Back home, it was a quick turnaround for me as I had decided to walk out to Worm’s Head this morning. As Rufus is making his recovery, I am trying to get in some activities that he wouldn’t be able to join me on regardless of his state of health. The walk out to Worm’s Head is over jagged, rocky outcrops and there is scrambling involved as well and no matter how fit Rufus is, there are sections I wouldn’t make him tackle for fear of broken bones.

It was a perfect walking day as I set off from the car park at Rhossili. A coach load of young tourists had just emptied out into the car park and I was determined to get ahead of them in case they were also planning on crossing to the Worm, as getting stuck behind them on any of the rocky crossings would make it even harder going.

At the Coastguard hut, I checked the causeway opening times although I’d already figured out that I had until just before 3pm based on the high tide time. Sure enough, the figures confirmed it was open now and until 2.50pm. I set off down the well worn path of red earth towards the rocks and the start of the causeway.

There is no set path. You pick your own route based on whim. Last time I was here I remember seeing a large anchor seemingly embedded in the rock (although I guess it was partly buried by barnacles and other more modern detritus as it couldn’t have been there long enough to become part of the rocks). Sure enough, there it was  but a lot more prominent than I remembered it.

A few minutes of careful picking between pools, shells, rocks worn smooth by the action of the sea later, I was making my way up onto the welcome grassy slopes of the inner worm. The wind that was blowing was cooling without being cold and the sun was warm on my back. The views back towards Rhossili were already spectacular and would only get better as I went on. I climbed the short incline to the top of the little ridge and walked along with a sharp drop to sea on my right.

I could hear an occasional mournful sound and looking over and down to the rocks below, I saw several grey seals basking in the warm sunshine. Every so often, one would call to no one in particular. It was a haunting sound. In the dark of night it would sound eerie and otherworldly.

I walked on and down to the little causeway between the inner and middle islets. This is a difficult section as the limestone rocks are sharp and there are deep crevices ready to catch and unwary ankle or twist a vulnerable knee. Again, there is no set route and it’s best just to take your time and keep checking every few steps to make sure you’re on track. This is what I did and despite a few twinges from my left knee, I managed to negotiate the rocks and reach the next part of the route. Again, a short climb got me to the top of the middle part of the Worm. On the right as I walked along, a small archway of rock provided a glimpse of the sea to the north. Dropping down to a little natural platform beneath the arch I could see down onto the north shore and more basking seals. As I watched, a small seal dragged itself out of the water onto the basking rock, to the warning grunts from a big seal protecting her pup. All was resolved when the intruder settled on a different part of the rock.

The next obstacle was the sea arch, part of a collapsed sea cave. The route over is solid but narrow in parts and a gusty wind blows through here. It wasn’t too bad today but I’ve heard tell of times when it’s almost been enough to knock you off your feet. I managed the crossing with little trouble and found myself on the final stretch to the head of the Worm.

This becomes a steep but thankfully short scramble. I wasn’t worried by this prospect but the last time I scrambled up rock was at Little Lent Hill on the way to climb Kilimanjaro, 18 months ago. I needn’t have worried and a couple of minutes of ‘three points of contact’ got me to the top. And, of course, it was all worthwhile. the 360 degree views were magnificent.

I set the camera up to take a couple of selfies on the timer and then sat down to enjoy the views. Not long after, I was joined by a couple for whom English was not their first language. Nevertheless, I gave and got a cheery ‘morning’ and after they’d taken the obligatory selfies, they left me to my seclusion again.

It had taken me 90 minutes to reach the end of Worm’s Head and I had plenty of time before the causeway closed. Every year, people are stranded on the headland after leaving it too late and there are deaths as people try to cross when the tide is rising; there is a strong undercurrent that will easily knock you off your feet once the causeway is covered by water.

I strolled back, using the low level paths as the higher ones seemed to be congested with visitors to the headland. The wind was a little stronger as I reached the jagged rocks of the little causeway but for some reason travelling in this direction was easier. I could see a rough route that seemed smoother than the one I used earlier and so it was, although it took me quite close to the sheer drop on the north side of the headland. Then it was a simple walk down to the main causeway and the crossing back to the mainland.

Back on dry land, as it were, I stood and watched a group of people in the sea far below the cliff tops as they threw a frisbee back and forth. What fascinated me were the four  dogs in the water with them charging back and forth trying to get the frisbee. They seemed to be having enormous fun splashing and swimming around, judging by the barking and wagging of tails. On top of the cliffs, the path was filling up as more people spilled out of the car park and walked towards the headland.

I was glad to be going back to the car now there were crowds around as one of the draws of getting out for me is the solitude. I trudged back to the car, ready to jump in and drive off. But on my right was an ice cream van and I succumbed to the temptation of the siren call of the diesel generator keeping the ice cream cold. The perfect end to a walk on the Worm.

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