On Sunday April 3 I completed my third marathon, the 40th anniversary running of the Schneider Electric Marathon de Paris 2016. Things of note: (1) I recommend not missing four weeks of long runs by swanning off on holiday and claiming it was too hot to run long distances, especially when the actual race turns out to be really quite warm. (2) I really like people cheering me on by shouting “Allez, allez. Courage! Bon chance!” (3) Marathon supporters are very sweet, particularly the lovely ladies who cleaned my sunnies for me when my running vest was too damp to use (eughh), the handsome chap who opened my Cliff Bar because I wasn’t dextrous enough to do so myself, and his tremendous girlfriend who gave me a swig of her pint whilst he did so! (4) The marathon is a bloody long way but you’ll find folk of all ages and body shapes plodding around the 42 km course. (5) From the number of ambulances zipping about, it’s wise to pay attention to the conditions and listen to your body. Live to run another day; in challenging conditions time is really not important. (6) Paris is a fabulous European city, even when you’re slightly distracted by the heat and a gradually deteriorating body.
One of the greatest things about travelling is making friends who when called upon years down the track will meet you in random places to take part in daft events. That is how on Sunday 28 February 2016 I found myself back with my old Hanmer Springs (Ocean) Racing Sardines buddies S and G at the Blue Lake (Lake Tikitapu) near Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island to undertake a 3.5 km lake swim.
At some point towards the end of 2015 I’d realised that my forthcoming three-week holiday would coincide with the New Zealand Ocean Swim Series’ newest event: The Legend of the Lake. And to my great joy, when I mentioned that to S and G they agreed to meet me and take part. I think for G it was a good opportunity to overturn my previous victory over him at the King of the Bays in 2011, but I might just have an overly suspicious mind.
You may have spotted the word “ocean” firmly amidst the title of the series, but the organisers have branched out to take in the land-locked home of one of the series’ greatest competitors and New Zealand’s marathon swimming Olympic hopeful, Kane Radford. It was an inspired decision.
Sunday dawned clear and warm, which was unexpected as the weather was due to be wet and stormy. The compère still advised us what we should do in the event of it suddenly thundering and lightning, which was actually mildly alarming. It went something like this: listen out for the lifeguards blowing their whistles, swim to the nearest bank, get out, wait for it to blow over, get rescued by the inflatables. Fortunately we didn’t have to put that to the test.
I’d rented a wetsuit for the occasion, but in hindsight I think I would have been better off in just my togs. I had also failed spectacularly to train beyond 2.2 km in the outdoor pool local to my London office. If the race had been scheduled in New Zealand’s autumn rather than spring I would have been super fit having spent most of my Saturdays in the summer of 2015 battling against the tide on Britain’s south coast; however, that wasn’t the case. G had been regularly covering 3 km in the lovely lap pool at the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa (so one of my spies told me), and I suspect S had been doing some secret training down near his home in Queenstown, he was very shady about it. I’m basically just getting my excuses in early.
We went off in waves, on a large clockwise circuit of the lake. The water was fabulous, so clear and tasty (I had a few mouthfuls during the initial thrashing for space). The first few buoys took an awful long time coming and on the back straight I caught sight of S sailing past me, presumably G was already way ahead! By the time I rounded the final buoy and commenced the long drawn out swim for the shore I was even being passed by those swimmers who manage to drag their bodies through the water at 45 degrees – seriously, how do they do that? I exited the water after an hour and ten minutes, exhausted by my apparently massively un-streamlined flailing, beaten by both of my buddies. Never mind. I was still incredibly delighted to have travelled 11,000 miles to take part, and to have done so with them was very special.
We lounged in the sunshine to recover, ate tasty treats prepared by Kane Radford’s mum, and then waited with baited breath to see if this time we would finally take home the coveted Mr and Mrs Average titles, or even win one of what seemed to be a plethora of spot prizes. We also like to find out just how old we need to get before we finally become competitive so will sit through what seems like hours of prize-giving (75–80 is the slightly embarrassing result).
It turns out I am very slightly better than average (which I find pathetically cheering). I also miraculously walked away with a NZ$500 Jetstar voucher in what must be one of the most surprising moments of my 30-something years!
I can’t recommend the New Zealand Ocean Swim Series highly enough. Each event is well organised, takes in some fantastic New Zealand scenery and is well supported by swimmers of all ages and abilities. So, get your buddies together and get training for next year.
Other events in the series that I’ve had the pleasure of completing:
Waiheke Island sits 18 km (approximately 11 miles) off the coast of Auckland in the Hauraki Gulf. At one time it was a major hippy hangout, but today its proximity to downtown Auckland makes it a popular commuter option for the seriously loaded. It is also famous for its ample smattering of world-class vineyards, Cable Bay and Mudbrick amongst them. I spent six weeks there way back in 2008 plucking leaves off grape vines in the blazing summer sun at Stonyridge Vineyard. My favourite memory of that time is of applying sunscreen to the nice Maori student – think of a younger but only slightly less buff version of Sonny Bill Williams and you’ll get the idea – and the equally fit blue-eyed American with the southern drawl and a penchant for Britney Spears. Vineyard work did not pay big bucks but I rented a room in an incredibly swish hilltop pad from a colourful divorcee whose daughter was an aspiring Kiwi actress. I certainly got a sense of Waiheke’s dual character: happy hippy meets city high flier.
It’s still a charming place and well worth escaping the city for. The ferry takes about 40 minutes (NZ$36 return) and most visitors seem to decamp straight to the vineyards. I took a very different route to avoid the crowds and explore a side of island life that’s a little less alcoholic: it’s walking trails. The Department of Conservation maintains the island’s trails beautifully and so off I toddled along the coastal path, heading to Oneroa, Waiheke’s main settlement, the long way round. The direct route is a couple of kilometres and takes hardly any time at all but my route south was substantially further, taking over two hours (there were a lot of photo stops). It was well worth it for the gulf views, the near solitude, and an insight into how the other half lives. The coastal properties reveal a wide variety of imaginative – incredibly expensive in some cases – architecture you just don’t see in Britain. It’s also not every day you see someone park their private, electric blue helicopter at the end of their vines!
A famous and popular beauty spot since Victorian times and rich in archaeology from the Mesolithic period right up to World War II (when the British Army used it as a mortar testing range), Old Winchester Hill is actually about 11 miles south-east of the city of Winchester.
Crossed by both the South Downs Way and the Monarch’s Way, in 2009 it became part of the South Downs National Park. On its summit is an Iron Age hill fort and earlier Bronze Age barrows or burial mounds, plus a marvellous, sweeping 360-degree view of the surrounding Hampshire countryside.
Sheep graze the hillside, lovely fluffy ones, with luscious, silky, grey coats…and an evil glint in their eye. Ok, so I may be fibbing about that last bit. Since re-watching Black Sheep (2006, dir. Jonathan King) at Christmas, every quietly grazing bit of mutton I encounter seems to be looking a little too intensely at me, barely containing its murderous rage, just waiting for me to turn my back so it can pounce and make a delicious snack of my juicy entrails.
Thank god I’m not going to New Zealand any time soon, where the ratio of sheep to humans is six to one. Doh!
Our night in Kasbah Oliver was very comfortable. Hot showers, heated by solar power, were a special treat in what felt a fairly remote spot, and porridge for breakfast was a real home comfort.
Those of us who were keen headed out just after 9 am for a three- to four-hour walk. We left Tighza village along a donkey trail through a valley framed with almond trees in blossom and terraces of barley. Irrigation channels kept the valley floor a verdant green against the rocky orange/red valley walls. It really was very pretty.
A barking dog, simply protecting its territory, freaked me out as it ran from a local home, bearing its teeth. No amount of reassurance from our guide that I should simply stand my ground and show it who was the real boss could stop me visualising a vicious mauling. Fortunately it didn’t really want a bite of a passing tourist and just stood there growling menacingly. The nice sedate mules that passed by, loaded up with dung for fertiliser, were more my thing; however, they weren’t exactly fragrant.
It was such a lovely day, the February sun having encouraged me to finally break out my shorts.
We walked an out-and-back route and at our furthest point we rested for 20 minutes, enjoying the all-encompassing silence. There were certainly no distant sounds of traffic congestion to ruin the peace. Mohammed informed us that much further along the track was a lake that made a good camping spot in the summer, whilst the Explore Mount Toubkal Trek also passed this point. Both seemed very tempting prospects for future holidays as we headed back to the kasbah.
Lunch consisted of omelettes cooked in large tagines, with sardines and salad. It was possibly the best lunch (or indeed meal) I’d had since Fes on day four. Simple, yet very tasty.
The afternoon was to be spent at the hammam, a steam room similar to a Turkish bath, where people go to cleanse themselves. Sponsored by Exodus to raise extra income for the local community, I thought I’d better go along and support it.
The ladies would go first. The seven of us were led into a steamy little room in our bathing suits. (I have a funny feeling this was really supposed to be done naked, but see my previous post on Freikorperkultur in Germany for my prudishness when it comes to public nudity.) Two local women were to assist us with our hammam, one of whom sported a tattoo from her lower lip to her chin, reminiscent of a Maori moko. The hammam basically involved us lying on the floor whilst being vigorously scrubbed down with black soap and an exfoliating glove. I’m not sure it was quite my thing, so I waited until last, unconvinced by the whole procedure. This of course meant that I ended up with both women energetically ridding me of any dead skin cells that dared to cling to my pasty British body. It would have probably been more pleasant if I hadn’t got sunburnt on our earlier walk! (Wear sunscreen people, even in the winter in northern Africa when it’s still only 12 degrees.)
The boys, who were up next, and assisted by a gentleman, had quite a different experience, apparently. Whilst they scrubbed each other down, with his guidance, us ladies sat on the front terrace of Kasbah Oliver enjoying the afternoon sun.
Our final village encounter was a visit to the house of a local lady. She provided an incredible platter of nuts and fluffy cake, washed down with a thick, spicy coffee, whilst our guides translated any questions we had for her about village life. This was much more civilised activity and a real treat to be able to visit someone’s home.
Day nine found our modest minibus manoeuvred very carefully around some hair-raising mountain roads in Morocco’s southern High Atlas by our skilful driver—along the route of a thousand kasbahs.
We passed through the Vallée des Roses, at the point where the mountains meet the Dadès Valley; then it was on to Ouarzazate, Morocco’s Hollywood (or Mollywood if you please). We stopped very briefly to admire Kasbah Taourirt—at one time considered the largest kasbah in Morocco—from across the road. There was apparently no time to explore, or to visit the fascinating-looking cine museum opposite. An unfortunate drawback to pre-organised group travel.
The thought of a dreary bowl of unseasoned cous cous and vegetables for lunch resulted in a mini rebellion. We abandoned day nine’s fancy tourist restaurant, which refused to serve us anything other than their expensive three-course set lunch, and found an attractive, and very characterful café/hotel just across the road. It was run by a French Moroccan lady, and we troughed defiantly on pizza and beer, a rare treat indeed. Magic.
After lunch we walked up to Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed fortified city and a striking example of southern Moroccan architecture. Having not changed a great deal since it was built in the eleventh century, most of the area’s inhabitants now live in more modern surroundings across the river. The city itself is made up of numerous kasbahs and ksars and has been made famous over the last fifty or sixty years as a backdrop for epic films like Lawrence of Arabia, Alexander and, my personal favourite, Gladiator. It is certainly worth a visit, and the view from its very breezy top was fairly spectacular.
We would be spending the night in our guide’s village, Tighza, at Riad Kasbah Oliver, an hour’s drive away along some seriously snaking mountain roads. Thankfully, we covered the final stretch of the journey on foot. There were mules for our luggage, and as the sun started to settle into a distant valley we strolled along a rocky road watching the changing colours of what was an extremely picturesque landscape.