Morocco day 6: Involved camels called Bernard and Kevin

Our accommodation in Merzouga was fashioned out of clay and straw, positioned in a lovely little spot next to the dunes, surrounded by palms. Our room was right by the pool, enclosed in a small courtyard and noticeably warmer than some of our previous locations. With the lights off that night, the darkness was complete. It’s been a long time since I have slept somewhere quite so devoid of light pollution, it was slightly unnerving.Good room

After breakfast, C and I headed dune-ward. Idiotically we didn’t think to take water, but we were only venturing far enough to get an idea of the vastness of the desert, and, frankly, to take some cool photos, aiming to capture the extraordinary shade of the sand against the solid blue sky. It was definitely a good time of year to be in Merzouga, the dunes were our own giant sand pit, with just a few tyre tracks indicating that someone out there in the sandy wilderness might be playing with some much bigger, and definitely more mechanical, toys.

We were the first in a dotted line of Exodus travellers plodding up the dunes. I didn’t mind the followers, at least if we stuck together we couldn’t get lost, our mutated footprints acting as a useful trail back to camp.Dune time1Dune time4World's worst sand selfieDune time again

After messing around on the dunes for a while, we returned and made a visit to a local carpet shop – “No obligation to buy.” We perused the wares, and had a spot of tea and some lunch: a big round bread, full of onions and eggs (honestly much nicer than it sounds). The non-veggies had some variety of meat with theirs. I was a bit sad that I didn’t have the disposable funds to seriously consider the rugs and carpets, there really were some impressive bits of weaving. They may have said that no offer would be considered rude, but I couldn’t have proposed a price that wouldn’t have embarrassed us all.

Back at the hotel, all noticeably carpet-less, some of us slightly more adventurous types tested out the pool. Note to self: blue sky and sunshine does not equal warm outdoor pool, particularly one that’s been exposed to the cold desert night. I jumped in, nay leapt vigorously, aware it was going to be a little bracing. Blimey! My heart skipped a beat and I struggled to manage a credible stroke to get me back to the side. February in Saharan Morocco was obviously not outdoor swimming weather. Taking a dip

The relaxing morning was a precursor to the day’s main activity: a camel trek into the desert to a Bedouin-style camp. We gathered at 4pm, meeting our guides and their camels. The camels, tethered together in three groups, seemed like particularly massive beasts to this uninitiated rider. I immediately named mine Bernard; he looked like a Bernard. We all agreed that J had the prettiest. Another, Kevin, kept trying to put his head on C’s knee, it appeared he’d taken quite a shine to her. Hopefully he wasn’t just a bit peckish and looking for a nice meaty snack to supplement his daily diet of grass.

The journey to camp took about an hour and was pretty hard going on the nether regions. Thankfully the scenery and the jolly atmosphere amongst the group more than made up for a bruised glute or two.Bernard and KevinCamel treckCamel treck2 Camels in shadowDune time5

The camp was nestled amidst the dunes, and consisted of a cooking tent, a dinner tent and sleeping tents, some small ones for the couples and larger ones for the solo travellers – one for the girls and another for the boys. If you needed to make use of the facilities you’d just have to find a shady spot behind a dune and whistle. We hopped off our trusty dromedaries and raced up the nearest big dune to enjoy the sunset.Up that dune

Every inch of the sun’s descent towards the horizon heralded another subtle colour change in the sand. The vibrant orange landscape darkened and the shadows lengthened, whilst the warming final rays gave way to a chill atmosphere as we finally lost the sun. We gradually meandered back down to camp.Up the dune1Up the dune2Up the dune3Up the dune4

Dinner was the usual tagine of cous cous and vegetables, but tasted infinitely better for being consumed outdoors. After a simple dessert of juicy oranges, we joined the guides around a camp fire under the stars for a spot of entertainment. The young men played the drums – bongo style – and in good humour tried to get us each to have a go. After a few not so spectacular attempts, one of the gents from our group, a retired man in his late 60s, piped up that he’d like to have a go. It was miraculous, he drummed like a complete pro. It was the most unexpected thing and certainly surprised the guides who did their best to keep up. His wife later admitted that he’d been filling his retirement by learning a few new skills!

Eventually we headed for the sleeping tents. All rugged up and cosy, it would be a most comfortable camping experience.

Bed time

Wandering in the darkness with only Holger the Dane for company

Holger the Dane

When I flashed the man my ticket and declared I wanted to see the casemates at Kronborg Castle in Helsingør on Monday I hadn’t actually any idea what that meant. I was just making sure I got my money’s worth, I’m that kind of traveller. What on earth is a casemate? It turns out the term originally referred to a vaulted chamber in a fortress, which in reality now means a dark, scary, underground bit in a draughty, old castle. And in winter that means this solo traveller, all alone, scrabbling around in very dingy candlelight in the bowels of Hamlet’s famous Danish fortress.

Forty-five km north of Copenhagen, Helsingør is overwhelmed by the magnificent edifice of Kronberg (immortalised as Elsinore in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Once home to the kings and queens of Denmark from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, it has been home for a much shorter time to a striking concrete representation of Holger the Dane, a heroic, mythical figure who first appeared in medieval French literature as one of Charlemagne’s great warriors. According to legend, when the Danish kingdom is threatened by a foreign enemy, the stone figure will come to life and rise up to defend his country.

He is certainly an impressive sight, resting with his sword and shield, ready to be called into action. As I tentatively tiptoed past him I hoped he wouldn’t see this frightened little English lady as a threat to his kingdom and that he might see his way to waking up and holding my hand if I encountered something more otherworldly on my travels around his shadowy home.

My little robin red breast

Scotland Robin

I took this in Plockton in the North West Highlands of Scotland in October whilst I was up visiting an old uni buddy. It’s a bit random and very grainy, but the little fella was incredibly jittery when I moved so I had to take a quick snap with my Blackberry whilst not actually looking at the screen in order to make sure I didn’t move too much and cause him to scarper. I don’t know why I automatically say he, as apparently male and female robins, unlike many bird species, actually look identical. He was though, regardless of his real gender, seemingly as happy as I was ensconced by the water’s edge in the beer garden of the Plockton Hotel, enjoying the unseasonal warmth of the late autumn sunshine.

Fes to Merzouga: the changing Moroccan landscape

Day five of my Moroccan trip in 2014 involved a ten-hour minibus ride from Fes to the Erg Chebbi sand dunes at Merzouga. The journey was notable for the ever-changing scenery as we crossed the Atlas and approached the Sahara, a stone’s throw from the Algerian border. The landscape, at first dotted with olive trees, gave way to something more barren, a rocky foreground backed eventually by snow-capped mountains. We came upon the dunes a little after sunset, later in the day than planned, and would have to wait until day six to see them properly.

Olive groves, MoroccoThrough the bus windowA monkey up a treeFirst glimpse of the AtlasAn unusual spot for lunchOued Ziz, MoroccoOued Ziz 2Oued Ziz 3Sunset, near MerzougaMerzougaThe hotelA sneaky peek of the dunes

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

Essaouira_seaside

In these early moments of 2015, as I sit here watching the yearly battle of excessive testosterone that is World’s Strongest Man (always a guilty pleasure at this time of the year), I find myself pondering where the coming twelve months will take me. One thing is certain, very shortly I will move to the seaside, not the seaside in the photo above – that’s Essaouira, Morocco – but the great British seaside, all shingly beaches and windy promenades. I’m not sure what makes me to want to live by the sea, I am, after all, absurdly terrified of sharks and other sea-based creatures, particularly those with multiple tentacles. That doesn’t stop me swimming in it obviously, as the fear also provides a lovely dose of endorphins, just marginally defeating the paranoia about being eaten. So aside from that one certainty, in 2015 I will have to steer my own destiny. I will travel more – be that in the UK or abroad; seek out some new running, swimming and triathlon challenges; take more and hopefully better photos; improve my work–life balance so that I can post more regularly; and generally find more interesting ways to enjoy this life.

Amidst the dunes

Erg Chebbi dunes

As today’s British weather bestowed upon us such an abysmal, bone-chilling winter drizzle and failed to brighten from the dusky half-light of early morning, I thought I would counteract the ensuing melancholy by posting a sunny picture. This one was taken not far from Merzouga in south-eastern Morocco way back in February. Admittedly, it looks far hotter than it actually was in the Sahara at that time of year, but, not far from the Algerian border, traipsing around the near-deserted Erg Chebbi dunes, feet sinking delightfully into the sand, with the bountiful blue sky contrasting fiercely against the earthy red tones of the undulating landscape, there was an appealing delusion of warmth. This is the image I will focus on this December as I battle through the crowds of London: the drunken Christmas party revellers, the jaded winter commuters and the wild-eyed seasonal shoppers, all seemingly set on making each day a little bit more difficult for me than it should be. I will not become riled, I will not curse their complete ignorance of their surroundings, instead I will remember the calm that existed amidst the dunes and try to rise above the melee.