Day 9: Morocco: Roses and Kasbahs

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.DSC_0094DSC_0102_editedDSC_0101_editedDSC_0100

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.DSC_0112DSC_0120DSC_0121DSC_0158DSC_0159DSC_0135DSC_0123DSC_0142DSC_0146DSC_0145

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.DSC_0173DSC_0179DSC_0181DSC_0192DSC_0193

Big Sea Swim 2014, Eastbourne UK, well almost!

Eastbourne pier by night

In February I moved to the coast where I have been doing my best to fully embrace the pleasure of living by the sea—by swimming in it, in a wetsuit, usually with about 80 other people, most Saturday mornings. The idea was to join the local triathlon club and meet some like-minded folk, but really it just means that every week I spend an hour experiencing an unusual combination of joy and abject fear as I pootle along the English coastline, dressed a bit like a seal.

The season is nearing its end though—most people stop this nonsense at the end of September when the water temperature drops to a level where their hands are too numb to actually dress themselves post-swim—and having failed to enter a race this year, my thoughts have turned instead to an event I took part in last July: the Big Sea Swim, in Eastbourne.

Now, I’m a bit barmy, if there is an event with a range of distances, I immediately choose the longest available, to get the most from the experience. This meant I’d be covering 3 km rather than 1 km.

I stayed in The Sheldon Hotel, not far from the start/finish line. The night before the race I stuffed my face with pizza and wandered down by the prom, listening to loud rock music blaring out of the bandstand on the front.

Race day dawned fresh and bright, the sea “looked” calm.

It was a nice little set up, with plenty of safety boats and kayaks provided by the town’s lifeguards. We would swim along the coast, towards Eastbourne’s charming Victorian pier, turning at the end around a couple of massive orange buoys, swimming back down past the start line (if you were doing the 1km at this point you’d just head in to shore), then up and back around for another lap. I wasn’t racing, I’m not exactly swift, so I hung back and avoided any potential maelstrom at the start. However, with only 67 people taking part, that probably wasn’t going to be much of a problem.

It took a long, long time to get to the pier…the nice calm sea was hiding an impressive current.

Delightfully, once I’d turned at the pier, I was shot back down to the start, hardly noticing the buoy marking the turn for the 1 km swimmers as I passed by. As I came round again at the far end, ready for my second lap, I got a touch of cramp in my left calf and took a moment to massage it out. An inflatable lifeguard dinghy pulled alongside to check I was ok. I wasn’t defeated yet, but lap two was going to be tough, I was hardly fresh.

I asked the lifeguard if I was ok for time. He assured me there were some who hadn’t made it to the pier on their first lap yet. Reassured, I set off against the current once more.

Lap two was interminable. I tried aiming for points of note on the Eastbourne seafront, but I wasn’t making much progress. Eventually, having favoured breathing to my left to track my progress, I glanced to my right and saw I had my very own lifeguard paddling at my side. He directed me to slightly better water. However, if I stopped to take even a brief rest, I just drifted back the way I’d come. I needed to keep bloody swimming. I was also now the backmarker. More folk must have bailed at 1 km than had swum on. I wasn’t too far off the man in front of me, but it took all my willpower to get to the pier again. Once I was around that buoy I could surely just float back down to the start?

I rounded the buoy. Too close. I got taffled in the rope anchoring it to the sea bed. Trapped momentarily under the buoy, I panicked, turned onto my back, and got cramp again, this time in both legs. This was it, this was how I was going to die. My mum would not be impressed. What a stupid way to go.

I popped up on the other side, more than a little bit freaked out and with both calves still slightly cramped. A lady in a kayak paddled over, asked me if I was ok.

No. I really wasn’t.

I’m not one for giving up, but, as I clung to the end of her kayak, common sense finally took over. It was time to bail.

The lifeguard dinghy motored over. I was hauled on board, and we headed for shore. A woman told me it was ok, I wasn’t the first. I said I’d failed. She smiled and said I’d been in the water for nearly two hours and that I should be proud of myself, others hadn’t battled on that long. Time obviously flies when you are having fun, the whole distance in better conditions should have taken me just over an hour. Back at the start/finish, I climbed out of the boat to a round of applause and a medal. I felt like a fraud; I hadn’t finished. Somebody gave me hot chocolate and I sat in the sun, relieved that it was over.

Recovering later in a charming café cum antiques shop not far from the sea—Jasper Wood—I realised I had some pretty impressive chafing and could hardly lift my arms.

This Big Sea Swim is a well-organised, friendly event, and in aid of a very good cause (the Marine Conservation Society), but I’m not sure I’ll try it again, not unless someone can promise to turn off that epic current.

Note. Parts of the Eastbourne pier were sadly ravaged by fire later that month. I will treasure the view I had of it as I battled to reach the water in its remarkable shadow.

The disadvantages of travelling alone #1: scary rooms in castles (Gorey Castle)

I love a good castle, and have done ever since I was a kiddie. The best ones contain dungeons and dank and shadowy stone rooms—the draughtier and murkier, the better. When I was a kid such places were made a lot less scary by the fact I was generally accompanied by my dad when visiting them. Although, he couldn’t necessarily be trusted not to hide behind things and jump out at the scariest of moments. Sadly, nowadays, more often than not, I travel solo—no big strong man to keep me safe. In February this found me alone in the casemates at Kronborg Castle with only Holgor the Dane for company—a big strong man of sorts, although more the strong, silent type. Little did I know that my delicate nerves would be tested again so soon after Hamlet’s castle, this time at Mont Orgueil Castle, overlooking Gorey Bay in Jersey. Mont Orgueil Castle is fabulous, construction having begun back in 1204. Centuries of adaptations and repairs have resulted in an incredible maze of a place, which has been ably assisted by Jersey Heritage Trust who have seemingly purposefully left off any signs directing you around the property. Not a complaint, at all, I enjoyed exploring all its mysterious nooks and crannies in search of hidden treasures, including the medieval wheel of urine and “wound man” (don’t ask, just go see for yourselves). Well, that was until I entered the room that contained The Witches of Hell and turned around and found this chap.

Gorey Castle decor

Gorey Castle decor

Competitive travel or sibling rivalry: A circumnavigation of Herm

Big Sis and I claim not to be competitive, but that’s a bit of a fib. We are actually slightly competitive about all manner of random things, which explains how a couple of weeks ago I found myself in Guernsey. You see, Big Sis had already been to Jersey, so when I decided to go to the Channel Islands for a brief holiday in June I automatically chose to visit Guernsey, because she hadn’t been there. It’s tragic, I know, but that’s just the way siblings work sometimes. And just to score an extra point in the “who has been to the most interesting places” game, I spent a morning on another island in the Bailiwick of Guernsey too: Herm. The Channel Islands are an archipelago of British Crown Dependencies in the English Channel, off the French coast of Normandy. Herm, measuring just a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, lies three miles from Guernsey, the second largest of the Channel Islands. It’s dinky, and very picturesque; it can be circumnavigated on foot in under two hours. I caught the early ferry, which had a number of advantages, including being cheaper than the later ones and depositing me on Herm before the multitudes arrived, and trailed around its empty clifftop paths and beaches anti-clockwise, marvelling at the beautiful coastal views and the fabulous beaches. I’ve always had a thing for islands and Herm could hold its own against any other. Sometimes, being a little bit competitive with your siblings definitely pays off.




Herm Ferry


Herm coast


Herm coast again


Some Guernsey coooooows


Towards Shell Beach


Herm coast again #2


Herm, pretty flower


Shell Beach


Shell Beach #2


Herm coast round t’other side


and back towards Guernsey


Pierre Aux Rats obelisk


Herm coast, back to the beginning


Herm Harbour


Herm, pretty view


Herm island transport

Morocco day 7: A day in the minibus, with the occasional break for fantastic scenery, impressive fossils and bland food

Day 6 ended in a Bedouin tent amidst the Merzouga sand dunes, so unsurprisingly that’s where day 7 began. Awakening at first light, it was a weary trudge to the top of the closest dune for sunrise. Cloud cover tried its hardest to spoil the rising sun’s transformation of the landscape, but the departing shadows revealed intriguing tiny tracks passing across the surface of the desert sand, left by some mysterious local wildlife, I presume.Day 7_Merzouga dunes

Back at camp, Bernard was ready for the return trip; my rear however was not. The morning was cold enough to require a coat and gloves and gone was the sense of frivolity from the outward trek – Bernard and his pals were no longer quite such a novelty mode of transport.Day 7_Bernard

Outside the hotel I dismounted and gave Bernard a final grateful pat goodbye. A small boy with a fennec on a piece of string touted for business; I didn’t take him up on his offer of a photo with the lonely-looking, big-eared creature.

At breakfast I sat for a while holding two freshly boiled eggs, trying to encourage movement back into my frozen hands. A hot shower was very welcome, and then it was time to get back on the road – to Todra Gorge, 280 km west, via Errachidia.Day 7_Errachidia

The countryside was a rough, rocky wilderness, interspersed with the occasional settlement of mud and straw buildings, built low and angular, a palette of pretty oranges and browns against blue sky, all nestled among a green oasis of palm trees.

We stopped at a fossil shop in Erfoud. The area is rich in fossils, but be aware that there are concerns that lax controls on fossil sales and over-excavation are putting what must be every amateur palaeontologist’s dream destination in danger. Great slabs of rock are quarried from the surrounding area and fashioned by artisans into anything from a small dish to a coffee table that you could never get bored of inspecting. It really is quite incredible, particularly when you’ve spent your childhood scavenging around Robin Hood’s Bay for even just one tiny trilobite.Day 7_FossilsDay 7_Fossils2

Being at the mercy of a guide, we couldn’t explore beyond the shop chosen by the Exodus/Imaginative Traveller tour, which is a real shame as I believe there’s a museum dedicated to fossils and minerals in town. That’s one of the main negatives of organised travel for you.

Another is being shepherded into a café at the side of the road to have an over-priced and uninspiring lunch in the company of every other tour group in the vicinity. Not very ‘imaginative’, Imaginative.

Several more scenic photo stops later – including one during which the driver berated some local boys who descended on the bus – and we were at our hotel.Day 7_Scenic stopDay 7_Scenic stop2Day 7_Scenic stop3

The hotel was set in the side of the gorge and, well, it wasn’t quite finished. It looked like it would be great, come summer, once the pool was finished and the rooms fully wired and furnished. They were obviously also quite concerned about their electric bills as although pretty cold they’d hidden all the remote controls for the in-room heaters. I’m all for saving the planet, but don’t tempt me with the promise of warmth at a time of year when even daytime temperatures can be in single digits.

The main dining room thankfully had a lovely open fire, which made up for the lack of spice in what was otherwise a filling dinner. Was this the tourist version of Moroccan food? I’d imagined spices and interesting and unusual flavours, but I was beginning to think it was just a naïve pipedream.

Day 7 was not the best day of the trip.Day 7_Todra gorge sunset

The Pilgrims Trail, Hampshire, UK. Or, however well you think you know somewhere, it’s best to take a map!

Oilseed rape field, Hampshire

Last weekend my sister and I went for a little stroll, from Winchester to Portsmouth, on the Pilgrims Trail. It’s part of a much bigger network of historic pilgrim trails across Europe, of which the Camino is also part. We’re not religious and we weren’t out looking for anything deep or meaningful, we just fancied getting out into the Hampshire countryside over the bank holiday. This photo was taken on day one, the Winchester to Bishops Waltham stretch. Big sis told me that all I needed to do was to figure out the train times to Winchester, so taking her at her word and knowing she had walked part of the route in reverse once before, I didn’t worry about maps or directions. The route was liberally decorated with oilseed rape fields, beautifully brightening up the countryside with a blanket of sunshine yellow – which was particularly nice because the actual sun certainly wasn’t doing its job. This field appeared just after we had crossed a small airfield, the public footpath taking us straight across its freshly mown runway, no signs warning of impending take-offs or landings. I guess you were just supposed to keep an eye and an ear out for light aircraft pootling in your direction. Having walked some of the Camino, I thought we were probably also supposed to just keep an eye out for signs pointing us in the right direction. Silly me. The trail signs were a little sporadic in parts, big sis’ phone died, leaving us without directions, her memory of the route turned out to be a little hazy, and we had no map. Being former Air Cadets, with two Gold Duke of Edinburgh Awards between us, we did both have a compass though. What either of us was planning to do with them without maps is anyone’s guess!