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CRUK London Winter Run 2018

My plan for the start of 2018 was a simple one. I’d start with the Ashbourne 10K, the Reading Half, and then finish off with my third attempt at the Greater Manchester Marathon. Like everything, plans change.

This post can now be found on https://davidgpaul.co.uk/2018/02/04/cruk-london-winter-run-2018/

I’d planned to be in London on Saturday 3rd February to visit the British Library, but had no plans on staying for anything else. When the Winter Run was advertised it reminded me that it’s a race I want to do sometime as the snowflake medal design is one I like the look of. A friend said I should do it, and after checking the date I realised it’d be the day after my visit to the library – there was no reason not to do it. In fact it would be a great opportunity for me to race in London again for the first time since I did the London Marathon in 2015.

It’d be a race earlier into training than planned, so I had no intention on putting pressure on this run to be a PB or anything like that – it’d just be a tempo training run, and a chance to meet up with Emma-Joy.

Pre-race Day and the History of Magic

I was in London to see the History of Magic exhibition before it left the British Library for overseas adventures. To get there meant an early start, though I’d miscalculated and got to the library an hour before I needed to. I wandered around and snapped a few photos of the building, and looked around one of their free exhibitions that has a copy of the Magna Carta on show. The exhibition I was there to see however did not allow photography which wasn’t detailed on their website. I mentioned this to them, and was told it says so on the ticket – I shown them my ticket and pointed out “no it doesn’t”. It was disappointing, but I looked around the exhibit anyway. Unfortunately it wasn’t that good, and many of the exhibits were difficult to see even though the numbers were limited.

I spent the next hour getting back out of London to where I’d be staying overnight so I could check in. It was a B&B, and I was led into the neighbouring property and given the code for the room. I was told I’d be able to leave my car there whilst racing in the morning, so I dropped my things off and after a quick shower headed in the direction of Southwark. This time I got off at Goodge Street and walked to Westminster from there, so I could take a few photos and look in a few shops along the way – there’s some great bookshops on Tottenham Court Road. It hadn’t yet stopped raining since the sleet started when I left home, and was really cold so having a few hours to kill turned out to be pretty miserable – but I tried my best to stay positive.

I met up with @EmaJoyC, and we walked to Vapiano for some food as night fell on the city. This place is different to any Italian restaurant I’ve been to before, but reminds me a little of Mongolian barbecue restaurants. You decide what you want, and then they make it in front of you – and to keep track of what you’ve had you’re given a smart card to use. It’s a clever idea, but doesn’t work if you lose the card! If I’m honest, this was the best part of the entire day – not just the great food, but the great company as well.

Afterwards I headed back to the B&B. I bought a cup of tea on the way as after buying some tea bags I had a sudden realisation that the room didn’t have a kettle. The room although it looked reasonable, was actually pretty awful. I could ignore the spatter of something that looked like dried blood on the all next to the bed, and the rickety trestle table, but entire place smelt of something stale. There was also a lingering smell of smoke despite this supposedly being a non-smoking property. The heater couldn’t be turned off either so I had to leave the window open which meant I could hear the constant traffic of the dual carriageway – but this was almost drowned out by some noisy guests.

Race Day

The noise had carried on until midnight, but I could still hear the traffic, so an hour later I closed the window – deciding it might be easier to cope with the heat. This brief reprieve was only short-lived as the other guests started shouting, banging around, and listening to music at 03:45. It seems they couldn’t close doors without slamming them, and their attempts at singing “New York, New York” at 05:00 was not appreciated either. This noise carried on until I eventually got up for breakfast – the usual pre-race tradition of crunchy nut cornflakes. No drink this time though, as I hadn’t brought a mug or kettle with me.

As sleep had eluded me, I was incredibly tired and had a feeling this race would not be going well. I’d still try and put some effort into it as for this tempo run to be on target I wanted between 40 and 42 minutes. I wasn’t sure I could still do it, but I guess things like this make for good training.

When I left, the guy that had been drinking beer and smoking in the kitchen was still there in the same seat, and still drinking beer. He shouted “I hope you had a good stay!”. I grumbled a “yes, thanks” as I left. I wasn’t too confident about my car being safe at the B&B so I drove it to Stanmore and took the tube to Westminster, seeing a few other runners along the way. Despite the organisers saying there wouldn’t be many portaloos for runners, I noticed that there was actually more than there were for the Brighton Marathon – they needn’t have been worried about the numbers too much. From there I went for a warm-up jog passed Horse Guards Parade, and along The Mall to Trafalgar Square. There was already a lot of runners around, and with the roads closed it gave a completely different atmosphere to the area.

I stood around, waiting for Emma or anyone else to arrive, but no one did. I’d planned on dropping my hoodie off to collect at the end, but I was that cold (it was 1C) I decided that I’d run with it on – so a base later, shorts, and a hoodie. To get to the start you have to walk around the outside of the Canadian Embassy as snowpersons blast fake snow over the crowds. By the time I got to the start there was already quite a crowd so I’d be starting quite a way back. I got about as far forward as I could manage, and got a call from Emma – she’d been running late and was making her way to the start. I then felt a tap on my shoulder, and at first I thought she’d made it – but turned to see @albowk – a pleasant surprise as I’d not seen him since Manchester Marathon last year.

For the first couple of kilometres of the race it was incredibly crowded. To start with I couldn’t even get to a sub-7mi pace, though every now and then had a burst of speed when I found a gap to get through. It meant my pace was all over the place, and I was probably expending more energy than I needed to, but eventually after the first U-turn at St. Giles, I was able to settle into a pace. I got through the first 5K in just over 20 minutes, and thought to myself that wasn’t too bad – the second half was bound to be slower, so would possibly sneak under the 43 minute target. Maybe it didn’t cover the best sights of London, but it was certainly an interesting route.

It’s not every day you run passed high-fiving penguins and huskies. At a few points there was live music, and in a few places there was some playing over speakers. It was a fairly uneventful race really, but I enjoyed it. In the second half, I actually picked up the pace unintentionally and had to ease off after accidentally hitting a 6:10/mi split. I thought to myself that I needed to slow down – the sooner I finished, the longer I’d need to wait for post-race pizza. Towards the end there was a cave filled with dancing yetis – a phrase which you don’t expect to find yourself saying. From there I figured it didn’t really matter too much if I picked up the pace as I started to recognise buildings – I was certain I was near Trafalgar Square.

Eventually I saw the square ahead of me and decided that I’d go for a sprint finish – I just needed to time it right.As I rounded the corner I saw the finish a little further ahead than what I was expecting, so held back until the last minute. It’d been a fun race, which isn’t something I often think about when running 10K – it’s usually one of those distances I want to put everything into, but by holding back a little I enjoyed it that much more.

At the finish there were polar bears giving out hugs, and volunteers handing out finishers medals, coconut water, still water, chocolate protein bars, and soreen. Once I’d collected mine I did a quick cool-down run to get back around to Trafalgar Square so I could see Emma finish. I wanted to thank her for having made it a good weekend.

I finished this one in 40:16 so managed it withing the target time frame. I hope this puts me in a good position to treat the MK Winter Half as a tempo run in a couple of weeks time. At least my first race of 2018 is now done, and I can get on with enjoying training. This was a finish in position 216 of 16444, so this time in the first 1.3% of finishers.

Nottingham Christmas Run

Of my five goals for 2017 I’ve so far achieved two of them. This left me with three I’d not yet managed, and one of those was to get a sub-19 5K. I’ve been close to it, in fact I’ve been close to it a number of times now: twice at Milton Keynes for their Rocket 5K, and once at parkrun. I’ve always been just a few seconds from dipping under that milestone though.

As the year sailed by I found my chances for doing parkruns were diminishing. I figured that what would now be a muddy section of parkrun would slow me down anyway, so I thought a race might be in order. A quick look around, and I found the Nottingham Christmas Run which offered 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, and Marathon races. Quite a selection, and usually I’d tend towards the longer races, but just this once I went with the shortest as it was exactly what I needed.

This race then turned into a meet-up with several friends as well, so when I got back from a “lazy” trip to Morocco I was really looking forward to the race, and hopefully ticking off another goal. The closer the race day got, the more I wondered if I’d lost much speed during my week off running, and then I was told that Holme Pierrepont (the venue for the race) is notoriously windy.

By race day I found myself thinking that with strong winds I didn’t stand a chance of getting a decent time, let alone meeting the goal I’d set. In fact, because of what I was told about what it’s like there I found myself not believing the weather forecast and a few layers with me to the race, just in case. Unusually, I’d not even got any kit ready the night before this race.

At Holme Pierrepont it was £5 on entry to the road to the car parks. I guess it’s probably the venue that charges this rather than the race organisers. The car parks at this time of year aren’t great though – they’re muddy, and the staff there were directing cars into rows so tight that after getting out of my car I realised I was going to be blocked in.

The race HQ wasn’t too far away, probably about half a mile from the car park. There I quickly collected my number, and saw both Amy G (@treb91) and Amy E (@amy_everett_) there. The plan had been to see a couple of other friends as well, but unfortunately they couldn’t make it. In this time I’d decided that shorts and t-shirt would be enough – the area near the start wasn’t that windy so I could at least start without the need for a base layer and so I took that back to my car and got a bit of a warm-up in.

One lap of the Regatta Lake is not quite 5K, and so for this race the start isn’t quite in the same place as the eventual finish. The race started on time, and from the very start I found myself not far off the front. I realised why this was though – I’d set off running at 4:33min/mile pace, which is ridiculous. I can’t run at that speed for too long, so I reigned in the speed and settled into a pace of around 06:00 min/mile. Perfect. That’s where I wanted to be, so would just need to hold it for the full 3.11 miles.

Running on an almost completely flat surface is a pretty new experience for me. I say almost flat as there was some slight elevation changes in places, but it’s as flat as you’ll get without being on a race track. I think small hills actually makes a course easier – get up the hills quickly, and then for the inevitable downhill you can ease off a little to let your legs recover.

Here there was no hiding. The weather conditions were perfect; whatever I did here would be what I’m currently capable of. For the first half mile I was in fourth place, and by the time I reached a mile someone had caught me up and was running just behind me, panting from breathing in twice before breathing out. I’d never heard anyone doing that before, I thought it strange.

Someone walking around in the opposite direction asked me what distance I was running. I replied, but then thought to myself that it’s not something you see every day – spectators don’t normally ask that sort of question. I was a little surprised I was okay talking at that speed as well.

It seemed that the first mile took forever. My pace was all over the place, but I was glad to have averaged 06:00 min/mile. I was on target, and all was good at least I thought it was. Realisation I’d only done a mile mad me think that maybe I was going too fast to sustain, and I eased off slightly. The panting runner passed me, and then one or two others did as well. I could already see the lead cyclist rounding the corner at the end ready for the return journey.

The runners at the front were doing incredible – it almost looked like this was easy for them. I on the other hand was thinking that my pace had dropped to around 6:20min/mile and at that speed I wouldn’t even make sub-20. I was wrong, but when you’re working hard your maths isn’t always spot on.

1.5 miles in. I was around the end of the lake and now heading back. I couldn’t see the next turn ahead of me, and suddenly I found myself thinking that a mile is a long way to be going at this speed. It wasn’t true though, I’d dropped down to my 10K race pace.

2 miles. I’d passed the half marathon starting point, and started to think to myself that it was on the opposite side to the marathon runners to give them some time to get going before they started lapping each other. I think the second mile had been the quickest to pass though, probably because I was focusing on keeping going. It’s amazing how often I have to tell myself not to walk. So far I hadn’t.

I could now see the far end of the lake though, and I knew that as long as I focused on that I might just keep on going. I knew if I walked at all I’d be annoyed at myself, especially if by some miracle I got close to my goal. I did notice at this point though that I was starting to weave a little in order to pass people walking around the lake, presumably to their respective start positions.

It was a relief to finally reach the other end of the lake, I knew at this point that I’d finish it and not walk as I’d feared. The ground there was slippery though from being constantly wet – this is where the boats enter and exit the water.

When I reached the last corner, it was the 3 mile mark, but my way was blocked by a lady pushing a pushchair across the path. I shouted “coming through” in hope that she’d see me coming and would reduce the risk of a collision. I ran around her and the push chair and was then onto the last stretch.

At this point I’d often sprint to the finish to make sure I’ve put as much into the end as I could. I did speed up without actually realising I had, but never really sprinted. As I approached the finish the timing board there read 18:20. Impossible. I couldn’t have finished in that time! I slowed, a little confused as I crossed the finish line.

A finishers medal was put around my neck, and I sat down for a minute and checked my watch. It looked more likely that I’d finished the race in 19:13. After the race I saw Alison Fox (@alisonleighfox) and Amy G finish, and then ran over a mile so I could get around to the half marathon start to wish the other Amy and her sister good luck in their race.

What I’d forgotten though was that race finishers could get a free turkey baguette. I wasn’t sure where from, but by the time I thought about it I’d long been home.

When the official results came out I found my time was 19:21. It was 22 seconds slower than I’d wanted, and I knew that at best I could have only shaved 5 seconds or so off that if I’d pushed at the end. Today I wasn’t good enough, but hopefully it’ll have been good practice for next week’s half marathon. I can always try another 5K at parkrun when I’ve got more time.

I finished 7th in the 5K. Amazingly this made me the 3rd in my category due to four of them being from the U20 category. I suppose it’s not too bad for a day that wasn’t my best.

The Home Run

#30KMFor30Years

All the way back in July, a friend (@EmaJoyC) asked me if I’d like to take part in a 30km run she was organising to celebrate her Dad’s business being 30 years old. Without question or hesitation I agreed, and added it to my calendar. I’d not got anything else booked for that late in the year – it’d be a nice way to end 2017. Though since then I did book another two races for December…

A little later into the year I heard another friend had organised the PHPEM Unconference for the same weekend; though to me it was more important I keep my promise to do the 30K so accepted I’d miss the conference yet again. There’s always other conferences, but a 30th anniversary run only happens once – I needed to make sure I’d be there for it.

November came around, and I was off to Morocco for ten days in the mountains. It meant that when I got back I’d not really run much since the Thoresby 10 and would now need to be running almost double that. It’s not really a problem though, these days I’m happy to run a longer distance at short notice – it just might not be a good performance. That’s okay though – my plan was to hold back and keep my legs fresh for the following two weeks of races.

On the week of the run I mostly took it easy, with my biggest run being a 6:50 min/mile average run over 5.5 miles. Faster than I’d be aiming for at the weekend, but would keep the legs going. I probably covered about a half marathon in training runs during the week, so lighter than I’m used to as well.

On the morning of the event I got up at 06:30, had breakfast, and then found I needed to clear my windscreen of frost. Fortunately I’d factored that in as a possibility so wasn’t short on time, but was surprised by the sudden sprinkling of snow that started as I was leaving. By the time I got to the motorway it was coming down heavy.

It could have made for an interesting run, but by the time I reached Grantham the sun was out; but the temperature had only risen to 1C. I parked up at a car park near the church where they offer all day parking for £2.

The start of the run was on a bridle path which started opposite the Brewers Fayre. Emma’s Dad announced the start of the race, and blew the horn to signal those of us doing the 30 kilometres to begin. I’d decided to run at whatever pace Emma set so that she’d have company for the event she’d organised.

For the first 5K the route followed the Grantham Canal along a nice hard surface that was perfect for running on. I held back and enjoyed talking to Emma, whilst Chris and Daniel were running a little ahead of us. They both dropped back frequently to make sure we were going the right way.

This first bit had a few stops before we started to find a rhythm. One of these stops was when Emma found her Camelbak was peeing down her leg. Maybe in this cold weather it’d have been okay if it was warm water – but I imagine cold water would not be nice. It was sorted, and we carried on running.

Eventually we left the canal behind and started running along a muddy trail. For the most part it wasn’t too bad, but there was one little section that was so muddy it was slippy. Fortunately holding back meant I wasn’t going too fast, so was able to tackle that section carefully before carrying on along the mud.

It was amazing how quickly time was passing – before we knew it’d we’d done five miles, and a couple of miles later we’d left the trail behind and were now running on the road through Harston. That time having passed so quickly did at least mean we were having fun, and I was sure the run would be over before we knew it as well. We talked about running, about music, and literally anything. We’d originally started talking on Twitter due to #ukrunchat, and as always it’s nice to get to know another runner – especially one so full of life!

Reaching Harston meant a small incline afterwards, and then again as we ran up through Knipton. For a while I ran on ahead and talked to Chris whilst Belvoir Castle could be seen across the field to our right. It’s always interesting to hear about another runner’s experiences – it could inspire you, or give you ideas for other races to try out.

As we rounded the far side of the loop we started running as a group of four. You could tell everyone was enjoying themselves, and we even stopped for the occasional photograph – such as when we could see the other side of Belvoir Castle. This run wasn’t about position or pace, it was about being there to support a friend and to have a good time. I think we certainly were.

Between Belvoir and Woolsthorpe-by-Belvoir I’d stopped making a conscious effort to hold back and found my speed had started to creep up to my natural 07:30min/mile pace. When I realised Daniel and Emma were a few hundred metres behind I started walking to let them catch up. When they did we’d reached The Dirty Duck Pub where the 10K runners had started just a minute ahead of us reaching there. From there the route was back along the canal we’d ran along earlier.

The temptation to run on ahead and try to finish the remainder in 40 minutes was strong. I held back and carried on running with Emma and Daniel, whilst Chris disappeared off into the distance. He’s a much faster runner than me anyway so it’s unlikely I’d have kept up anyway.

We passed some of Emma’s friends who were doing the 10K, and then caught up with Amy whom Emma had been friends with since high school. As there were now a few of them together I decided that for a while at least I’d run on ahead to try and get my heart pumping faster. When I reached the end of the canal path I realised I didn’t know where I was going so had to wait for them anyway.

When they caught up we then ran back into the Grantham town centre, towards The Castlegate – Emma’s father’s business. I still wasn’t sure where I was going so didn’t want to get ahead of them so kept looking back to make sure they were there, and occasionally side-stepping instead of running. This became a bad idea though when I managed to run into a bus stop with some force – enough to bruise my forearm. It provided a bit of entertainment for the others!

 Not long after this I was running alongside Amy and found we’d gotten ahead of the others. She did know the route which meant I wouldn’t get lost so carried on, and had a little chat along the way.

When we reached McDonalds there was a major road to cross, and after doing so we held back to make sure we could see the others before carrying on. We continued on, and every now and then I looked behind me in hope I’d see the others, or at least Emma behind; but I could not.

When Amy said that The Castlegate was at the end of the road we were rounding the corner I asked if she’d mind me running on ahead. I quickly got up to sprinting speed so I’d be able to keep the tradition of finishing with a sprint.

I finished 19 miles in just over 3 hours. For me that is considerably slower than I’d normally be, but as I said – it doesn’t matter. It was all about the experience, and supporting a friend. I did want to finish with Emma though, but I messed that up a little.

I walked into the pub and most people had already finished. I couldn’t see how busy it was to start with though as coming in from the cold meant my glasses had steamed up.

Emma and the others finished not that long after me, and the celebrations continued. Emma’s Dad thanked everyone for being there, and then Emma took over the microphone to call people up one by one for her sister to present them with a medal – a nice touch I’d not expected!

They’d put on plenty of food, but I needed leave so said my goodbyes whilst the others carried on the celebrations which would last into the night. There was also the ability to donate to Macmillan Cancer Support – a charity which is very important to her. I’d not got my wallet on me at the time, so decided I’d support this online after getting home.

A big thank you to Emma for organising a great day, and I hope her Dad’s business celebrates many more years. She definitely hit a home run with the day – it was a Joy to run with her.

Morocco Day 11 – Marrakesh to Leicester

Before heading home I’d got one last morning of sightseeing to do. There were only two items left on my list and a morning to get them done in. It was a later start than I’d planned, but I’d changed my alarm so that I’d get more sleep ahead of what would be a late drive home in the evening. I suspected I wouldn’t need quite as much time as I’d predicted to get the sightseeing done anyway.

I was down for breakfast at 08:00 and checked out of the hotel about forty minutes later. Thankfully I could leave my bags there and go back for them later.

I found a very quick and simple route from the hotel to Jemaa el-Fna, and continued on to Bahia Palace. When I’d been to the El Badi Palace previously I’d been so close, yet had missed it. Along the way I tried my best to stay out of the sun, though between the hotel and where I came across some camels, there was little shade.

This palace is far newer than El Badi – it was built in the 1860s by Grand Vizier Si Moussa. He took advantage of the best craftsmen that Morocco had to offer in order to create this palace with zouak roofs (painted cedar wood), and carved stucco coated walls combined with mosaic tiles.

The entrance to this palace is ten dirhams, so again very cheap. I took my time getting the shots I wanted, and found it had taken under an hour. There weren’t that many people already there when I arrived, so it wasn’t that difficult. I guess it pays to arrive not too long after the opening time.

The main courtyard was the only place where I had to linger whilst other tourists moved on. Eventually it was, for the most part, clear of people so could get the photograph I wanted.

On my way out I decided I’d go through the Mellah – the old Jewish area that is nearby. The style of alleyways differ greatly to those in the medina; I guess it’s because this area is predominantly for living in and maybe not as commonly visited by tourists. This area felt older as well.

It was a bit of a mission to find Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa, an old college that had closed but had interesting architecture. Even though it was tough to find, I only went down one dead end alleyway as I knew the rough direction I needed to be travelling in.

This theological college was founded in the fourteenth century and remained open until 1960. It’s eventual closure was due to it losing students to a rival college that had opened in Fez. Now it is open to the public, and seems to get a lot of tourists.

The school was quite crowded, and made the main courtyard almost impossible to photograph. At least in the way I wanted to – my best chance was to take several photographs and remove people from them later in post processing. Even this though wasn’t enough.

There are many rooms centred around the large courtyard – some of which were dormitories, and some of which were classrooms. The courtyard has an empty pond in its centre, and at the time I visited had a calligrapher sitting in one corner of the courtyard whilst the opposite side was lined with photographs.

When I left, I decided with over two hours remaining I’d got plenty of time to see the Jewish cemetery as well. This was easy to find, though the place I found first was a different cemetery I wasn’t permitted to enter. The one I wanted was next door.

On my way there I went through what I’d been told were the rougher parts of the city. I had people trying to tell me “the main square is that way,” assuming that was what I was trying to find. This was frequently followed by “there’s nothing here,” but to me there was – a shortcut, and possibly more photographic opportunities. It was also a way to stay in the shade. There was no trouble here though.

I’d read that this cemetery is possible to look around, and usually requires giving the guard a tip; but in this case it was a fixed amount of ten dirhams. It’s likely that things have changed since the guidebook was written.

Most of the graves are bright white mounds of plaster, though there were also some that were the colour of sand, and were crumbling. These ones allowed you to see how these graves were constructed – a rectangular arrangement of bricks with a layer of plaster rounding them off to create a slight dome.

I thought perhaps the white ones might be restored ones, and sure enough when I saw someone applying a fresh coat of plaster to one of them, I realised I was correct. In addition to this they had been wheeling materials around the cemetery for what seemed to be some other type of restoration work that was taking place. The entrance fee would be essential to keeping this work going.

Getting from there back to the square in front of Bahia Palace was easy, and it took seemingly no time at all. Instead of taking the easy route back to the hotel, I decided to go through the medina one last time. I saw more cobras with snake charmers, and chained up monkeys. These are things they charge tourists for photographing, but I wasn’t interested in supporting their animal cruelty.

When I got to Jemaa el-Fna I was clipped from behind by a cyclist, but wasn’t injured, nor was the cyclist affected. I was getting hungry though so decided as it was midday I’d find some shade, and somewhere to sit down. The first place that sprung to mind was the park next to the Koutoubia mosque.

I sat for a time and had something to eat, though not much as I’d not bought anything to replace the rotten sandwich. When I left there I started in the direction of the hotel, but had the idea of taking a diversion to the supermarket for an ice cream as I realised it was nearby.

Even with this diversion and walking slowly I got to the hotel earlier than planned. I was once again ahead of schedule. I wasted some time in the hotel browsing the internet before collecting my bags and getting changed. Whilst I was doing this there was some commotion outside that seemed to involve one of the hotel guests and someone from the outside with police watching them.

I shared the taxi ride from the hotel with another, and even though the hotel is not that far it was still 100 dirhams. Apparently from Jemaa el-Fna it’s usually about 90.

At the entrance to the airport my bags were scanned, and they once again required me to open my camera bag to prove I didn’t have a drone. I don’t know what their obsession with them is, but this time I didn’t need to open my other pack which is harder to close.

I’d arrived so early that there were no desks for British Airways so couldn’t yet check my luggage or get a boarding pass. I sat and waited, hoping it wouldn’t be long. The departure process is a very repetitive one.

You start by filling out at embarkation card, and then join a queue to have your boarding pass checked, and then it’s checked again. You then go through security and passport control, before having your passport checked again to ensure it was stamped, and then have your boarding pass checked one last time.

On the other side there are quite a few places to get food, but not really any decent souvenirs. I had researched the business lounge beforehand and found they didn’t do food so bought a sandwich beforehand to try and use up some dirhams. After this I’d still got 88 dirhams left, and nowhere to change them back to Sterling.

The business lounge serves a few light snacks, and many drinks such as tea, coffee, and fizzy soft drinks. If at this point you’ve still not had enough Berber tea, then there’s always that too. There’s also Wi-Fi for the lounge, though I couldn’t get that to work. The airport Wi-Fi was working well enough for me anyway.

At the gate your boarding pass and passport are checked again, and then additional security checks due to it being a UK flight. Before embarking they check your boarding pass and passport one final time. It’s incredible how often those two items are checked; almost to the point of being obsessive. I’m not sure why they need checking so frequently.

When I booked the flights, it had been scheduled to land in London at 21:45, but the arrival time had changed to 22:00 and then 22:11. Somehow they thought it was still on time. I guess if you reschedule knowing it’ll arrive later, then things are going according to plan.

On the flight I went for the vegetarian option as I really didn’t feel like having a Thai green curry. It was nice to have a decent cup of tea though; a very British sentiment. This was accompanied by a long conversation with the airline attendant about travel, and the places I’ve seen after being asked about it.

Arrivals in the UK was as expected – quick and easy. I was at baggage collection before they’d even announced which carousel the bags would be on, and my bag was one of the first to appear due to being in business class. I collected my car keys, and and was finally in my car for the long journey home.

After fifty miles of hiking in the High Atlas Mountains, and then exploring two cities, it was over. It had gone better than I expected, and I got to use a lot of what I’d learned from previous trips whilst also learning new lessons along the way. It proves that even after ten years there are still things to learn about travelling.

Now whenever I’m asked, “how was your holiday?” I reply with, “it wasn’t a holiday, it was an adventure.”

Morocco Day 10 – Rabat and Marrakesh

I’d been told that a riads are like gites – which I guess is true, they tend to both be a type of guesthouse. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house with a garden or courtyard in the middle, whereas “gite” means cottage and so could be a little different. In any case, this riad was furnished far better than any of the gites I’d stayed in.

It being a guest house rather than a hotel does mean that breakfast hours tend to be a little later. Here breakfast is served between 08:00 and 10:00, so I couldn’t be out exploring quite as early as I’d wanted. I had at least done more than planned the afternoon before though, so had time.

Breakfast was on the terrace of the riad, and served quickly. It was a big breakfast, though I didn’t want most of it. I finished what I could eat quickly, dropped my bags off downstairs, and checked out. The rest of the morning would be mine to do with as I pleased.

I found my way through the medina very quickly and exited facing the Kasbah of the Udayas. A number of people were standing around outside the main gate, so I decided I’d go inside the Kasbah and photograph the gate later.

Just inside the entranceway was where I encountered the first of what are known as faux guides. He was hanging around at the entrance and started talking to me, as soon as I realised where the conversation was going I told him, “I don’t need a guide” and walked off.

I started with the gardens, though they weren’t really worth the time. I started to realise I had three hours here, and wouldn’t need anywhere near all of it. I started walking slowly and started to explore some of the alleyways – some painted white and blue, and some were white and red.

As I passed a shop being set-up I encountered another faux guide. This time he said he lives in the Kasbah and would show me around. He asked me if I know the area, I glanced at my map and carried on walking, replying with “yes” as I went.

The faux guide shouted after me, “no you don’t!”. Sure I might not know personally, but my map knew the area pretty well I’d say. I’d got that much time to spare I wanted to walk down every alleyway in case there was anything to see, but knowing that many of them would be dead-ends.

I eventually found one that led out into the open space of a courtyard. To my right were some steps leading down to a viewpoint from which I could see Salé. I realised I’d got time to walk over there if I wanted, but there was nothing over there I knew of that was worth seeing.

Sure I could explore a little and maybe find something, but then, I could do the same in Rabat where at least some of the buildings looked to be older.

From there I followed a path that wound around the outside of the wall, passed a beach, and a cemetery. It seems they don’t respect the dead too much as everywhere I looked I could see discarded rubbish. I could also see a lighthouse so decided as I’d got time I’d walk there.

Along the way I found another cemetery; this one was filled with hundreds if not thousands of graves crammed into this space. It was quite a sight, though it looked like entrance to this was for Muslims only so I didn’t attempt to enter.

The lighthouse isn’t accessible either as it’s behind an old wall with a large wooden door. In the courtyard in front of it were a number of people exercising with an older gentleman acting like a drill instructor.

I followed the pavement back to the main gate of the Kasbah and finally got the photograph I wanted. Instead of going back in I followed the pavement until it reached an River Bouregreg, and from there I walked along the water’s edge all the way to the bridge into Salé.

I’d not been walking along the river long when I started to hear a number of gulls approaching. This noise got louder and louder, and I wondered what was happening. I then spotted an old man that was wheeling something along, and all of these birds were flocking towards him.

When he dumped the contents of what he was wheeling onto the floor it looked like it might have been food, and soon he had hundreds of gulls fighting each other over it. The cacophony of noise was loud, and the sky filled with wings. It was like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.

I’d still got over three hours until my train so thought I might as well keep walking towards the Hassan Tower. My thought was that it being morning would mean the sun would be in a different location and that could dramatically change the type of photographs I’d get there.

My route from there back to the Riad was an easy one, so I walked slowly and stopped for an ice cream along the way. Even with that stop I still arrived far earlier than I’d planned so carried on going and walked back to the Kasbah to get some more pictures now that the sun was higher.

I sat inside the garden for a while, trying to stay out of the sun, and found that no matter where I sat I’d have a cat arrive on my lap pretty quickly. I guess this is how the stray cats of Morocco get their food – they’re very friendly with the tourists.

After twenty minutes of sitting I returned to the main gate and found it was now open to reveal an art gallery inside. This was something I hadn’t expected – I hadn’t even known there was an “inside” to the main gate from the research I’d done before the trip.

I peered inside, and noticed the sign saying no photography. I’m not really interested in looking art galleries so I instead went back to the Riad to collect my luggage, sort out the contents, and head to the train station.

It was a slow walk through the now busy medina, and this slow pace was making my heavy bags dig into my shoulders. I certainly didn’t take the best route out of the medina as I managed to miss a turning. If it hadn’t been for the bags I wouldn’t have minded so much, but I was now sweating, and having to reposition my bags to try and make them more comfortable. I had my camera backpack behind me, my travel pack in front of me, and a bag containing food and drink slung around my neck.

When I reached the train station I dumped by bags on the floor and used one of them as a seat whilst I watched the departures board. I sat there for about an hour, and ate some lunch; but had to dispose of the sandwiches I’d made as they’d gone mouldy. Not the sort of culture I was looking for.

I got fed up of waiting in the main concourse, so I headed down to the platform for what should have been the last forty minutes. I heard an announcement mentioning my intended train and “vingt-cinq minutes”. If I’d understood the announcement correctly, the train had been delayed by twenty-five minutes which would take my time in the train station to over two hours. I’d really overestimated how much time I’d need in Rabat.

Eventually the train arrived, and once someone sitting in my seat left, I was ready for the next five hours. I passed the time by reading, and before I knew it the train had arrived in Marrakech. It had been an annoyance that someone had been smoking frequently in the train carriage despite the signs to say they couldn’t.

It was dark when I checked in to the hotel, and I followed this immediately with checking in for my flight. I now had the choice of walking to Jemaa el-Fna as I’d planned to previously, or to eat a little closer to the hotel. Things hadn’t gone to plan though – I’d barely eaten all day and was hungry, and with the added delay from the train I didn’t really want to have a long walk to get food.

A meal near to the hotel was my best option. After a quick search I found my best option was actually the hotel itself. They had an Italian restaurant on the premises, and also a second restaurant by the pool. I went to the latter, sat down by the poolside, and ordered a steak sandwich.

I’d hoped the remainder of the evening would be relaxing, but when I returned to my room I could hear cheering coming from outside. I looked out over one of the public balconies and could see something was going on, but couldn’t tell what.

Once in my room I could see from my balcony that there were people cheering in the streets, and a lot of mopeds driving around the dual carriageway outside the opera house. They were blowing horns, and police had turned up to direct the now heavy traffic.

Morocco had beaten Ivory Coast at football, and had made it into the World Cup. Here the celebrations were peaceful, but in Brussels the Moroccan residents there had caused a riot that made it onto BBC news. In Marrakech the celebrations continued into the early hours of the morning.

Morocco Day 9 – Exploring Rabat

My train to Rabat was scheduled to leave at 08:20, so although I was staying over the road from the station I wanted to be there in plenty of time to make sure I knew what was what. I was awake at 05:00 anyway as I had gotten used to hearing the call to prayer. Though in this hotel it couldn’t be heard.

Breakfast here was similar to the previous hotel in Marrakech at the start of the adventure, though here they’ll cook omelettes and such after 07:00. I’d already finished by this time though.

At the train station there is a large departures board, and that combined with my ticket indicated where I needed to go. To be sure I asked before boarding, and then found compartment two on the first class carriage. With these trains the seats are also assigned numbers so you know exactly where to sit. The others in the compartment didn’t speak English, so I decided the journey would be spent between reading and looking out the window.

Trains in Morocco are far cheaper than in the UK, and I’d argue that they’re just as nice if not better. If anything they’re more spacious. Each compartment in first class has just six seats, and mine was at the window with a table.

Once the train had left the city of Marrakech behind, a few minutes behind schedule, it was mostly a barren landscape. Occasionally there was a small settlement that could be seen in the distance, a sign of plant life, or even a shepherd. Mostly there was nothing.

Along the way there were a few stops; including in Casablanca. The closer the train got to the city, the more litter that could be seen dumped on the sides. It looked very different to Marrakech. It looked newer, and more European. That is until you get to the sea where it’s more industrialised.

If I’d stopped in Casablanca like I’d considered then I can’t see me having needed more than thirty minutes to see the mosque before being ready to leave again. It was the right decision to not stop there.

As the train left Casablanca I had my lunch, though found the cheese I’d bought from the supermarket to be nowhere near as nice as what we’d had at the Kasbah. The journey from then on was in constant sight of the sea, and civilisation.

The train arrived in Rabat a few minutes late. With the journey taking close to five hours, a few minutes late is nothing really. Those staying on the train would have a much longer journey ahead of them to Fez – the former capital.

Immediately it was obvious that Rabat is as different to Marrakech, as Marrakech is to Imlil. Where Marrakech has some character from the old buildings and the winding souqs of the medina, Rabat feels like a western city. It has a tram system and busy roads. It could easily be a large city in France.

From the main road I found the medina quite quickly, and then navigated my way through its alleyways. Here it was cleaner, it seemed newer, and none of the sellers I passed were being pushy. I noticed some people here wearing a red fez, something I’d not seen in Marrakech, though I suspect here it’s due to the proximity to the city of the same name.

When I found the Riad I was staying at, I knocked and a Moroccan lady answered the door. She’d been cleaning the floor, but paused to check me in and get me to fill in the paperwork. Once I’d done that she shown me to my room and then disappeared.

The room had large wooden doors that looked ancient, and had big bolts to use when locking up. The ceiling was even higher with wooden slats, and a small alcove between the roof and the door. The window had a mosaic either side of it, with windows that could open but were protected by an iron grill. This combined with the only curtains in the room being ones tied back either side of the door created an image of Arabian majesty. You could imagine hundreds of years ago someone relaxing on cushions, smoking a hookah pipe.

I dropped my bags off, and took what I’d need for a day of sightseeing. When I came to put the padlock on the door I found that with it on, the door would still open! I went downstairs to ask what to do about it, and the French proprietor had arrived. He demonstrated to me the correct way to lock the door, so I thanked him and left.

I made my way back to the main road that passes the train station and found the Assouna mosque. I photographed that, and then began looking for the entrance to the royal palace grounds. I walked west, and photographed the gate known as Bab Rouah before turning back. I then walked south until I spotted Chellah and decided to visit that first.

From the outside, Chellah looks like a castle; but it started life as a small settlement called Sala. When the Roman Empire arrived they transformed the area and built walls – ruins from this time can be found all over the interior of this site.

In the 7th century the Muslim Arabs took control of the city that was mostly in ruins. After this time the mosque was built, but little more than the minaret now remains. The rest of what became the necropolis contains various ruins, and also the grave of Abu al-Hassan; a Moroccan sultan of the Marinid dynasty who ruled before the Saadiens. He had died in the High Atlas Mountains after being exiled, but was buried here.

It cost 10 dirhams to enter, and after getting my ticket I turned and tripped over a cat. It was not happy. It seems Chellah is home to many stray cats, just like many parts of Marrakech’s medina.

The main thing to see here are the ruins, and these took me twenty to thirty minutes to get around. A large tour group of two coaches had arrived just behind me so I tried my best to stay ahead of them so I could try and get the photos as free of people as possible.

I don’t think the ruins are that good, but considering how cheap they are to visit I think they’re still worthwhile if you happen to be in Rabat. I was there just to tick off another capital rather than specifically to see anything. There are gardens too, but again they’re nothing special – at least at this time of year. The ones in Marrakech are bigger, and better.

The most intact part of these ruins is the minaret which as with many major landmarks in Morocco, has storks nesting atop it. These ones are closer though, and you could hear the clacking of their beaks.

Once finished I had another go at finding the entrance to the royal palace, but again couldn’t find it. I’d walked literal miles in looking for it, so finally decided to give up completely and try to visit the Hassan Tower before sunset.

It was quite a walk, and I could feel a week’s worth of walking in my legs. When I got there I found the entire complex is surrounded by a wall with its entrances protected by ceremonial soldiers on horseback. Amusingly the horses stand on a sand pit instead of on the brick floor – obviously to make it easier to clean up after them.

Inside there are many columns in the open air, and on the left is the Hassan Tower. This tower standing on it’s own may seem odd, but it was once to be the minaret of a large mosque with this tower being intended as the tallest in the Muslim world. It was never completed.

Sultan Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur commissioned this building, but after his death all work stopped. The tower itself had reached a height of forty-four metres, but was only half its intended height. It was this sultan who had converted Chellah into a necropolis, and had started reconstruction of the Kasbah of the Udayas.

On the opposite end of this site is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. This appears to be two buildings connected by a corridor, with one of the buildings open to the public. Between the tower and the mausoleum are many pillars, which themselves are ruins of the Rabat mosque.

During my time visiting, the tower was closed, but tourists were allowed to enter the mausoleum. Through the gates are some stairs that lead up to a viewing floor which can be entered on any of the four sides. On each side is a ceremonial guard, and a queue of people trying to get inside.

Once inside the mausoleum you can look down from the balcony to see the tomb of Mohammed V below. He’s not the only one buried there though, as his son Prince Abdallah was buried there in 1983, and his other son King Hassan II was buried there in 1999.

I’d now seen everything I could before sunset, so would only have the Kasbah of the Udayas left for the morning. I didn’t really know what to do, so thought I’d check my offline map to see what food places were about – perhaps there’d be somewhere to eat pizza in about an hour or two.

I found one about five kilometres away so decided to walk there to pass the time. Finding my way there wasn’t too difficult, even as the sun was setting. I noticed that the closer I got to the pizza place, the more western it felt. It could be because of the nearby university.

I ordered a Hawaiian pizza, and some cookie dough ice cream, along with a couple of drinks. This with a tip came to around 140 dirhams so was easily my most expensive meal of the entire trip – it was the equivalent of almost £30!

During the time it’d taken for me to eat, the sun had set and darkness had fallen over Rabat. The walk back to the medina was a lot quicker than the outward journey, and somehow I found my way back without use of a map.

Inside the medina was another story. For that I needed to use my map to find the Riad. It was a lot busier now – additional people were selling in the middle of the alleyways, and people were moving slowly either side of them. Once off the main alleyway it was darker, but still lit well enough to find my way back to the Riad where I could finally relax.

Morocco Day 8 – Exploring Marrakesh

My time with the group was now coming to an end. From the afternoon onwards I’d be travelling around Morocco by myself having my own adventure, but with nobody to talk to.

Once I was ready to leave I went to the reception area of the Kasbah and handed them a bag with my running shoes in. I’d donated my shoes to Hassan so he could get some use out of them as his own were worn out.

When we were all ready we followed the path out of the Kasbah du Toubkal and down to Imlil. This was the same path I’d previously run along so this time I knew where we were going. We caught a taxi at 10:00 which arrived in Marrakech a little over an hour later where we dropped off our luggage at the Hotel du Foucauld. This was a place the Kasbah had an arrangement with for allowing guests to do so.

Howard led us from there through Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square in the Medina of Marrakech, and told us about the famous orange sellers there. They’ve been known to start fights with each other if one thinks they’ve caught your eye and then buy from another.

To the side of the square are the souqs – a name which comes from the Hebrew word for marketplace. Here we could see alleyway after alleyway of shops selling all sorts of goods. Many shops were similar which reminded me a lot of Kathmandu, though for the most part this area was considerably cleaner.

As we entered the souqs we witnessed a fight being broken up. I couldn’t be sure what was going on, but shortly after one of them ran in front of us and attacked someone else who was in front of us. It appeared one of the ones fighting had gotten in front of us and the other had now caught up to continue the fight. He wrestled him to the ground, and rather than punching it seemed to be a combination of wrestling and slapping.

I stepped back one pace, and watched in surprise at the scene unfolding in front of me. Other onlookers got involved and started pulling them off each other. We speculated that one of them seemed to be a shoplifter and a known troublemaker and that is what had been the impetus for the fight.

At the end of this alleyway it gave way to an open air square where stalls were setup in the sun without a shop behind them. It was here we came across animals in cages such as small chameleons. It felt incredibly cruel.

Of all the souqs in all the towns in all the world, we just so happened to walk through the one the French couple we’d met in Tizgui were looking around. We stopped to chat with them briefly before moving on back to the alley we’d come from.

We went up onto the terrace of a cafe called Nomad for a drink. From there we could see across the rooftops of the souqs, and beyond. In one direction we could see a lot of satellite dishes, and beyond that the towers of mosques. I noticed at this time that the dust from the mountains had gotten not just over my camera, but inside the lens itself. My hope was that it wouldn’t have ruined any of my photos.

As we left the cafe we parted ways with the suggestion of meeting up for lunch at 15:00. I wasn’t sure if I would make it, so I said my goodbyes just in case. I then set off in the direction of the Koutoubia Mosque. Since it’s the tallest tower around, it wasn’t that hard to find.

Non-Muslims are not allowed inside the mosque so I photographed the exterior on passing, and then continued down the road to one of the old city gates – Bab Agnaou. This gate is quite ornate, but is also quite busy so it’s difficult to get a photo without either people or passing cars.

As I walked through the gate I turned right, and went in search of the Saadian tombs. These tombs were discovered in 1917 and date back to the time of sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, the builder of the El Badi palace in Marrakech.

In 1672 the Saadian dynasty had come to an end, and in this time hundreds had been buried in these tombs. Moulay Ismail wanted no sign of this dynasty to remain, so destroyed the palace, and sealed the entrances to the tombs so they could only be accessed via the Kasbah Mosque. Hundreds of years passed and the tombs were forgotten about; that is until the French General General Hubert Lyautey rediscovered them.

I found the Kasbah Mosque the tombs are part of pretty quickly, but it took longer to find the entrance as I found my way blocked in one direction so had to backtrack and try the other.

The entrance to the tombs is ten dirhams, so is extremely cheap to see; back home I’d expect the entrance fee to be around ten times that. Inside there are a number of tombs which you can see, and most of what’s there you can see pretty quickly. The most ornate of them tends to get a queue though, so I stood queuing for ten minutes to see it. Though ten minutes later the queue was practically non-existent.

The best of the rooms has twelve highly decorative pillars amongst the tombs. The bottom half of the walls are covered in mosaic, whilst the top half is sculpted. The amount of skill and money required to create these tombs must have been substantial.

When I finished, I sat down on the wall outside and had some water and a flapjack to keep me going until the late lunch. Once ready I set off in search of the El Badi Palace. The next piece of Saadian history.

This palace was a little trickier to find, and at first I went in completely the wrong direction. I found myself walking down random alleyways filled with locals, and mopeds hurtling through them. Eventually though these winding passages opened out into a large square, and there was the entrance.

The entrance to this one was twenty dirhams, so still not that much. The palace is large and can take anything between thirty minutes and three hours to look around depending upon your speed. I’d be looking around as quickly as I could, taking as many photographs as I could, in order to try and fit in as much as possible. For the equivalent of £4, it was more than worth it.

I’d seen where the Saadian dynasty had been buried, and now I could see where they ruled from. This ruined palace was once a shining example of craftsmanship and extravagance with excessive use of gold, onyx, and marble. None of this could be seen now though, as the materials had been stripped from the palace when Sultan Ismail Ibn Sharif constructed a palace in his new capital of Meknes. Now it lays in ruins, but with obvious restoration work being undertaken.

Near the entrance I took some stairs down into the “cave”, and passed through there very quickly as I didn’t want to waste time reading all the signs. This eventually got me to another room with various walls and no roof, but then some stairs back up to the original level, and the courtyard.

The courtyard has many sunken terraces, some of which are empty, some have trees planted, and a couple are filled with water. It creates an interesting view I think, especially with the storks nesting on some parts of the wall.

In the far corner was an arch that led to another part of the palace with many ruins you can walk around. These don’t take that long really, so before I knew it I was back in the courtyard and heading up onto the terrace to get some photos of the area.

Somehow I got around the entire palace in only thirty minutes, or thereabouts. I’d thought it’d take me a couple of hours but as it hadn’t it meant I could meet back up with the group one last time.

I found my way back pretty easy, and was hassled by shop owners many times, but I just kept on walking passed them. It’s the only way to get anywhere really. I did make one brief stop to buy a souvenir though at one of the shops where I wasn’t hassled.

We met at the Jemaa el-Fnaa and went from there to a nearby restaurant for lunch on their terrace. The service there was that slow that it took Howard asking one of them to get served.

I decided to try the mixed skewers as it’d mean getting to try each type. This combined with a drink and the tip cost me 120 dirhams – not bad! I fed some of my leftovers to the stray cats that were wandering the terrace, and then headed back out onto the street.

We walked around the food stalls that were being set up, as I intended on eating there in the evening. Amongst the stalls a number of acts were also starting to appear, such as snake charmers with a multitude of cobras on the ground in front of them. It was looking like it could be a very interesting evening, but I’d need to be careful with photographs. If you photograph anything around Jemaa el-Fna then they’ll expect to be paid for it, and have people keeping an eye out for anyone trying to sneak a picture.

It was then only a short walk back to the hotel to collect our bags, and to say goodbye. I then headed off into Marrakech to continue on by myself as dusk approached.

My backpacks were heavy, so the forty minute walk to the hotel was hard work. It would probably have been better to have gone by taxi in hindsight, but it was good to know how long this journey would actually take on foot as I’d need to take it again eventually.

The room I’d booked at the Opera Plaza was incredible. It overlooked the opera house, had two double beds and a single bed, and was very spacious. Even the bathroom was impressive. What wasn’t though was the WiFi – it kept cutting out whilst using it, although when it worked it was the best connection I’d used in Morocco.

After a quick shower I headed out into the night to find somewhere to get supplies from. I found a Carrefour supermarket under two kilometres away, and bought everything I needed for lunch over the next few days. I found that it was more than I needed too, so used some of that for my evening meal instead of walking all the way back to Jemaa el-Fnaa. That could be something for when I returned to Marrakech.

That evening I packed my bags properly ready for the train journey to Rabat in the morning. I was also able to use the internet to speak with those back at home before going sleep.

Morocco Day 7 – A Day at the Kasbah du Toubkal

We went for breakfast at 08:00 as we’d become accustomed to. Here they have a buffet table with dried fruits, and tea. Once you’re seated they then bring out boiled eggs, Madeira cake, bread, and yogurts. It’s a similar style of breakfast to what we’d had before, and as always – there was a lot of it.

Since we didn’t need to get from one place to another, the four mile morning hike was optional. The three of us left the Kasbah with Hassan, and Howard would meet up with us at the end of our trek.

When we reached the road, as I didn’t have a heavy camera backpack on me, I decided I’d run up the road. I got so far before being called back as I was going to miss the turn we needed to take. I’d hoped to complete the Strava segment I’d been told about, but didn’t have the chance.

We walked at a leisurely pace up the mountain. The path wasn’t that steep, nor that long. At the summit we stopped for photographs, and Hassan helped us get a group photo. He then encouraged us to take photographs jumping into the air; but I don’t think it went quite the way he’d hoped – the camera was taking too long to take the photo.

The return journey to the Kasbah was a little longer, and we passed what we were told was once a volcano. Looking up at the mountainside I could see the curvature of the crater, and what looked like damage from an explosive eruption. It seems this was an old stratovolcano known as Jbel Sirwa.

The trail descended into Aroumd where we met up with Howard outside of a co-operative shop. Hassan introduced us to the owner, and led us down the side of the building to where we were shown somewhere to sit, and given Berber tea. I was grateful this was the last time I’d need to drink any of it – with these high sugar diets I could understand why there were dentistry issues in the area.

After the drinks, John and Deb went shopping for a Moroccan carpet whilst I looked at the fossils they had for sale. We’d seen a lot of rocks during the morning’s hike that would have been very likely to contain fossils, and Morocco is known for its fossils so buying one here felt like the right thing to be doing.

Of the fossils they’d got, I found a nicely sized ammonite which was only three hundred dirhams. I was supposed to haggle. I should have haggled. It was the equivalent of about £25 though so I felt it was a good price already, and not haggling meant more money for the local community anyway.

At best it’s probably only a mile to walk from there back to the Kasbah, starting with passing a waterfall and then following a watercourse all the way back. There are stalls near the waterfall that sell different types of food, or at least would during busier times.

I dropped my camera off at the Kasbah, and headed off on my own for a run. I hoped to reattempt the section of road I’d run along earlier but found it difficult to remember. After many false starts I decided to run down hill to Imlil, and run along the road from there.

There was one corner as I neared the road that reminded me of Kathmandu – it was a comparison I’d read about, but hadn’t seen until that moment. One thing was certain though – running around the Atlas Mountains, even on roads, is harder work than I’m used to.

It seemed I wouldn’t be able to find the section of road that way either, so I decided I’d call it a day, and ran back to the Kasbah for lunch. Lunch was massive – salad, couscous, kebabs, chips, and rice. It may sound like an unusual combination but it got us to try some more types of Moroccan food. Once I’d eaten I then booked to use the hammam for thirty minutes – the standard slot you book it for.

Unlike the previous hammam this one is in a room which you can lock, so you can either use it by yourself or as part of a group. I booked it for myself, so after being shown what was what I locked the door and entered the steam room.

In the steam room there is a cauldron of water which is heated from underneath by a fire. This makes the water very warm, so you use buckets of that to pour it into another where you can then mix cold water in from a trough. There are seats as well so you can make yourself comfortable whilst you slowly cook yourself.

Once done there is then a raised cold plunge pool in the middle of the main room with a constant flow of cold water into it. In another room off to the side there is a washroom and shower. There are even power sockets spread around the room should you need power for anything – such as charging a mobile phone. You need to be careful though as obviously water and electricity don’t mix.

Things like the hammam, and food and drink pretty much on demand help to make the Kasbah du Toubkal an incredibly place. I think it’s the right time to visit at the end of a hiking adventure rather than at the start. Though I wondered if I was there too long. I don’t usually sit around with nothing to do – perhaps this would have been a good day for me to have left so I could visit Ouarzazate.

That evening we went for our last meal together as a group – the usual starter followed by a lamb dish. To see the day come to an end we played cards one last time.

Morocco Day 6 – Imska to the Kasbah du Toubkal

Mountain life meant that other than when we’d passed through Imli Ourhlad we hadn’t really seen any vehicles or heard any traffic in days. This made it seem strange to wake to the sound of passing heavy vehicles.

Breakfast was the usual at the gite, and this being a shorter day I decided I’d eat lightly before our trek. Today we’d be walking from Imska, over another peak, and then down to the Kasbah.

As we left the gite we said goodbye to Mohammad and Lessem, and tipped them for their hard work over the past week. I couldn’t imagine what it’d have been like if we’d had to carry our own luggage and cook our own meals each day. They did all that for us, we just had to walk or run from place to place. They’d be doing it one last time to get our luggage to the Kasbah ahead of us.

Our trek started by following the road through the village under the shelter of trees. When we passed a school, John and Deb were once again surrounded with children as she handed out the sweets she’d got left. At least this time it wasn’t like in Tizi Zougouart – here they were as happy as the other villages we’d been to.

The path then starts to wind up into the mountains but remained an easy one. To pass the time we started playing games where we picked a subject and then had to name things from it for every letter of the alphabet. Naming places in the Southern Hemisphere is harder than you think – you have to think where the equatorial line passes through each country.

We passed another village with a newly built school, though it hadn’t yet been finished as it had no sanitation. Apparently the 45th President of the United States had funded the construction of this school, but the money had been siphoned away from it so it couldn’t be finished. One of our group has passed this school many times, and this was the first time he’d seen it in use.

After this the path became more exposed, and the sun beating down made it harder work. Strong sunscreen was not working at all so to try and avoid being burnt I was trying to move quickly whilst in the sun, and then slowed for the shade. This continued for quite some time as we worked our way up through the valley having left the road behind us.

We passed through a number of villages where we could see people going about their work. In one such village we stopped at someone’s house for a cup of Berber tea. I’m really not that keen on it so poured it for everyone but myself in the hope it wouldn’t be noticed I’d missed myself. I paid twenty of the thirty dirhams we paid for the drinks, and the left the shade. It’d been nice to have been out the sun for a while.

When we returned to walking it was getting closer to midday and the sun was stronger than ever. I really can’t emphasise enough how important it is to be either covered up or to have decent, working sunscreen.

The path climbs a little more and then descends to where some villagers were washing clothes in the stream. On the other side of this we began our final ascent.

This started with a climb through a tree lined path that had water trickling down the middle of it. It then gets steeper and starts to zig-zag until you reach the summit at over 2,000 metres above sea level.

At the top there is a shop made from large stones where we sat and had drinks. It was a great view of the valley we’d worked our way through during the course of the morning. All we had to do now was to descend to the Kasbah du Toubkal. Our last climb was over.

For starters, the descent was a mixture of walking down the road and along trail shortcuts between each segment of road. Eventually this gave way to a trail through a dried up river bed which somehow met up with the road once more.

We left the road again shortly after to descend through a village, one which turned out to be the higher part of Imlil. As we walked down this road I was told how this exists on the tracking application, Strava, as an uphill segment you can race. I was certainly tempted to return to this road and try it, if I could find my way back.

Instead of following the road into the centre of Imlil we took a trail behind the buildings that followed a watercourse until it reached a bridge. On the other side of the bridge, after some more winding path, was a large gateway with a sign that read “National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World”. This was the entrance to the Kasbah du Toubkal. Our trekking had reached its conclusion after five days and many miles.

Accompanying the large gate at the entrance is a gatehouse, and beyond that is a garden and a path leading up to the main building. In front of this building our luggage was sitting there waiting for us.

Before Hassan left us to enjoy the luxury of the Kasbah, we made plans for one last hike for the following morning. It’d only be a short hike, but could be an opportunity for me to run.

The Kasbah staff led us upstairs to where they served us a salad lunch followed by fruit. As they knew Howard, they’d also upgraded us to a shared suite – a section of the Garden House. John and Deb slept in the bedroom downstairs, and we had beds made up in what would normally be the lounge. It was an amazing place, and was nice to have a balcony too.

The suite did have its own bathroom with bath and toilet, but we agreed those of us upstairs would use the showers and toilets in the main building instead. It was nice to have a proper shower again, and to be able to relax with a cup of tea. Any food or drink you have inside the Kasbah, and even use of the hammam, is included as part of the price of staying there.

The Kasbah also has Wi-Fi which means a chance to get back in touch with the outside world after days of trekking. It’s not a reliable connection, or particularly fast, but it can be useful when it’s working.

I wandered around outside and got talking to an Australian couple in one of the lounges. They’d been travelling down from Scotland for three months and had been staying in the Kasbah for a week. Their next stop after returning to Marrakech would be Rabat – same as me.

The Kasbah has a number of cats that wander about the grounds. There doesn’t seem to be any food or water left out for them so I couldn’t be sure if they were strays, or if they find their own food. If we’d been in Marrakech then they’d almost certainly have been strays.

At 18:45 we had an aperitif to socialise over before the evening meal which was a table booked for 19:30. It was nice to be able to just sit in the suite and relax for a while. The evening meal was in the dining room; the lights had been turned off and was now lit by candles on every table.

The starter was a vegetable soup, which I don’t think was as good as the ones Mohammad had done. The tagine for the main course was lamb and vegetables; this was something we couldn’t finish due to it’s size. However, we all still found room for the apple tart dessert and for biscuits with a cup of tea.

That night we played cards once again – it had become a popular pastime for the group.