Day 13 & 14 – And relax…

We pack up the campsite and amble the few hours back to Ait Youl where we have lunch in the house where we set off what seems like a fairly long time ago. Dog is shut in when we leave – one of the muleteers is going to give it a home – and we walk over the hill to the road. We get there just as the local mosque is kicking out after afternoon prayers. The two groups of people stand there blinking at each other as we wait for our minibus to come and take us to Ouarzazate.

Ouarzazate has a restaurant called Restaurant Obelix, a place full of props from the film studios apparently which the guidebooks smear with the word ‘kitsch’. I vote for eating there in the evening, no one else bites, so we eat in the hotel instead in a room which has been decorated to try and recreate the atmosphere of a large Berber tent in the mountains…

A 3.45 start to get an early flight from Ouarzazate airport, but no-one minds too much as the five hours or so in a bed beforehand have been complete and utter bliss. A surface that doesn’t send your hips numb – fantastic! We have five hours to kill in Casablanca airport, which we do by playing cards, drinking coffee and simply enjoying sitting in chairs. Chairs! Fantastic! And the toilets…by all that’s holy, they flush! Fantastic!

Feelings of calm and serenity picked up from nigh on two weeks in the wilderness last all the way to Heathrow where they are derailed by a) the coach back to Reading, as they'd changed the whole system around and it was only a kindly coach driver letting me travel for free that prevented me from freezing my knackers off for an extra half an hour. Then b) I saw a piece in the Daily Mail which was basically themed Women, Stay At Home And Have Babies And Leave The Hard Stuff To Us Men which made me a tad angsty. Frankly, I wouldn’t wipe my arse on that paper in case I caught something toxic. Oh, and then c) England lost the rugby to Scotland. However, this was offset slightly by d) Bath beating Gloucester, e) being welcomed home by friends who plied me with drink and good cheer and f) the knowledge that I could get up tomorrow and didn’t have to walk anywhere unless I really really wanted to.

I then rearranged all the furniture in the living room and now have a perfect space which would ideally suit a nice Moroccan rug. Guess I'll have to go back at some point, though next time I think I'll save my feet and take the train via Fes...


Day 12 – I Ain’t Going To Camp No More No More

With over 2cm of ice in the washing bucket overnight, Mohamed and Abdou estimate that it probably got down to –5 last night. Christ on a bike, it was cold.

Another day when you’re just covering the ground rather than walking for the sake of it. We’re heading back to civilisation now. We come across our first sign of a road/track for about five days, and later on we climb a hill and look out over Ait Youl. With its two hundred houses or so it looks like a metropolis. I get bright lights/big city fever and dream of French burgundies and Tournedos Rossini.

One more night in a tent and that’s it. Tomorrow, I give my sleeping roll to the muleteers and swear off canvas for good.

Dog looking almost perky.


Day 11 – Life in the Freezer

The wind got up during the night and, coming down from the High Atlas as it was, it all got a bit parky to say the least. We hit our highest point of the trip, crossing a rocky saddle at 2180m in the snow (in the snow! – most days have been a combination of 25 degrees and factor 50).

We’re on the home leg of our loop back to Ait Youl now, and the walking has got a bit less interesting. After six hours or thereabouts, we all end up lying round the mess tent in our sleeping bags. Even four season ones fail to keep out the chill, and at night you find yourself turning over as first one side of you then the other goes numb as the ground leaches away your body heat.

Dog makes it through the day, humans look on slightly shakier ground.


Day 10 – Music Over My Head

So, having moaned about camping, now we get to one of the reasons why it’s worth putting up with on an occasional basis: Irhissi.

Irhissi is an old, ruined kasbah at the intersection of three valleys that was built a shade over two hundred years ago. All that’s left now are the four walls, which are gracefully crumbling back into the rock from whence they came, and a few nomads scattered about the valley.

It took about six hours to get there, including a long drag up a fairly steep pass, so we were all fairly tuckered out when we got there. The evening more than made up for it. A scavenge round the local area picked us up enough firewood to get a good blaze going in the centre of the kasbah, and then the muleteers picked up all the plastic buckets they could get their hands on and started singing and drumming. It was a fantastic performance: Berber songs in a call and response pattern with a bit of dancing thrown in by the firelight. I wandered out beyond the walls and sat on a rock looking at the stars coming out (the skies out there were stunning) and apart from the odd satellite whizzing overhead it was almost as if the past two hundred years had never happened.

Until, that is, Mohamed Ali decides to lead everyone in a chorus of ‘That’s The Way I Like It’.

Woke to find the dog curled up in the ashes of last night’s fire. We discuss names. Dog features strongly, as does Yallah (to go, literally ‘to go with Allah’). My suggestion of Mange is largely ignored.


Day 9 – The Hounds of Love

Another long day, though one with some spectacular scenery. We really are in the middle of bugger all anywhere today, so the little boy with the dingly dangly stall is a bit of a surprise. As is the dog that decides to start following us a few minutes later. To be honest it looks close to death, with its ribs sticking through its fur and its tail as far between its legs as it can get. This has not been a happy animal. We tell it to scram a couple of times but it takes no notice and no one wants to start throwing stones to start driving off such a wretched looking beast, so we let it tag along.

Crest a ridge and find my mobile phone has turned itself on in my bag and received a text message from a friend, Spencer, asking if the Bath Rugby Club defence are on holiday with me as they’re certainly not playing at the Rec. He then thoughtfully doesn’t tell me what the final score is, leaving me to wonder for the rest of the trip if we managed a heroic fightback or not. I turn the phone off sharpish.


Day 8 – Opting Out

Today’s eight hour walk is an optional one with a six am start. I decline and decide to spend the day chilling, doing some washing in a stream (clothes and body – luxury!), drinking mint tea and reading.

It’s not the walking that knackers you on these trips, it’s the camping. By now, if you ask me, mankind’s three greatest inventions in order of importance are the spring mattress, the flush toilet and the chair. Writing, space travel, the internet? Bugger all that, I’d gladly swap it all for a sofa.

I knew there was a reason why I’d never camped before (festivals, due to recreational pharmaceuticals and general imbibing, don’t really count). The ground’s hard and uncomfortable and, to be frank, crapping behind rocks doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. It’s very hard to concentrate on what you’re doing when you’re being looked at quizzically by a goat.


Day Seven – Berber Whiskey

The scenery is now typical for the area: mesas, buttes and broad scrub plains. Dotted throughout it are the odd irrigated oasis wherever there’s water, with fig trees prominent amongst the foliage. They’re strikingly white against the dusty orange of the area, looking like the White Tree of Gondor to the Tolkeinites amongst us.

Today is the first of three eight hour walking days, which means vast amounts of mint tea at lunch. Mint tea fuels the Berbers in the same way that normal tea powers the British. Mint leaves are mixed with Chinese Green Tea and unfeasibly large amounts of sugar are added and the whole syrupy result drunk with relish. It’s great stuff and rejoices in the nickname of Berber Whiskey, though you can feel your teeth dissolve rather than your liver as you drink it. Big Chris meanwhile has a bottle of the real stuff bought from a supermarket in Ouarzazete, and the odd nip helps the evenings pass pleasantly. In fact, several people bought bottles of wine at the same time, so we’ve had a small glass with a few meals, though not nearly enough to maintain health and fitness as far as I’m concerned.

The cairns are interesting. Some of the pagan Berber beliefs have survived alongside Islam, and here passing men are supposed to build a cairn to increase their fertility and women build one to find a man. Mohamed says it worked for him two years ago (he now has a young daughter) and he might build one next year. I idly wonder if I need to kick one over to lower the sperm count.

And while we’re on the subject of fertility, apparently the best Berber match you can make is with your cousin, as this represents the best balance between keeping the land within the family and casting the genetic net wide. I asked about inbreeding, Mohamed said it wasn’t an issue. Hmmmm. Either the Berbers have a very different genetic stock to the rest of us, or the women have their own way of sorting things out on the quiet if you ask me.


Day Six – Dingle Dangle, Strap it to Your Ankle

The Jebel Sahro really is off the edge of the tourist map. Only trekkers go there and only in the winter, as it’s uncomfortably hot any other time. The groups are also fairly sparsely spread out (we passed one French contingent going the other way after a week and a bit and that was it), with maybe one or two a week passing through the area at its peak.

Nevertheless, this represents a potential source of decent income for the isolated Berber settlements and nomads along the routes. Thus, halfway up a mountain pass and with nothing else visible for miles around, you’d find a Berber woman patiently squatting by the side of the trail with a black cloth spread out with ornaments, colourful scraps of cloth festooned with mirrors that Mohamed referred to as Dingly Danglies and inevitably ended up strapped to everybody’s rucksacs, jewellery, and sometimes even rugs. Sometimes they got it right, and a veritable shopping frenzy ensued, other times they got it wrong and we puffed past without buying anything and they simply rolled up their black cloth and went back to their goats to wait for the next group.

The usual rate for small items is 10 dirham, about enough to keep a family in sugar for three or four days, so it’s worth their while. I heroically resisted until near the end of the trip I buckled and bought a trilobite fossil. Having seen a similar one just go for a tenner on ebay, I wish I’d bought a few more…

Trekking seems a supremely daft thing to the local Berbers, and after a couple of nights of little sleep and back ache camping, I was starting to agree with them. Some apparently have even imbued the trekking groups with a sort of Flying Dutchman legend, reasoning that as it’s such an odd thing to do there must only really be one group that simply goes round and round in circles all the time. Wonder what they have to do to be released from that purgatory.


Day Five – Of Mules and Men

Another five hours or so of amiable ambling to the village of Tagmout, where we’re again sleeping on the floor in a village house. Rumours of a potential shower facility persist.

Now, before you start thinking that we’re too intrepid doing this, I should perhaps point out that we’re fairly nesh when it comes down to it and have rather a lot of support. In fact, we’re travelling through the mountains with almost enough people to put together two football teams. First, there are the two guides: tour leader Mohamed and Abdou, who speaks more French than English and giggles like a schoolboy or sings fluting love songs in Arabic as he hops down the rocks like a mountain goat. Then there are the seven muleteers (including the aptly named Mr Happy, Mohamed Ali and the improbably named Lovely Jubbly) and nine mules. The Mules carry all the tents and food (including the large kitchen and mess tents), overtake us after a couple of hours on the trail, and by the time we’re at the next camp site we find our tents set up for ourselves in a long line and the only thing we have to do is watch which one Big Chris heads for and scrabble to get as far away from him as possible.

Big Chris; now there’s a subject. Several passports and more scams going that a Marrakech market trader, he was approaching his pension and, as far as we could work out, trekking round the world courtesy of the DSS and several secret bank accounts in Miami. He also snored like a 747 taking off. Hence the scrabble.


Day Four – Walking, That’s What We Do

After a night sleeping on the floor in a village house, we get up, pack up and set off with 126km of walking through the Jebel Sahro mountains ahead of us. A barren, bleak and blasted area, it’s also really rather beautiful. I’m not given to quoting poetry often – pretentious, moi? - but Shelley expressed it in three lines better than I can in a thousand words:

I love all waste and solitary places
Where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see is boundless
As we wish our souls to be

Clever chap, though he obviously wasn’t paid by the word.

Anyway, we walk about five hours today. Even reading back in the diary I kept during the trip, the days kind of blur into each other. You wake up with the dawn about six or seven, break camp, eat breakfast (porridge with honey usually, which I normally managed to follow by a quick round of chocolate spread sandwiches), walk five hours, have lunch (vast salads with some carbs and protein on the side), flake out, do an optional walk, do chores, have dinner, play cards, go to bed about nine or, if you’re feeling really daring, about ten.

It’s a holiday, but only after a fashion…;-)


Day Three- Run to the Hills

A bit of a nothing day really, n early start followed by travelling over the High Atlas mountains via the Tizi n’Tichka Pass (closed for a couple of days a week later due to heavy snow) and to the village of Ait Youl and the start of the trek proper.

So, some asides from our guide Mohamed, a Berber and a resident of the High Atlas himself.

Morocco is changing rapidly. A Muslim country, while some of the population have their fundamentalist moments, it’s very much on the liberal wing of things. In some ways it’s caught between three identities: Arabic, Berber and French colonial, and its modern character represents a mashup of all three.

60% of university students are female, and even in the isolated villages girls are starting to be sent to schools. Out of 300 people in Mohamed’s village, three people have got their baccalaureate (though whether like the French exams, that starts with the four hour philosophy paper, I’m not sure). Mohamed himself has a degree in Maths and Physics and confidently expects that ratio to rise in the next generation. His job with Explore probably earns him around £200/week, which in High Atlas terms is a seriously good wage. Interestingly, the family and its land remains a really important unit, and while people may go off to Marrakech to earn their fortune, they always go back to the village. Depopulation of the rural communities, something so prevalent in the West, is not an issue.

Anyway, the roads are festooned with stalls selling tagine pots, fossils, amphorae and the like, and we drive past the Atlas Film Studios at Ouarzazate (Kingdom of Heaven. Asterix & Obelix, Star Wars, Gladiator and a shedload of others), have lunch, visit the old Ouarzazete Kasbah, and – little though we know it – make the most of actually sitting in a chair for the last time in ten days.


Day Two – Hot Souk!

Met up with the rest of the group at breakfast (12 people, one couple, 50:50 male/female ratio, age range from 29 to 60, no obvious nutters, and including one woman, Ginny, who lives in the next village along from Wantage – how’s that for a coincidence!) and set off on a walking tour of Marrakech.

The name means ‘pass quickly’ and dates from a fairly unsavoury past, though any bandit impulses have long since been subsumed by the city-wide hobby of fleecing tourists. Of course, that’s largely what we’re there for, and when you’re only losing a quid a time, you can rationalise it all happily that at least you’re contributing to the local (black) economy. The urchins who insisted they’d just performed incredible feats of acrobatic dexterity and it was your fault if your back was turned and you should still pay them 10 dirhams anyway were good. As was the woman who grabbed my arm in a WWF-approved wrestling hold and had painted a scorpion on it in henna and demanded 20 dirham (about £1.30) for the privilege all in the space of about 10 seconds.

“What is your name?” she asked.

“Andy,” I replied.

“Okay, I write it on your arm in Arabic,” she said and added a few squiggles to the scorpion. Never managed to allay myself fully of the suspicion that it said ‘Guys, we’ve got a live one here’.

The souk is amazing, though: a labyrinthine warren of dense, interlocking alleyways split into informal districts. Turn one corner and it’s all scrap metal and metalwork shops and workshops, with young men squatting in dingy arches and hammering together lamps and lanterns. Turn another and it’s all animal skins, another and it’s olives, another and it’s towering, tottering piles of richly coloured spices. Imagine Hampton Court Maze crossed with Greenwich Market, populate it with mules and people weaving in and out of the narrow passages on motorbikes, and you’re halfway there.

It’s in the evening though that the main square gets going. This really is the heart of Marrakech, a vast plaza full of snake charmers, musicians, acrobats, storytellers, hucksters, dried fruit sellers, beggars, buskers, jugglers and food stalls, with smoke from their cook fires curling up into the night air under the tungsten glare of the lights. It’s an overwhelming place. And given some of the isolated areas we were trekking to over the next couple of weeks, it sometimes felt like we were trying to cram all our human contact into the space of a couple of hours.


Day One – Marrakech or bust

Just to recap for those expecting pictures of the Himalayas, tales of sherpas and the faint whiff of rancid yak butter: the Foreign Office decided to advise against all travel to Nepal on Thursday night, citing some minor civil war or some such. 12,000 people had died in a decade, one of the royal family had machine gunned down the majority of the others (a concept ripe for importing IMHO) and the Tenth Anniversary of the uprising just happened to coincide with my flight touching down in Kathmandu.

Now, 12,000 people in ten years is something just over 3.28 people/day, and I quite fancied those odds. More people probably die opening umbrellas every day than that. The FO didn’t however and, more importantly, neither did Explore Worldwide, the organisers of the trek. So, they cancelled it on the Friday morning and offered me either a full refund or around 500 notes and the chance to go trekking in the Jebel Sahro mountains in Morocco instead.

Now, with Sara and I separating and her planning to move out over the next couple of weeks, going away somewhere seemed slightly imperative no matter how amicable things are. Thus I found myself flying South over Seville at ten in the evening and heading towards Africa, the city painted on the landscape like the Nazca Lines outlined in neon and fire. After landing at Marrakech and spending a couple of hours slowly winding towards the smiling, chatty, laughing immigration people (think Los Angeles, but more menacing) the airport disgorged me into what seemed like a full scale fight.

It wasn’t, of course, just some eager competition for my meagre taxi fare into the city. Choosing one driver because I thought he had the best moustache, we negotiated a fare and set off. For some reason, a very attractive Moroccan policewoman was installed in the front seat next to him, though whether she was cadging a lift and going off duty or just making sure he went the right way, I never found out.

Marrakech was flooded. A torrential thunderstorm had passed over a the city a few hours earlier, and the drains had been unable to cope. Three lane highways became a single lane snake of cars trying to find the shallow water, rooster tails arcing up towards the date palms by the side of the road in the moonlight. Luckily, given the camping nature of the trip, that was the only evidence of rain I saw for the whole fortnight.


People who *really* have too much time on their hands - part two

I offer the LEGO Technic Difference Engine with no comment beyond what the author himself writes:

Because of engineering issues as well as political and personal conflict the Babbage Difference engines construction had to wait until 1991 when the Science Museum in London decided to build the Babbage Difference Engine No.2 for an exhibit on the history of computers.

Babbage's design could evaluate 7th order polynomials to 31 digits of accuracy. I set out to build a working Difference Engine using LEGO parts which could compute 2nd or 3rd order polynomials to 3 or 4 digits.

People who *really* have too much time on their hands - part one

Tube maps comprised of anagrams? Pah, they are as nothing to a bunch of Israeli techno-geeks trying to prove that snails are faster than ADSL. As they put it:

The system called SNAP (SNAil-based data transfer Protocol), uses biological carriers, and, for the first time, taking advantages of the unique merits of the wheel for data transfer.

Data is transported in 2 packets in parallel, 4.7 Giga each packet, and the front-end consists largely of a Giant African Snail. As the authors concede, however, despite the apparent speed of the delivery system, in French regions in particular culinary preferences may lead to a Denial Of Service problem.

And the geeks shall inherit the earth? Only if they get off their arses and stop mucking about with snails.


Nada Nepal, Merci Morocco

With the Nepal trip cancelled due to national political fiestyness, a quick afternoon of scrabbling round got me onto a trek in Morocco's Jebal Sahro mountains. Not quite the size of the Himalayas (what is?) but they're good and bleak as Google Earth proves and the Berber people are meant to be really interesting. Besides, height isn't everything...(or so I'm told).

The best tube map yet

Okay, so the isochronic one was cool, but this is a belter: a tube map with all the stations as anagrams.

As ever, the joy of such things lies in the quality of the anagrams. Faves so far: Stoutening Honks (South Kensington), and - topically enough - Newt Arrester for Warren Street. Then there's Godparent Bikers, Yeti Witch, Swelled Injunction...Damn it, London's never seemed so interesting.


More Second Life

Another Wired story about people making real world incomes from the virtualverse here. One day I'll get round to writing a feature on all this. In the meantime I'll just blog the stories rather than bookmark them.

I guess I had a narrow escape last night as I installed Second Life and all it did was crash my machine. Managed to reserve a name though: Stouters Trescothick. Cool, eh? Especially as you have to choose the surname from a dropdown list. Who'd a thought old Disco would have turned up there...


A service to the community and a half, the Yessongs Big Generator creates and crafts song lyrics in authentic Jon Andersonese. Yup, that's right, meaningless stream of consciousness that you can't quite dismiss out of hand because there's a slim chance he could be onto something really spiritual and deep.

To whit, here's one given the words Twickenham, a rugby ball and Jonny Wilkinson. Cue keyboard solo.

Forest should have been slow
For clear home
White timely a rugby ball
Lightly loving energy
Universe could never be opposite Twickenham
Sound a rugby ball
Beautifully you lightly
Jonny Wilkinson was making brightly
Man never shall be while gate
Flying gently near certain a rugby ball

How the mighty fall, part 87

According to that arbiter of all things IT, El Reg, SGI warns that bankruptcy might be year-end option.

Blimey etc. I remember firms stamping 'Made with SGI' on the backs of their consumer products because it was such a byword for hyper-powered computing crunch. In the style of E.J.Thribb:

So farewell soon, SGI
Once you were quick
Now Clive's mum's G5
Is quicker


Rumour of the day?

Apple to buy Palm.


Great Scott! It's...it's...

Brokeback to the Future


Virtual Mammon

Couple of interesting snippets on the burgeoning virtual metaverse out there from the ever-brilliant Boing Boing.

First is a review site for Virtual Prostitutes in Second Life. As BB puts it:

In-game prostitutes buy or make customized genitals, bodies, wardrobes, etc, and then conduct chat-based cybersex with johns while guiding their tricked-out characters through virtual sex acts.

Full story here, along with a link to the review site in question. Oh, and when they say the link is NSFW, they mean it.

Meanwhile, the MMORPG of the masses, World of Warcraft is attracting unwelcome attention for shutting down gay-oriented guilds. They're doing it with all the best intentions - officially anyway - but queer rights groups are upset and launching action.

Wonderland reckons WoW ought to have a Pride festival just to make up for it. Top idea.

Update: And of course, as the pic proves, the gay community is taking things into its own hands already. Respect!

Flash gaming crack

Today's aide to productivity disaster: Yetisports 10.

I used to do some work once upon a time, then I got fixated with catapulting a penguin up 12 metres of rock face. Which would be no bad thing if my record wasn't just over 11 metres.

Argh etc.

And is it just me, or the first time you read that headline do you assume it's rude?


The 400 get movies

Telewest's legendary, near mythical 400 HD subscribers get their first movies beamed to them this week. According to HDTVUK the first break from endless repeat screenings of The Blue Planet will be Sin City and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which aren't bad choices to start anything with. Be interesting to see how it all goes down with the punters.


Tomb with a view

After many years gaming, I still think the first couple of Tomb Raider titles on the PS1 were some of the best ever made. Put them in context of the available technology, the game culture of the time, and they really were the veritable shining beacons of light. Interviewed the Core peeps a couple of times too, and am mystified how they a) managed to let their own creation get so mauled by Hollywood and b) how they managed to shag up the franchise quite so badly.

So, while normally I'd decry any nostalgia, back to basics trip, I can't quite help getting just a tad excited by new developer Crystal Dynamics's Tomb Raider Legend. The music, the puzzles, the moving boulders, the evenings of shouting 'Shoot straight you big-titted bitch' at the TV a la Simon Pegg...looks like Lara's back and not before time either. Take that XBox 360.


Remix and rewind

Another good one from that bastion of all things interesting, Wired.

Wired 14.01: PLAY

Basically, indie filmmaker Michela Ledwidge is uploading all the rushes of her 10-minute SF short, Sanctuary. That way, she's hoping, people will sift through the 9 hours or so of rushes, 90 minutes of sound effects and all the other plethora she's put up on www.modfilms.com and come up with their own modded version.

Neat, huh? Now, having interviewed a few over the years, I've come to realise that film editing is one hell of an artform, so improving on the original isn't going to be easy. But that's not really the point of modding. Just imagine a Tom Cruise film where he dies repeated horrible deaths and smile...