a learning curve

Everything you could ever need and less.

A monumental understatement. From the moment you set foot outside of the terminal at Menara you are hit, simultaniously, by the heat and the bustle. Taxi drivers jostle for custom and you needn’t be surprised at the highly animated arguments that inevitably ensue. Walk on, just walk on, I can only assume it seems much worse than it is. We’ll call it Moroccan temperament because if one thing is for sure; if I tried that back home I’d likely end up getting a lift from an ambulance and not a taxi.

Your fist Maroccan lesson starts here, by the way, and no it won’t be Arabic or French – you will be taking it in the pocket rather than the classroom. Seventy diram for daytime trip to the medina, a hundred if it’s dark already. Try as hard as you can to pay no more. You may fail, but don’t get disheartened, many more painfully similar lessons are just waiting to befall the unwary. I know, I have the massage oil to prove it. And the mint tea. And the belt. Worst comes to worst it is six kilometres and no more than a half-hour walk but, perhaps, don’t quote me on that.

Not that I can even pretend I took that advice. I’ll level with you; I paid double and smiled whilst doing so. Thanks to my over consumption of in-flight miniatures, and familiarity with right-hand steering, I also attempted to drive But try not to judge me too harshly; I didn’t have any accommodation reserved so instead bargained with my driver to take me to a couple of riads from which I could then choose my preference. Sue me. Settling on a hotel, mainly for the wifi and air-con but more on that in due course, I deposited my bag and headed into writhing mass that is the Jamaa en Fna. I’m still unsure if this is the superlative of Marakeshi experiences for one so new to the whole eco-system and especially so when more than a little drunk. We’re not talking culture shock at this point so much as sheer other-people overload. There is your usual shite; flashing remote-controlled toys, knock off designer labels and other assorted tourist-bait but what is likely to really stagger you is the sheer volume of shoulder-to-shoulder, moped-dodging, sweating human bodies.

Wander dazedly around the square by all means, soak it up, but know that if you are going to point a camera at one of the performers, snake charmers, monkey worriers or drum-beaters but you will certainly need some spare change to hand lest it become a very expensive experience.

Perhaps it’s time for something to eat too. If you’re headed to one of the food stalls aim at the one in which you need elbow an elderly german tourist who has very nearly finished eating out of the way at, as a general rule; if someone needs to ask you to sit, and especially if you’re one of a very small number of customers, you’ll probably end up wishing you went elsewhere. Once you are seated, take your pick; tagine, cous-cous, kebabs and kofta abound and each, if you’ve chosen wisely, will be fantastic. This brings me nicely to the mint tea. A Moroccan delicacy and with good reason for being so, believe me, it is fantastic.

If there was ever a place to learn the basics of bartering; this is not it. Take your pick and then argue the back end off the price. Find it all to be getting too much? Walk away, if they’ll let you. If not; they will sell. As much as it may not seem it, this is the ultimate in buyers markets. No single stall is selling anything that isn’t offered by at least twenty others and they all know it. Much of the merchandise is bought in dirt cheap from regional artisans or collectors and most can be found of your own accord with a short trip out of the city and a little local knowledge.

Soon, and not for the last time, you’ll find yourself invited in to ‘just look at goods, no pressure’. Whether you accept is entirely up to you but I guarantee you won’t be making a habit of it. Unless of course you are hell-bent on making yourself poor. Once inside the vendor will usually treat you to a masterclass in pressure sales, don’t be fooled that buying some small niknak will get you off the hook either; all you’ll have done is tagged yourself as a soft touch.

before long you’ll start to learn the patter yourself; put a lighter to it and it doesn’t burn? Obviously best quality. Just look, no buy… These people seem to have a preternatural sense for anyone green, straight off the plane or otherwise incapable. Of which, of course, I was all three and I have the belt, the argent oil and the mint tea to prove it.


the things we choose to do

Make less plans.

It’s early, dawn early, steam rises in the distance as light creeps its way along the Montgomeryshire canal towards the Belan Locks from the hazy and distant Briedden hill. Kev is first up, in fine voice, audibly keen to get moving. He’s confident today is the day he will finally, after more than forty miles by foot, make it into the water. Local knowledge suggests the place to do so is Pool Quay, a couple of miles north-east of Welshpool, almost a mile upstream from the plan.

Getting into the Severn is, of course, just the start. Kev, Ben and myriad supporters who will inevitably join and leave along the way have the better part of another two hundred miles to come. Mile upon mile of frigid, gradually darkening water as the United Kingdoms longest river winds from its source in the boggy highlands of mid-Wales to the muddy, tide-swept Bristol estuary.

Every step or stroke; by leg, arm or paddle, is accounted for. As the itinerary holds we are currently ahead of time and thanks to the dozen mugs of collectively consumed, excellent coffee we are in fine spirits. Breakfast consumed, the Old Station becomes a ritual to the Internet age. Spread across no less than four tables we sit in collective isolation: Jamie and Ben set to work editing yesterday’s footage; Kev and Anna, Jamie’s partner who turned up late last night and dressed as a dragon, sit quietly behind their screens and tap away diligently at what I assume to be blogs or e-mails of some way shape or form. The daily structure present is palpable and, pleasant as it is, I’m not entirely sure I like the flavour.

Although perhaps not to my taste, it is clearly an effective model; five hundred pounds of donations yesterday alone attest to this. The pace of social media doesn’t merely facilitate this mode of action as much as necessitates it. The ability to live vicariously has always been a huge draw but for the price of a voluntary donation the humble observer becomes an active part in what will most likely become a historical first. As far as business models go, in this modern age, it is hard to best.

Structure such as this, and especially in the context of fundraising, is nigh impossible to avoid. Adventure will undoubtedly still raise its head, but upon looking around find itself delineated by this daily routine; in considering the journey as a whole these splices will blend seamlessly into a single, inspiring adventure, but, to my mind, adventure should dictate its own pace, should be unexpected just as it is unpredictable.

Wandering blindly in pursuit of experience, however, is not necessarily a sensible approach either and certainly not a practical one at that. Instead I suggest an alternative; plan on the go. Work out where you are heading, procure transport, book your flights – but make no plans until you set foot on ground. Instead make your arrangements as the opportunities present; go looking by all means but let adventure find you.

We reach Pool Quay late in the afternoon and decide to take our chances by parking both support vehicles in a recently harvested field. As we unpack, prepare and inflate the boards a silver short-wheelbase Landrover pulls up on the raised opposite riverbank. The farmer within appears to know who we are and the exchange is short, cordial and ends with a warning of Zander fish who, given the chance, would quite happily eat Kev’s penis and, by all accounts, make short work of it too.

Pre-dawn and I wake to the sound of Bill Withers. I spend my last moderately restful minutes being assured it is going to be a belter, although, at this point, I am yet to be convinced. Ben, however, has already begun shifting the remnants of last nights wood supply onto the fire. My breath condenses in the crisp, still air and as I knock the thin layer of icy dew from my tent I come to a realisation; the cause of my primary discomfort for the preceding hours had not been a damp foot box to my sleeping bag but an outright frozen one.

The cold has made its creeping presence felt through the night and in no way is this more evident than that of the frosted cobwebs that dust thistle heads like candy-floss in every direction.

This sort of morning will bring a man a true appreciation of fire as life-giver. Against the elements in a situation such as this it becomes quite easy to identify the real necessities; basic comfort and contentment, and both are found to have been fundamentally redefined. Stripped back to the very essentials, and often without the means to readily access them, you quickly realise how little you need to feel genuine, earthy happiness. I’m certain with a little effort and experience these basics can be ensured and moreover all that is required to achieve them can be ported with ease.

An hour after the first flickering tendrils move up between the branches we find ourselves warmed, packed, and ready to set off. Kev performs, before the watchful lens of Jamie, his daily set-piece to camera, he looks somewhat less than impressed, the water is chilly and to cold bones the difference from freezing is negligible.

Thankfully, aside from shaky beginnings and endings, my ability to float on various single occupant vessels is coming along nicely. So nicely in fact that aside from the holes that pepper my current craft, apparently to aid balance, but effectively just to provide my balls with an endless supply of fresh, freezing cold water, and a brief tangle with some foliage, wherein I very nearly extract myself from the kayak entirely, our first stint on the river is largely uneventful.

Today is not a day for swimming but the memo doesn’t seem to have reached Kev and ‘I can’t feel my face’ is spluttered a number of times between strokes. Even my limited contact the water has chilled my hands to the point of being practically useless and it is not until I attempt to stagger up the steep bank in search of firewood that I realise the effect the cold has had on my lower extremities. This is not so much adventure as self-flagellation and for all my discomfort I am not willing to even contemplate the situation from Kev’s perspective, the man, I conclude, is a professional masochist for charitable hire. There is no other explanation.

A good hour later we are sat in a field alongside the Severn Way, the boards and kayak mud-bound some ten meters below, with the autumn sun bearing graciously upon us. I glance across the fire to find Kev still shivering even as he taps away at his mobile, updating his followers, keeping everyone in the loop. The conversation turns somehow to what could go awry, Jamie’s confidence is resounding, whether through belief or positive thinking is unclear, but Kev is clearly more of a realist as he tells us the advice passed on by some nameless practitioner; ‘If you’re puking and shitting, so long as you’re still eating, you’re fine. You start running a temperature, you need a doctor’. Pessimist or optimist, that is sound advice.

Travelling the world, making poor decisions and then blaming the locals.