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Making it out of Marrakech

I’m a fan of the saying “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything”.

Several days ago and nearly two weeks into my time in Morocco, I had decided I wasn’t going to write anything about the place.

However, you’re reading this now. Here’s my post on Morocco.

Upon arriving in Morocco I had already been living out of my backpack for two weeks, but in many ways, landing at the Marrakech airport felt like the start of my trip. The prior two weeks were romanced and effortless in my time with Aisling… we stayed in comfortable accommodations, were in developed countries, and were eating incredible food.

And writing those posts felt easy. It’s easy to talk about incredible places. It’s tough to talk about Morocco.

Some of the best weeks of my life.

Really, other than a first night in a hostel booked, the only other thing I had known about Morocco was to “watch out for scammers, they’re everywhere”. I had been told this on several occasions.

I arrive at the airport and I unknowingly overpay for my taxi to the hostel by about 10 times. Great. It’s also 46 degrees Celsius in the cab. Spicy.

The taxi driver drops me off at the wrong side of the old town, a walled-off maze of old buildings and tiny alleys that comprise the heart of Marrakech. I’m navigating the alleys trying to look like I know what I’m doing so that I don’t appear as an easy target. Mind you, I’m wearing a bucket hat, got my backpack on, got my phone out with the map on it, and… the map has no idea where we are. Welcome to Morocco.

On the first day in the hostel, I got to meet up with my buddy, Jack. We were finally on the road together. We walked through the old city and markets discussing the absurdity of the last month’s whirlwind getting to this very point. Meanwhile, about every five steps we’ve got someone trying to sell us something, physically pull us into their restaurant, lead us to a fake market for a tip, or put a monkey on our shoulder… ah… Morocco.

I’ve never had my guard up so high before because genuinely, everyone’s trying to get money off of you, and not in a welcoming or hospitable way. Profanity sometimes followed ignored requests to look at their shops… ah… Morocco.

It was intense and exhausting.

Back at the hostel was a hub of characters from all over the world, each with a unique story of what brought them into Marrakech. Some were there for journalism, surfing, and hiking (that’s why we were there), and some didn’t know why they were there (that’s us also).

Word started to catch on that Jack and I had planned to hike Mount Toubkal. At 4100 meters high it towered over the high Atlas Mountains in Morocco, the tallest peak in North Africa. Naturally, there were some fellow backpackers that were interested in joining us. We quickly had a group of four to go hike in a day’s time. We got some advice from two Australians that received a round of applause when they returned from their summit only hours before. We were ready, I guess?

Word spreads further. We’ve now got 5 guys. Okay, not so ideal for hiring a taxi anymore. 6. This is getting big. 7. Who was the 7th guy?

7AM breakfast club, there we were, 7 strangers drinking our Moroccan whiskey (syrupy sweet tea with a tone of mint leaves) and stomaching our Moroccan breakfasts down (4 different kinds of bread and one hard boiled egg).

After the month we spent in Marrakech on our first day there, it felt refreshing to leave the hustle and head out into the mountains. The next two days were brutally intense…

We went on to hike over 68K steps and climbed and descended over 4000m in elevation. All in just over 24 hours.

At the base of the hike we’re trekking in a line of 7, most of us are using the opportunity to get to know each other better. Coming from so many different backgrounds, there’s a lot to learn.

The friendly strangers were:

  • Asbjørn, from Denmark
  • Keivin, from Madagascar
  • Oscar, from Australia
  • Lars, from Germany
  • Mitch, a fellow Canadian

A couple of hours into the hike, we realize we’re on a straight escalation for the duration of this trek. The wind is whipping, and the sun is beating down on us. Talking starts to become more sparse as we start really working for this hike.

After close to six hours of our first leg, we make it to the Refuge, a building at 3200m elevation where you get a meal and a short sleep. They guide us to the kitchen tables we’ll be sleeping on.

I’ve never seen 7 guys so happy to sleep on a table before. With the accomplishment of the first leg of the hike, energies are high, we’re all cracking jokes, laughing, and enjoying our time together.

Just after I got into my sleeping bag I had to pee. I get out, climb down the ladder, and am greeted outside with a spectacle. There’s not a single light on outside and we’re in the middle of the High Atlas Mountains; I’ve never seen the stars so bright. Shooting stars dance in the sky. I can also see the silhouette of the summit we’re climbing in a couple of hours time. My first experience with African stars. At that moment I didn’t care if I couldn’t summit.

We get a couple of hours of “sleep”, 3:45 AM wake up, then all toast the local energy drink “HELL”, complete with a devil branded across the side of the can. If we’re going down to hell, we might as well all go together!

Heads down, one step after the other, don’t look up. We fall into synchronicity. We’re a team climbing up now, no longer strangers. Things become increasingly difficult as there are dwindling oxygen levels at each higher step, and there are several points where I’m sure I won’t make it to the top.

We summit.

Standing atop the tallest point in North Africa, powerful. Knowing you all motivated each other to get there, and persevere together, is priceless. Not one of us had submitted the mountain, we did it as one, as a team.

The whole process was the most physically demanding most of us had ever undertaken. We got back to Marrakech, ordered 15 pizzas, a slab of beer, and went to town. We had spent several years together in the past 48 hours.

The following morning we all split up and hug goodbye. Goodbyes are hard.

There will likely never be another time all 7 of us are together. All the jokes we’d crack and the demanding triumph are something we won’t be able to share together again, but something we’ll each individually hold onto for the rest of our lives.

The fellas.

It felt as though we’d already been on a trip of a lifetime, but only on day four, our trip was only beginning.

Jack and I push on North out of Marrakech, and we’re lucky to be joined by both Asbjørn and Keivin for what turns out to be the remaining two weeks of our time in the country.

Every night we don’t know where we’re sleeping for the next, which is an ecstatic place like Morocco is lightning in a bottle. Lightning that makes for rewarding and stressful adventure.

The next two weeks are beautiful chaos.

Something happened once Jack, Asbjørn, Keivin, and I start travelling together. The places change, and increasingly become more Moroccan. We find ourselves in all sorts of precarious situations and inspiring hikes. Our perspective slowly starts to shift on Morocco as we begin to bond through its absurdity.

The country seems to be a tough nut to crack; at the surface, there’s the madness.

But alongside a group with a good sense of humour and resilience, I could look past that and see the beauty beneath its intensity.

There’s a real culture to experience, breathtaking landscapes, and rich markets to explore. Around every corner, there’s action happening, adventure, and a story to be experienced. It’s a lot to take in, and that’s the beauty of the intensity.

Intense places leave intense emotions.

Emotions I’m better understanding now that I’ve left the mysterious place, and have given time for these feelings to settle.

We’ve become brothers. The four of us are now well equipped with decades of war stories (and lingering food poisoning) for the future trips we’ll embark on together.

I’m intentionally leaving Morocco ambiguous so that you can go discover it’s mysterious mazes. It’s a place I struggle to write about, so, go pick up some strangers at a hostel and head into the belly of the beast. You’ll make it out, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be just as confused and amazed as we were on our way out.

Speak soon,

J