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Ten useful tips for travellers in Morocco

I have been to Morocco three times now, and I feel I’ve seen enough of it to share a few useful tips for first time travellers to this country.

Despite my previous post, where I talked about how annoying it can sometimes be to be pestered by the locals, I would like to stress that I actually love this country, and I will keep coming back. But it does help to keep these little tips in mind!

1. Bargain over everything

bag shop Marrakesh
Me and Valentina bargaining over some bags

Yes, it’s OK to bargain over the price of a taxi. Or the amount you paid for your street breakfast. It is positively expected that you will have a lengthy ‘discussion’ over the price you are paying for anything you buy in a stall or shop, and it is just as much of a given that you will walk away having paid two or three times more than the locals.

On our latest trip to Morocco, my friends and I met an retired American man who spent six months every year in Morocco, and the other six in America. “I can get a bread for half a dirham, a tomato for another half a dirham, and I’ve got myself a  tomato sandwich for a dirham,” he told us, as we were paying 100 dirham (somehow??!) for our own breakfast, which wasn’t even that lavish. One dirham is around 7p to you and me…the same taxi that we paid 50 dirham for that morning cost him 11 dirham, he added. You just have to know how to push.

The only exception, it seems, is when the price is written down. “Fixed price”, they call it. I have never been to a Moroccan supermarket, but I imagine there isn’t much bargaining to be done there. Neither can you really bargain in expensive restaurants and the like. Everywhere else, it seems to be fair game!

2. Never agree to follow men on the street for directions,
even if you are mega-lost

When you first arrive in Marrakesh, prepare to be majorly overwhelmed. The place is a maze that doesn’t even make sense to the locals, and no matter how detailed the directions you are given by your hostel or riad, if you are staying inside the old city there is no chance you will find where you are staying within the first hour.

And guess what looks like easy money to young Moroccan men who can speak a smidgen of English? Tired and lost-looking tourists! Unless you are in a very central area with millions of other tourists around, the local boys will descend upon you like vultures. Don’t even think of following one of them for directions!  They will lead you around in circles for ages and then demand money when you finally get there.

Instead, try to ask women or old men, even if it means communicating with hand gestures. If you can speak French – use it! If you don’t, maybe brush up on your travel phrases before going. Some shop owners can be quite helpful as well, but try to avoid the young males. Consider ordering a good map before heading to Marrakesh, and also keep the phone number of the hostel handy. We have had to be rescued by the hostel owners once when we simply couldn’t find our way, and were being harassed left, right and centre by local boys trying to offer ‘help’.

3. Don’t buy sweets from a cart in the main square

main square Marrakesh

They don’t taste as good as they look! At all. In the evening, you will see men rushing around with these carts filled with local sweets, offering boxes of 12 for 50 dirham (just over £3). But they tend to be a bit stale and stodgy, and are probably best used as a table decoration than food (although we ate all the ones we bought on the first night there anyway).

Instead, find some chebakiya if you want some proper Moroccan sweets. They are the cheapest ones by far, and the tastiest! A big box, even in the most touristy area, shouldn’t cost you more than 30 dirham. You can find it being sold inside the main markets (souks) by dedicated merchants, or in smaller portions with tea in the main square in the evening. It’s essentially a pasty rolled up in the shape of a rose, deep fried until golden and covered in a syrup made from honey and rose water. It is divine! Although also very sickly, and definitely not at all good for you.

4. Bring some Imodium

eating Morocco
Me and Valentina really not looking forward to our dinner

The food in Morocco varies, but it is certainly not for everyone’s stomachs, and although it is nothing as bad as I would imagine India to be, you are quite likely to get a case of the traveller’s tummy at some point during your trip. You can buy Imodium in Morocco if you forget to bring it – all pharmacies should sell it, it has the same name and it isn’t particularly expensive.

Some tips I found useful to try and avoid having to resort to drugs include asking for no ice in your drinks, watching that anything with eggs is really well cooked, even if you prefer them runny, and same goes for meat. Also, probably best to stay away from the orange juice stands in the main square. But to be honest, if you eat street food (or ever end up in a Moroccan or Berber kitchen, for that matter), you will be exposed to a much larger variety of dirt and grime than you are at home. That’s simply a fact you will have to live with, unless you would rather splash out on a five star hotel with a five star restaurant for your whole stay. But that’s not my style!

5. Brush up on your French

People do speak English in Morocco, and many of them speak far more languages than you and I are used to in our insulated UK-based lives (probably not the case for those readers based outside the UK…) When we were climbing in Todra Gorge, many Berbers surprised us by being proficient in Spanish, and some Italian, on top of French, Arabic and English. But you will be better off if you remember some basic phrases, so you can ask for directions, and not confuse your right with your left when you are given them. Or make sure the waiter knows you definitely want your umpteenth cup of tea sans sucre!

I swear I spoke more different languages (that I didn’t even know I could speak!) during my week in Morocco in December than over the course of the whole year prior to that. And that’s considering the fact that last year saw me trying to hold a conversation with my climbing partner’s Italian grandma in Italian. Which I have never learnt.

6. Don’t be afraid of staying in hostels

But maybe bring a sleeping bag liner. You can get them mega-cheap from Sports Direct and they really give that extra sense of comfort when you are not quite sure if the sheets have been washed.

sleeping MoroccoNow, I have never stayed anywhere particularly posh in Morocco, as I’m the type of traveller who actually quite likes slumming it a little, plus the more money I save on accommodation, the more I can spend on other (probably unnecessary) things. But I firmly believe you will have a nicer experience staying in a hostel-style riad in the old city (the Medina), rather than a posh hotel in the new city. If you are not the hostel type, you can still find riads for a very cheap price. I wouldn’t pay more than £15/pp per night at most, but the hostels are easily a third of that price.

Just read the reviews on hostelworld.com and you should be able to pick something suitable. They usually have lots of private rooms for a low price, too. We stayed at Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge and I thought it was really good value for money, and even included breakfast. It’s also very centrally located and easy to find from the main square, Jemaa El-Fnaa.

7. Have extra space in your luggage…

…because you will want to buy stuff! A lot of stuff. Stuff you don’t really need, or rather, never realised you needed desperately right until this moment. On my last trip, myself and my friend Valentina somehow managed to walk up to a lady selling beanie hats, just to look, and walked away with eight. Eight hats!! Three of them she just gave to us for free, because we clearly failed to haggle as hard as we should have done. (My beanie has come in useful lately though, after London plunged into subarctic conditions.)

“But hats don’t take up that much space in your luggage,” you laugh…Well, I also felt compelled to buy a framed painting for my flat, and something I can only describe as a Jedi cloak as a present for a friend. Which he loved, to be fair. Last time I went I came back with a Moroccan teapot and six tea glasses, following some epic haggling where I told the vendor I was a poor Bulgarian student. I even put on an accent, and all!

8. Travel outside Marrakesh

travel moroccoThere is so much to explore! I have been to Morocco three times, and each time I discovered new adventures. The first time I went with two friends to try out surfing near Agadir, and then visited Marrakesh for the first time. I actually covered this in a different blog (a loooong time ago), so if you want to give this a read here is the link.

The second time a group of us went to conquer Mount Toubkal – the highest peak in North Africa at 4,167m. We succeeded, but we were comically unprepared for the adventure, having only brought a printed version of someone else’s blog to guide us up the mountain. No guides. No map. No compass. And only a couple functioning head torches between nine of us, which came in rather useful when we got lost in the dark on the trek back down, having completely mistimed the whole descent!

9. And at the end of it all…have a hammam!

But I would splash out on a private one, rather than going to a public one. I’ve never actually been to a public one, but the private ones I’ve had are sooooo good! Especially after days of climbing or trekking up and down the Atlas Mountains. Last time we actually had two in one trip!

You are best off booking one of these in advance though, especially if you are going during quite a busy season, because we struggled to find one last minute in Marrakesh on our second night. In the end we managed, and I highly recommend the one we went to: Les Bains d’Azahara. It’s very reasonably priced, and though it is a little bit away from the main touristy areas, it is easy to find. The most basic hammam costs 150 dirham (under £11), while a package with an hour-long massage is 400 dirham. It’s super relaxing and really worth it!

The only thing I would warn you of, is that however careful you are to ask for the men and women in your group to be be placed in separate rooms, that is very unlikely to happen. Every time I’ve had a hammam in Morocco I’ve ended up in the same room as at least one of my male friends, which means that you are probably going to see a number of your friends sporting very skimpy disposable pants. You could always make a fuss about it, but I chose to just enjoy the hilarity of it. If anything, it will bring you and your friends closer. Or at least give you some good blackmail material!

10. Lastly, when you head home, print your Ryanair ticket…don’t rely on your phone!

Moroccan airports are some of the few globally where you still cannot simply show a bar code on your phone instead of printing off your ticket. They don’t have the technology yet, I think. Don’t worry if you aren’t able to print the return ticket before you get to Morocco though, as there are internet cafes in most places.

So on the penultimate day of our latest trip to Morocco, over the New Year’s holiday, we went to an internet cafe to print out our tickets. Imagine our shock when the check-in page told us the flight had already flown?! We looked at the date on the desktop, and with horror realised it said 5 January, not 4 January, as we believed it to be. For a few horrible seconds we genuinely thought we had somehow missed a day?!…..then it turned out the Medieval computer system had the wrong date setting, and the lady manning the store didn’t know how to change it. The check-in page was taking the date from the desktop (for whatever reason), so it wouldn’t let us check in! Eventually though, we managed to print off our tickets using her computer, which didn’t seem to be plagued with this problem.

I hope these little pointers help you on your next trip to Morocco. What else would you like me to write about? What destinations are you planning to check out this year? I would love to hear from you!

Also, for my Italian readers, check out my friend Valentina’s blog, where she has covered some of our adventure in Italian.

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Todra Gorge: The quest for the best climbing guidebook

Over the New Year’s holidays, myself, my climbing partner Valentina and our friend Gianni went to Morocco for a week to climb at Todra Gorge (and eat loads of cous cous!). You can read about our New Year’s Eve celebrations in my first blog about this, but the climbing itself, or rather our attempts to figure out the details, was a whole separate challenge!

We came to Todra Gorge with just a pocket-sized climbing guidebook that we found online, but according to reports we read online a man called Hassan sells hand-drawn topos for climbers on the spot for 250 Moroccan dirham (around £18). Our book was missing key pieces of information, such as the length of the routes, so we were open to the idea of getting another copy. We didn’t realise the search for a good quality guidebook would become such a mission and would teach us so much about the Moroccan ways…

As soon as we disembarked from the coach that took us to Todra from Marrakesh over 8 hours of windy roads, we were approached by a man asking us if we were climbers and whether we were looking for any ‘materials’. He recognised us from the safety helmet attached to the outside of Valentina’s rucksack, I guess, or maybe just the looks on our faces. We ignored him, of course, having already learned this useful tactic in Marrakesh, but he was very persistent!

After we checked in to our hotel (Hotel Restaurant Lakasbah in Tinghir, a town 15 km from the gorge itself), we went for a walk to explore the town and, surprise surprise, got approached by the same man. Yes, he had actually been hanging around waiting for us. I told you, persistent! Since online advice reassured us it was normal to acquire climbing guidebooks in such dodgy ways over here, we thought we would give this guy, who called himself Hussein, a chance. 

The first lesson we learned in the process is that nothing is quick in Morocco. It’s like they run on a clock of their own that’s out of sync with the rest of the globe. Hussein led us to a roof terrace in a cafe, where he offered us tea (one of many, MANY teas we have been offered in this country in similar situations, and which we obviously then had to pay for, including his portion). Time passed as we waited for a friend of his to turn up with, presumably, the books. However, once his friend turned up, he apparently didn’t actually realise we were looking for a topo and said we could only get the book the following day in Todra itself. Fine. We agreed to meet Hussein at 8.30am to go to Todra and pick up the guidebook.

The thing is, he didn’t leave us alone after that. First, he talked a lot. Then he offered us hashish. Then he told us he would show us around the “women’s market”. Then he suggested he would take us for food somewhere when we said we were hungry. We literally had to rush back to the hotel, saying we needed to change into warmer clothes, just to get away from him. But the Hussein saga was only just beginning.

Moroccans don’t like to leave tourists alone after they have made the initial contact and they know there may be something in it for them. And they really don’t understand the idea of privacy. That was the second lesson learnt that evening. Hussein was waiting for us by the main square and saw us as we walked back from our hotel in search of somewhere to go for dinner. He was evidently hoping for an invite so we would pay for his food too. He tried to follow us around until we literally stopped and said “thank you for your help, we’ll see you tomorrow at 8.30“. He sort of got the point then, and left us alone for the night.

Part of me felt bad for getting quite as impatient and angry at the locals for being pushy and annoying – after all, their culture is simply very different to our own. But by the next morning, I was way past being friendly to Hussein, as well as his slightly dim-witted friend, who had also been following us around. He kept telling us he normally lives in Holland and was just in Morocco on holiday, earning him the nickname “Amsterdam”.

The saga continues…

We met Hussein the next morning as agreed, after having breakfast at our hotel. However, he was convinced we were having breakfast together, despite us saying otherwise the night before. He clearly had a plan, and took us to Amsterdam’s cafe for tea, so he could have his own breakfast. Naturally, we had to have tea. We were given no choice in that. When he was finished, it was past 9am, and we were eager to go climbing. But Amsterdam told us the collective taxis to Todra weren’t heading out for another hour (a complete lie!), and we should check out the women’s market in the meantime. We tried very hard to decline, but he just said “Follow me”…and guess what? He took us to the women’s market, of course. If ever you are in Tinghir, getting ready for a day of climbing, never ever follow anyone who tells you about a women’s market!! It is an absolute waste of time and completely unnecessary.

Amsterdam led us to a house where a bunch of Moroccan women weave carpets. He kept telling us we were just here to look, and “not for money”. After a short explanation of what was going on there, he told us the women would like to offer us (more!!!) tea, and that this was Berber hospitality, which of course we couldn’t refuse. The women then, naturally, proceeded to roll out ALL the carpets they had in front of us. Definitely in search of some money. To give them credit, they were very pretty, but never in my life have I not wanted to buy a carpet more than at that point. Hussein, who had stayed with us, was of no help whatsoever and just stayed out of the way. Clearly, he had an agreement with Amsterdam to let him do his business. That was the point I decided it was OK to just be rude!

In the end, we had to literally walk out of that house and tell Hussein we needed to go climbing right now (well done Valentina!), because the shopping tour may well have continued for much longer. Miraculously, it turned out we could easily get a collective taxi to Todra whenever we wanted (surprise surprise).

Taxis TinghirIf you go to the big mini-van taxis and pay 8 dirham per person (around 70p), you just have to wait for the taxi to have six passengers and it will leave. It doesn’t seem to take too long to fill up, considering it’s the biggest town in the area, but you can always offer to cover the missing passengers by paying…another 70p per person. 

When we finally got to Todra…

Upon arrival to Todra, we had to refuse another offer of tea flat out. We were told Hassan, who makes the topos, was busy at that moment. Again, that was a lie, because he came out straight away after we made a big deal about it. 

As other bloggers have described him, Hassan is a tiny old man, with very few teeth, but at least he is clearly knowledgeable about the area. He hand draws all his books, which he sells for 250 dirham. They aren’t great quality, but they are quite a cool souvenir to bring back from the area. Also, with the limited information available from the web, we were convinced his topos were the only local ones we could get, so at (what we thought was) the end of this saga he seemed like a breath of fresh air.

But, on reflection, it turned out we shouldn’t have bought his book after all. As great as the effort he goes to is, he isn’t the only one who knows the routes and he does massively overcharge for the privilege. Besides, I hear he does more drinking than climbing nowadays…

So if you go to Todra, avoid Hassan, avoid Hussein, there are better resources on offer. Just act like you know what you’re doing, and hopefully the wrong people will leave you alone. 

How we discovered the other guidebook…

Despite the hassle of trying to get to Todra and get the topo for the area, we were extremely happy. We now had two climbing guidebooks, the weather was magical, Hussein had finally left us alone, and we had the most gorgeous limestone cliffs all around us. It was time to climb!

It took us a while to figure out where we wanted to go, but Hassan’s book was quite helpful, especially as it provides the general route lengths, which was critical for us, as we only had a 60 metre rope. Many of the routes in the area are over 30 metres long, so a 60m will often not suffice. If you are planning to go, I would strongly recommend bringing a 70m or 80m rope!

climbing TodraFor our first climb, we walked quite far into the gorge, to an area called Petit Gorge, where we found quite a few relatively easy slabby routes, loads of sunshine, and the Spanish climbers, with whom we ended up spending New Year’s Eve (read my previous post for my description of this marvelous experience!).

We also met their Berber friend (well…it actually turned out they met him for the first time that day, but they called him ‘amigo’), who had a completely different climbing guidebook…which looked more detailed than ours and had real photos, rather than hand-drawn diagrams!

Yes, did you really think the saga of the guidebook would end there?!

So we ended up buying that guidebook, too. For 150 dirham – cheaper than the first one. This latest acquisition gave us the length of the ropes needed for each route, making it far easier to figure out where we could and couldn’t go. Hassan’s book just gave the length of the longest route in any given area, but this wasn’t very helpful in places where the routes are quite different lengths.

Sufiane
Me and Valentina with Sufiane, author of the second book and star of my first Morocco blog

We now had three books. Never in my life have I had to acquire three different climbing guidebooks for an area just to try and figure out where to go and what on earth I’m climbing! But I suppose this is what makes this area that little bit more exciting, the fact that it’s only just being developed to global climbing standards now, and much still remains undiscovered and new.

Todra itself is a gorgeous place – red limestone cliffs overlook a winding road, with a small river meandering on each side of it. There is climbing on each side of the river, and taking my shoes off to cross it was my refreshing morning ritual. We could have spent far longer than three days here!

So we carried on climbing with three guidebooks, until on the last day…

…we met a local teenager, Mohammed, who took us to a climbing shop, owned by his uncle Abdul. This was after he watched us climbing for a few hours, so we offered him to climb a route. He did so, in one of our harnesses and his trainers. And he was better than any of us in our rock shoes!

The shop is situated in a small village around 15-20 mins walk from Todra back towards Tinghir, and can be seen on the left hand side if you take a taxi up from Tinghir. It has some gear hanging outside, including a life-sized doll of a climber in a helmet. It’s pretty hard to miss really, so not sure how we managed to do so for three days going up and down from Tinghir!

Abdul is unlike any other locals we met in the area. Firstly, he never tried to sell us anything. He simply waited while we took a look around the shop. He had organised a sport climbing competition that day, which we had heard about but chose not to participate this time, and he also told us he has put a lot of work into bolting up the area and renovating the existing bolts. This guy is putting a lot of effort into looking after the place and promoting climbing in the area.

And of course – yes, you guessed it! – he sells climbing guidebooks. And they really are pretty good quality ones, far better than the other three that we now own…they cost 250 dirham, same as the hand-drawn version by Hassan, but trust me when I say they are far more worth it!

So, at the end of the last day, we found the best topo…and then we had to leave! But when we go back, Abdul will definitely be the only one we go to for advice, guidebooks and anything else we may need. And if you are going, please support this guy by buying his guidebook, and refusing anything else the locals offer you. 

Summary and other useful information for climbers in Todra:

  • Guidebook:
    – Buy your guidebook from Abdul, who owns the climbing shop on the way up to Todra from Tinghir
  • Equipment:
    – Make sure you bring a 70m/80m rope if you want to be flexible in your climbing
    – Apparently some trad gear is necessary on multi-pitch routes, but they look awesome!
  • Accommodation:
    – If you want to stay somewhere with electricity and comfort, I would recommend Hotel Restaurant Lakasbah in Tinghir, but you will have to get a taxi every morning; the rooms are around £15/pp per night, pricey for Morocco.
    – Alternatively, you can stay in Todra itself. You will be closer to the climbing, it will be a third of the price, but the conditions may be pretty dire. Heating is not a given, and it gets pretty cold at night.
  • Food:
    – The food in the area is very samey and in many places it’s really not great! However, we discovered an awesome little place in Tinghir, just off the main square, next to the CTM bus stop, called Cafe Central. It looks like nothing special, but compared to the food we had everywhere else, this was genuinely incredible! I mean, it had flavour. You can’t imagine how important this becomes after a few days here!

An Italian version of this blog has been written by my climbing partner, Valentina. Even if you are not Italian, please check out her new blog here, you’ll find some cool stuff.

Don’t look down! My first via ferrata

As I look up all I can see is metal staircases, stretching up seemingly right up towards the sky. I’m in the middle of one of them, gripping so hard my knuckles are going white, as I re-clip my carabiners onto the next chain. Click one. Click two. Phew…safe.

Ferrata ladder

Via ferrata is not for the faint of heart – it’s an experience that requires a bit of a head for heights, arguably to a greater extent than “proper” climbing. Some via ferrata have a great deal of exposure, and falling off is really not the best idea, despite being protected along the way.

Via ferrata – Italian for “iron road” – is a protected climbing route, usually by a steel cable or chain that runs up the rock, which is fixed to the rock at 3-10 metre intervals. They range in difficulty from 1 to 5, the latter being the hardest, and also tend to have grades for the exposure element.

Its origins go back to World War I, when ropes and wooden bridges were scattered all over the Dolomites to help troops move around at altitude. Decades later, after World War II, these were replaced by steel cables, metal ladders and chains, a network which now covers over 1,000 routes and is maintained by the Club Alpino Italiano, the Italian Alpine Club.

Via ferrata gives you that mix between sport climbing and hiking up a mountain, and the result is exhilarating. That’s something I’ve been missing with sport climbing so far – though we go outdoors quite a lot, we haven’t transitioned on to doing lots of multi-pitch routes(yet!), so although the fear of falling is ever-present, it rarely satisfies my need for height.

As I said, vie ferrate are not for the faint of heart. At times, there’s a huge amount of exposure, and I have to confess I felt a monumental sense of relief that I didn’t dive head first, as I normally do, and organise a trip to do one of these with a group of friends. It was something I planned for a while, but on my first time doing this thing, I don’t think I would have been of any help if one of my friends panicked, and I feel that is a distinct possibility on a route like that (even though ours was pretty easy by ferrata standards).

Don’t get me wrong – the experience is incredible and I would recommend it to anyone who loves the mountains. But having done it myself, I would suggest taking an instructor to anyone who doesn’t either climb or scramble on a regular basis.

Ferrata bridgeWe did a route called Gamma 1 in the mountains around Lake Como, Italy. It’s a relatively simple route, with a 2.2 rating (out of 5), so it wasn’t necessarily hard technically, but it was very tiring! It requires stamina and upper body strength, and a bit of disregard for the skin on your hands, as well as tolerance to many accidental bruises.

In many places the route was really polished – either because it’s simple, and therefore popular, or simply by virtue of being close to the lake and getting eroded by wet air day in, day out, for years. So often we had to resort to pulling ourselves up using the chains and smearing on the wall with our feet, instead of employing any form of climbing technique!

And the equipment. The equipment deserves a whole post on its own, but there are a number of those online, so I won’t try to replicate them.

I’ll say this though: as climbers, we assumed until last minute that we can forgo the precautions used by “normal people”. Our plan was to just attach some slings to our climbing harnesses, stick a carabiner on the end, bingo! Luckily, we did a bit of reading around, and that’s not quite how it works…

It turns out that, while a sport climber is likely to encounter a fall factor of up to 2, the fall factors on a via ferrata can reach 5. Without too much technical detail, it would suffice to say that even a small fall on a sling can burst it into pieces, so using them for a via ferrata is a very, very bad idea. But it turns out that even normal dynamic rope won’t take a fall of such force, though many people use DIY equipment anyway. We decided to be better safe than sorry!

The bottom line is, if you want to go, make sure you buy a lanyard – a special via ferrata set that will keep you safe as much as possible. There are quite a few expensive sets out there, but French brand Simond do a perfectly suitable lanyard for £34.99, which you can buy in Decathlon. Then all you need is a harness and a helmet, and if your hands are particularly soft, a pair of gloves could help. We were too hardcore/cheap to buy suitable gloves, so we just went for it. I have to be honest, my hands felt really, really sore afterwards. But what’s adventure without a little bit of physical hardship?

And anyway, it was all majorly worth it for the views. Nothing can ever compare to looking down on the world from the top of a mountain, in my personal opinion. And I never ever feel quite as happy doing anything else as I feel in that moment. It’s like all the worries of the world simply slip away and all that’s left is just childish, boundless joy of being there. That what the saying “I feel on top of the world” really means!

If you want to see more of our adventures, check out our YouTube channel Vertical Souls and please subscribe if you like it!

Addiction to adventure: in love with the pain

Every step I take up the steep winding steps sends shooting pains up my knees and thighs, and the worst thing is I know it will hurt twice as much on the way down. But I can’t help laughing at the crippled predicament I’m in, that we’re all in.

Slowly we shuffle up the staircase, wincing every time we put weight on our tortured limbs, all the time wide ecstatic smiles dancing on our faces. We made it to the top of North Africa yesterday!!! What’s a few extra flights of stairs?

There is something addictive, something so appealing and irresistible about the pain and struggle we put ourselves through in our fight to get to the top, to reach the finish line, to fight until we have nothing left to give. We are all drug addicts, who, having tasted the bittersweet poison of adventure, battle through our day-to-day activities like zombies in anticipation of the life-giving elixir of the next challenge, the next fight, the next push.

It is now nearly a year since a group of us hiked to the top of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains (4,167m). The altitude and long hours of hiking took their toll on us. There were illnesses, arguments, and exhaustion, but what I remember most vividly now is the exhilaration of getting to the top, and the sense of accomplishment and deserved rest the following day.

I miss that feeling terribly, and I want to experience it again. And again. And again.

I want to push myself to the top of a mountain again, suffering the headaches, the nausea, the exhaustion. I want to be forced to search for those last reserves of energy to cover the remaining few hundred metres, to stand at the top and spread my arms out to the sides, breathing in the cold, crisp air. I want to feel like I’m on top of the world again. I don’t care if it will be physically painful, because I know it’s SO worth it!

People often ask, what it is about climbing and mountaineering that’s so appealing? Adventure sports is a drug that’s so much stronger than the chemically induced highs that keep people dancing throughout the night in clubs. It’s an addiction so powerful that no amount of going “cold turkey” could ever cure it. It’s feeling bright amid a nondescript grayness.

When I’m climbing a route outdoors, or scrambling up some crumbly scree, my mind goes blank, in a way I have never managed to achieve through any amount of meditation (I usually just fall asleep!). All the everyday worries, insecurities and petty annoyances just slip away, leaving pure focus. On the rock in front of me, the pebbles under my feet, the steel pieces of equipment in my hands, and the rope tied into my harness. Beautifully simple, the uninterrupted concentration on staying safe and making it up to the top.

That’s what I climb for – that inner calm and composure, more than the adrenaline, or even the gorgeous views at the top of a mountain or a multi-pitch route.

Falling in love with mountaineering isn’t a phase, nor is it an unhealthy obsession. It’s simply the elation of finally discovering what it feels like to be alive, and holding on to that feeling with everything you have. Because nothing else compares, and nothing ever will. And it’s worth all the money in the world.

So…….who’s up for doing a 5,000m peak with me? 😉

The most important piece of advice for long haul flights

Long haul flights are exhausting and often very uncomfortable, but preparing for the journey can make it go so much more smoothly.

If you are not a very experienced traveller though, you may forget the journey does not just end as soon as you land in the airport. Often, there is a lengthy bus or car ride after, and then all the settling down and unpacking once you reach your destination.

I learnt about the importance of planning ahead the hard way when I flew to Cape Town.

The transit time from London was a total of 18 hours (because I couldn’t afford a direct flight), far longer than anything I had experiences beforehand. It involved two planes – one to Istanbul and another to Cape Town, with a pit stop in Johannesburg for a refuel.

The last thing you want to happen when you are facing an 18 hour journey is a delay, but that is exactly what happened. The first flight was delayed by an hour and a half, and suddenly the two-hour layover in Istanbul did not seem quite as comfortable.

We just made it, and had to run onto the other plane. It waited for us, but it did not wait for our luggage…

There is nothing like arriving at the house of a person you don’t know and having nothing to change into! So it was not ideal for me to come out on the other side in Cape Town and find out my suitcase was still back in Istanbul, 12 hours away from me. Suddenly, my mind raced back to all those articles I ready about carrying a change of clothes.

So here is my advice, and I will stick to it religiously myself from now on: always, ALWAYS carry a change of clothes with you when you fly with multiple connections! Because your luggage will never be the priority for an airline running a tight schedule.

And underwear. Definitely always carry a change of underwear. Oh, and a bikini, if you’re going somewhere as lovely as South Africa.

Luckily, my trip did not carry on the way it started…

Why South Africa makes you an alcoholic

Here in the UK, wine drinking is usually reserved to the evening (unless you’re a financial journalist at a boozy Friday lunch, of course), but in South Africa wine tastings are more of an afternoon affair. In fact, the first vineyard we went to was not even open past 4.30pm, except on Thursdays and Fridays, when it closes at 6pm.

Durbanville Hills Wine, which was to be my first mid-afternoon wine tasting experience in the land of the grape, is just 20 minutes drive from the centre of Cape Town, in a flat valley surrounded by acres and acres of greenery. Turning up without a reservation can be a little hit and miss, as it is so busy during the South African summer period (October-February), but we managed to find some comfy seats with a view of the luxurious vineyards.

It was still early on in my trip, so the novelty of leisurely, sizzling sunshine-filled afternoons in the days running up to News Year’s Eve hadn’t worn off yet, and knowing I had most of the holiday ahead of me made it a very special kind of treat.

I would wholly recommend the biltong and wine tasting experience if, like me, you love wine and meat. Although I did wonder what they put on that biltong to make it taste so damn good, I pushed the thoughts to the farthest corner of my mind and just enjoyed the experience.

Each of the fine wines came with its own type of biltong, enough to to give a large man his protein hit for the day. I even tried chicken biltong, much softer and chewier than the game and red meat varieties, though it was not my favourite.

My biltong consumption was only going to increase throughout the holiday, it turned out. And so was the wine intake, naturally.

Thankfully, wine tasting does not need to be a one-off luxury in the Cape, partly because it is so cheap. And what better way to welcome in the New Year than by trying five different local wines and a nice crisp glass of champagne for the equivalent of just over £2 (45 rand)?

The second vineyard we went to, Leopard’s Leap, is situated in Franschhoek and offers a simpler version of wine tasting than the estate in Durnbanville: just wine and breadsticks, nothing fancy. Except for the wines themselves, of course!

I was so enthusiastic about the tastings that Zayn’s mother, who doesn’t really drink much at all, called me an alcoholic. I hope she was joking…

I think I may have actually started annoying the South Africans by laughing at the prices all the time, especially at the prices of wine. But I couldn’t help comparing sunny Western Cape with rainy London, and its over-priced booze! And of course it helps that the South African currency – the rand – has fallen so far against the pound now that us British feel like millionaires over there, which is hard not to take advantage of.

If you are planning a wine tasting in South Africa, one piece of advice is: do not plan anything else for the afternoon. You will almost certainly need a nap afterwards!