Part 1

Summiting Mt Toubkal in Morocco was the first of 7 challenges I had set myself as part of an initiative I am driving to promote a healthy and active lifestyle in the region. Aptly named ‘The Arab Pulse’ campaign, my mission is comprised of a series of trials that include summiting the highest mountain in the Arab world – Mt. Toubkal and participating in marathons and triathlons in an array of different Arab countries.

With the support of Rahhalah (my go to adventure specialists), they organized the trip to Morocco over the course of the Eid Al Adha holidays. As per usual due to hectic work commitments, I did not have adequate time to manage my quest-prep in advance. On the eve of my flight taking off in Abu Dhabi – a tiresome niggling factor since I’m based in Dubai- I rushed from work to buy some gear, supplies, a Jafar-inspired shave and Aladdin haircut to ensure the most important factor of all: Being Instagram ready! I had just a smattering of time to, eat dinner, clean my house and finally pack. These frenzied few hours were spent in a most uncomfortable fashion of me fretting that I would certainly forget something important!

I called a taxi and informed him we were going to Abu Dhabi, to which he responded with glee saying that he was not feeling very well and was glad that this one trip would be sufficient to cover his shift for the night. I was exhausted having not slept properly the night before. I had also run 16km, something I hadn’t done in 3 years, in preparation for the first marathon race I would be running in Amman, Jordan. I tried to rest in the car but the driver kept yammering away. Like the cruel sleep deprivation torture methods used on criminals, I would be deceitfully lured into a prolonged period of silence, only to be suddenly disrupted by a loud unnecessary small talk from the driver who had now become my enemy. It was a painfully excruciating hour to the terminal!

I finally boarded the plane, launched my bag into the overhead compartment and collapsed in my seat. The plane was empty but I was told the flight was fully booked. Judging by how long it took to get on the bus and board the plane I assumed we would be delayed for at least an hour. I would never know because once my head was pressed up against the window I was out cold.

I woke up to the soundtrack of the first album of the Black Keys. It must have looped 30 times while I was in a deep slumber. Looking out of the window I saw nothing but white hills as if we were flying over a snowy canyon in the sky. I couldn’t make out if they were mountains or just beautifully designed clouds. I was praying for the latter because I hate the cold and was dreading more freezing nights up in the mountains. I looked up at the plane’s tracking map which highlighted the cities in Arabic. We were firmly in Moroccan territory – the little plane symbol a few centimetres away from a city called Dar Al Beidaa. In one of those eureka moments in which I could not believe I could not connect the dots at any earlier point in my life – Casa Blanca – White House – Dar Al Beidaa. I was buzzed with excitement believing I had discovered something revolutionary. My guide Hussein whom I would meet on arriving in Marrakech would later tauntingly challenge me to answer why I thought it was named that way.

As the plane descended I was thankful that my mind had just been playing its usual tricks on me, as those white hills were nothing more than clouds. We plunged through them like a hot knife cutting through butter, with the views opening up below.

Four minutes away from our destination – according to the screen – and all I could see below me was farmland with a few houses scattered sparsely across the fields. Where was the city? The runway itself seemed to pop out of nowhere in the middle of these fields. As I disembarked from the plane I looked around confused that I could not see a single high rise building in sight. This was the main airport; Mohammed V International Airport but it was a good 45-minute drive away from the city. I went through all that general public transfer business – connecting flights formalities before sitting at the domestic gate waiting to board for Marrakech.

The tiredness had crept up on me again. I was too scared to sleep, worried that I would hibernate through the announcements and miss my flight. I thought up a strategy of walking to the cafeteria, buying some ice cream and walking around the hall while eating it. I would try a different flavour every time I got up, to keep my brain excited and distracted from the weariness. I did this 3 times, a feat made more awkward by the expressions on distraught children’s faces I passed, who gazed pitifully each time I walked by with a new scoop!

The flight to Marrakech felt like 5 minutes instead of 50 as I passed out again for the duration of the flight. This time we had landed earlier than expected so the driver was not yet there to receive me as I walked out of the terminal. I was desperate to sleep some more so I laid down my duffle bag on the pavement and nestled my head comfortably on it before the driver appeared to stop the slumber party. He launched me and my luggage into his car and off we drove into the city.

As we drove past the walls of the old city and past the Mamounia Hotel – one of the largest and arguably best hotels in North Africa, I was trying to maintain my whereabouts and sense of navigation. That possibility increasingly evaporated the more we weaved in and out of the narrow cobbled streets and alleyways. We eventually stopped at the door of my hotel, discreetly hidden within the red walls of the street like a secret door to an even more secretive garden.

My guide Hussein was waiting for me at the secret entrance and pushed through the massive wooden door to lead me into the hotel. The Riad (traditional hotel) had a historical palatial atmosphere. To my delight, it turned out to actually be a palace.

The Palais Sebban was constructed around the magnificent residence of Caid (Governor) Sebban. Beautiful Islamic geometric patterns adorned every inch of the magnificent property, lining the walls, floors, multiple courtyards and sitting areas on the roof, which had a splendid view of the Andalus Mosque and the red rooftops that littered the skyline. Feeling like James Bond on one of his exotic overseas escapades, I briefly contemplated skipping the mountain altogether and just staying put for the duration of the trip. Hussein informed me we would go out in the city for dinner later in the evening until then I had a few hours to kill. I had no idea how far the hotel was from the main road or how to get to the main landmarks and I was not going to risk getting lost exploring, given the state I was in so I slept (again) instead.

Hussein walked me through the main square Jemaah Al-Fnaa; it was bustling with people – tourists, locals, pop up shop owners accompanied by their bursting stalls, street performers and snake charmers to name a few. We took a sharp right off the main swarming high street called ‘Prince Street’, walking up to the terrace of a restaurant that overlooked the street. The dinner was delicious considering I had spent the previous 36 hours living off processed plane food and ice cream. I devoured the brochettes with relentless gusto and gulped down tasty flavoured curry sauce on the rice. Moroccan teem (dates) and sugary biscuits followed to ensure everything within my bowels was digested in a cooperative fashion. I was intrigued by our waiter’s ability to pour the tea into my cup from a meter above my almost thimble-sized cup. He told me that this age-old tea pouring practice increased the zest and flavour in the tea when served as such. Pondering over the red skyline I wondered how many more theme coloured cities were in the country. Marrakech was red, Casablanca was white. Hussein told me of the Moroccan city Chefchaouen where all the buildings were blue (another one to add for the bucket list). This country was more fascinating than I had previously imagined.

Hussein and I assessed our journey on a map. Fortunately for me and my skin sensitivity to disagreeable weather he had forecasted only warm weather to come and it was only after hearing his brief – because of course, rather than read the itinerary myself I prefer having it recited to me the day before an expedition- I discovered that we would be sleeping in a refuge on the mountain INDOORS! This was music to my ears. We walked a different route around the main square and back to the hotel and slowly I began to familiarize my bearings. We were to leave tomorrow morning at 9am to the village of Imlin. This gave me sufficient time to fully recuperate and make up for lost sleep.

Day 2
I woke up at 6am, which was considerably earlier than I had expected to. It was still pitch black outside leaving me briefly disoriented. The first serving of breakfast was at 7:30am and I had slept well enough to not fall back asleep. Trying to kill time I began stretching and doing some morning push-ups thinking that this last minute strengthening would help me surge up the mountain.

I dragged my bags to the reception desk for check out and found Hussein waiting to assist stowing my luggage in the van. Finally, we were set to begin our journey to the town of Imlin. It would be a 90-minute drive from Marrakech I discovered. As we peeled out of the Old Gates and the Old City, I admired red block after red block passing by us until we steered onto an open highway with the Atlas Mountains sprawled over the horizon getting larger and more magnificent the closer we approached. The road began to ascend and we steadily crept up the slopes of the mountains, weaving through while escorted by stunning views of the valley beneath us. Eventually, the car slowed down and the driver masterfully manoeuvred the vehicle through a bustling marketplace in the middle of the road. Hussein explained that every Saturday, the locals would bring out their fresh produce as well as clothes, jewelry and textiles to showcase and sell. Since it was also the first day of the

Eid Al Adha, it was more crowded than usual – the locals were out and about buying gifts for their family and friends.

For a few more minutes we soldiered on and finally reached our drop off point in the village of Imlin. Hussein introduced me to my guide Rashid, my companion who would be climbing with me to the summit of Toubkal. The sun was scorching hot but I was not complaining. It was a welcome change on these mountain adventures, instead of the disgustingly freezing temperatures I had endured on recent trips. I threw on some sun cream, strapped on my backpack and off we went continuing a little higher up the road to the starting point of the trail.

It only took five minutes of walking on the gently ascending slopes before I started to feel a dreaded strain in my thighs. This cannot be happening already I thought, and I tried to brush of this nuisance of discomfort by slowing my pace a little. We walked by a small textile and clothes shop and I looked to Rashid to go inside because I wanted to buy a local Berber dress to wear at the summit and to prep for the ‘Insta-famous’ glory. The shopkeeper was wearing a colourful gallabiyah with a rainbow-patterned turban wrapped around his head and dropping to his knees. A beautiful mess I thought – he reminded me of one of the dishonest shopkeepers in the marketplace in Aladdin as he smiled crookedly at me. ‘Come in my friend,’ he gestured. The ‘friend’ was a nice touch as I knew I was in for a serious bout of haggling.

He presented me with a ‘vintage’ Berber gown I instantly fell in love with and according to the shopkeeper was worn by the locals on special occasions. A few back and fourth’s on price and a matching hat thrown in sweetened the deal, satisfying for both parties. ‘It was a pleasure doing business’, his grin stretching to the back of his jaw.

Rashid and I carried on our path up the trail through a small cluster of woods. After about half an hour we emerged onto an open plain and found a quaint band of houses perched on a ridge overlooking the valley we were standing in; ‘That is my home!’ Rashid exclaimed. He had only recently been married and pointed out the house in the distance, where he and his wife lived. He then carried on, explaining that he climbed Mt. Toubkal 2-3 times a week. His first time to the summit was when he was 15 years ago. This was his home and his mountain. I was relieved I was in good hands. We pushed onward and upward, traversing across the slopes of the ridges overlooking the valley. After we had climbed over, we found another vast and deep ravine below us. Toubkal was in our sights but it was painfully disheartening to think that we were at the final hurdle of a hill, only to find another gorge to cross.

After an exhausting few hours, we set up a picnic in a flat area next to the trail to have some delicious Moroccan lunch – Kofta Tagine. There were other tourists at this spot which appeared to be the designated ‘lunch spot’ – French, Canadians, Belgians; all French-speaking. Rashid and I talked about our previous adventures. By coincidence, we discovered that one of my previous guides, Lisa, who had taken me to the summit of Elbrus was a friend of his. She had come to Morocco in the winter, to climb Toubkal 5 times and then ski down. What a very small world we live in.

Two more hours of walking and we had finally reached the refuge. I was feeling extremely blessed and grateful; we were sleeping indoors and there was a working toilet. We had popcorn while sitting in the main lounge of the refuge and I exchanged stories with some of the other travelers waiting for dinner. We had more tagine (beef this time) and some warm tea, making me gloriously drowsy. Rashid advised me to sleep early, warning that he would wake me up at 3am so we could attempt to reach the summit by sunrise. I crawled into my sleeping bag and tucked myself in for an early night’s sleep.

Ecstatic as I was at the prospect of sleeping in a warm indoor shelter, feelings of dread overtook me almost instantly as I started pondering leaving the refuge and inevitably sleeping out in the open.

I was dozing off, eyes closed and my brain slowly succumbing to my will when suddenly the door swung violently open, crashing against the wall with deafening force as a bundle of bags clonked and clattered to the floor. In walked a group of 5 travelers who were going to be spending the night as well. The rest of the tenants grumbled and griped in their cots but didn’t confront these hooligans. How could they have possibly arrived at the refuge now so late at night and from where? Hurling their bags on the top level of the bunk beds with a loud thud, the metal frame holding the beds above my head squeaked with the sudden impact of the weight. They climbed up and began chirping to each other in high pitched whispers. By this time, everyone in the room had awoken. Just as their mindless chatter started withering out, they decided to have a communal visit to the bathroom. One by one, they creaked down the bunk beds and relieved themselves. Between their movements, and gurgles coming from the bathroom and the rustling of their plastic bags as they frantically searched for whatever it is people frantically tear through their belongings for in the middle of the night – I was seconds away from challenging them to a dual. I cannot recall the point at which my body gave in and fell asleep but I remember being woken up by disturbingly loud snoring, again coming from above me. I do remember fantasizing pulling out my pocket knife and slitting all their boot laces so they wouldn’t be able to follow me in the morning as well, giving me enough comfort to lose consciousness! ■ To be continued

Words + Photos by: Fahd Abu Aisha