Marathon des Sables – Chapter 9 – La Grande Aventure

La Grande Aventure
Getting There – Marrakesh

The old Marrakesh, or “The Medina” as it is known, is simply an extraordinary place. I was to learn much later that the further out from the centre of Marrakesh that you travel, the more modern the city becomes. But the heart of Marrakesh, both geographically and spiritually, is the Medina. I had stepped back a hundred years in time.

After navigating through the maze of backstreets and alleyways that surround the Medina, the driver finally had me at my accommodation. As always in a new city, the first thing I had to do was to find a reliable source of food. It may sound too mundane for normal people, but upper most in the mind of a person with type 1 diabetes is knowing where and how to get food. After thirty six years, for me this was paramount. The charming lady looking after the villa, who spoke only French and Arabic, was nice enough to arrange for a taxi to come to pick me up and drive me to a “supermarket”. The driver, who’s English was less than my Arabic, was a charming little fellow who was only too pleased to help. The villa lady had explained to him that I needed a supermarket, so there was little drama explaining that to him. Between us we were able to use four languages to communicate; French, Arabic, English and hand signals.

The supermarket he took me to was old but quite large. It was similar to large old grocery stores in country towns in Saudi Arabia. An interesting thing that I discovered as I looked for breakfast food, fruit juice, UHT milk and anything else that was durable, gluten free and carbohydrate, was that the only recognizable brands were Coca Cola and Pepsi. Everything else was either a local brand or French. I did find a box of breakfast food which, with careful study of the eight languages presented on the side, I was able to determine was gluten free. That was definitely a “phew” moment. At least now I had food to get me through the next few days of adventure.

After driving me around for over an hour to banks and supermarkets, as well as walking with me through the supermarket to carry my grocery basket, it came time to pay the driver. No matter which country you are in the world that doesn’t speak English, this is always an interesting time. It is also one of those moments where you can get a snapshot of the integrity of the local people. Was he going to attempt to fleece me? After a little hand-wringing and nervousness, the driver finally told me that the fare was one hundred dirhams. A quick division by seven told me that this was not a lot of Australian dollars, and would have cost considerably more if we were in Melbourne. So I handed him the one hundred dirhams and then gave him twenty more.

Within the walls of the old city of Marrakesh is a rabbit warren of little laneways that criss-cross and weave their way this way and that. It is truly amazing to see. After settling in to my room at the villa I went for a walk to explore this amazing place. I was suddenly in the old Middle East, with donkey’s and rugs and street markets and mosques and little motor scooters squirting blue smoke. It was enchanting and I wandered around, carefully so as not to get lost. I immersed myself in the humdrum for an hour before finally heading back to the villa to wait for Erick, one of the two MdS (Marathon des Sables) tent mates I had arranged to meet at the villa for the ride the next day to Ouarzazate.

Erick arrived at the allotted time, after being picked up from the airport. He came rolling in like a clap of thunder, so let me explain Erick to you.

Imagine, if you will, a very tall (six foot five inches), proportionally large, very fit, very American, loud speaking fellow who works as a project engineer with Microsoft. Now add to that image that he is a self-confessed geek who has managed to do a lot of things during his forty something years of life, and you are starting to get a picture of Erick. Erick is larger than life and is a robustly charming fellow who was to become one of the focal points within tent 126.

Erick and I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening talking about our preparations for the MdS, our history, or lack of, with events such as this and our common interest in computer stuff. But I must say that on all of these subjects, Erick was able to trump me, and he wasn’t even trying. The only subject where I was able to more than hold my own was that of diabetes.

The next day, Thursday the 1st of April, April Fool’s day, found Erick, myself and the third member of the merry trio, Samantha from Canada, in a taxi on our way to Ouarzazate (Wah_za_zat). This interestingly spelled town is a five hour ride from Marrakesh through the Atlas mountains. It seems to be a common thing to hire a taxi to travel from Marrakesh along this beautifully scenic and occasionally scary mountain road. I felt a bit like Harrison Ford or Matt Damon as we drove around the mountain passes and through villages big and small. Everywhere I looked, and I was trying to look everywhere, there were donkeys and mules and interesting looking people going about their normal business.

When we arrived in Ouarzazate, the driver pulled into a carpark that had many taxis and their drivers. As we were now hundreds of kilometres from Marrakesh, the problem was that our driver didn’t know how to find our hotel. So after chatting with the other drivers for a few minutes, with us sitting in the idling Mercedes wondering what was going on, Erick was asked to squeeze into the back seat so another driver could climb into the front passenger seat. He was going to guide our driver to the hotel, apparently. Our momentary concern, with thoughts such as “What the hell is going on?”, was based on nothing more than the willingness of Moroccans to help each other.

It turned out that, purely by dumb luck, the hotel we were booked into was the same hotel that the rest of the American / Canadian / Australian / New Zealand contingent was going to be based in. Erick and I had been billeted together, so I would be enjoying the larger-than-life camaraderie and companionship of Erick for another night.

Once settled into the room, and after a brief explore around the grounds of the hotel, I went for the virtually mandatory walk to find a supermarket. There I was able to buy my bag of emergency food needed to cover that evening, the next morning and the five hour coach trip to the Sahara the next day.

For non-diabetics reading this story, these “bags of emergency food” are a vital requirement whenever a ready source of food, specifically carbohydrate, cannot be guaranteed. And when travelling, or in a new town or hotel, this can often be the case. Without the “just-in-case” food, a diabetic faces the real risk of winding up in emergency in hospital, or even dying. I wish I was exaggerating, but sadly I’m not.

The next morning, at long last, things were starting to really happen. After the normal morning ablutions, we all gathered down in the reception area to be processed on to the coaches that were taking us out to the desert. This was the next phase of the trip into the unknown. We were told that the journey would take approximately five hours and that we would be provided with a packed lunch along the way. That was the full extent of our information as we all made our way onto the modern and comfortable coaches.

Everyone was in varying states of bewilderment and befuddlement. There were the experienced ones, for whom this was not the first MdS, who arranged themselves comfortably and sat there in relative serenity. Then there were the newbies, like me, who were caught in a whirlpool of excitement, concern and confusion. As we drove along we didn’t know which way to look. Did we look out of the windows on the left side to see the small fields of agriculture that were there, complete with their donkeys and men ploughing the fields, or did we look out of the right side windows to watch the development of the Sahara desert as it stretched away to the horizon? Or maybe we needed to meet, greet and talk to every person on the bus, find out where they came from and ask what was behind them being here. There was so much to do and so little time to do it.

After we had all piled on, organized our bags and stuff into the overhead racks and finally sat down, I was sitting next to a fellow from New York. I’m bad with remembering people’s names so unfortunately I can’t remember his, but he was an IT Manager for an international bank with his office in downtown Manhattan. I have to be honest here and tell you that I’ve never met anyone from “downtown Manhattan” before, so even talking to this fellow had a spark of excitement for me. He was great to talk to and swap IT stories with, and proved to be a good friend much later in the story.

At long last, after five hours of diminishing villages and growing desert scenery, we arrived at the embarkation point for the final brief, bumpy ride to the first bivouac.

There was a small fleet of ex-military trucks waiting for us. This was starting to look serious, and was taking on an air of urgency. It had taken so long, so much work, so much pain, and here I was about to drive into the Sahara desert.

We grabbed our luggage, which still consisted of our precious backpacks and our small suitcase for after the event, and made our way over to the waiting trucks. With our two pieces of luggage, the climb up onto the back of the trucks was not easy. I was fearful that my backpack was going to be damaged, because for that to happen at this juncture would be tantamount to disaster. But everyone was careful and was each gripping their backpacks closely, so no damage was forthcoming. There wasn’t much conversation during the short trip, bouncing a kilometre across the rocky track. Everyone must have been in a similar state of excited / bewildered / exhausted state of mind to myself, as the old trucks delivered us to our sanctuary for the next week.

Fortunately, Erick and I were able to find tent #126 easily, only about ten tents from the opening to the huge circle of tents that had been constructed. With over a thousand competitors and eight per tent, there were around one hundred and twenty tents arranged in a giant circle. Each tent consisted of a large and very heavy canopy of black woven material that felt like it was made from woven camel hair. This was held up with poles forming a tent shape, under which eight people could sit or sleep with a bit of a squeeze. On the stony ground were spread two rugs, each of which was the sleeping space for four people and their gear. It was cosy, but with some organising and compromise, quite enough room for the eight tent mates. These tents became our new home for the next eight days.

As the fleet of trucks gradually brought everyone from the coaches to the bivouac, our tent started to fill up. Erick, Sam and I already knew each other, so the new people for us were Stuart, Mark, Greg, Roz and Meghan. Stuart was a Scotsman who lives in Melbourne, Mark an Englishman who just happened to live five kilometres up the road from where I live in Melbourne, Greg an American who lived in … um …. the USA, Roz a young Australia girl / lady who lived in Sydney and Meghan an American lady who lived near Yellowstone National park. So our tent had four Australians, three Americans and one Canadian. From the start it felt like everyone was going to get along well.

Eventually all had arrived and had introduced themselves, then settled down to play with their packs and gear. This was a fun game that we had all become addicted to as we trained and prepared for the MdS. The process of comparing gear and discussing the details of food choices filled a happy hour of discussion. I came to learn that we are very restricted in Australia with our choices of light weight gear and ultra- marathon food. I took the opportunity to explain to everyone that I was a little different, which has become quite a common thing for me to tell people, and explained to them briefly why. Sam, being the GP from Canada, helped me to explain that I may act strangely at some point over the next seven days, and why, but that it was my responsibility to ensure that it didn’t happen. Nobody had any questions, which is the usual response I get, which usually means that nobody had any previous exposure to diabetes and didn’t want to look silly asking the wrong question, emphasizing to me the importance of making sure I kept my sugar under control.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with the “getting to know you” activities and learning more about the arrangement of the bivouac. We found the toilets, the communication tent where emails and phone calls could be made, the administration tent and the food tent. This last one was important for us only for the first two nights and breakfast the next day.

The final activity for the day before we all settled down for our first night under the stars in the Sahara was for all 1026 of us to go to the food tent to get dinner. As there was no guarantee that the food would be OK for me, I was already self-sufficient, having eaten a freeze dried meal before we went to the food tent. Self sufficiency started for everyone else on the morning of the first day of the event and extended for six days plus one morning. Because of my food requirements and limitations, for me self sufficiency started two days before the event and extended for an extra day at the end.

With a climbing level of excitement and expectation, after our first night sleeping in a Berber tent we woke for the last day before the event began. This was the “check-in” day, where the event officials work through quite an extensive checklist for every entrant, to ensure that everything is in order. This list included personal details, ECG results, backpack weight, weight of food, a check of compulsory gear, how many calories each competitor was carrying, race number, electronic monitor and emergency flare. All of this was quite straight forward and progressed well for me until it got to the checking of the ECG results. I had forgotten the advice that anyone over the age of forty five should have a stress ECG test. The two French doctors were quite concerned that I had only the results of a resting ECG. Strangely, this had nothing to do with my diabetes, so when I realised that it wasn’t the diabetes that had them concerned, I laughed and joked with them and told them that I was healthier than anyone they were going to be seeing that day. Eventually they smiled and agreed with me. Fortunately common sense prevailed and they provided the required tick on the check list.

The whole exercise was undertaken in French, with a smattering of English words and lots of hand signals.

The checking of the food and calories was interesting. The thing that concerned them most was the weight of my pack. At 15.2kg, they were very concerned that this was too much. I found this odd as the rules say that the pack can be up to 15kg in weight. Yes, mine was over this limit by 200 grams, but that wasn’t what concerned them. They were concerned because it weighed more than 14kg. I found this a little strange, but would eventually understand their concern.

As I was starting to get a bit concerned that they may not let me continue, which was within their rights to do so, I emphasized to them in my extremely poor French, slow, deliberate English and frantic waving of hands that I was walking, not running, and that I was diabetic and my food requirements were different to everybody else. This touched a nerve with the doctors. I could see them briefly discuss me amongst themselves and heard mention of diabetes a number of times. It appeared that they agreed between them that my diabetes changed things, so they accepted the weight of my pack and the amount of food I needed to carry. Many or most of the doctors associated with this event in the field were volunteers. I was told by many people that French doctors are considered some of the best in the world, so their concerns weren’t to make life hard for me. They were attempting to stop me, or any of the other competitors, from killing ourselves. The conditions we would be facing from the next morning were going to extreme.

At last I received all of the required ticks and was now officially a participant in the 2010 running of the Marathon des Sables. An interesting side affect of the food weight thing was that the rules say that each person must carry a set minimum number of calories for each day. With the food that I needed to carry because of the carbohydrate requirements, I was carrying almost twice the minimum number of calories. No wonder people wonder why I’m as thin as I am.

There were now no more obstacles between myself and the event. The long road that began two years previously had now reached it’s end. All that was left to do now was to complete the two hundred and fifty kilometres.

Back at the tent, everyone was in a mild state of euphoria, as everyone in our tent had now completed the check-in process. For the experienced competitors this meant slowly slipping into race mode. I could see them again fine tuning their packs, fine tuning protective strapping on their feet, shoulders and back, fine tuning the various items that they knew they would be needing over the next seven days. For the newbies, finishing the check-in process meant the great unknown was looming as the nerves stepped up a notch. Some of the newbies started to get advice on packing minutia from the experienced ones, suddenly deciding to cut two centimetres off a loose strap on their pack to save a gram, or looking forlornly at their choice of morning breakfast powder. After two years of intensely hard work, I chose to have faith in what I had learned about my pack and food and not change anything. I was aware of the danger of suddenly doubting what had taken two years to learn and making a mistake by ditching a packet of food or rearranging a vital strap on the pack. I saw at least one example where somebody had panicked and cut two centimetres off a strap, only to discover the next morning that the strap was now too short.

As all of this joyful fun was taking place, the lady who seemed to be Patrick Bowers right hand man and English translator came by to have a chat with the tent. Very sadly I don’t remember her name as she was a very nice lady whom I was to have dealings with throughout the event. She and I got talking and she was amazed by my story, being the diabetes, the two years of training, the intense focus on the food and the risk that I was running just being here. She told me that the media would likely want to have a talk with me later in the event. This was something that I was hopeful for, because it would have given me an opportunity to tell other type 1 diabetics that they don’t have to give up on life just because of their illness. Sadly it didn’t happen, but we’ll get to that in good time.

That evening, as I set about to warm water to cook my freeze dried meal, I discovered a couple of things. One was that in my desperate ditching of stuff in London to save weight in my luggage, I had inadvertently left the cigarette lighter behind. I’m not a smoker, but this was a mandatory piece of equipment, and I considered myself lucky that they hadn’t bothered to check the contents of my bag of emergency gear during check-in. I also discovered that lighting the solid fuel block for the stove was not easy when there was even a slight breeze blowing, as there was this night.

I borrowed a cigarette lighter then crouched in the lee of a scraggly bush in a desperate attempt to light my stove and heat the water. A lady came by looking for a spot to do precisely the same thing, so the two of us must have looked comical crouching down desperately trying to get the little fuel tablet to burn. We eventually succeeded, so barely luke-warm water was eventually there for the food. But this was an experience I was going to call on again in twenty four hours.

For the last time before the race started the next morning, dinner was provided for everyone at the dinner tent. But this time I knew that it wouldn’t have much for me, so went along mainly for the socializing aspect. Everyone in the camp was in a hyped-up, up-beat mood that night, as everyone was trained up, paid up, revved up and eager to get going. After dinner, we all wandered back to our tents and bedded down for the night. I arranged my lightweight sleeping mat as best I could so that my knees and shoulders received whatever meagre benefit it would provide. As I lay down for the night, in no mood to sleep, I discovered every rock, stone, unfortunate undulation and stone chip that lay under the rug on the ground. Sleeping hard on the ground is not comfortable, but it is do-able.

La Grande Aventure

Here it was, the first real day of the event. After nervously preparing our packs, checking food supplies and water, ensuring pockets contained the pre-planned contents, we were now standing at the start line. We had been instructed to be here a full thirty minutes before the start time as the organisers, ie. Patrick Bower, took this opportunity each day to provide housekeeping updates and chest pumping encouragement. That second part wasn’t necessary today as there was so much adrenalin coursing through the competitors, he would have been wasting his time. But he did anyway. Today the housekeeping consisted mainly of general statements, such as “drink all of your water”, “don’t forget your salt tablets” and “the doctors are there to help you if you need it”.

Part of the reason why the chest pumping encouragement wasn’t required was because hovering just over our heads, and swooping up and down only twenty metres over the top of us was a helicopter, in which the official photographers and videographers were taking their images. On either side of the start line was a stack of speakers on which was playing Queen, Hotel California and finally, as we all counted down from ten for the start of this life changing event, AC/DC playing “Highway to Hell”. The excitement and adrenalin was awesome. My heart felt like it was going to explode. People were hopping from foot to foot, punching the air and whooping and hollering as we all cheered and slowly spilled out over the start line. The Marathon des Sables 2010 was underway. OMG I hoped I had done enough training and preparation.

I was in a daze as we all set off. The early pace was very slow as the top runners were in the front and sprinted away, but the vast majority of the rest of us just slowly plodded off. Everyone was pretty much in a group for the first few kilometres, but eventually we started to stretch out. I certainly wasn’t near the front, but I wasn’t at the back either. As I walked along, with the early morning temperature around 30C, I was going over all of the things I had learned throughout my training. I was very aware of going out too fast by trying to keep up with those in front, so I purposely slowed myself down. I checked and rechecked my various pockets and pouches, my water bottles and drinking tubes, my hat, my boots and the many other items of gear and caches of food. I knew this was a way of calming myself down and hey, it worked. I had put three of the electrolyte tablets in each of my water bottles and so far they were working well. The electrolyte tablets became a vital part of my food kit when down at Wilsons Prom. During one of the early sixty two kilometre training walks I had started to wobble all over the track like the lady in the marathon in the 1996 olympics. The affect then was so bad that I needed to find out what was happening and what to do about it. After some weeks of investigation I finally learned that there are high-tech supplements that help overcome this dangerous situation. And these are what I now refer to as the electrolyte tablets.

These were what Robin had been so cautious, but so amazed about after he let me put them in his water down at The Prom. I wish I had thought more about them in my planning.

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Marathon des Sables – Chapter 10 – The Event Day 1

Marathon des Sables
Day 1

My food routine, which I will now explain to you, was worked out over the 5000km of training. I know it sounds oppressively anal, but you must remember that I have type 1 diabetes and food is of vital importance to me every minute of every day. The considerations when choosing the type of food I was bringing with me were the amount of carbohydrate, the number of calories, the weight of the food and the ruggedness of the food. This last one meant that it needed to withstand the rough handling and the extreme temperatures of 50C plus that I was going to be enduring.

My food cycle spanned a 90 minute period, which was repeated over and over and over during the walking hours. At the start of the 90 minute cycle I would have a fruit strip. These are individually wrapped strips of fruit pulp that contain 23 grams of carbohydrate. After eating one of these I would have an almond to clean my teeth and provide a variation of taste and texture. All of this was washed down with a few mouthfuls of water with the electrolytes in it. Twenty minutes later I repeated this process, then twenty minutes later again. At the 60 minute mark I replaced the fruit strip with a sports gel, which provided 26 grams of carbohydrate. There was enough carbohydrate in each sports gel to cover a 30 minute period. In addition to the almond, with each gel I would also have a salt tablet, washed down with extra water with electrolytes. Thirty minutes later the routine started again.

This routine was finely tuned and had been worked out over a long time and many, many kilometres. And joy of joys, it worked. At no point on day one or the next two days did I have a problem with my sugar. This seemingly complex, detailed and anal routine worked brilliantly.

Day #1 was a total distance of 29km with two checkpoints. The track passed through desert countryside very similar to what I had already experienced in Saudi Arabia, being a changing combination of rough stones, flat, endless mud flats and salt pans, hills of rough rock and some sand. It is one of the common misconceptions about deserts that they are made of rolling sand dunes. Of course there are places like that, such as The Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, but the majority of the desert is boring, flat and dry. I learned at the end of the day that the temperature got as high as 45C at its peak.

Starting at 8:30am, I finished the stage around 4pm. My sugar was fine throughout the whole stage, as was my food, my salt and my water. The gear all worked as planned, thereby justifying the many long, hard hours I had spent training, both around home and down at Wilsons Prom. In fact the only real difference between the Wilsons Prom walks and what I was encountering now, apart from the lack of greenery obviously, was the heat. But, and this is as surprising to myself as it is to everyone I have told, I don’t remember giving the heat even a second thought in the Sahara. Maybe this was because I was so utterly focussed on the job at hand.

Everyone soon fell into the routine that they would follow for the rest of the event. For me this meant just plodding along, one step after the other, at a good, steady pace of approximately 4kph. People went past me and I later I went past them. For hour after hour the walking continued. I had my desert hat and wrap-around sunglasses on, so the sun and the glare did not pose a problem.

At around every 12km there was a checkpoint. The checkpoints were where they registered the time of your arrival, clipped your water card and gave you a bottle of water, and where you could rest in the shade of a tent or see the medical staff if necessary. Already at CP1 there were a couple of people having their feet attended to, so I didn’t like their chances of getting through to the end.

An interesting part of the event was that the end of the allowable time throughout the event was marked by two camels being led along by Berbers. So long as you stayed in front of these camels, you were travelling within the allowable time. If you fell behind the camels it meant your time was slower than necessary to finish the stage, and therefore possibly the event, within the allowable time. Luckily for me I didn’t see the camels on day 1.

After walking almost non-stop for a bit over seven hours in the blazing sun and temperatures up to 45C, I finally arrived at the bivouac for that night. It was quite a relief to know that I could now sit down in the shade and rest. The arrival routine, after crossing the finish line and being automatically registered as having finished, was to stagger over to the “water tent” to get the water card clipped and to collect the four bottle water allotment for the night. The four bottles of precious water were to last all needs and requirements until the next water distribution, which wasn’t until 7 o’clock the next morning. One of the little things that I’ve learned that I will know in four years is to reserve a bottle of water from this allotment for the start of the stage the next day.

The rest of the day and evening was taken up with reviewing the day with the other tent mates, going over the gear and making repairs and adjustments where necessary, inspecting feet and tape and preparing and eating the evening meal. For me, apart from the ongoing fruit strips and sports gels, I also had meal replacement bars, powdered milk (yum) and a freeze dried meal. My learning from the previous night was that I didn’t need to use the stove to heat water for the freeze dried meal. All I needed to do was to add the water to the meal in the Ziploc bag, seal it, then leave it to sit on the ground in the sun for 10 or 15 minutes. By that time the meal, while not gourmet, was at least edible. There’s nothing better than sitting on the stony ground in the middle of the Sahara desert after walking 29km through the heat of the day to change your ideas of what is edible and enjoyable. Cordon bleu it wasn’t; nutritious and edible it was.

Not long after the sun disappeared, everyone in the tent settled down for a rough, uncomfortable, uneasy sleep on the rocky ground. Snuggled up in my sleeping bag – bliss.

Marathon des Sables
Day 2

Day #2 and the routine started again. Not long after the crack of dawn the teams of Berbers, in a whirlpool of waving arms and cries of “Yella, yella!” hoisted the tent from over us in one unceremonious swoop. It was funny to see as they rapidly moved down the line of tents, everyone still lying on the ground rugs in their sleeping bags, but now exposed to the sky.

We all went through our morning routine of food, checking and packing our gear, checking and adjusting foot strapping, lining up to get our morning water allocation and performing our personal ablutions, not necessarily in that order. Being a morning person I was reasonably comfortable with the process, just working my way through the necessary steps. But someone like Sam, who is a self-confessed and well-established night time person, struggled with the abrupt and early start to the day. One of my important morning activities was to ensure my various pockets contained the right amount of fruit strips and sports gels. I could fit enough in there for about 8 hours, so any distance less that 35km was covered. For anything more than that, I would need to “recharge” my pockets at one of the checkpoints. Another of my standard activities was to put the electrolyte tablets in my water bottles.

On day #1 I was using three electrolyte tablets per bottle, which was the recommended amount. But I had figured out that at that rate, I was going to run out of the tablets before completing the final stage. So I reduced the amount of electrolytes from three to two tablets per bottle, which should give me enough tablets for the final day, and increased the number of salt tablets that I was taking from one per 90 minutes to one each time I ate a fruit strip or sports gel. That was the theory. The reality was yet to present itself.

As this day was the 5th of April and my birthday, the whole group sang Happy Birthday to me at the start line. It’s great hearing a thousand strangers sing you Happy Birthday with a French accent. Interestingly there were two other people also celebrating their birthday on that day. I found this interesting simply because, with 1000 people in the event, statistically there should have been three birthdays on each day. And on the 5th of April there were. That’s another one of those things that maybe only I find cute.

After the housekeeping announcements, the music and the countdown, we started the stage again to the music of AC/DC blasting out “Highway to Hell”. With the temperature set to reach 50C that day, it was an appropriate song. The helicopter swooped over us as we all as we streamed out into the hazy yonder.

We soon found ourselves trekking across a long, flat, boring wasteland with the occasional scrubby bush. Way off in the distance I could just make out a hazy, almost invisible line of blue hills. As we were heading directly towards these hills I wondered whether we were going to cross them. I thought “No, surely not. They’re way too far away and look way too big.” If I had bothered to look at the roadbook, which has a map for each day’s stage, I would have known if we were. But my approach is “what will be will be”, so I didn’t bother with the roadbook and map. And sure enough, we did.

CP2 was about a kilometre before the base of the line of hills. But before I got there, as I left CP1 and headed out across yet another endless flat plain, my decision to reduce the electrolytes chose to tap me on the shoulder with the force of a baseball bat, and tell me that it was a bad idea.

Three or four kilometres from CP2 I started to feel my feet and legs losing co-ordination. Soon after I could sense that I was having trouble walking in a straight line. Then I started to suffer the teeth-clenching cramps in my hamstrings, my groin, my feet and my calves as I struggled to take each step. All of this came over me within a period of only a few minutes. Having felt all of this during my training at Wilsons Prom I knew what it was, but that didn’t help get rid of it.

As I staggered along I started having more salt tablets. But it seemed that no matter how many I had the cramps and staggers wouldn’t go away. I stumbled on, taking more and more salt tablets. Instead of one per twenty minutes, I was now having one every ten minutes. And sometimes I would have two together.

But alas, it wasn’t enough. While stumbling across an area of rugged and sharp rocks I staggered like I was amazingly drunk, lost my balance completely with a 14kg backpack on my back and fell flat on my face, cutting my hand and grazing my arms. I couldn’t even lay still and flat on the ground, trying to roll around and flailing with my arms and legs.

This was quite frightening.

From out of nowhere a 4WD with a couple of doctors in it appeared and they started to bring me around. They got me to sit up, which still wasn’t easy, and sit in the shade of the car. They took my temperature and tested my blood sugar, all the while basically ignoring my pleas that I was OK; it was just my salt level. Of course they ignored me because they were the ones with the years of education, so they needed to convince themselves of what was wrong.

They found that my sugar was fine and my temperature was fine, so I must be suffering from not enough salt. In my mind I thought something like this –    😐    Then they started to admonish me for not drinking enough water, not taking my salt tablets and basically not doing the right things. I didn’t argue because what was the point? I was drinking all of my water and I was taking many more salt tablets than I was supposed to, so their scalding was misdirected. I knew that so I just smiled, popped a salt tablet in my mouth and said thank-you. One of the amazing things about low salt is how quickly you can recover with a rest and a drink of water.

After my brief rest I was able to get back up and continue, almost as if there had never been a problem. Now I was pushing salt tablets down my neck every five minutes, that is twelve per hour – seriously. This seemed to be enough to keep the problems at bay, for now.

Eventually I got to CP2, did the usual checkpoint things, then headed off towards the now looming hill. Remember the hazy line of hills I was looking at earlier? Well here they were and they looked daunting. From a distance of a kilometre or so I could see a tiny ant line of people making their way up. I sighed and prepared myself for the inevitable slog.

The first part was just a rocky track making it’s way up, but this became a drift of sand. This was quite difficult so by the time I got to the top of that I was huffing and puffing and my legs were complaining. Next came a rocky path up a steep, dry creek gully climbing over rocks. Just as I got to the top of this bit and was about to climb out, I came across two people prostate in the gully with intravenous drips coming out of their arms. It hadn’t occurred to me but the conditions were now bad enough that people were dropping. There were medical staff in attendance so I stepped around them and continued up. In a macabre way those poor people made me feel better. They were suffering big time and I hadn’t even realised the conditions were tough.

I joined the ant line of people climbing up the rocks. This was tough and there were heaps of opportunities to fall and break your neck, especially with a heavy backpack on. Meanwhile the helicopter was swooping and whooshing overhead in an ear-shattering roar.

Finally, at last, I made it to the top. This was a saddle between two peaks with support people there to help as people staggered to the top. My legs were cramping so I sat down for a rest and again I received the advice to drink more water and have a salt tablet. But by now I knew that I just had to rest for five minutes and I’d be fine.

Once rested I took off again, now heading down to the bivouac. My time, while not brilliant, was OK, so I just trudged along down a dry creek bed. It was strewn with boulders and was a great place to “do an ankle”, but my experience walking in the same sort of country side in Saudi had taught me to be careful, so all was OK.

The rest of the stage went without fuss and I finally made it to the bivouac.

The rest of the day and the evening followed the routine that had now developed. Water allocation, check and repair gear, check and repair foot tape, talk over the day’s highlights with the tent mates, have my evening medication, prepare and eat food, prepare sleeping area for the night, a little socialising with neighbouring tents, settle down for the night and suffer the hard ground. Easy really. One addition for the food tonight was mashed potato. Even though I didn’t add quite enough water and the mashed potato was a bit more chewy than it should have been, as a supplement for the freeze dried food the mashed potato was a success.

The day ended under a brilliant dome of stars. You haven’t lived until you have seen a night sky in the desert.

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Marathon des Sables – Chapter 11 – The Event Day 3

Marathon des Sables
Day 3

Day #3 and the whole routine started again. The main difference today was that people were starting to show the punishment they have suffered over the previous days and were becoming a little more subdued. Today’s stage was 39km long, a distance which during training would have taken me eight hours. But judging by my experience from the first two days, I expected it would take me around nine and a half hours.

The start was a little different in that we had to gather at the start line fifteen minutes earlier than normal so they could take the “25” photo. This was where all of the competitors stood within a “25” stencil made of ropes and the helicopter took many photographs.

Once we had done the countdown, with AC/DC blasting out again and the helicopter roaring just overhead, we started the third day of this punishing event. Everything progressed as normal. I was now very good at pacing myself, having learned to resist the temptation to rush to keep up with the quicker competitors. The track was straight and flat, crossing country that was stony and with thin scrubby bushes every now and occasionally. The walking progressed as normal except that, after not long at all, I started to wobble again. Today it happened surreptitiously, sneaking up on me without me even noticing.

I suddenly found myself staggering, so I started eating salt tablets and drinking more water. But this didn’t help enough and before I realised what had happened, I staggered and fell over, flat on my face. Because this was only 4km from the start there were still people close by, so I heard a couple of the emergency whistles going off and people shouting for assistance. I momentarily wondered who they were concerned about, but then realised it was me.

As I rolled over onto my back, a camera was pushed in front of me as one of the news crews tried to capture the moment. Then I heard angry voices as those around me tried to get the attention of a doctor instead of a fellow with a camera. There was no doctor around and I had assured the people who were trying to help that I was OK. I ate a couple more salt tablets, had a guzzle of water and a short rest, then got to my feet and kept going. Due to the fuss with the salt on day #2, I had decided to risk running out of the electrolyte tablets by having two and a half per bottle of water instead of two. But obviously this was not enough on its own to keep my electrolytes up, so I needed to continue to have a lot of salt tablets. I got going again and, with the extra salt tablets each hour, all was OK. I reached CP1 OK and went through the normal routine.

The ground was very rocky after leaving CP1. I was walking on my own when yet again I found the salt was suddenly low. A quick couple of salt tablets and a dose of denial surprisingly didn’t fix it and again I found myself on my face. This time there were doctors within sight, so they were quickly on the scene. They sat me in the shade of a tree and started doing tests. They checked my sugar and found that it was slightly low, so out came the satchel of sugar again. I knew now that they did this with everyone, not just me. The sugar test was given to everyone who went face down. They took my temperature and then announced the funniest thing I’d heard all day; my temperature was up so I must have been suffering a fever. I chuckled and asked them if they had noted where we were. As English was a distant second language for them they didn’t understand the humour, so I just let it ride. However I was concerned that they might try to make me withdraw or want to give me a saline drip or something. Fortunately this wasn’t the case. They really just wanted me to rest, to show them that I was drinking my water and taking my salt tablets. Once I had rested, watered and salted myself they let me continue on.

The day progressed with one step following the other, over and over and over. We found ourselves walking across a salt flat that appeared to have no end. It was utterly flat and the track was utterly straight. We just kept walking on and on and on, without end. Step, step, step, plod, plod, plod without end. I was to find out later that just as I was coming to CP2, after walking a dead straight line across the salt flat for twelve kilometres, the temperature was 56C. I didn’t know that and didn’t even realise it was particularly hot. I just kept walking. Apart from putting one foot in front of the other, the only other thing I knew was that there was somebody walking not far behind me all across the salt flat. I considered stopping and letting them go past, but I didn’t have the energy to change my pace. So I just kept plodding on, step, step, step, hoping eventually to get to the checkpoint.

I was to learn later that the person walking behind me was a fellow Australian who decided that the pace I was walking was a good pace for him, so he slotted in behind me and let me do the pace keeping. It is a technique for saving brain power. You get in behind someone and just stay there, without the need to make decisions or think about much at all. When the conditions are as harsh as we had over that salt flat, it’s a good way to conserving vital energy.

We made it to CP2 as if in a dream.

After the normal checkpoint checks and balances, as well as a rest of fifteen minutes I set off again, this time bound for CP3. A British lady, Sarah-Jane, was setting off at the same time, so we decided to walk together. Sarah-Jane appeared to be suffering more than I was as she had the side effects of the bug that had been sweeping through the camp. She had a badly upset stomach and felt like, well let’s just say she felt really bad. Twice we had to stop while she went off the track, and I turned my back, for her to relieve herself. I began to wonder how she could possibly even get to the next checkpoint. She had little energy, a bad stomach and a slight fever.

We kept walking at a slightly slower pace than I would have done if I was on my own, so I kept reassuring her that I was benefitting from walking with her as it was slowing me down when I probably needed it. And this was the truth, even though she thought I was just being kind. We plodded on and on and I was amazed at how she was able to just keep going.

Finally we made it to a tree with some shade where there were two other people enjoying the rest. This was a young British couple who were boyfriend and girlfriend. He was suffering the same ailment that Sarah-Jane was suffering, but they had already had a decent rest under the tree. When some doctors came along in their 4WD they first attended to the young couple, giving him advice and a satchel of magic powder. Then they turned their attention to Sarah-Jane. I was sure she was going to call it quits as she had been considering that option as we walked along. Because she was now in the care of the doctors, I left with the young couple and we continued on.

For the next hour we plodded along, with the young fellow suffering terribly from the affects of the bug. His girlfriend was beside herself with concern, but was quite fit and healthy herself. She was trying to convince the fellow to call it quits the next time they saw a doctor, but he kept resisting. Eventually along came a 4WD with some doctors and her attempts to convince him stepped up a notch.

Did I mention that the temperature was 56C?

As they were now in the care of doctors, I kept going. Step after step I was heading for CP3. I was not doing too well myself, feeling the salt constantly tapping me on the shoulder. On and on and on, step after step after step, the country was flat and endless. I was thinking about the electrolyte tablets and the obvious fact that I needed at least three per bottle of water. I calculated this with the distance left in the event and the number of bottles of water. It didn’t compute. No matter how I tweaked it I was going to run out of the electrolyte tablets before I finished the final stage. I had miscalculated the required number by one tube of twenty tablets. DAMN! I had brought four tubes with me when I should have brought five. DAMN! I wondered whether I could effectively substitute the lack of electrolyte tablets with salt tablets, but the previous day’s experiences, combined with my experiences so far today told me that it wasn’t possible. The electrolyte tablets gave me something necessary that the salt tablets just didn’t have.

I don’t know how long I continued to plod along by myself across the seemingly endless plain, but it can’t have been too long; it just seemed like it. In the distance I could see the start of small sand dunes, so at least the endless flat had some respite. Now I was thinking of the next day, which was the 80km day that was going to take me at least twenty four hours and more likely thirty hours. I had already had two bouts of low salt today, episodes that are quite frightening to endure, and I had determined that I didn’t have enough electrolyte tablets to finish the event. Now, as I plodded towards the sand dunes, I simply ran out of energy. For the first time in the event I stopped and stood there, contemplating my future. I didn’t stand for long, convincing myself after thirty seconds to take a step and continue walking, but now I felt like an empty bag of skin. There were no muscles or bones left, just skin. I could have curled up on the ground right there and gone to sleep amongst the scorpions.

Right at that very inopportune moment, a 4WD with a couple of doctors drove up to me. They made the usual thumbs up sign through their closed, air-conditioned window and I looked at them. They made the sign again and my decision was made. I made the sign of a knife across my throat and the Marathon des Sables 2010 was over for me. That was my moment of decision and once made, I couldn’t go back on it.

I had spent two years of my life training myself to be the driver of my own destiny, to take full and utter responsibility for my safety and my life, so when my decision was made to call it quits I couldn’t go back on that decision. If I did, it meant that every decision I ever made again in my life was negotiable, and I can’t live with my diabetes with that sort of soft’n’fuzzy control. After hours of thinking, considering, “what if”ing, manipulating, trying to find any way that I could get my salt through to the finish line, I had now made my decision to withdraw.

And oh how I have pondered that decision since.

The doctors spent thirty minutes trying to convince me to change my mind, but I held tight to my decision. I knew that I had made it for the right reasons and to change my mind and continue would have been seriously risking my life. I sat in the shade of their 4WD and drank some water. They were talking on their radio in French and stopping every now and then to see if I was ready to continue. I kept telling them that I was out but they struggled to understand my commitment. Eventually they came to realise that I wasn’t going to change my mind, so the withdrawal process began.

They loaded my gear and myself into the 4WD and we started bouncing across the desert in the general direction of the checkpoint. Even while driving back they were constantly on the lookout for other competitors who might be in difficulty. I saw that, judging by my experience of driving in the desert in Saudi Arabia, these guys were excellent off-roaders. Having a diesel powered Toyota certainly helped.

Back at the checkpoint, the processing of my withdrawal continued. They asked me a few questions and filled in a form. Then I sat there for a painful hour, watching other competitors come in to the checkpoint, get their water, have a rest then continue on towards the end of the stage. I saw the young British couple come in which really surprised me. The girl had finally continued walking on her own and had arrived under her own steam. Then while I was there her boyfriend, who had convinced the doctors that he was OK, also came in. So after the euphoric reunion they set off again, sharing painful bliss. I really thought he was out, but he had kept on going. This event was an amazing show of human endurance.

We finally made it back to the bivouac by late afternoon and, after being fully processed and having my race number taken away, I went to the tent, where all of my tent mates were already into their evening routine. When a person withdraws, they are supposed to hand over all their food to the officials, so there is no chance that they will give some of their food to other competitors. When they asked me to hand over my food I told them I couldn’t because I was diabetic. I thought that this could lead to a serious problem if they insisted, but fortunately they saw common sense and allowed me to keep it, with the promise from me that I wouldn’t give any away. They trusted me to keep my word, so I honoured their trust and didn’t give any away. I believe this may have led to a small amount of resentment with one or two of my tent mates, but I hope I’m wrong with that. Food is the most important thing in the world to a person living with type 1 diabetes and having a reliable supply is essential. This may be difficult for a healthy person to comprehend.

During the evening a number of people came up to me to offer their commiserations. One was Jay, the organiser for the competitors from North America, Australia and New Zealand. Jay doesn’t say much, but with seven MdS’s under his belt he does understand the trauma and heartache associated with pulling out. He offered me kind words and was the first to say what I came to hear a number of times; my decision was the correct one given the circumstances and that I was brave to take that decision. I appreciated his words but it was too early for me to feel happy about it. The other tent mates seemed a little uncomfortable, probably because they didn’t know what to say. Meghan did say that she was sorry I had pulled out, which was nice of her.

For the rest of that night we went through the standard routines. But for me, there was the heavy cloud of withdrawal and no longer being an active participant overhanging everything.

I was not happy.

I wasn’t to know until after visiting with a specialist back in Australia that, what I had been assuming was just a bit of low salt, was actually an uncommon but life threatening condition called Hypokaleamia. I believe this was the problem that the runner in the women’s marathon in that famous video footage from the 1984 LA Olympics was suffering. Her name was Gaby Andersen-Scheiss and she was the marathon runner for Switzerland. Hypokaleamia is when the body struggles to maintain a healthy level of potassium and is quite dangerous and can lead to many problems, including heart failure. In the video, her struggling along, desperately trying to finish the race, was what I looked like when these episodes struck during these 3 days.

And in yet another cruel twist of fate, the specialist told me that people living with type 1 diabetes have, for some reason, a higher incidence of this serious condition. But until I learned that from the specialist months later, I was deeply gloomy and felt like a quitter.

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Marathon des Sables – Chapter 12 – The Real World Beckons

The Real World Beckons

The next four days, which was the remainder of the event, pretty much ran into each other from my perspective. From the moment I withdrew from the race at the end of day three, I no longer felt like I was part of it all. No doubt it was only in my head, but I now felt outside what was going on.

The daily routine for those who withdrew but chose to stay with the event began with breakfast in the official food tent, sitting with some of the volunteer workers. More people joined the group of withdrawees each day, so by day seven there were around fifty of us bouncing across the desert in the old Mercedes mini buses.

As I expected, the breakfast that was provided did not fulfil my food requirements, so I was constantly topping up from my race food. No matter where I went or what I was doing, for the rest of my time away from home I had a small selection of race food in my pocket. Even though I was no longer walking across the Sahara desert, I was still a long way from civilization and a regular food supply, so in essence I still had to be self-sufficient. Thank goodness the race officials relented and let me keep my food.

Immediately after breakfast was finished they loaded us into the mini buses, ready to bounce and crash to the next bivouac. Now let me explain these mini buses to you. Once upon a time, these Mercedes mini buses would have been wonderful. But that was once upon a time, in a far away world. Now, after many years of rough Moroccan driving, they were well beyond their prime. For a start, none of the bench seats were bolted to the floor, so every time there was a serious bash across a ditch or rock, the bench seats would move. Next, the buses let every bit of dust that the desert owned inside, so there were times when the inside was a cloud of choking dust. It seemed that whatever suspension they once boasted was now just a dim memory. The radio / cassette player was welded onto a local station, so for four days we enjoyed the Moroccan top of the pops.

Loading us into the buses didn’t mean that we were going anywhere. We often sat there for an hour as the drivers and their organisers decided where we were going, how we were going to get there, what time we needed to arrive and whatever other detail needed deciding before we could leave. It was funny sitting there watching, as I like to do, as people in the bus got restless and would choose to decamp to stretch their legs. You could guarantee that no sooner had a couple of people left than the drivers would decide it was time to leave. Then the search would begin for the people who were missing. They would eventually come back but now the drivers had been sidetracked. On the final day we had Spanish, Italians, French, Americans, New Zealanders, a Paraguayan and me, the sole Australian, on the bus, so keeping this mixture of people together was only slightly easier than herding cats.

Our driver was great. I stayed in the same bus and had the same driver for the whole four days. I was told his name but can’t remember, so I’ll call him Abdul. He was a native Berban and appeared to be running a side business as local “fixer” while also driving us around. We ended up calling him Schumaker as his driving skills in the rough of the desert were beyond question. No matter where we were in this vast wilderness, Abdul knew somebody and was regularly waving at someone and yelling out a greeting. His mobile phone was often stuck to his head as he shouted instructions down the line. We were regularly stopping at some wayward, haphazard looking building where Abdul would jump from the driver’s seat while the bus was still moving and run over to see a fellow inside. A minute or two later he would reappear, jump back in the driver’s seat and off we’d go again.

Abdul didn’t like to play follow the leader, so when we were meant to be part of an orderly convoy making it’s way towards a set destination, Abdul would get frustrated with the slow pace and set off along a shortcut. More than once his mobile phone would ring, there’d be a brief but loud exchange of information, then Abdul would hang back and we’d join the convoy again.

The most important thing for us to do while enjoying our desert crossing was to hang on. The jumping and lurching and rocking and rolling would have taken a much harsher toll on us if we weren’t all gripping on for grim life. That, combined with the un-tethered seats, meant that our bumpy journey across the desert was an endurance event in itself.

On the longer sections we’d stop at one of the rare trees and sit in the shade to eat our bagged lunch. My fellow travellers soon came to learn that I had special food requirements, so would pass over their peanuts and cheeses while I handed out the various items that I couldn’t eat. It was a good arrangement that led to them asking me questions about my MdS experiences and the diabetes. To explain further, and for clarity, I am also ceoliac, so I needed to carefully avoid anything with even a hint of gluten.

On one of the journeys, somewhere in the middle of the Moroccan Sahara, we came across a house and family seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Abdul stopped the bus and we all clambered out for a stretch. There was a well there, with the rope and bucket, and someone raised a bucket of water. I looked at the water, which I certainly wouldn’t volunteer to drink, then the young children and where we were, ie. the middle of nowhere, and then considered where I lived and the environment of my existence. I won’t get philosophical here, but seeing the extreme conditions some people still live in really does give you a moment to pause and ponder.

A couple of interesting things happened during this time. Because I was wearing the satellite tracking device, Donna and any number of other people were watching when I stopped. Unfortunately, due to where we were and the extreme conditions we were in, it was a full 36 hours before I was finally able to make an expensive satellite telephone call and tell Donna what had happened and that I was alright.

On the evening of the second last day, it is a tradition that the organisers of the event bring a French orchestra in by helicopter. So all afternoon the helicopters were flying back and forth as they brought in a whole orchestra and their instruments for what ended up being a spell-binding evening of entertainment in the desert.

It was while sitting there watching the orchestra under the desert stars that I realised that I wasn’t clearly seeing what was happening on stage. I had double vision and no matter how much I blinked and wiped my eyes, it just wasn’t going away. I was sitting with my tent mate Meghan at the time and she may have wondered why I was being quiet, but I was rather concerned that I couldn’t see what was going on very well. Finally I figured it out; I was having only the second hypoglycaemia episode since getting to the desert seven days previously. That was something to be happy about, but right now I had to catch my “hypo” before it took over and rendered me incapable of helping myself. I guesstimate that I was less than fifteen minutes from oblivion when it finally turned the corner because of all the food I ate as quickly as I could. Living with type 1 diabetes can have detrimental consequences in so many ways, with Meghan now possibly considering that I’m a little strange. When the sugar goes low, it has many effects over a brief period of time, one being a feeling of confusion and disconnection, coupled with rapidly increasing difficulty speaking clearly. If you happen to be reading this Meghan, I hope you understand that it wasn’t your company that was causing me to be quiet, but a case of low blood glucose.

The remainder of the event, four days for me, passed this way for everyone who withdrew but chose to stay with the event. Even though it was heart-wrenching after all of the hard work and commitment over the previous two years, it did provide an opportunity to see the human spirit in action. Some examples that I learned of are:

  • Sarah-Jane, after suffering from the bug all day on day three, finished the event
  • Madhu, whose feet were like plates of minced meat at the end of day two, finished the event
  • The young boyfriend / girlfriend British couple that I was walking with, finished the event
  • A number of blind runners, being guided by a friend and a tether, finished the event. This one choked me up when I first saw a blind runner cross the line at the end of the 82km stage
  • Older people who looked as if they were close to death, continuing on and finishing the event

That is the most extraordinary part of the Marathon des Sables that the rest of the world struggles to comprehend. It is a living example of how the Human Spirit (notice the capitals) can soar and beat almost any adversity. I’ll be back in four years!

The 25th running of the Marathon des Sables was now over, but my adventure wasn’t. We were now at the finish line and the early runners were starting to come in. The first to cross was the local hero Mohammed, who finished in an extraordinary time considering what he had been through over the previous six days. The TV cameras were all over him when he crossed and he was interviewed like a Hollywood celebrity.

The fast runners crossed the finish line over the next ten minutes, all having completed the final 25km in a fairly close bunch. I stayed there until the fastest Australian, Stuart from Melbourne finished then, after congratulating him, walked around to see who else had finished. People were crossing the line in regular clumps now, but my feeling of exclusion persisted. There was no denying that I had not experienced the hardships of the last four days that the people now coming across the line had, so I could not fully share their experiences.

So I found my allocated coach for the trip back to Ouarzazate and boarded for the six hour ride. I was steadily slipping into a deep gloom.

The journey back was picturesque, long and uneventful. As I was no longer nervous with anticipation like I was on the journey there nine days ago, I was able to see more clearly the countryside, towns and villages that we were driving through. Morocco is a very interesting and beautiful place, a mixture of typical Middle Eastern third world and the modern world. Out in country Morocco there are some very picturesque towns; many of the villages are like they would have been fifty years ago, with donkeys a common form of transport and women walking down the road fully covered with their black veils. There were children riding bicycles and playing ball games as our convoy of coaches drove through.

After many hours we finally rounded a bend in the highway and saw the lake which meant we were finally close to Ouarzazate. It wasn’t long before we were at the hotel and collecting our bags.

The rest of that afternoon and evening were probably the loneliest I experienced during my entire journey. Everyone who had completed the event, which meant the majority of the people there, were still on a euphoric high from having completed such a gruelling exercise. There was lots of excitement as people found their rooms, quickly showered and changed their clothes for the first time in over a week, then started gathering in groups to again go over what they had accomplished. It was important that I contact Donna by email as it had now been three days since the single satellite telephone conversion in which I had told her that I was still alive, so I hunted around until I found the email connection, then did battle with the French keyboard.

As a result of all of this I unfortunately misjudged the timing for my evening injection of insulin. I should have clarified what time the dinner room was going to open before having my jab because by the time the food was available, I was sinking rapidly into a serious hypo. This is where my Manhattan friend whom I mentioned earlier in the story became a real friend. He came and sat at my table as we waited for the food to be ready and asked me if everything was OK. I mustn’t have looked too good. I had enough brain power left to be honest and tell him that no, everything wasn’t alright; my sugar was dropping quickly. He immediately took charge and hassled the waiters until they got me an orange juice, then stayed on their case until they got me another one. Looking back at that moment, I can now see that I was on the edge of a bad medical situation, but was saved from further drama by my New York friend. If you are reading this in Manhattan, thank-you very much.

This situation is a classic example of how type 1 diabetes never lets you forget and relax. For the sake of ten or fifteen minutes, which to a healthy person may be reason to whinge that the food is taking too long, a person with type 1 diabetes can be left incapable of looking after themselves and potentially in hospital.

The dinner was finally ready and was very nice. It was 5 star Moroccan cuisine at its best. We ate our full then wandered off, looking for entertainment, with everybody by now separating off into groups to celebrate through the evening. I looked for my tent mates but found they were spread from one side of the hotel to the other. Eventually I decided that an early night in bed was probably called for, so called the day over. I was still deeply involved in the funk that had prevailed since my decision to pull out of the event. A sad result of this is that I didn’t get to say good-bye properly to anyone.

The next morning I rose very early in order to get the email computer before it was taken over by the hordes. Getting access to emails in the middle of Morocco is not easy and, as there were a lot of people following my progress back in Australia, England and other countries, I needed to let them know how things were going. This morning I was much more careful about having my injection and the timing of the food. But I had learned from the previous evening that it wasn’t just the timing of the food that was a possible concern, but also the nature of the food. So I found myself yet again being self-sufficient, almost as if I was back in the Sahara desert. I filled my pocket with the fruit strips and sports gels just in case the food in the dining room was late. I also delayed my injection for as long as was sensible. Sure enough, I needed to dip into my special food before the breakfast was ready.

As breakfast was spread over a two hour period, and I’m notoriously an early bird, I didn’t get to see any of my tent mates in the morning, either over breakfast or after. They must have all been enjoying the pleasure of a sleep-in after the rough sleeps and early risings during the event. So after having breakfast, doing emails, packing my bags and walking around looking for my tent mates without any success, I sadly left the hotel at 11 o’clock to walk the fifteen minutes to the hotel I stayed at when we first arrived in Ouarzazate. This is where I had arranged to meet my friend Nick from England.

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Marathon des Sables – Chapter 13 – To Marrakesh and Beyond

To Marrakesh and Beyond

And there he was. After ten years, my friend Nick was sitting by the pool waiting for my arrival. After all these years, here we were meeting again in a far away corner of Morocco. It was great to see him.

Nick hadn’t changed much since I last saw him as we said good-bye to each other at Riyadh airport in April 2000. His forehead was a little more pronounced and his belt was a little bigger, but apart from that he was the same Nick. After our greetings, we sat on the poolside lounges for half an hour and swapped stories before going up to the room and settling in. Nick was here to help ensure that my sugar was OK as I recovered from the event. This had all been organised months ago when it was expected that I would be completing the full distance. But because I had actually pulled out four days previously, it wasn’t so important for Nick to look after me so we could just enjoy being in Morocco and reminiscing about old times. There were lots of memories and “Remember when’s”, because the time Nick shared with myself, Donna and the girls in Saudi Arabia was a very important time for all of us.

After settling in to the room, we went for the obligatory walk to the supermarket. This time I knew where it was from the first visit, so we went straight there and filled some bags with groceries. We bought way too much because it’s much safer to have too much than not enough. The groceries we bought here needed to last me for the rest of the day and evening, breakfast the next day then the trip back to Marrakesh. And if you think back, I hadn’t been able to do a supermarket trip the previous afternoon and had a rather bad hypo in the evening. The hypo was not because I didn’t go to a supermarket, but if I had been able to visit a supermarket, I wouldn’t have had the hypo. See the connection? Yes? Now you are starting to see the world through the eyes of a type 1 diabetic. Some people call it “anal”; I call it “survival”.

That night Nick and I walked up the road to the same restaurant that Erick, Sam and I had gone to before the event. There we had the same lovely meal that included a tagine. I wish I could tell you more about this little restaurant, because it is lovely. The setting is beautiful, the food wonderful and the service excellent. We will certainly be returning when I do the event again in four years – yes, the decision has been made. 2014 is when I complete the Marathon des Sables.

The restaurant tonight was full of people. Last time there were many empty tables, but this night it was so full that we only just managed to get a seat. Sitting at another table were a group of MdS competitors including Denis, a very friendly Irishman who owns a restaurant in country France. He was one of the memorable characters.

*   *   *   *   *

Monday the 12th of April and the goal today was to travel from Ouarzazate back to Marrakesh, where we had a villa booked in the Medina for five nights. We had asked the hotel the previous afternoon to arrange for a taxi for us, similar to my trip with Erick and Sam from Marrakesh. This time the taxi fare was 1200 dirhams, which converts to around $A185. Yes, you could say that was a bit much, but the comfort and the convenience of being able to stop anywhere we wanted to was worth it. Our driver was great, being a local fellow with a family from a village not far out of Ouarzazate. He proudly showed us where his village was as we drove past towards the Atlas mountains.

Speaking of the Atlas mountains, as I was now taking much more notice of my surroundings compared to the first trip, they are extraordinarily beautiful. They are a long line of snow topped mountains that run through the heart of Morocco from south west to north east. The road between Ouarzazate to Marrakesh runs directly across the mountains, taking in spectacular scenery and some interesting country towns and villages.

We stopped twice along the way, once at a large traveller’s café for a cup of tea and again at the main town in the mountains. A strange thing happened when we stopped at the town for a stretch and to answer the call of nature. I came to realise that this was one of the very few spots I recognised along the whole trip from my original trip nine days previously with Erick and Sam. I mentioned this to Nick, momentarily a little concerned that I might be losing my mind. But we concluded that I must have been so very focussed and more than a little stressed about the upcoming event on the first trip, so that not much made it’s way into my over-stressed brain. Now I was actually seeing the countryside and it was beautiful.

After five hours of a very pleasant drive we arrived in Marrakesh. The driver found our villa by calling the fellow who managed the villa, Abdulleila, on his mobile and getting directions. I found even this amazing because as far as I could see, the Medina (the old part of the city) was simply a rabbit warren of laneways and impossible to navigate. So how anyone could understand instructions over a mobile phone left me stumped.

Our abode for the next five nights was an amazing looking place that I can highly recommend. It is called Villa Dar Musique. It is buried deep in a labyrinth of alleyways that will feature a little more later in the story. The lovely people who run the villa, Abdulleila and “the sisters”, are wonderful, with Abdulleila more than happy to provide advice, directions and anything else to make your stay in the Medina as fulfilling as possible.

The original plan was for between eight and ten of us to be staying at the villa, but the problem with Donna’s back, plus other things that came up as time passed, meant that it was only Nick and I there for the whole five days.

*   *   *   *   *

Our first breakfast time back in Marrakesh was interesting from the start. As we didn’t have an opportunity the previous day to go to a supermarket, I was rather reliant on the breakfast provided at the villa. And as we were now working on “Inshallah time”, that is the more relaxed idea of time that prevails in the Middle East, exactly when breakfast was going to be ready was anyone’s guess. And as we were effectively stuck in the labyrinth of laneways that make up the Medina until we had a chance to explore and work it all out, getting backup food was not possible. So I needed to revert to my race food that I still had left over to get me through until breakfast was finally served. So once again, three days after the event finished and seven days since I had withdrawn from the event, I was again needing to be self-sufficient. This made me wonder what would have happened had I been successful and finished the event. We would still be here at the villa, but I would have eaten my way through all of my race food earlier. What would I have had to get me through?

Breakfast did come, close to 9:30 as it so happens, and it was beautiful. Freshly squeezed orange juice, a Moroccan dish made from eggs and tomatoes and some lightly spiced rice, not exactly what we expect in the west for breakfast, but we weren’t in the west. We were in the Medina in Marrakesh in Morocco.

A crucial goal for the first day, and definitely a most important goal, was to find a supermarket. Abdulleila gave directions we could follow that took us to the outside of the Medina, down a crowded road full of cars, motor bikes, the occasional donkey, street markets and the general throng and humdrum of Marrakesh. Just walking the couple of kilometres to the supermarket was fascinating in itself. The smells, the sounds, the things we saw were all just amazing. For me Marrakesh was a mixture of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and Bangalore in India, with a touch of Venice thrown in for good measure. It was a wonderful walk of discovery.

The supermarket was a full-on, genuine supermarket of a size and type that we would expect in Australia. It had everything we could expect on the shelves, including a brand of gluten free breakfast food. For not the first time this trip I breathed a sigh of relief and thought “thank heavens”. Apart from the breakfast food, we bought bottles of water, some fresh fruit, UHT milk (always a good thing to have in warm climates with no access to refrigeration) and a bunch of comfort food. All of this made both of us feel more comfortable and relaxed, knowing that we had ready access to good food. For Nick this was just a relaxing feeling. For me it was a feeling of safety. One interesting thing I found is that the only brand names that we recognised were Coca Cola and Green Giant. Everything else on the shelves, without exception, were either local brands or French. That’s another one of those things that you probably don’t find interesting, but I do. I know, I know; you’re not the first person to say that.

After the interesting walk back to the villa and having a cup of tea, it was time for our first explore of the Medina. The main, central focus of the old city of Marrakesh is the Jamaa El Fna, which is a big, open square which seems to be constantly on the go. This is where the snake charmers play their music during the day to entice the cobras to dance. Where at night there are story tellers and buskers and dancers and restaurants seemingly by the hundred. It is a whirlpool of activity morning, noon and night.

Surrounding the square are many shops selling local wares, as well as restaurants where you can enjoy the many tagine meals on offer. The tagine is a particularly Moroccan dish, cooked in a conical terra-cotta pot that seems to enhance the flavours of the lamb or chicken or beef and the vegetables. They are wonderful, good value and a great meal. Nick and I ended up eating a lot of tagines while enjoying the always interesting vista of El Fna square.
(Ed note 2015 : It was our favourite restaurant in El Fna square that was the target of a bomb in 2011. A very sad occasion.)

I found an internet café down one of the small roads that lead off El Fna, so took the opportunity to catch up on emails and let Donna and the girls know that I was still alive. This was an interesting experience. Firstly, and before I could even find out about the secondly, again this was a French keyboard and was therefore difficult to use. For example, where on earth was the @ symbol? On a western keyboard, at least every one that I’ve ever used, the @ is on top of the 2 key. If you’re reading this on a laptop now, have a look. I bet it’s there. Well on a French keyboard, chances are it’s not. I experienced two versions of French keyboards while in Morocco; one was missing the @ all together and the other would have it on a different key. With the second it was a case of finding it and remembering where it was. With the first, the only way I could figure out how to get an @ was to get an email address and copy the @ from that address then paste it where I needed it. Sound complicated? Uh huh, it is. A similar situation existed for the _ and the -, but that’s another story.

So, after finding the various keys and symbols, I ran head long into the “secondly”, the slowest internet connection I have experienced in years. It was painfully slow, so every email became a mission. But it was cheap, easy to get to and open until 10 o’clock at night.

After a very pleasant afternoon of exploring, it was time to make our way back to the villa. This was my opportunity to learn how to get there. I must take my hat off to Nick here and say that, having done this little walk only twice previously during the one night he was at the villa before coming to Ouarzazate, he had a great memory of which way to go. I couldn’t and didn’t remember it that well. More on that later. For now, we left El Fna down a side street, walked through what we came to know as “Donkey Square”, down that alleyway over there, past these shops and the butcher with the meat hanging on hooks, past the bookshop that I was to discover isn’t always there, past the pictures hanging on the wall, past the line of jewellery shops to the T intersection facing the Café Bougainvilia. Turned left there and walked for around 150 meters then turned right under the archway, opposite the little shop that looked like it might be a pharmacy of some sort. Now we walked down the laneway and turned left, then turned right towards the white door with the pattern on it, but before getting there turned left again and walked through the tunnel, but watching out for motorbikes coming the other way. We didn’t need to worry about it being dark inside because everyone seems to behave themselves in Morocco. Turned right halfway through the tunnel, then headed towards the daylight, which is about 20m away. After leaving the tunnel, turned left at the funny symbol scrawled on the wall, then walked down the alleyway for, ummmm, around 50m. Now, we needed to remember which door was the one to the villa, because they all looked very similar. When we believed we had identified the correct door we knocked and waited for Abdulleila to open up. And miracle of miracles, there we were.

Now, if you have made notes of the above description I must warn you that the description is valid only for daylight hours and when the shops are open. When the shops close they pull down roller doors and shutters, so effectively they disappear. Plus the open air displays, such as the paintings, simply vanish. So now you have lost half of your landmarks within minutes. At night time the lights come on, so what was dark is now brightly lit, and what was exposed to daylight may now be lost in the dark. Finding your way back to the villa at night becomes a whole new adventure.

*   *   *   *   *

It was now Wednesday the 14th of April and the main goal for the day was to walk around the outside wall of the Medina, a distance of approximately 12km according to the simple map we had. The reasons for doing this included seeing more of Marrakesh, plus to see part of Marrakesh outside the Medina. The old part of the city was quite different to the rest of Marrakesh and Nick and I wanted to see something of the rest of the city.

We set off at about 10 o’clock, using the main post office in El Fna square as the reference point. We were both wearing backpacks with food and water, so were prepared for a longish walk.

The walking was interesting, with lots of traffic, donkeys and motor bikes. There was nothing of riveting interest beyond the general mayhem that constituted street life in Marrakesh. We walked along leisurely for about four hours, stopping off along the way at a café for a coffee and a good look at the passing street life. This was the real life in Marrakesh as there were no tourists and not even any French people. Of course Nick and I attracted a bit of interest because we were possibly the only non-Moroccans in the area.

After four hours and the worry that we were lost at a couple of points, we suddenly found ourselves back at our starting point. We had walked around the Medina on the outside of the wall and had seen a good portion of the real Marrakesh.

As we entered back into the Medina through El Fna square, we stopped at a street café for lunch. I had a simple salad and Nick had a tuna salad. Buying anything like this was always a lottery because the menus were written in two languages; Arabic and French. Our Arabic was poor and our French wasn’t much better, although Nick did a reasonable job of working out what the French was trying to tell us.

At last, after a wearying day of walking through the throng of the city, we made our way back to the villa. Our intention was to make our way up to the rooftop garden, sit on the lounges with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and some nibblies and while the rest of the afternoon away. That was our intention.

The reality was a little different. After we had settled down and got comfortable, Nick started acting a little odd, so I kept my eye on him. His talking slowed down and became sporadic and then, when he tried to go over to a lounge to lie down, he started to stagger noticeably. He staggered back to his chair and sat back down, now as white as a ghost. I was getting concerned.

I went over to check the door to the staircase down from the roof to see if it was locked, so I’d know if Nick and I could go down that way if necessary. The staircase we had used to come up did not have a handrail and I was starting to think that I may have to carry Nick down. When I turned around to tell him that the door was locked, Nick was looking very strange. He wasn’t responding to my questions. I went over to him and saw that he was whiter than a ghost, his eyes were wide, staring and unseeing and his arms were stuck straight out in front of him. He wasn’t responding to my voice at all and I realised that he was having a mild seizure. I talked calmly to him for about a minute, trying to calm him down. Finally he slowly lowered his arms and his eyes came back into focus. He got some colour back into his face and he began to respond to my voice. His seizure was passing.

When he was able to hold a conversation and could stand without falling, we slowly and carefully went back downstairs. There he went to his bed to lie down for a while. After confirming that his problem was passed and that he was going to be OK, I took the key and walked up to the internet café to do some emails.

That night Nick was fine. As we sat in one of the restaurants having a lovely tagine for dinner, looking out over the amazing night time entertainment in the square, we laughed and joked about what had happened. The theories of the cause extended from walking too far in the warm weather to something not quite right with the tuna salad. The second one had the greater ring of truth to it, so we settled on that.

After dinner, Nick headed back to the villa and I headed off to the internet café. He was fine by now so there wasn’t any risk in letting him walk back by himself. I spent an hour or so doing emails on the world’s slowest internet connection and with the oldest computers known to mankind, then headed back towards the villa. Now, if you were to go back up to where I describe how to find the villa, you’ll notice that I say that at night time it all looks different. Add to that a case of unrecognised low sugar and what we now have is “an interesting situation”.

I managed to find the right hand turn under the archway, but after that it all came off the rails. In the myriad of laneways left and right, in my confused state of mind because of the hypo it was impossible for me to find the villa. For about thirty minutes I wandered left and right.  Not only couldn’t I find it but, as time went on, it was getting even less likely that I would eventually find it.

When I realised that I couldn’t even find my way out of the maze back to the road, I finally accepted that my sugar was low and I was lost. But here’s a frightening aspect of low sugar; you get to a state where you forget to, or don’t want to, or refuse to, eat. So now I was lost, low in sugar, confused and getting worse and yet doing nothing to help fix the situation.

Just then I walked passed a couple of young guys, whom I think I had walked passed a couple of times previously. This time they asked me if everything was alright. I paused for a moment and thought about what to say. My natural response was to say that everything was OK, but being as I was lost and getting worse, I relented and said “No, I’m lost”. “Oh,” they said, “Where abouts are you staying?” Surprisingly I could remember the name of the villa so told them. They said they knew where it was and could show me. I thanked them, then followed as they walked around a couple of corners and stopped at a door. I didn’t recognise the door and questioned if this was it. The leader of the two sighed and rolled his eyes almost imperceptibly and assured me it was the correct door, so I knocked. Sure enough Nick opened the door. I breathed a sigh of relief and said thank-you to the young fellows. They then said “We helped you find your home” to which I said “Yes you did. Thank-you.” Now keep in mind that my sugar was low, so I hadn’t clicked to where this was going. They then said “Now you should give us a present.” I thought this was a strange thing to say, then suddenly understood that they were asking for money. I was sad at this but hey, they did help me home when I really needed it. I got out my wallet and gave them 50 dirhams and said thank-you. They were now happy and went on their way.

Back inside Nick was expressing his concern about me being so late. I explained that my sugar was low and proceeded to eat considerable amounts of emergency food for the next twenty minutes until my sugar started coming back up.

With Nick’s problem, me getting lost and then having a hypo, this day had been an interesting one.

*   *   *   *   *

Thursday the 15th and things were about to start getting interesting. The day started off as normal, with me having my “proper” breakfast at a normal time and then having the “official” breakfast at about 9:30. As we prepared ourselves for the day’s activities, the TV was on the BBC and we started hearing reports of a volcano in Iceland. This was just another story amongst the many other stories, so we hardly gave it a second thought.

We decided that today we would explore outside the Medina again, but this time walk to a “point of interest” that we had found in the map book. We packed a bag of food and water and set off.

The walk took us past an attractive looking garden called “Cyber Gardens”, a name that we found intriguing. We went in and found a very attractive garden that provided a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh street life. But the intriguing aspect of these gardens was that scattered throughout were stand-up “poles” or “kiosks” where there was a computer screen and keyboard. These computers were connected to the internet and were free to use by anybody. What an excellent way of enabling anybody, young or old, rich or poor, to be able to access the modern world of online technology. Nick and I were most impressed.

We continued walking towards our destination, walking through some very impressive sections of town, with large, modern hotels and very large, ornate and expensive looking mansions. We believe that this may have been the part of Marrakesh where the foreign embassies and dignitaries were, which would explain the hotels and fancy houses.

Eventually we got to our destination, which was a public garden of some sort with an historic reservoir of water. There were two hundred years of history associated with the reservoir, the details of which I don’t remember. The more interesting part of the garden for me was that it was in the process of being setup for an exhibition the next day of garden displays made by local primary school children. Some of the displays were already setup, so we stopped by and listened as the school children explained to us in French the details of the theme behind their garden, the work that they had put into building it and what they had learned through the exercise. As my comprehension of French is virtually nil, I simply judged by the tone of the young voices when I was meant to show surprise, joy and praise. It was wonderful to see the energy and enthusiasm shown by the young students.

As we were walking around, Nick’s mobile phone was quite active. He was getting messages from his sister in England and his travel agent, mentioning something about the volcano in Iceland. This still did not really mean much to us, but it did at least shift our focus slightly towards the topic.

After a very pleasant walk we returned to the Medina, spent some time walking around the shops, finally returning to the villa in the late afternoon. While relaxing and preparing to go out again to one of the many restaurants for a tagine and pleasant evening watching the shenanigans in the main square, Nick kept getting messages on his mobile. This was starting to become either annoying or important. We still couldn’t decide which one.

As was now the pattern, Nick returned to the villa while I stayed behind to do some emails at the world’s slowest internet café. Now it was my turn; Donna was telling me about the volcano in Iceland. So now we were getting it from Nick’s contacts on his mobile and from my emails. What the heck did all of this have to do with us? What possible impact could a volcano in Iceland have on us here in Marrakesh?

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Marathon des Sables – Chapter 14 – Tangier or Bust

Tangier or Bust
Move Over Jason Bourne

Friday and the aim today was to do more exploring of the Medina and the souks. A Middle Eastern “souk” is similar to what we call a market. Importantly, today was the day to buy most of the presents for family and friends that I needed to buy.

While going through the normal morning routine, we learned from the BBC that the volcano thing was getting more important and was looking like it could affect us. From this we decided that regardless of what happened, we needed to travel to the airport the next day to at least register our presence and readiness to travel on our scheduled flight. It really was starting to look like it was going to impact us, as they were already talking about flights being cancelled and closing down European air space. I still thought it would all blow over, pardon the pun, but we needed to consider our options.

Surprisingly, when we walked up to the main square to do some present shopping, and chose on a whim to walk down a different alleyway, we discovered that there was a whole section of shops, stalls and souks that we hadn’t yet even seen. We looked at each other with a shared look of “Duh”. How could we have missed all of this?

The next couple of hours were taken up by pleasant meandering up one laneway filled with jostling mayhem and down another. We saw stalls selling live chickens and children’s shoes, woven carpets and gold jewellery. We saw almost everything that can be bought, squeezed into a collection of commotion that stretched the senses. After marvelling at the experience and telling each other “We’re not in Kansas any more.” a few times, clever huh?, we made our way back to the villa and a very pleasant afternoon sitting on the roof drinking wine and eating nuts.

With the now virtually mandatory evening meal of a tagine in another of the restaurants by the square, another pleasant day drew to a close. However both of us were silently growing more concerned about the volcano and how it could affect us. Tomorrow could be interesting.

 *   *   *   *   *

We would need all our wits today as this was the day when we would determine if we were returning to England with our booked airline tickets or ……..? The BBC told us that all was not good and it was definitely looking like no planes were leaving. Nick’s almost ceaseless phone messages from England were adding weight to this conclusion. The airspace over Europe was now totally closed due to the risk from volcanic ash and we were hearing that there was travel chaos developing in Europe and England.

After the normal breakfast routine and an update from the BBC, we packed our backpacks with food and water and caught a taxi to the airport. Our intention was to find out what was going on and if our flight was, by some unforseen magic, actually leaving. If not then we would need to make alternative plans.

As soon as we arrived we could see that things were not good. For a start, according to the departure boards, the only flights leaving were those heading south to African destinations, or those heading to Middle Eastern places. If it was heading north, it wasn’t leaving.

We found the little office for EasyJet to register our presence, only to find that there was already a mumble of thirty hopeful travellers already there doing the same thing. Straight away I didn’t feel good about this. We joined the mob and shuffled our feet for the next fifteen minutes, waiting our turn at the window. I could soon see that the line wasn’t moving. Nick, being English where queuing has become a fine art, was now having a joyful old time chatting with other Brits in the queue. I could feel an upwelling of shrieking frustration forming in by shoes, so I suggested to Nick that he maintain our spot in the line and “Find out what you can”, then took myself off for an explore.

I walked down to the other end of the terminal, only to find that most of the offices and counters were closed. Hmm, I wasn’t expecting that. I came across a group of car rental company counters and the spark of a thought suddenly popped up. I kept exploring and finally found a place that sold maps, then paid the most exorbitant price ever for a map of Morocco. It was a good map, but at that price so it should be. I checked it to see what further ideas would come from it and discovered that Tangier, a city still in Morocco, was a short ferry ride from Gibraltar. My spark of an idea was starting to take shape.

As I headed back across the terminal towards Nick, I went over to the car hire counter with the most approachable looking lady and asked her how much would it cost to hire a car for a one-way trip from Marrakesh to Tangier. She looked a little surprised and turned to her companion to discuss the request. She told me that it would cost 2000 dirhams. A quick division by seven told me that this was approximately $A280, an amount that I considered acceptable under the circumstances. As I walked back to where Nick was in jovial conversation with his fellow Brits, I was considering my approach. Now being a full grown-up, I have finally learned that you can’t just tell someone what they should do, so knew that I had to get Nick “on board”, so that he considered this was a viable option.

I cleared my throat and launched gently into my sales pitch. It started, with me whispering in Nick’s ear “This is crazy. We need to find another way to get back to England under our own steam.” Nick immediately called on his memories of similar conversations ten or twelve years ago, which ended with us being bogged to the floor in sand for 26 hours, 300km from civilisation in The Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. He looked at me with trepidation in his voice and said “I’d be happy to wait in Marrakesh to see what happens”.

I didn’t actually get down on my knees to plead with him, but I was prepared to if necessary. Fortunately, after Nick looked at the crowd of people which hadn’t moved a millimetre in the past twenty minutes, and listened to the voices that were starting to become agitated and frustrated, he realised that we did need to do something. So he asked me what my proposal was. I told him about the car rental and that we could drive to Tangier. I showed him the map and pointed out the ferry crossing to Gibraltar. His trepidation started to wain as he thought about this and watched the fuss going on around us. Finally, after five minutes of pondering, I had convinced Nick that this was a good option. He was still muttering warnings and caution as we neared the car hire counter. I let him talk to the lady this time as a way to enhance his buy-in, and surprisingly this time the price for the car was down to 1900 dirhams. That was certainly a surprise to me. A minute or two more of decision process and Nick agreed to the plan.

Woo Hoo !!! Let the next adventure begin.

Decision made and time to move. Suddenly we had focus and purpose again. Now it was time to get moving and set the extremely loose plan into motion. What am I talking about? We didn’t have a plan. All we knew at this moment was that we had rented a car to drive to Tangier by 3pm the next day. Other than that, all we had was a furry idea that we would catch a ferry across to Gibraltar. That’s it as far as a plan went.

We drove the car back to the Medina and parked it so we could walk back to the villa.

Well, that was how the next bit was meant to go, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

We started to drive the car back to the Medina, took a wrong turn then got horribly lost. For the next thirty minutes we drove around the Medina, trying to find a recognizable landmark so we could park the car. Round and round and round we went, getting so caught up in crowded streets full of markets and donkeys that I thought we would never find our way out. This was the START of the new adventure and here we were driving in circles. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

At last and eventually we found the landmark, parked the car and started walking back. But there’s no denying that getting so lost so early in our journey was a bit disconcerting. Maybe it was a blessing because it told us not to get cocky and don’t take things for granted. For what we were about to embark on, we needed to keep our wits about us and keep thinking.

Finally we came sweeping into the villa full of energy. On the (extended) trip back we’d made a list of what needed to be done, which included going to the ATM to get some travelling cash, packing up all of our stuff, settling the bill with Abdulleila then going to the supermarket to buy travelling and “just-in-case” food. This was now exciting because it was the start of a brand new adventure.

As we were about to leave the villa for the last time and were saying thank-you and goodbye to Abdulleila, he asked us where we were going next. We told him that we were going to the supermarket again to get some travelling food and he held out his hand for the car keys. I tried to assure him that we’d be OK, but he virtually insisted that I give him the keys. Nick and I looked at each other because this was a little strange, but we gave him the keys anyway.

While Abdulleila was driving us towards the supermarket we were expecting to go to, the one that Nick and I had walked to a few days previously, I was more than a little curious when he went sailing past it and just kept going. I snuck a glance at Nick sitting in the back seat and we both shrugged our shoulders. Abdulleila’s English wasn’t very good, plus he was a very shy fellow, so he doesn’t talk much. We were now travelling through Marrakesh past the supermarket and heading for ….. well, …… we didn’t know.

Fifteen minutes later Abdulleila pulled into the carpark of a huge and modern supermarket. He knew that we were going to need a wider range of supplies than the first supermarket stocked, so simply took us to this huge one. I’d love to know what thoughts were going through his mind as he silently guided us on our way. Then again, maybe it’s better that I don’t. Not only was this supermarket perfect, but it was located on the highway we needed to take to leave Marrakesh and head towards Casablanca. More perfect.

We said our final farewell to Abdulleila and gave him money for the taxi fare back to his villa. This was yet another example of how friendly and helpful Moroccan people are. After twenty minutes of shopping for breakfast food, milk, cheese, you know, stuff, we were finally on our way. Tangier here we come! It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

When we picked the car up from the renters it had about a half a tank of fuel, and we had no idea what the conditions were like on the highway for fuel between Marrakesh and Tangier, a distance of almost 600km. So it was important for us to fill the tank before getting too far from Marrakesh.

Not far along the highway we found a service station that looked clean and legitimate, so pulled in to fill up. As we drove in, one of the pump attendants jumped up to serve us. He motioned to a pump where he started to put the nozzle into the tank. Surprisingly it didn’t go in, so he motioned for us to move forward to the next pump. That nozzle didn’t go in either and I started to consider that things often don’t work properly in the Middle East as I moved forward to another pump. With some persuasion the young fellow was able to get this one in and proceeded to fill the tank.

We paid for the fuel, got back in the car and started it up, but immediately an older fellow came rushing over and started urgently saying something to me in Arabic with a raised voice. I had no idea what the problem was and said that I didn’t understand what he was saying. Then he did something that both Nick and I found amazing, and just a little disconcerting; he reached in through the open window and turned the engine off. I was gobsmacked. I told him that everything was working OK and started the engine again to show him. He rolled his eyes, reached in and turned the engine off again, then took the keys out of the ignition and put them in his pocket.

Now let me do a word sketch of this scene. We are on the outskirts of Marrakesh in Morocco buying fuel before driving 600km through the night. Nobody speaks English and the older Arabic speaking fellow has just confiscated our car keys. What would you be thinking?

He indicated for us to get out of the car, then in a very agitated voice he told the young pump attendant to help him push the car over to the workshop. I was starting to get a germ of an idea. We helped to push the car and another fellow came out of the shop and helped as well. As we parked the car in the workshop I asked this new fellow, who understood some English, if my understanding was correct. Had the car just been filled with diesel instead of petrol? Yes he said. Now it all made sense, but my heart sank to my boots. This can’t be good.

For the next half hour they worked on the car, while Nick and I were thinking about what we may need to do to save the situation. The basic practicality they used was surprising to me, a person who knows very little about things mechanical. The older fellow got an air hose used to pump up tyres, and wrapped a rag around it. Then he pushed this into the fuel inlet of the petrol tank so it was jammed in. Then he had another piece of tube which he pushed into the tank, with the loose end hanging out and into an empty container. When he let the air go into the tank, the fuel came out of the loose pipe and into the container. Brilliant!

It took around twenty minutes for them to be satisfied that they had all of the diesel out, then they pushed the car back out to the pumps and filled the tank again, this time with petrol. The older fellow indicated for me to start the car and give the accelerator a good pump. All seemed good so far, so he indicated for me to drive it around the concourse of the station, giving it a good ol’ revving as I went. All seemed good.

Phew! It appeared that the situation had been saved by the application of basic mechanical skill and good old common sense. I shook the older fellow’s hand and thanked him, then offered him some money to compensate for all of the fuel that had been wasted. He looked at me like I was an idiot, said something that was likely to be related to it being their fault, then waved us on our way.

We had left the villa less than two hours ago. This was going to be an interesting journey.

A few kilometres down the highway which, by the way, was a brilliant piece of modern freeway, we came to a long, gradual up hill section. The car, which only had a 1.2 litre motor, started to struggle and lose speed as it climbed. I had the accelerator flat to the floor and it was still losing speed. Before we got to the top of the hill it started to miss fire. This was not feeling good. We spluttered gradually to the top of the hill and over the top, where the motor started to run smoothly again. Nick and I were both holding our breath as we willed the car on. Then, with a final cough it cleared it’s throat and all was good from that point on. All traces of diesel were now gone.

We drove along enjoying the scenery for the next hour or so until it was time for my injection. I’ve learned over the years that when in a country where it’s unlikely that the police speak English, it’s best not to have my injection in a place that is in view of the public. So we pulled off the main highway and found a secluded spot up a side road. This also gave us an opportunity to drive through a small village, where we stopped in the hope of buying some dinner.

While struggling through our enquiry as to whether the chosen place of nutrition was able to provide us with a tagine, a local fellow who surprisingly could speak English, asked me if I could give him some money so he could fix his truck. When I politely declined his kind offer to let me help him financially he, while remaining quite polite, reminded me that I was from “the west” and was therefore rich. So helping him to fix his truck wouldn’t be much of an issue for me. I attempted to clarify for him that not all westerners were rich and that I didn’t have much money. Being obviously more worldly that I, he could not be convinced that I uttered the truth. So this interaction, combined with the news that the café did not serve tagines, meant that it was best for us to leave the village and rejoin the highway to Tangier.

We swapped drivers and kept driving into the night.

Suddenly Nick slammed on the brakes, briefly putting the car into a skid. Then he swung into the right lane and rocketed past a small truck that was stopped in the middle lane without any lights showing at all. Phew, that was close.

At one point at about 10 o’clock we stopped at a 24 hour truck stop to have a cup of coffee and a rest from the road. I was checking out the hugely expensive map that I’d bought at the airport and wondered why on the map “Morocco” in Arabic was called “Marob”. I can’t speak Arabic, but I am able to read it. Being a phonetic language helps. I asked the young fellow behind the counter why this was so and he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He told us in reasonable English that in Arabic their country is called “Maroc”, but in writing it is spelled “Marob”. He said that he didn’t know why this was so.

The highway continued on past Casablanca, where there was a lot of road work being done and the travelling was slow. Then we continued north towards Tangier until eventually, after a very interesting day of ups and downs, we needed to stop for a sleep. So we pulled off onto a side road, found a spot with a reasonable amount of privacy and set ourselves up for the night.

Now don’t forget that we were in a 1.2 litre car with a back seat covered with bags of food and water. There was not a lot of room in this car to stretch out and get comfortable, so this ended up being the most uncomfortable night I have ever spent. It was even more uncomfortable than the night I spent on a rock at Wilsons Prom during my training for this whole adventure. That was luxury compared to what we endured during this night in the car.

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Marathon des Sables – Chapter 15 – The Train in Spain

The Train in Spain
Goes Mighty Fast

Sunday the 18th of April and the morning was finally here. I was afraid it would never arrive. As soon as there was enough light I had my morning jabs and breakfast and we prepared to continue on to Tangier. We had no idea where we would be by the end of the day, but we had to keep moving forward.

Tangier held a certain fascination for me because it featured in one of the passages from the third Jason Bourne movie. After arriving there at 11 o’clock, I found that it wasn’t like it was in the movie. Surprise, surprise! Tangier is a reasonably modern city with an obvious strong Portuguese influence in its architecture. We drove straight to the ferry port to find out about the ferry across to Gibraltar, but there was so much fuss going on and people talking in loud voices that it was difficult to learn anything. It also appeared that very few people spoke English, so it all became a bit of a guessing game really.

Nick managed to learn where and how to buy some tickets on the ferry, so we did finally get some. But we also learned that there was only one ferry to Gibraltar per week, and it just so happened to be today. Now I’m not going to put my hand on my heart and say that this was fact, but it certainly did seem to be. Most of the ferries travelled to other cities further along the coast of Spain with only one travelling to Gibraltar. I found this odd, but it didn’t really matter. We now had tickets for the ferry that left in the afternoon.

As we had a few hours until departure time, we drove the car back to the airport to return it to the car hire company. All went well there, but we had another interesting encounter. The car hire fellow asked how we were returning to the ferry port and we told him that we would just catch a taxi, indicating towards the taxis out in the car park area. At this the fellow urgently stressed that we must not take one of the small taxis, only the big ones. We acknowledged the warning but he stressed it again. He said we must not, OK? We agreed again, thanked him for his help and left. To this day we don’t really know why he was so insistent, so we can only guess that it was either to do with getting cheated in the little taxis OR that they routinely carry multiple fares and we could end up paying way too much or not even getting to our destination. Who knows? But we took one of the large taxis, which was a Mercedes just like you see in the Jason Bourne movie, and had a very pleasant, but interesting, trip back to the port.

Interesting? We had now ourselves travelled to the airport from the port area, so had some experience with how to get there. Our driver, who was a lovely older fellow, went a completely different way. It didn’t matter as far as the fare was concerned because it was a set fare, but we again wondered briefly if we were being taken to our destination. It seemed that we did a sightseeing tour of Tangier, seeing some wonderful Portuguese houses and architecture along the way. I was just starting to wonder if we would ever get there when the driver pulled over and said we were there. He unloaded our bags, we shook hands and said thank-you, gave him a small tip then wondered where we were. He pointed down the hill and waved good-bye. With hope on our mind, we dragged our bags around the corner and there was the port right in front of us.

Mid-afternoon and we were in the departure area for the ferry. We really had very little idea of exactly where it left from or when, as there were ferries regularly arriving and departing for various spots in Spain or further along the North African coast. The best I can say is that the organising of the ferry departure process was ramshackle at best. At one stage someone said the Gibraltar ferry was about to leave and we had better hurry, so we grabbed our various bags and rushed off, concerned that we would miss the once-a-week ferry. But after a few minutes in the wheezing line, we discovered that this ferry went to a different city in Spain. I was furious about this confusion that had been pressed onto us. We went back to the departure lounge to wait for the proper ferry. The crazy thing is that there wasn’t a board in the lounge showing which ferries were leaving or from which berth. There was no indication at all. So it was purely guess work, gossip and panic that kept people moving towards their various ferries.

Even when our ferry was boarding, we all lined up for over an hour waiting to get on board. When everyone was finally on board and the ferry finally underway, we were 45 minutes behind schedule.

But, after all of this frustration and drama, what a wonderful trip it was. Firstly the adventurer in me was excited to be on a boat crossing “The Straights of Gibraltar” (isn’t that exciting for you?), travelling between Africa and Europe, going past all of the freighter traffic entering into the Mediterranean. Secondly, we watched the dolphins playing in the bow wave of another ferry as we went past. This went on for ten minutes, so we saw lots of dolphins as they came diving out and ahead of the ferry. Thirdly, Nick bought a couple of small bottles of wine for the trip, which lasted only 45 minutes. All together it was a great crossing. I have to admit that I almost lost my composure as the ferry was docking. It slowly turned around so it was facing out again for the return journey and in doing so The Rock slowly came into our field of view. There it was, THE ROCK OF GIBRALTAR. What a fantastic sight. And as we stepped off the ferry, we were in Europe.

Once through customs, which was an easy exercise because Nick is British and I’m Commonwealth, we set off walking towards La Linea, which is the first town on the Spanish side of the border. Our loose plan was that we were going to catch a train or a coach the next day, heading for Somewhere Else, so it was best for us to go to La Linea. One thing that I found amazing was that to walk from Gibraltar to Spain, you have to walk across the runway of Gibraltar airport. I couldn’t believe it; they even have pedestrian traffic lights so you don’t get hit by a plane. Cool huh?

By now it was raining lightly, but not enough to be of any concern. But it did add emphasis to finding a hotel room for the night. We bumped into another Brit who was also walking down the almost deserted street and he told us that there was a hotel up the road on our left. So we headed there, found the hotel and booked in for the night. It was now a quarter past ten, it was raining lightly and getting cold. It was the end of the day.

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Monday and the aim today was to be closer to the Lakes District in England than we were in the morning. While Nick had breakfast, I went for a walk around the local streets. In doing so I found the short cut to the bus station, which was only 500m from the hotel. So when our breakfast and morning ablutions were complete, we booked out of the hotel and dragged our bags to the bus station.

In Spain, the understanding of English is very close to poor, so making ourselves understood was to be a chore for the next few days. We were finally able to learn that there “may be” a train that left from Algeciras, a small city only about 10km away. We waited fifteen minutes for the local bus then climbed aboard and paid. I was surprised at how cheap the fare was, being only about 2.5 Euro for each of us. As we were about to sit down a funny thing happened. A local fellow who had a good understanding of English told us that he had closed the door to the luggage compartment under the bus. “Oh yes” I thought, “Uh huh”. The full meaning of his comment was lost on Nick and I. So he kindly expanded and gave us a lesson in Spanish customs. It turns out that while in Spain, it is expected that you do almost everything for yourself. This included putting your own bag in the luggage compartment and then closing the door to the compartment. Apparently the next person then must open the door, put their bag in then close the door again. We were also to find out later in the day that the checkout chicks and guys at a supermarket do not put your groceries in bags as they do in Australia. Nope, they grab some plastic bags and dump them on top of your forlorn groceries. You must then scramble to get them in the bags before the next person gets all bent out of shape because you’re in the way. Travelling can be so much fun as you learn these little things.

The trip to Algeciras was only short and delivered us to the main bus terminal, which is only a short walk to the main train terminal. We hurried across the road to the trains with the idea being to get tickets on the next train to Madrid, only to learn that the trains don’t run between Algeciras and Madrid. They will in a month but not now, because they’re still working on the new or upgraded train line.

Oh.

We asked the fellow behind the glass what our options were, which involved lots of waving of hands, as his English wasn’t much better than our Spanish. His advice was to go back to the bus terminal and catch a coach to Malaga, which is a tourist town popular with British tourists, about 150km up the coast. There was a train for Madrid leaving from there. So now it was back to the bus terminal to buy tickets, which were again relatively cheap, to Malaga, on a coach that left not long after. Even though we were zig-zagging a little, the timing was working out OK.

The trip to Malaga took us along a section of the Spanish coast that surprisingly put Nick in a bad mood. I’d never been to Spain before but living in England, Nick had been here a number of times. Apparently Malaga is the centre of what Nick referred to as the “British invasion” of Spain and because of this the countryside is being decimated so they can build kilometre after kilometre of bland, characterless holiday apartments, with British pubs and British “Fish’n’Chip” shops every 200m. Nick hated what was happening to a piece of coastline that used to be so beautiful.

After arriving in Malaga and briefly casting around looking for the train station, we finally found it. It’s a large station with the ticket office at one end of a big, brand new shopping centre, the whole building surrounded by construction work, which is why it was hard to find. We joined the queue for tickets and started sharing travel stories with our fellow queue waiters. This was where we found an ever growing group of stranded travellers and their various stories of midnight journeys. The volcano had created havoc in Europe and it seemed that half the world was now dragging suitcases along behind them.

As the line slowly shrank and we got closer to the ticket booth, we began to overhear conversations that were saying that there were no available seats to Paris. Our general idea had been that we would catch a train to Paris, make our way to Calais then get a ferry from there to England. But that was now seeming unlikely at best.

When it was finally our turn, Nick used his meagre Spanish to talk to the very patient and helpful fellow, who confirmed that all seats from Madrid to Paris were fully booked. We could, if we wanted to, take a train from Madrid to Barcelona on the “chance” that there were seats available from Barcelona to Paris, but he couldn’t guarantee there would be. I was OK with taking that option but Nick thought it was silly to be effectively travelling backwards on only the chance of getting a seat. So he asked the very patient fellow for other alternatives. The fellow said that another way would be to travel to Madrid, then catch a train from there to Santander on the north coast of Spain. An overnight ferry left from Santander, bound for Plymouth in England. Suddenly this appeared to be the best option as at least we were closer to England, so we bought two tickets.

As the train didn’t leave for about an hour and a half, we had time to relax, have a cup of coffee and for me to find a supermarket. I asked somebody where I could find one and they told me that there was one in another shopping centre a kilometre away. So I left Nick to relax with a coffee while I took off to get my new bag of travelling food.

I found the supermarket, which was huge, quite easily and left my backpack with the bag guard, in a locker by the exit. Off I went to get my required food, such as some fruit, cheese, water etc, then went to the checkout. This is where I experienced the Spanish checkout process for the first time. They have a stick in the place where they push your groceries down after pricing them. When she has finished, the girl grabs just enough plastic bags, minus one, and dumps them on top of your groceries. She then slides the stick across to allow her to push down the groceries for the next customer, leaving you to get your groceries packed into the too few bags as quickly as you can.

At first I had no idea what I was supposed to do, then suddenly realised so started packing the bags. I ran out of bags before I’d run out of groceries, so the nice lady beside me, the other customer, gave me another one. She didn’t smile or say a word, just handed over the extra bag.

After finishing my shopping, I grabbed my bags and headed back to the station, where Nick was sitting in the café still with his coffee. We were sitting there relaxing before our train trip when, with less than half an hour to go before the train left, I suddenly realised that my backpack was missing! What the?!! I looked around and couldn’t see it. I thought back over the past ten minutes and realised that there were times over the last ten minutes when I hadn’t had my eyes on my bags, so assumed immediately that my backpack had been picked up by someone walking past. I told Nick it was missing so we could share the feeling of panic. We went over what my backpack contained, to see if there was something critical in there and determined that there wasn’t. But still, it was MY backpack which I had used in the Sahara and I DIDN’T WANT TO LOSE IT! I was very much not happy.

Furious, I went to the toilet. Suddenly, at a rather inopportune moment, I realised what had happened. My backpack was still back at the supermarket in the security locker. I’d been so intrigued by the whole shopping bag packing routine at the checkout that I had entirely forgotten to pick up my backpack.

I came rushing back to the café, where Nick was still looking mighty concerned, and told him I knew where it was and that I’d be back in time for the train. Then I took off and ran back to the supermarket, got my backpack from the security fellow and ran back to the station. We rushed off to the train and got there with five minutes to spare. Phew, what a drama.

We were now entering a whole different world. This was the world of high-tech and very expensive to build, very high speed trains. Wow, do we need these trains in Australia! On the way from Malaga to Madrid we hit 300kph. For anyone in a non metric country, this equals more than 180mph. And it was as smooth as glass. The countryside was beautiful as it swept past, usually at more than 200kph. In France there are a lot of vineyards; in Spain there are a lot of olive groves. The trip from Malaga to Madrid took only around three hours.

As our train to Santander the next day was leaving at 6:50am from a different station to that which we pulled in to, common sense dictated that we needed to travel to the next station and find a hotel room near there. That would make it much easier to get to the train so early in the morning. After leaving the station we caught a taxi and, after driving through a chunk of Madrid, were soon at the second station. Fortunately there was a hotel right there at the station, so we quickly went in to get a room. It was becoming less of a surprise for us now to see that there was already a short line of people booking in, so we just silently hoped that there was a still a room. And, fortunately for us, there was.

If at this point you are wondering why the story is moving along at a regular but fast pace, that’s because that was how we were travelling. We weren’t in a “tourist” mode; we were in a “race everybody else to get the next opportunity that was available” mode. Europe was now aswarm with displaced people, all struggling to keep moving forward towards their destination. Nick and I were no different.

We settled in to our new room then, as I didn’t need to get a bag of food tonight, we went down to the station to see where we had to go in the morning. While exploring the food shops that were open, and looking amazed at how many families were preparing to bed down for the night on the hard concrete in the station forecourt, we came across a car hire place. Suddenly this started a whole new discussion between Nick and I. The car hire place wasn’t open, but we started discussing the possibility of hiring a car the next morning and driving to France and the ferries. We convinced ourselves so readily that this was a workable option that I even went to the train ticket office to see if I could cash in our tickets to Santander. Annoyingly, and fortunately, the girl on the other side of the counter claimed to have no English at all, and even less patience with whatever I was trying to tell her. So I cracked it and stormed off in a hissy fit, waving the tickets over my shoulder and telling her that she could have had them back in order to sell them to somebody else. I know, I know; she was shaking in her boots. We stomped back to our room, well I stomped and Nick walked, and settled down for the night.

While preparing for sleep we tuned the TV into BBC and listened to the latest news. With regard to the volcano disruption, which was still the main story, this included an item about rumours that car hire places were starting to charge a fortune to hire cars and another item about the ferries from Calais being thoroughly and completely booked out for the next week.

Oh ….. we weren’t expecting that. Oh ….. ummmm, maybe we needed to rethink this. What do we have? We have booked tickets to Santander on a train that leaves from just downstairs. What don’t we have? We don’t have any idea if we really can get a car, how much it will cost, even if they will let us drive it to France. We also don’t know if we can get on a ferry if we get to Calais. There was one other interesting story on the BEEB, and that was that a British Navy ship was at Santander to pick up stranded Brits and take them back to Blighty.

At this we again changed our minds. We clutched our train tickets lovingly to our hearts and silently thanked the girl downstairs for not helping us.

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Marathon des Sables – Chapter 16 – In The Navy (Almost)

In The Navy
(Almost)

Early on Tuesday morning we were down stairs at the station, ready for the train to leave. The news on the TV had continued to tell us that there was growing concern that car hire companies were taking unfair advantage of the crisis and that the ferries all along the French coast were booked out for a week. So we were glad that we were waiting for the train to leave for new fields.

As we were coming to expect, the train left precisely on time. My brief experience with the Spanish railways is that they are brilliant, with modern clean trains, good service and uncanny timeliness.

The countryside between Madrid and Santander was more hilly than the previous day, as there are a line of mountains that run across the northern coast of Spain. We needed to cross these mountains before we got to Santander, so the maximum speed we reached on the whole trip was, when compared to the previous day, a rather ambling 230kph. I have to say that the Spanish countryside is beautiful and I can strongly recommend a train holiday.

After arriving in Santander, Nick and I quickly made our way downhill from the train station. We had no idea where we were going but knew that the port had to be downhill from the station. It wasn’t long before we saw the ocean, so knew we were heading in the right direction.

As we scampered along with as much dignity as we could maintain, we came to realise that we were leading roughly twenty other desperate looking tourists with bags as we all rushed hopefully towards the navy ship. Now you need to remember that none of us actually knew that the ship was still here. Not only that but none of us knew where on earth the ship was docked. It could have been kilometres up the coast for all we knew, as we hurried along looking like the Keystone Kops.

But it wasn’t; it was right there in front of us in all it’s glory as we turned the corner. There was a huge, grey, very impressive looking navy ship, complete with guns and all sorts of navy stuff, and it was right here in the heart of Santander. So the Keystone Kops, with us in the lead, stepped up the dignified pace a notch.

We all raced for the gate in the fence where there were guards standing. As we got there they were saying something in an unhopeful sounding voice. Everyone behind us started shouting their questions together as desperation to get home replaced dignity, so I concentrated intently on what the guards were saying. For those who were listening, which added up to Nick and I, we soon learned that this ship wasn’t taking any of us anywhere. I turned to Nick and said “This isn’t going to work. We need to get to the ferry terminal.” Nick said “I agree. The ferry terminal is up this way; I saw it as we came down.”

So Nick and I turned on our heels and, as rapidly as we could without actually breaking into a run, rushed up the port area for 200m to the ferry terminal office, with out bags bouncing along joyfully behind us on their tiny little wheels. The Keystone Kops soon came to the same realisation as we had, but now they didn’t need to decide which way to go; they simply followed us, so we were losing our “advantage”. (Can you feel the desperation in the air? So could we.) We rushed into the ferry office, took two seconds to do a reconnoitre, then rushed to the end of the line waiting to buy tickets. We were the first of the recent train arrivals to make it to the ferry line. Mwa ha ha haaaa!

This line was moving slowly but steadily. The ladies behind the desk were looking amazingly calm considering they were dealing with a bunch of desperate tourists ready to sell their first born if the sale secured a spot on The Ferry. Nick and I kept our ears peeled (I’m writing this story, so I’ll mix metaphors if I want to) so we could learn everything to be learned. And what we learned was that indeed there was a ferry on Thursday that was travelling to Plymouth in England. However, all seats and cabins were fully booked, but the ferry operators were prepared to let in a certain number of extra passengers who would need to sleep where ever they could find a spot.

The line of people was beginning to take on a party atmosphere as everyone exchanged their volcano stories. So’n’so had travelled from Somewhere on Such’n’such bus to be here. Oh the drama, oh the cost. But they were all struck dumb when Nick and I told them our story. The usual response we got was a pause, then a tentative “Really? You’ve come cross-country from Marrakesh?” We had so far crossed two countries, a British outpost and made a water crossing from one continent to another.

Finally it was our turn to buy tickets. I was nervously hopeful as we took our spot at the desk. The nice lady, who spoke very good English, explained the situation to us then sold us two tickets. I was thrilled to finally have ferry tickets to England for the day after next so, as we walked back past the line of waiting people, I did a little happy dance, waving my tickets in the air.

I found out two days later that the people immediately behind us in the queue were the last to get tickets for the Thursday ferry as it was then full. Oops.

Now the next race was on. Sure, we had tickets for the ferry, but we still didn’t have a room for the night. We stepped outside the ferry office and looked around. There, across the road was a good looking hotel, the Hotel Bahia. Because we were still in front of the Keystone Kops, we still considered that we needed to hurry, so with hardly a word Nick and I dragged our bags across the road to the hotel and booked in for two nights. And a lovely hotel it was too.

Now was the first chance since leaving Marrakesh for us to be able to simply relax. We didn’t have any commitments from now, which was two o’clock in the afternoon, until one o’clock Thursday afternoon when the ferry was loading. So we lounged around for a bit, watching the BBC to keep up with the news. From our window we were able to watch the navy ship leave. It was very impressive but also rather galling because, for a brief moment it had seemed that we may have been able to come swanning back into England in style, but that moment had soon passed. Reality had smacked us as we, and the rest of the Keystone Kops, had been left on the dock. And now we could stand and watch as it slowly pulled out and left us all behind.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with doing emails, going to the supermarket for the bags of emergency food, exploring the beautiful city of Santander and amazing at the architecture. Being from Oz I’ve never heard of The Bank of Santander, but apparently in Europe it is an important bank. Well guess where the beautiful head office is? That’s right; Santander. It was just behind the hotel we were in.

Exploring a new city is one of the joys of travelling. It is wonderful to be wandering slowly down a street then suddenly come across a building that has a market inside selling a range of exotic salamis and cheeses. There were all sorts of cafes, bars and restaurants. There was too much to take in in one afternoon. Next to the hotel was a lovely garden area with a café and a children’s play area. In the play area was a beautiful and classic carousal, with the lights and the bobbing horses. Doting parents could sit at the outdoor café drinking coffee and eating cakes while the children went round and round on the carousal. To be honest, I was struggling to comprehend how Spain could be caught up in the deep financial problems sweeping through Europe. It certainly didn’t look like it from our perspective as we explored this prosperous looking city.

That night we wandered off looking for a café or restaurant to have dinner. Because we were in Spain, Nick had a desire to have a typically Spanish dish called Paella, which we came to learn is pronounced “Paaya”. Plus he considered that there was a good chance that paella would be gluten free, which meant that I could also have it for dinner.

We walked up the road checking out the various cafes and restaurants, finally settling on one that looked like it would fit the bill, Café Te. The main waitress was a small lady who was full of life, laughing and cajoling customers in a loud voice. When it came time for us to order, it was fun as we decided with her whether the paella in the picture was gluten free. Her English was, well, nil and my Spanish was, well, virtually nil. However Nick, with his combination of reasonable French and slight Spanish was able to translate and understand much of what she was describing. So between us we decided that the paella in the picture was worth the small risk for me. Fortunately this was another example of how the Spanish are well aware of gluten free, so our charming waitress knew why it was important for me to know what was in the dish. It was all good fun deciding all of this, with lots of laughing and joking.

The evening went on with her yelling incomprehensible jokes in our direction and, after a little more of the red grape juice, us yelling back at her with lots of laughing. But finally it was time to leave and for us to wander back to the hotel. A quick catch-up of the latest news on the Beeb and we called the day over.

*   *   *   *   *

The next day, Wednesday, was a rest day as we waited for the ferry. Of course we kept a close eye on the volcano updates, which were going from bad to worse. We heard that now the recriminations had started, with airlines and others saying that the governments had over reacted by closing down the airspace. I was in two minds; firstly I don’t like the way western governments are rapidly becoming nanny states, but then I don’t relish the idea of falling out of the sky because the engines of the plane got clogged. I think sometimes there are situations where there simply isn’t an easy option.

So Nick and I pushed all of that to the back of our minds and set out to explore Santander. I won’t bore you with the details, so I’ll just say that Santander is a city that would be a good addition to any travel schedule in Spain. It’s an attractive, clean city with beautiful architecture and great restaurants.

We did take the opportunity to call into a number of cafés throughout the day to sit and watch the people. One observation is that the Spanish are yet to embrace the idea of giving up cigarettes. It seems that every second person has a cigarette in their mouth, as it used to be at home. Because it has changed so much in Melbourne over the last 20 years, seeing the Spanish reality was a bit surprising.

That night we returned to the same café as the previous night to have the meal that I knew was good for me. Aside from the food, it was good fun there. I have to be honest and tell you that this night we were a little more free’n’easy with the grape juice and were again the last to leave before they closed the doors.

This was a quiet day of rest, cafes and exploring.

*   *   *   *   *

Finally it was the day when, all going well, we were heading back to England. The morning went as normal, with no great surprises. The Beeb was still telling us about the throngs of stranded travellers and were focussing particularly on the main train station in Madrid. Apparently this had become a focal point for tourists coming from all over southern Europe and it was becoming rather chaotic. As we had been there only two days previously, we were again surprisingly pleased that we had managed to stay ahead of the main mob. Call it good planning, thinking outside the square or just dumb luck, we’d had a good dollop of all of it to get us to northern Spain and a ferry this afternoon.

One of our important tasks was to buy emergency food to get us through that night on the ferry and two train trips once we got to England. So we spent a little bit of time ensuring we had more than enough to get us through.

I’ll break here and take the opportunity to explain the potential consequences of me not having my bags of emergency food. Admittedly, it is a little more detailed for me than for a person with type 1 diabetes who does not also live with coeliacs disease (gluten free), but the importance and urgency are the same.

Maintaining the balance between the three balls that people with type 1 diabetes must juggle non-stop for their whole lives to stay alive, being insulin, carbohydrate and exercise/rest, requires a ready supply of carbohydrate at all times. The balance between the three factors (balls) can and does change for many reasons. The weather, stress levels, exercise, state of health and many other things have an impact on the blood sugar level. If you stub your toe, making you momentarily whince in pain, your BSL can easily be affected. So these bags of emergency food are not just a point of comfort; they are a point of life or death.

At last it was time to book out of the hotel and make our way across the road to the ferry terminal, where we found a substantial line of people already queued up. We joined the queue and waited patiently as more and more people joined after us. The room became full of people and their suitcases. There were families with babies and old people and young people; there were backpackers and business men. It seemed as if half the world was on the move.

While waiting for the queue to move, we got talking with those around us and swapping war stories … again. During this enjoyable and intriguing activity, we came to learn that two days before, when we had been buying our tickets, the people further back in the line behind us then had missed out. The next ferry for them wasn’t until the following Saturday, that is two days from now. I crouched down a little, remembering back to my little victory dance as we walked past the rest of the line. Oh dear.

Unfortunately it took at least an hour of queuing before the line even started to move. Then once it did, it took another 45 minutes of slow, slow lava flow before we were finally on the ship.

When we did finally get on board we saw, to our amazement, what a brilliant little ship this was. It looked like it was almost brand new, with restaurants, a cinema, coffee shops, you name it. We explored merrily for half an hour before finally deciding where we were going to spend the night. People were finding whatever seat they could find, and we chose some in a reasonably quiet area, sharing with a couple of ladies from New Zealand, a husband and wife couple from England, who were nice enough to make a donation to my chosen charity, JDRF, after they finally got home, and a quiet backpacker from South America who mainly kept his own counsel.

Of course, because we were on a ship going across the ocean from Spain to England, I was as excited as a kid. But if you overlook this detail, this was one of the worst night’s sleep I have ever had. I simply could not get comfortable and spent much of the night wandering around the ferry, trying not to disturb the lucky people who were sleeping. Some chose to party almost all night in one of the pub areas, but even they eventually quietened down and went to sleep. I know, because I was there to see it. It was an awful night’s sleep.

Not only could I not get to sleep, but as I was coming back to my seat at one point, walking without my shoes on, I stubbed my toe on a chrome upright that was so polished and shiny that I couldn’t see it. I heard a crack and knew then that I’d broken my toe. Sure enough, five weeks later and it’s still a little bruised and swollen.

And so the night passed.

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Marathon des Sables – Chapter 17 – Homeward Bound

Homeward Bound

Friday at last and a beautiful, nautical morning. After a very peaceful morning of sailing, singing “Yo ho ho and a cup of coffee”, the ferry docked at Plymouth around 11:30. After an orderly disembarkation and passport check, we discovered that the British railway people had put on buses to take the passengers to the local train station. I was quite happy about this, as it simplified what would have been a mad rush to catch the train that we were booked on. Nick, on the other hand, was dumb founded, as the train people had thought of a way to actually help us poor wandering travellers as we finally got back to Blighty from our traumatic, volcano induced, meanderings. Since riding across Spain at 300kph on a modern, sleek train, Nick’s opinion of British railways had taken a huge hit. So for a bus to be there waiting was a big surprise for him.

After getting to the station and having a cup of coffee, we boarded the first of two trains needed to get us north to Carlisle. This one took us to Birmingham, where we had to change to another for the final leg.

Even though I was now approaching brain dead after all the travelling, I was never-the-less enthralled to watch the English countryside rush past. There’s something about England that I will never get used to; it’s was like we were travelling across a postcard. The English countryside is so quaint and beautiful and, coming from Australia, lush and green.

Apart from an extraordinary number of people travelling on the trains, nothing too devastating happened as we travelled north. Nick arranged with his friend that he would pick us up at Penrith, which is the station just before Carlisle. So as we finally disembarked and dragged our bags across to the exit gate, there was Russell with a big grin on his face. Hands were shaken and backs were slapped, before we piled into the car for the exciting twenty minute trip to Nick’s home in Cockermouth. Now for those nitty picky people out there in reader land, Nick doesn’t actually live in Cockermouth. I have come to learn that he lives in a tiny little village ten minutes walk from Cockermouth called Papcastle. Regardless, it was all utterly beautiful.

After much to do in Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and England, Nick was finally home and we both could relax for a couple of days. It would still be another four days before I’d be home.

*   *   *   *   *

The main activity on Saturday was to go for a serious walk in the hills of the Lakes district. I learned from Nick and Russell that they’re not called hills in the Lakes district, but instead are known as “Fels”. This is an old Viking word that translates to ….. hill. So we went walking on a magnificent track that took us from a valley of stunning beauty up into the hills, along some spectacular ridges past patches of snow, then down to a small lake and back to the car. Russell volunteers for the local search’n’rescue group and had some amazing stories to tell of people that they’ve rescued over the years. This part of the country is more than beautiful; it is also potentially dangerous for wanna be adventurers who don’t properly prepare themselves.

That night we walked down to Cockermouth where I was able to see the incredible damage caused by the recent floods. The main street had been two metres under water and the evidence was there to be seen. Many of the shops and other buildings on the main street were boarded up waiting for resurrection. We went to one of Nick and Russell’s local pubs for a drink and to meet some of the local characters.

I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was walking through a movie set, so different was it to what we have in Oz.

*   *   *   *   *

Sunday was a relatively quiet day. We visited with one of Nick’s neighbours, a charming older couple of late eightees. He was a veteran of the British army in colonial India, complete with footmen and butler. She was a survivor of the German concentration camps and between them they had many fascinating stories to listen to.

We went for a drive into a different part of the Lakes district to see a conservation project to protect a breeding pair of Osprey. These are hunting birds, very rare in this part of England. Some very dedicated people, including Nick, volunteer to protect the birds and enable visitors to experience this rare event.

Afterwards, on the way back to Cockermouth, we stopped at a country pub for a drink. This is another thing about England that fascinates me; the ceiling in the pub was so low that it felt like it was falling on me. A tall man would be only just under the ceiling. It is all very enchanting.

Finally we did the ubiquitous trip to a supermarket so I could stock up for my long trip the next day, back to Melbourne. This was the last opportunity I would have to buy my “just-in-case” and travelling food, so I needed to be careful what I bought. I stocked up on fruit juice, gluten free energy bars and biscuits.

A roast leg of lamb for dinner and this day was now complete.

*   *   *   *   *

Today, my last day in England and the first day of my trip home, started at 5 o’clock. I was booked on to the 6:49 train to London from Carlisle.

Nick, who works in Carlisle, was all dressed up in his suit ready for work as he dropped me off at the station. This was an emotional time for both of us as it had been ten years since we had seen each other and now it was coming to an end. Not only that but we had together just completed an adventure trip the like of which doesn’t happen very often, and we had survived the experience. We had begun making loose plans for Donna and myself, Nick and some other friends to recreate this whole experience in four years from now, but for now we needed to say good-bye.

As I was in Melbourne when I left, I was revved up for the upcoming trip. But for Nick, this was the final end of the whole experience. It was an emotional farewell between two friends who have experienced a lot of adventure together. It was Nick with whom I was stuck in The Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia for 26 hours back in 1999 when our cars got bogged to the floor in the sea of sand. When the train came and I was on board and seated, Nick stayed until the train was out of sight.

It was on this trip to London that I learned an interesting thing about booking a ticket on British trains. I didn’t know it when I booked the ticket, but you can buy a ticket without reserving a seat. Reserving the seat involves an extra charge. As I didn’t understand this when booking the ticket a couple of months previously, before the trip was over I found myself standing in the aisle. The person who had reserved the seat I was using got onto the train and then, in a very English way, politely informed me that they “thought I may have been in the seat that they had reserved”. By now I had figured out the way it all worked so vacated the seat without question. I simply found another empty seat and sat there, hoping that this one wasn’t also reserved. Fortunately I was able to sit there undisturbed until we arrived in Euston.

I had arranged to meet Tina at Euston so she could give me the suitcase that I had left at her place. Ken came as well and we said our good-byes, then Tina kindly drove me to Heathrow. It seemed to take a lot of time to get there, but then I’m clueless about the geography of London.

After saying good-bye to Tina at Heathrow, I was now on my own for the rest of my journey home. As I prefer, I was about three hours early for my flight, which gave me time to calm down, check my baggage, take time having some lunch and generally just taking things easy. At least that’s how it was meant to go, but my very first official duty turned that on it’s head. An interesting journey home had just begun.

As I was going through the baggage scanner that checks all hand luggage before entering the passenger area of the terminal, the scanner operator asked me if I had any containers of liquid in my luggage larger than 100ml. I had my emergency fruit juice which, in my slightly stressed state of mine, I couldn’t remember if it was bigger than 100ml. I took them out to see and saw that they were 200ml each. The operator told me that I would need to discard them in the bin as they were too big to go on the plane. I explained to him that I was diabetic and that these were my emergency source of carbohydrate if I needed it on the plane. Entirely dispassionately, he asked me if I had a letter from my doctor. I told him that yes, I did have a doctor’s letter. Then he asked me the most unthinking, uncaring, foolish question I think I have ever been asked in relation to my diabetes. He asked me if the letter stated specifically and clearly that I must take the fruit juice on board because it was my emergency source of carbohydrate. Well of course the letter didn’t say that. When I told him that, he said in the same unflinching and unemotional tone of voice that I would need to discard the fruit juice.

I was dumb founded. As I dumped the fruit juice in the bin, I asked the fellow if there was a doctor on board the plane. He said he didn’t know and asked me why. I told him that because I had to dump my fruit juice, “The chances are quite good that I will need the doctor before the flight is finished”. The dispassionate, uninterested look in his eye didn’t change a jot. The ultimate irony of this transaction will become more clear soon.

After this joy was a relatively calm couple of hours as I whiled away the time waiting for departure. Eventually we all filed onto the plane as normal and waited to take off. And we waited ….. and we waited. Eventually the captain came over the intercom, telling us in his overly calm Captain’s voice that “Due to heavy traffic at Heathrow today, we’re going to be a little delayed with takeoff”. Oh great. I had less than an hour between this flight arriving in Doha and my next flight leaving for Melbourne.

We sat on the tarmac, with me slowly but surely going quietly around the twist, for 50 minutes before the captain told us that we had been cleared for takeoff. So before we even left Heathrow we were 50 minutes behind schedule.

The flight itself went OK. Surprisingly, and quite happily I must add, I didn’t get poisoned on this leg of the flight, so that left only one more chance for them to try again. I hope they forgot on that leg as well. J The flight from London headed east and we had taken off at about 4pm, so it wasn’t long before the sun went down and we were flying in the dark.

As we descended into Doha, I got everything ready for a mad dash through the terminal to get to my connecting flight. And we’ve all been in the situation where, just because you’re in a hurry, everything else seems to be going slow. Like rushing down the footpath on Collins St, dashing to make the train at Flinders St; you can guarantee that there are hordes of slow moving tourists not only scattered on the footpath, but actually lined up military style across the footpath, so that you almost have to step out onto the road to get past them. Well that’s how it seemed now.

Finally they let us off the plane. Once into the tunnel thing, another lady who was trying to make a connection to Hong Kong and myself, started running. I didn’t care quite so much now about “doing an ankle”; I just wanted to get to my flight.

We quickly made it to the line up for the x-ray baggage check. Doha is a strange terminal because, even though we were simply swapping from one plane to another, and would be in the terminal for only minutes, we still had to put our cabin luggage through the x-ray machine. I couldn’t believe it. And to add insult to injury, the line was huge.

The lady from Hong Kong was urging me, almost insisting, that we duck under the tapes and push ourselves to the front of the line. I was caught between a rock and a hard place because my polite Australian sensibilities were telling me to take my position and wait my turn. But as the lady was saying, I would definitely miss my flight. So in a rush of decision I ducked under the tapes and pushed through the crowd to the front. As you would expect, there were lots of complaints and just a little loud muttering from those already in the queue, but my choices were limited.

I pushed to the front then had a choice of two x-ray machines. As I stood there impatiently, waiting to see which machine would free up first, I could feel the daggers being mentally thrust into my back from those behind me. It was only a matter of time before a meaty hand landed on my shoulder to haul me backwards to the back of the line.

Luckily, the machine in front of me came free, so I rushed forward. The operator of this machine was a large and very serious looking lady who looked like she’d been doing this job for a long, long time, so when I rushed forward, bleating that my flight was in the process of leaving, she looked entirely dis-interested. Of course I was hoping that she would wave me through but no, I had to do the right thing and put my bags through. In hindsight, of course that was totally understandable. But what happened next was just one of life’s cruelties.

As I was grabbing my bag and about to rush off for the plane, the operator stopped me and said something about the contents of my bag. I didn’t clearly hear what she said, but obviously she wasn’t happy about something, so to save time I immediately started tearing my bag open. I think I was mouthing off to her a little bit, but she sat there entirely dispassionately waiting for me to bring out the contents. She again mentioned what it was she wasn’t happy about and I was able to pick up something about a knife. I was about to scoff and waffle on about “How could there be a knife in my luggage? I’ve just come from Heathrow”, when it hit me like a ton of bricks. While I was at Heathrow and swapping over contents from my cabin luggage, backpack and the suitcase that Tina had brought me, I had accidentally left my Swiss army knife in the plastic bag that it had been in since I’d left Melbourne. My mistake was that at Heathrow I had unthinkingly put that plastic bag, which contained all of my emergency gear for the Sahara, into my cabin luggage. The only reason for that choice was “just in case I might need something” during the trip back to Melbourne. At no point did it even occur to me that I had a knife in there. Heathrow either didn’t see it or chose to let it through but here at Doha, where I would be for a grand total of five minutes and running the whole time, the lady was making a big deal about it. And before you say it, yes I know she was correct in what she was saying.

Well, with moments left until the plane left, I simply ripped the knife out of the plastic bag and gave it to her, stuffed the bag and everything else back into my cabin luggage, hurled an ill-chosen and none-too-clever sarcastic remark over my shoulder and grabbed my bag and ran.

With the adrenalin surging and all of my senses screaming along on hyper, I quickly found where I had to go and ran down the stairs to the departure lounge. I was there for only a couple of minutes before the transfer bus came and we all filed on for the short trip to the plane. Everyone in the departure lounge and on the bus seemed so calm and patient. My adrenalin still hadn’t stopped surging, so I started to breathe calmly to bring myself back down. Then, of course, I needed to consider that, after the stress and rushing and turmoil of the last 30 minutes, my sugar was soon to drop. As I have said many times previously in this story, type 1 diabetes never ever let’s you forget, so as well as making sure I had my required papers and documents available and safe, and my bag with me, and was following instructions from the various airline people, I also had to eat some of my “just-in-case” food that I still carried in my pockets.

Finally I was on the plane. It was only fifteen or twenty minutes since my London flight had pulled into the docking bay and now I was sitting on my final flight to Melbourne. At last I could begin to relax.

But as with almost every step of this fantastic voyage, the surprises were not yet over. As we sat on the tarmac, still in the docking bay, with me slowly calming down and settling in the for the twelve or thirteen hour flight, the plane jolted slightly as it began to pull out, then stopped. No big deal. So far that didn’t even raise any interest. As we waited and the seconds, then the minutes ticked by, I realised that this had now been elevated to the abnormal bucket. After a few minutes the captain came over the intercom and informed us, in his calm captain voice, that while pushing us out of our docking bay, the push truck, you know, the squat little tractor vehicles with the huge wheels had, wait for it, “bent the push rod. I’ve never known this to happen before, so you’re the lucky first”. He then went on to tell us that they were bringing a replacement push rod and it would take about 45 minutes.

I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t really matter in the big scheme of things, because I didn’t have any ongoing flights to catch, but after five weeks of uproar I was keen on getting home to Melbourne. And now we were sitting in the departure bay of Doha airport in Qatar at midnight, waiting for a pushrod thingy that never breaks to be replaced, because it had broken. That sort of summed up my whole trip.

I smiled.

The rest of the flight went according to plan. I didn’t get poisoned, which came as a relief. The food situation passed without too much hassle. I got restless, as I’m apt to do on long flights, and walked up and down the aisle like a drifting ghost. Everybody else was snoring away peacefully while I paced. An interesting thing about the flight, which I touched on earlier, was that we were heading east. The plane took of from Doha at about 1 o’clock in the morning and went for twelve or thirteen hours. You would think that we would land in Melbourne in the early afternoon and it would be broad daylight. But because we were heading east and going against the direction of the sun, the daylight outside the window lasted for only a short number of hours, then it was again night. It was 10 o’clock at night when we landed in Melbourne, so in one flight we’d gone from night to day to night. That was a bit weird.

There was only one small interesting thing happening at the airport. The passport check, baggage collection and customs checks all went as smoothly as you could hope for. The interesting little thing was that Channel 7, a local TV station, had signs up saying that they were recording an episode of Border Security at the airport that night. That wasn’t a big deal, but did fit in with the general pattern of the whole trip. Nothing was simple and nothing was normal.

Finally outside in the public area and there was the family waiting for me. Hugs and kisses from all and life was good.

My journey was over. 2014 here I come.

Post Scripts:

1/         I discovered after my return to Melbourne and visiting the doctor and then a specialist that my wobbles, and agonising cramps that took me out of the event, had nothing to do with the diabetes and carbohydrate. After doing some tests it was discovered that I also live with a condition known as hypokaleamia. This is when the body is unable to maintain a healthy level of potassium in the blood and can be very dangerous. I found that I also have this condition only due to the extremes that I was pushing my body to during the training and the event itself. The famous footage of the lady marathon runner in the 1984 LA Olympics, Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, is an example that most people have seen of this condition.

2/         Throughout the story I make mention of entering the event again in 2014. I did embark on achieving just that, but early in the training I found that the biology around the type 1 diabetes had changed since 2008. Whether it was because of the 2010 event, or my age, or even just the constant guessing work associated with living with type 1 diabetes, I soon encountered a serious of serious medical mishaps involving ambulances and much consternation for both Donna and myself. I reassessed my situation and decided that the new risk was too great for me to justify, so I dropped the hope of trying the MdS again. I was not happy, but type 1 diabetes never lets you forget or get complacent. With type 1 diabetes, complacency leads to death.

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