Here Are the Best Things to Do in Marrakech (37 of them!)

Colourful hanging carpets, whiffs of spice as you walk through the souk (market), and camels elegantly crossing sand dunes is what comes to mind when you think of Morocco.

But that would be just another touristy day that anyone can do. We want you to taste Morocco for what it really is, in its detail. That’s why we’re handing you on a silver plate the best things to do in one of its most culture-intense cities, Marrakech.

1. Medina

The first thing you have to do in Marrakech is put on your comfortable shoes and head to the Medina. Walk under the archways and through its alleys, and absorb the life around you. Take in the browns of the stone the city was built with, the sound of locals talking to each other, the aromas splurging out of the food stalls…

A word of warning though: keep an eye out for cars and horse carts, they’re everywhere!

2. Djemaa El-Fna

Follow the old city walls of the Medina to get to the main square, Djemaa El-Fna. If you’re there during the day, try a fresh orange or grapefruit juice from one of the carts.

At night, as the temperature cools down, people start sprouting out from everywhere and the square fires into a vivid atmosphere.

Sit at one of the shared tables and eat a Harira, a pea, lamb and pasta soup. This is the same soup Moroccans eat for breakfast to break their fast and celebrate the end of Ramadan.

oranges

3. Hat for the Heat

If the heat starts getting to you, look for women selling straw hats. You’ll bless the few dollars you pay for it as it blocks the direct sunlight from your head. Is is important to dress appropriately when visiting Morocco to ensure that you feel comfortable.

4. Saadian Tombs

These tombs were discovered in 1917 and subsequently restored, but date back to the same era of Ahmad al-Mansur.

When visiting, admire cedar wood, stuccowork and Carrara marble decorating the tombs of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty, who came from the valley of the Draa River.

There are three rooms to go through with twelve columns, but what’s interesting is just outside is a garden with the graves of various soldiers and servants.

5. Marrakech Museum

This classical Andalusian-style house, Dar Menebhi Palace, was renovated and converted into a museum in 1997. Walk around the fountains in the central courtyard, admire the mosaics, carvings and tile work around you, then head towards the exhibits – pottery, coins, historical books – from every period of Moroccan history, Islamic, Berber and Moroccan.

6. Souks

Once your belly is nice and full and your head covered, head to one of the endless labyrinths that surround Djemaa El-Fna. You’ll find countless souks where you can buy leather, spices beautifully decorated in huge colourful cones, the local shoes – babouches. But probably the most hypnotising thing to do in a souk is walk into a carpet house. Be ready to have various carpets flung open in front of you, until you fall in love with one.

babouches

7. Barter

Of course, once you decide to buy any item in the souk, you’ll need to barter. Here are a couple of hints:

• Start by greeting the shop owners when you walk in: ‘Salam alek um’, to which they’ll reply ‘Alek um salam’. A little friendliness never hurt negotiations.
• Remember, it’s always a 3-step process. They’ll give you a price, you give them another, and it’ll always be somewhere in between the two. Keep that in mind when shooting your price – don’t say what you’d really pay, but a little under.

8. Walking Tours

There’s no better way to get to know a place than to walk around it. You have the time to look around, hear what’s around, and smell what’s around. It’s a fully sensual experience that you can take up on your own. However, in places as rich in culture and history as Marrakech, a walking tour with a local guide will dive you into much deeper layers than you’d imagine.

9. The Mellah

Also known as the Jewish quarter, the Mellah isn’t a souk but is probably the best place in the Medina to buy fabric.

10. Have Tailormade Clothes Made

Find a tailor, tell them what you’d like made, be advised on how much fabric you need, then go to buy it in the souk. Doing this will save you from the fabric seller overselling unneeded lengths.

A jilab with a touch of your own style is a great idea for a souvenir to take back home.

11. Visit a Riad and Have a Mint Tea

When you feel like a break, stop at one of the old aristocratic houses usually turned into a boutique hotel, a Riad. Ask for a mint tea and enjoy watching the ritual of the tea, as the waiter pours it three times until it reaches the perfect foam on top.

mint tea

12. Rue Bab Agnao

For a calmer atmosphere, head on a 5-minute walk to the entrance of the Kasbah district, the Rue Bab Agnao, which is the most impressive of the Medina’s entrances, with less hustle and bustle and better-kept streets.

Once there, visit the Royal Palace, the former El-Badi Palace, and the Saadian Tombs.

13. El Badi Palace

Built in 1578 by the Arab Sultan, Ahmad al-Mansur, from the money of a substantial ransom paid after the Battle of the Three Kings by the Portuguese, this now-ruined palace has turned into a must-see for anyone visiting Marrakech. Make sure you get there before 4pm to have time to enjoy it before closing time at 5pm.

14. Jardin Majorelle

Created in the 1920s and 30s by the French expatriate Jacque Majorelle, this 12-acre botanical garden sprinkled with brightly painted walls and plant holders also houses the Islamic Art Museum, the archaeological museum of Marrakech.

15. Bahia Palace

When Si Moussa, the grand vizier of the sultan built this palace at the end of the 19th century, he meant it to be the greatest palace of its time. Named after one of his wives in the harem, the rooms intended for the concubines surround the central basin.

16. Boucharouite Museum

This museum holds interesting Berber boucharouites, rugs made out of rugs, and a gallery with Moroccan popular art including painted doors. If you feel like eating something light, head upstairs to the terrace.

17. Koutoubia Mosque and Minaret

This mosque and minaret have welcomed visitors of Marrakech with their overpowering height for close to a thousand years. The name comes from the Arabic ‘bookseller’, which is interesting because it dates to the 1200s when books were still unknown in the Christian world.

morocco

18. Cyber Park, Arsat Moulay Abdeslam

Good place to just sit in the shade to have a break from all the sightseeing and enjoy some free wifi.

19. Dar Si Said

A beautiful museum that oozes nostalgia in every little corner. It mixes old with new in such a way you can see items that were used in the old Hispano-Moorish times, which you can still see in use on the streets of Marrakech simply by walking out of the same museum.

20. Smoke a Shisha

You’ll know when you’re near it. The sweet aroma of the flavoured tobacco will drag you in as if under hypnosis. Just go with it, sit down and let the assistants bring the coal for your Shisha, then just watch as it bubbles and it starts vaporising for you to enjoy. You might not be a smoker, but what you’re doing with this is experiencing an ancient communal ritual, once exclusive to the higher class.

21. Take a Belly Dance Class

Why not? Go on, go get those muscles a good stretch and find out what fun belly dance can be. Don’t take yourself too seriously, simply enjoy the moment and the wisdom of the celebration of the woman’s femininity in all its shapes and forms. After all, everyone in class will probably never ever see you again. Just go for it!

22. Food Tasting

There are tours for food tasting too, but the best thing to do in Marrakech is to walk around the city and follow the best aromas for the best food. Sometimes they’ll be coming from a street vendor cart, other times they’ll come from a small, local eating joint, and sometimes out of lush restaurants. Take your pick! Just try not to end up in someone’s private kitchen.

23. Rahba Kedima Square

A quieter souk. You’ll find souvenirs, spices, and carpets, but what’s most intriguing are the dried up plants and animals!

spices

24. Photography Museum of Marrakech

You’ll find more than 8,000 photographs ranging from 1870 to 1950, including an exhibition of hundreds of old photographs and projection of the very first film recorded in High-Atlas colour, ‘Landscapes and Faces of the High-Atlas’, produced in 1957 by Daniel Chicault.

25. Musee Tiskiwin

Compared to other museums, the Tiskiwin might look small but it’s well-organised and contains insightful information about the history of Marrakech and its region, including artefacts from past centuries that will make you look at the city with fresh eyes.

26. Mouassine Museum

If you like old buildings, this is a museum you shouldn’t miss. It’s split into parts, one used by the family and the other open to guests. The most amazing feature of this house is that the plaster was taken off and its original bright colours were restored back to vivid life.

27. Get Lost

Once you plunge into this addictive shopping spree, you’re sure to look up at a certain point and realise you’re lost. Here’s what you have to do – find a narrow door that signals a rooftop café, walk up its winding steps, and from there you’ll be able to (more or less) locate yourself.

marrakech

28. Look for Local Delicacies

Here are some of our favourite dishes we highly recommend you sample:

Moroccan crepe for breakfast, tagine of sardine balls, liver in onion sauce, roasted lamb and of course you have to try some bakery items!

29. Try an Avocado & Date Smoothie

Maybe the most curious refreshment you can get in Marrakech is the avocado and date smoothie.

30. Farmhouse cooking tour

As days go by and you feast on makouda, kefta, zaalouk, cous cous and b’stilla you might end up thinking how you’d miss this food back home. Well, there’s a way to prevent that – learn how to cook some Moroccan dishes, so you can make them back home. Ask around for the best cooking course or tour.

That’s not all. If you fancy stepping out of Marrakech for a while, you can find other fun, active things to enjoy. Here are some:

31. Horse Riding

Visiting the Atlas Mountains while riding on a horse, past Berber villages, and soaking in the landscape of all shades of brown is definitely worth some time away from the city.

32. Palm Grove, Sunset & Camel Ride

The only thing to top that is riding on a camel in Palm Grove, just half an hour out of Marrakech and walking into the sunset as if you were in a postcard or movie.

desert

33. Quad Bike Safari

If riding on the back of animals isn’t your idea of fun, then maybe riding on a four-wheeler might be. Just put on your helmet and ride the sand, through wild palm groves.

34. Hot Air Balloon Ride

Then again, it might be the sky you’re aiming for. Well, nothing in Marrakech is impossible. Book yourself a hot air balloon ride and feel the excitement of elevating away from the ground and going swiftly up, up, up into the sky.

35. Oasiria Water Park

The gardens and pools of the water park are a great idea for a relaxed day away from the heat of the streets, but also a fun place to entertain kids.

36. Get a Flag Beer

Trying the flag beer of every country is a must. In Morocco, you’ll find Casablanca Beer in most of the touristy places. Snap that bottle open; it’s time to freshen up from the heat.

37. Visit a Hammam

Let’s face it, holidaying can be tiring. The good news? In Marrakech, there are various hammams, what we know as a spa. You’ll find varying prices and qualities, but whichever you choose make sure to get a nice scrub, especially to your well deserving feet, then soak into a beautiful massage.

That was our top 37 things to do in Marrakech. Is there something that you love to do in Marrakech that we’ve missed out? Let us know, we always love to hear about your experiences and holidays in Marrakech.

Need any more reasons to visit Marrakech? Get that suitcase ready and, whatever happens in Morocco, remember the 2 magic words: Mashi Muskhi (No problem!)

For more inspiration contact Epic Morocco today and discover more about the enigmatic city of Marrakech and book your trip. 

Why I love Morocco

By Alice Morrison

Every month, I really enjoy writing my guest blog for Epic Morocco and this month I was talking to the MD, Carla, about what I should blog about: Things to do in Lalla Takerkoust? Top mountain biking tips? How they make the colourful pottery of Safi?

“No,” she said. “All the news headlines internationally are so grim at the moment and life here is such a contrast, why not convey that? Tell us why you like Morocco so much and why people should visit.” Well, it is rare that I get such an easy and pleasurable subject. My problem with this one is that there are about a thousand reasons I like Morocco and a new one pops up every day. So, here are my top ten.

Why I love Morocco Alice Morrison

  1. The Moroccans. I know you shouldn’t generalise about people but I’m going to go right ahead and do it. The vast majority of Moroccans I have encountered have been friendly, warm-hearted and welcoming. I have lost count of the number of times I have been invited by strangers for a cup of mint tea or even dinner with their family. Best of all, they have a great sense of humour and are always ready to have a laugh or share a joke.
  2. The weather. Coming originally from Scotland and latterly from the Peak District, I am well used to a diet of rain, rain and more rain. What a joy it is to get up every morning to sun and a blue sky. It does get cold in winter and hot in summer but those blue skies last all year.
  3. The Atlas Mountains: This magnificent mountain range traverses the country, forming a natural barrier to the Sahara desert. They are a paradise for hikers with tracks weaving through villages untouched by the modern age. You’ll pass goat herders tending their flocks, women hand tilling their small patches of land, and boys playing football on a pitch 3,200m above sea level. The views are stunning, with ridges and peaks stretching ahead of you and depending which season you come, you will be walking through a riot of apple blossom or buying fresh cherries for £2 a kilo.
  4. The desert: Go south to the dunes of Erg Chebbi or Erg Chigaga and you enter a different world. Golden sand rolling endlessly and your chance to ride a camel to camp, and sleep under the stars. On a clear night you can see the Milky Way.
  5. The running: Morocco has a fantastic collection of races to suit every ability from the Moonlight Run in the Agafay to the infamous Marathon Des Sables. Epic Morocco’s founder, Charlie Shepherd ran it in 2014 and you can read about his adventure here. It also has the friendliest running community in the world. The Berber boys are going to beat you, they run like the wind, but they will always be encouraging and supportive.
  6. The shopping: Shopping in Morocco is a whole different experience and should be undertaken at your leisure and with plenty of time to enjoy a cup of mint tea and a chat with the shopkeepers. Get your bargaining head on and enjoy the process. Treat it at as a a cultural exchange rather than as a buying trip and you will get the most out of it.
  7. The handicrafts: It is not just the shopping process that is enjoyable it is the lovely things that there are to buy. Hand-woven carpets, traditional silver jewellery, hand-made pottery, colourful leather slippers, shiny tassles… it is a cornucopia and the prices vary from bargain basement for a hand-painted pottery bowl at under a pound to some very lavish and expensive carpets.
  8. The pace of life: It’s slow and there is a saying you should bear in mind: You have the watch, we have the time. Don’t try and do anything in a hurry, you will just get frustrated. Live in the moment and enjoy the experience.morocco photography
  9. The languages: Darija (Moroccan Arabic), Tashlaheet (one of the 3 Amazigh/Berber dialects) and French are the main languages spoken but you can also try Spanish, especially in the North, Italian, German and Japanese. The Moroccans are polyglots and will find a way to communicate but you will be guaranteed a warm response if you greet people with Salaam alaykum.
  10. The Cities: Marrakech, the daughter of the desert with its snake charmers and story tellers; ancient Fez with its warren-like medina and 70 mosques, the call to prayer at sunset is a magical experience; Chefchaouen, the blue city nestled in the Rif Mountains; and Essaouira with its surfers, laid back vibe and crashing Atlantic waves.

I have been lucky enough to live in Morocco for four years and am discovering something new every day. The best piece of advice I can give? Book your ticket today!

Alice Morrison is the Presenter of BBC2’s Morocco to Timbuktu: An Arabian Adventure. She is also an Author and an Adventurer. 

 

 

Marathon des Sables Race Report

By Charlie Shepherd

Photo: Marathon des Sables

All I’m drawing out of the straw of my last water bottle is air. I’m running on empty in the Sahara Desert but I’m ok, as, squinting into the setting sun, I can see the nomad tent colony of Checkpoint 4 laid out on the sandy plateau to the west. I’m hot, and suffering the first pangs of physical pain, but my morale is still intact and in the dunes below I can see my friend, and MdS organizer, Joco, blazing through the sand in his 4×4, churning up a plume of dust that strikingly catches the molten late afternoon light.  Tired as I am, I’ve made up my mind to savour this experience, and indeed, as experiences go, this particular late afternoon in Morocco’s Jebel Zireg will surely remain etched in my memory till the end of time. Leaving the majestic landscape aside, this moment bears a weighty significance. I trained hard for a year to get here, I have never run more than a marathon in one day, I have already run one today and immediately ahead of me lies another, in the Sahara Desert, in the dark. And so, with 6kgs on my back and a stash of food to sustain me, I head off into the unknown, one foot in front of the other……

Wind the clock back six days, to the start of this adventure, to a spring afternoon in Marrakech and to the start of the unedited account of my experiences at the 2014 Sultan Marathon des Sables.

Thursday 03 April – Marrakech to Ouarzazate

Before leaving Marrakech, my training partner, friend and fellow adventurer Alice Morrison and I have time for a few photos, destined for the ‘before & after” file, if assuming there would be an “after”. Saaid, one of the loyal guides from my company Epic Morocco, is with us to take my car back on its return journey, and we’re all set.  We’re in a holiday sort of mood. Nothing negative, no smell of fear, just excitement as if we were going on an expensive holiday, which, I suppose we sort of were. We’d both had friends and family asking questions like : “are you dreading it?”, “are you scared?”, which understandably reflected people’s perception of what is commonly described as “the toughest footrace on earth”. But we didn’t feel that way. Au contraire. We were ready for action. The waiting was over and we were finally on the road to what we expected to be the adventure to end all others.

Ouarzazate, the exotic sounding desert frontier town, was our destination tonight to break up the long journey to the Sahara. Our contacts in Morocco led us to dinner at an historic restaurant in town with two veteran MdS runners – Nadia, 14 times competitor, and Karim, a participant 13 times. We were at the captain’s table with two old timers and we felt honoured. A very enjoyable evening was had by all, but pleasant as it was, it was also sobering. The reality had hit hard. We really were about to take on the toughest footrace on earth, and there was no turning back now.

Friday 04 April – Ouarzazate to Camp 1 – Merzouga, Moroccan Sahara.

Amine, my training mentor, who was sadly not present due to injury, had arranged that we meet another runner at the airport to spare him the joys of travelling to the first camp by bus and military truck (the transport laid on by the organisers). At 10.00am the lightweight and athletic Christophe Le Saux sprung off the Orly flight, looking every bit the sponsored ultra runner. Bundled into the car were Nadia, Saaid, Alice and Christophe, with me at the wheel, and we were on our way. This was a journey I knew well, and this VIP route confirmed our “home advantage.”  Above all our plan was to get to camp before everyone else in order to bag a premium tent position in the Moroccan section of the camp. The journey passed without hitch. It was clear that Christophe was a stand-up fella, and as the week progressed I was to gain a great admiration for his joyous attitude to life (and running, in particular) and his inclusive nature, all in spite of his status as one of the race’s elite.

Six hours into the journey we could see the 1000ft high dunes of Merzouga on the horizon. They appeared to be floating above the flat Hamada (stone) desert, and as we turned off the tarmac road and headed off-road, we knew we were close to camp. The first site of the MdS camp made me catch my breath. Another dose of full throttle reality laced with a healthy respect for the magnitude of the event and the organisation involved. And WE were involved, right up to our necks in it.

The participant sleeping section of the tent camp is set out in three giant concentric rings with a diameter of a good 60 yards, and compromises 150-odd A-Frame camel-haired nomad tents, each destined to provide shelter for up to eight people, sardine style, on a thinly-matted floor with sides open to the elements. A simple and functional home for the next week, and for the sake of simplicity in the face of fatigue, disorientation and general desert malaise, the same camp format and plan was to be stuck to like glue for the next week. In the coming days, it was as if a giant hand had picked up the entire camp every morning and gently re-deposited it in a different place every afternoon, such was its architectural consistency.  The rest of the camp was made up of medical facilities, one or two multi-purpose administrative tents, a whole press section, and sleeping quarters for the huge team of people who worked to ensure the smooth-running of the event. But for each of us the focal point was to be a patch of carpet around 6ft by 3ft where we’d sling our sleeping bags on thin mats (for those who had accepted the 100g or so of extra weight) with a small space at one’s head and foot for our gear.

For those who had registered in Morocco, as I had done, there were three tents set aside, and we had a few tent-mates already worked out with our new friend Karim. However, our plan hadn’t worked, as the Moroccan and other North African competitors (who were in the same allocation) had already arrived, meaning our choice was limited to tent no.3, and therein lay a problem. Tent no.3 had already become home to the race’s elite. Mohamed Ahansal, legendary multiple winner of the event was comfortably installed next to the Jordanian former champion Salameh Al-Aqra, and so on, and so forth.  Polite conversation ensued (I knew Mohamed vaguely already) but, and very much in spite of the highly-inclusive nature of the MdS, we felt uncomfortable and unwelcome.  The famed hospitality we experience in Morocco on a daily basis just wasn’t there. This felt wrong and like a bad start. These boys clearly had the weight of expectation and pressure on their shoulders and Alice and I weren’t quite who they had in mind as roommates. What’s more, in the few minutes that followed, I witnessed Mohamed opening for the first time his MdS “roadbook”, (the full info booklet regarding the route, with mapping information which is kept under wraps until arrival at camp). The quintuple champion’s eyes widened and he made an utterance something akin to “gaud blimey guvnor, that looks f***ing hard,” which was another minor set-back in a ten minute period that threatened to blow the MdS dream right out of the dunes and over the desert horizon.  Then, as if by magic, one of the organisers appeared (by coincidence or otherwise), and told us that as we were British, that we’d have to go into the British section.  It was from this moment that the legend of Tent 101 was born. Well-situated at the entrance to the camp, with neighbours on only one side, it was a well-placed semi-detached dwelling at the end of a line of simple terraces. It was a dream come true. Alice grabbed one end, I bagged the other, and, in true MdS fashion, we waited for the tent to fill up and prayed for good friends…..

Saturday 5th April – registration day at tent camp 1

The desert night had been punctuated by the arrival of buses, with some of the British competitors having been held up in Er Rachidia airport, meaning a late arrival for many. This meant that the morning was our first bleary-eyed meeting with our new tent mates. A few handshakes later it was as if we’d known each other for years, just like that. There was a clear and immediate unspoken consensus that we were in this together. We’d imagined this for months, and I think it’s fair to say that we all very happy with our new reality; that of tent 101, a reference to the TV show where room 101 is the room into which you consign all of the things that most aggravate you in this world.  For us it had a nice ring to it and the irony wasn’t wasted on any of us.

All of the crew warrant a mention and we all played our part, so, from left to right we had Alice, Bruce – a commercial pilot, Ali – a Navy helicopter pilot, Bob – a fireman, Neil – a businessman, Bill – an ex-army logistics man, and me, Mr. Morocco.  A team of like-minded, down-to-earth characters out for a good time in a ferocious desert environment, that was the general picture. We’d all put in the hours and made the sacrifices required to get to this point and we were mighty happy to be here. The laughter flowed from the off, and, as we’d later find, even in times of adversity, the silliness and the banter rarely stopped….

From Left to Right: Charlie Shepherd (15), Ali, Neil,Bob, Alice, Bill, Bruce

This Saturday morning felt special to me. I had spent weeks tinkering with equipment, what-to-take, what-not-to-take, weighing things, packing, packaging and repackaging infinitum, and this morning we would shed all but items we needed for the race. Handing in my bag, my phone, and unnecessary miscellaneous bits and pieces, signified the start of the race for me, and, more symbolically, the start of a week of simplicity, where all I had to worry about was myself, my feet, eating, sleeping, running. No emails, no news, no contact. Easy peezy, lemon squeezy. That expensive holiday (you know the one where you only get given water and a rocky place to sleep) had begun and I felt like the king of the world, the naïve and crazy fool that I am.

After a day of lying around in the tent and chatting about the race, the evening brought with it our last catered meal. The organization was superb and the meal felt like a luxury banquet. We knew what was to come and we savoured every morsel of the spaghetti bolognaise, and every crumb of our water biscuits and mini Roquefort cheese. We thanked the lord that the event was organized by the French, and then it was early bed. Tomorrow was set to be a big day like none I  had ever quite experienced before, and a fitful sleep filled with desert mirages, saline drips, and blisters the size of golf balls passed the time between lights-out and daylight.

Sunday 6th April – Stage 1,  34 km

There had been much talk about today’s stage. It was considered unusual to start in such proximity to the mighty dunes of Merzouga, and, moreover, to start the race with such a sustained traverse of the dunes, which are the highest in Morocco. Yesterday a few of us went on a short reconnaissance run to the sand, to test the legs and the gaiters, but today was for real.  It was a day of new experiences. Our first bash at the dehydrated food we were carrying, our first experience of standing on the start line with MdS founder and race director Patrick’s legendary morning address delivered from the roof of a truck, our first taste of the daily rendition of ACDC’s “Highway to Hell”, and most importantly of all, our first taste of what it is actually like to run in the fabled Marathon des Sables. We had all read accounts, watched videos and poured over photos in a hope of gaining insight and some kind of perspective, but as I was to find out, none of this could hold a candle to the reality. Today was the start of a journey over the course of which I discovered something much more profound, more immense and infinitely more special than one’s wildest dreams.

So, with the race signature song blaring over the Tannoy & 1004 “athletes” counting down from 10 to 1 (one could imagine in 30-odd languages),  we were ready, and then, we were away!  A lot of people blazed off at a sizzling pace, but I had been warned to be prudent so I started at a slow and steady cadence. There was, after all, an awful long way to go and the stark truth was that I wasn’t, strictly speaking, even capable of moving up from the low gear that had become all too familiar to me over the last few months.

The day was infused with excitement. I knew the dunes at Erg Chebbi, but I didn’t know them in this way, surrounded by over a thousand runners with helicopters sweeping low level overhead in a jaw-dropping, and highly precarious, sideways motion to get the best film footage of the masses. The dunes were extraordinary, stretching as far as the eye could see, and I established a good rhythm. The landscape helped me to forget that there were 12km of dunes from the off, and I could feel the mercury rising with every minute of toil in the shifting sands.  When the sand drew temporarily to a close at Checkpoint 1 (CP1), we were met by friendly MdS folk distributing water, together with medical staff on a high level of vigilance. Here I spied 13-times MdS veteran Karim. I went to say hello but I realized that he was doubled over, and instead of fetching something from his bag as I had thought, he was throwing up into the sand, and, looking around, he wasn’t alone. Doc Trotters (the medical crew) were already working hard and drips were being administered in some of the tents. A tough, hot, and for some, bad, start to the race. Most will have trained and prepared hard and to be hit by such conditions on day one will have dealt them a crushing blow. I was lucky, I felt fine and I continued to CP2 across a flat terrain of sand and rock, a combo that was to become all too familiar over the next five days.

MDS Merzouga

The rest of the day passed without drama. A patient slow jog / shuffle shared with some interesting fellow runners, and although I felt in relatively good health, I was still delighted to experience that magical feeling on seeing the finish line. I’d finished the first stage of the Marathon des Sables, and, as far as I could work out, I was still alive. Yes. Alive.

Monday 7th April – stage 2,  41km    

Surprisingly for me, I wasn’t one to pour over the road book. I have too much of this kind of thing in my professional life, so my “holiday” involved going with the flow, come what may, and not being involved one iota with the organization of the said “holiday”. And for me, that meant that my road book stayed firmly in my bag, for posterity and for review at a later date. Everyday I’d get a short briefing from one of my tent mates and I’d retain only the info that really mattered. How many KMs between the CPs and how much water at each? Simple as that.  Sand, rock, canyon, plateau, salt lake, I didn’t care. It would be what it would be.

The routine at camp started to take form. Early start, fiddle with bag, boil water for porridge, fiddle some more with bag, force down porridge (which was a heavy load of food for first thing), followed by a sustained period of reordering and bag fiddling, whilst a crack squad of no-nonsense Berbers took down tent around our ears. This was to be our start to the day, every day. After all, everyone needs a routine, even at the Marathon des Sables.

Today’s distance had raised some eyebrows, as for some of us, it was pretty much as far as we had ever run, and, as yesterday had shown, running in the MdS didn’t really bear much relation to training – even for me who had trained in Morocco. Goodness only knows how oblique the correlation must have been for those coming from Scotland, and must have gone some distance to explain the numerous abandons on day one. Too hot? Too sandy?  Too hot and too sandy I suspect.

Each day of the race brought with it a story, an event of some description. Today, I can remember a down-and-out feeling in the middle of the stage, a sort of lugubrious lack of motivation and energy after another tough section of sand dunes. It was at this point that I met Andy, a friend of a friend of mine who was also in the race. I had learnt in a previous race that at times like this you are better off striking up a chat with someone to pass the time than to tackle the situation alone. Andy was a good guy, and as it transpired, he was fighting through a bad period of the stage too. We chatted for an hour or so, decided that a good course of action was a double drop of anti-inflammatories and then half an hour later we found ourselves flying through the last 7km to the finish, leaving numerous runners in our wake. I had heard about pushing through the pain and suffering to find some kind of shining light on the other side, and, for once, this had happened to me. I finished elated and felt thoroughly refreshed as I slurped down my free cup of mint tea at the finish (the only concession above the provision of water as the key sponsor is a tea company).  As on the previous day, Bob and Bruce were already home and dry, so, as was customary now, we chewed the fat for a while over a nutritious protein shake, and welcomed our tent mates home as they arrived, one by one, and in a variety of states of mental and physical health.

Tuesday 8th April – stage 3,  37km 

The camp was an extraordinary place to be. It was as if some crazy experiment was underway at the US secret “Area 51” facility, lost in the desert and testing mind-bending drugs. People shuffled around in forensics overalls (because they are superlight to carry), their movement hampered by bruised toes, painful blisters and excessive fatigue, giving them a zombie-like air. Add a military flavour, in the style of the 70s TV show M*A*S*H, a man walking around dressed as a cow, and numerous others merely in speedos or underpants (again weight-saving) and overlay this with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and you have a truly heady, and some might say, psychedelic, mix. It was unique, a place where the thoroughly un-ordinary rapidly became ordinary to us. We’d spend hours in the tent, too tired to walk, simply watching this strange world go by.

Today was a day without any great incident, but all of the usual ingredients were there; periods of strong running, extreme heat, never-ending dunes, long straight lines of nothingness, ups and downs in both senses of the words. Today was my strongest finish (230th) of the race and I felt that all was shaping up nicely for the following day, the infamous stage 4 – le longue etape – a double marathon with a time limit of 34 hours. You could smell the fear around camp, and the long day was THE topic of conversation. Needless to say, getting an early night was what the doctor ordered, and the sardines in tent 101 did so accordingly.

 

Photo: Marathon des Sables

Wednesday 9th April – stage 4 ,  82km

A lot of people have asked how I (we) managed to get through 82km without really stopping, through one of the harshest landscapes on earth whilst carrying a backpack. It’s a difficult question to answer, partly because I have in some ways forgotten how, but partly because you really needed to be there to know. I suppose the best way is to pick up the story where this account begins, as I descended to CP4 at 42km, with one marathon in the bag, and one to go.

MDS water stop

So, here I am at CP4. I’m again with Andy, and thank god. The day had gone well and, crucially, Andy had saved my bacon at CP2 by suggesting that we both get our feet seen to by Doc Trotters. For me the pressure in my left big toe had become unbearable, and I later found out from a podiatrist that had I not had a needle put through the toenail to release the fluid, the pain would have left me unable to continue that day. The lancing provided instant relief and here we were. Half. Way. There.

I’d decided to dive into my rest day rations and the sundowner protein shake I had mixed up went down like that famous beer in “Ice Cold in Alex”. It felt like rocket fuel, just the sort of stuff I needed to catapult me into the Saharan night. The only problem was that in the time it had taken to mix and drink it, I’d seized up, and I struggled, like a man of twice my age, to get back on my feet. The pain had started and I was heading for a long night of toil.

People have often said that the MdS (or any extreme endurance event) is “90 per cent mental”, and, although this is a completely arbitrary figure, I now at least understand the reference. I had prepared physically to a point, but, several days into the race and now having finished a marathon today, I had long since passed that point.  Now I was heading to a new place, one I had never previously visited, and, for the record, my body was broken, even at this halfway point in the stage. They say that when the body is broken, the mind takes over, and, fortunately for me, my morale was good. This is what I had come here for and I was, in a strange way, curious to discover what the next seven hours would bring, despite the soaring physical pain in my body, from shoulders to toes.

But the job was strangely simple. One foot in front of the other, that was the mantra. I chatted to Andy, we spoke of how far we’d come and not of how far we had left. You needed to think positive, otherwise the task would have been impossibly difficult. It was already hard enough, and the hurdles presented by the distance and terrain would have been insurmountable had the brain chosen to create its own mental hurdles.

The night was starry and we’d reduced our pace to a power walk. The legs had little more to offer and we were constantly fighting the sandy terrain, which, although now flat to facilitate straightforward navigation at night, never seemed to let up, kilometer after kilometer. Between CP4 and CP5 we had a green laser beam to follow, which was at least novel and surreal. A shaft of bright light pointing at the sky, a completely indeterminable distance away. My GPS low-battery warning had been beeping for hours, but, like me, it was on its last legs but still just about finding the power to function, however weakly.

CP5 passed at 58km, then, after a long section passing the time with multiple MdS finisher Rory Coleman, we finally arrived at the last CP at 71km. The last CP before the finish of the longest stage of this great race had a nice ring to it. The rub was that there was still, under these conditions, over two hours left, and, for this reason, this was the toughest section of the whole week. Although we could make out little of our surroundings, we appeared to be on a gradual incline up an open and sandy dry river-bed. We were following faint green beacons placed every 500m and I struggled each time to see the next – undoubtedly a combination of fatigue and poor night sight. But where was the camp?  No lights ahead, not a sausage.  It was getting late and I was thinking that I really should head home, but home never seemed to appear.  UNTIL, finally at around 1.00am GMT + 1 we could see lights ahead, and, half an hour later and with never any scent of the second wind I had hoped for, we arrived victorious, but battered, at 1.30, after 15hrs30.

When I got to my tent, Bob was snoring (he had taken a mega-dose of sleeping pills), but Bruce was awake. I stumbled around and my physical condition prompted the ever-considerate Bruce to ask if I needed him to get medical help for me. I was in a bad way and had pushed myself way beyond what would normally be deemed reasonable. My body had locked up and simple organizational tasks in the tent were almost impossible. My feet were distorted and my big toe was unrecognizable not just as a toe of mine, but as a toe at all. I fidgeted and must have settled and passed out eventually, and I vaguely remember being joined through a fitful night by our tent mates, with Alice arriving at first light after a memorable performance from the “Hayfield Express”.

Photo: Marathon des Sables

Thursday 10th April – rest day

Sleep was hard to come by, despite my having got through a decent supply of pain-killers. Moving was tough, and as the (rest) day progressed I realized that I was unwell. I don’t wish to state the obvious here, as few of us were well in the true sense of the word, but I was withdrawn and unusually quiet. My tent mates commented repeatedly that I was not my normal self. The day before had really taken it out of me, to say the very least.

Irrespective, the day did what it said on the tin and it provided essential rest, and although we were pleased that the end was close, I, for one, was not complacent about the last day, which was still of marathon distance, and I was well aware that this particular sleeping giant had still great potential to be a party pooper of the most monumental proportions.

Friday 11th April – stage 6, 42km (marathon distance)

Alice and I hobbled to the start line of the final stage of the Marathon des Sables. Having spent so much time training and planning together, we hadn’t actually spent much time together at the race and it was nice and fitting that we walked together to the final start. That said, Alice was worried about completing the race due to crippling blisters. I was ok, but only just. We walked together to the inflatable arch for the last time, the last leg of an unimaginably long journey. I’d got her into this mess to start with, and I was delighted and proud that my friend had done so well. I also knew, despite her apprehension, that she would make it to the end, but she needed reassurance.

Fists pumped in the air for a last “Highway to Hell” and we were off.  What can I say about today?  I remember it as being a war of attrition. There was no gliding through the desert with feet hardly touching the ground, it was a heavy-footed, stop-start, plod-and-hobble affair, a picture of pure agony on two legs. And I wasn’t of course the only one. It was a march and shuffle of the walking wounded, all through the day. At the last CP we came across a patch of civilization in the form of a village and a congregation of various family members of competitors – a true spirit lifter for everyone, even if they weren’t your family members, and then I knew the job was nearly done.

At the finish I felt nothing of the elation I expected. I felt numb, empty, drained, and, above all, delighted that my family hadn’t come to the finish as I had nothing to offer, anyone. I managed a smile for the souvenir picture of receipt of the finisher’s medal with Patrick Bauer, and then it was back to tent 101. I was exhausted and today had been a battle that I had ground out, but it was over, and all of our tent had successfully completed the toughest footrace on earth.  Given that we had nothing but the last of our meagre rations of food (that we had all long since struggled to stomach), the party was on hold. We needed time for this to sink in, and we needed another stage for the party, and preferably one that involved quantities of cold beers, the item that had become the Holy Grail for many of us.

Photo: Amine Kabbaj

Saturday 12th April – UNICEF Solidarity Walk 8km

After all that we had done, it’s odd that 8km could seem such a long distance, but it did, and that’s precisely why the mind is so key to endurance events. Just as 8km today seemed long, 40km a few days before seemed manageable. The distances are in the mind and this is what I had found out as I broke down distance barriers in my mind in the year of preparation for the event.  To take nothing away from today’s worthy cause, most of us were less than motivated for the charity fun run – or walk as it was for everyone – but it was a chance to chat with others and reflect on the race.  At the end we were met by my friend Amine and taken to Ouarzazate where we were put up in hotels for the night.  Tent 101 decided on a night out, a sort of personal celebration away from the other 900- odd other survivors, back where Alice and I started a week ago, and spirits were high. Our bodies were absorbing all that we put into them, and I managed to drink seven bottles of beer without troubling the facilities. My body was soaking up everything, and, as we ALL found out, was storing it in our legs. We hadn’t sat down on chairs for a week, and we all had legs like balloons. This was water-retention in the extreme and my legs were unrecognizable. We all assumed this was par for the course and we continued in to the night, undeterred.

Sunday 13th April – The Road Home

It was on the Sunday morning that it hit me. Like a sledgehammer really, as I sat alone at early breakfast, unable to execute the lie-in that I had planned. What hit me was the realization of what I had just been through, physically, and above all, mentally. Today was an emotional overload and I spent much of the day close to tears.

People say that you come back from the Marathon des Sables a different person, and although the degrees of which will no doubt vary from character to character, my observation is that there is a certain truth in this. I can’t and won’t attempt to describe in detail how, suffice to say that the kinship, the challenge, the magnificent landscapes, the simplicity of life for that week, and the sheer magnitude of the preparation and the event itself combine to affect a feeling that one has lived a lifetime in just a week, and the fact of pushing beyond normal limits opens your mind to your capabilities as a human being.  It is now a month after the event and there hasn’t yet been a day that has passed when I haven’t reminisced and reflected. It’s an incredible event that, in the depths of stage 2, I vowed I would never repeat, but things have changed since then, and I hope that one day I’ll be back to experience again this totally unique, eccentric, and slightly warped, race through the Moroccan desert.