In search of camels

A while ago I promised myself I would never do another organised tour.

Now I’m eating my words, as here are Melbourne hipster and I on a three-day camel riding tour in the Sahara.

It gets off to a flying start when they’re 45 minutes late picking us up, meaning we get the gimp seats at the front – something I always try and avoid as I’m not a big fan of having my life flash before my eyes.

And that it did, as over the next three days we spend about as much time on the wrong side of the road as the right, we play chicken with cars coming directly at us on narrow stretches of road only to swerve at the last nano-second, we overtake on blind corners, we nearly take out a dog, and, according to Melbourne hipster while I was napping we nearly had a head on with an ambulance.

As for our tour buddies, turns out Melbourne hipster and I are the only native English speakers, everyone else either speaks German, French or Spanish.

Melbourne hipster’s particularly happy about the Spanish component of the trip and spends the three days awkwardly flirting with a Argentinian beauty and has since entered into an imaginary relationship with her.

Seriously, if he mentions her name one more time I may have to slap him.

Turns out our tour guide/driver doesn’t speak English as well, in fact he doesn’t speak at all, making everything on this tour a surprise.

Surprise, you’re in the minivan for around ten hours each day.

Surprise, your hotel in the middle of a canyon has no lights, no hot water and a bed which makes it sound like you’re having ridiculously loud sex every time you roll over.

Surprise, you think you’re visiting a traditional Berber village but it’s actually a sales pitch to make you buy handmade carpets – ‘at quarter price of Marrakech.’

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In fact, all anyone on our tour seemed to know for certain was that we would be riding camels in the Sahara, something we went all out for.

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As for the camel riding itself, I was warned they were uncomfortable but nothing prepared me for the feeling of a bruised pubic bone, a cracked tailbone, and according to Melbourne hipster – what he imagined it felt like after giving birth.

But it had to be done and I don’t regret it one bit.

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To top it all off, that night we slept in the desert, a serene experience until someone decided to give the Latvian, who looked freakishly like the actor who plays Australian underbelly boss Carl Williams, the drums.

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He was so stoned he couldn’t keep a basic beat of 1, 2, 1, 1, 2.

Instead it was like 1, 1, 2…. 1, 1….1

But the Latvian provided me with the best laughs of the trip, especially when we were lying on the top of a sand dune we hiked to in the dark, gazing at the milky way and he broke the silence with – ‘is it just me or are all the stars above us.’

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I also took my exit cue for bed from him when he began asking our guide 100 questions about camels, though he referred to them as just camel:

‘How often does camel drink?’

‘What does camel like to eat?’

‘Does camel really store water in his hump?’

I was seriously waiting for him to ask something like – ‘what does camel do in his spare time? Does camel like long walks on the beach?’

I probably should have just pulled an all-nighter though as sleep was near impossible once the wind got up, burying me alive in sand, until I eventually gave up and headed for the sanctuary of the Berber tent.

A few short hours of sleep later we were back on the camel for the sunrise trek back.
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Picturesque but it goes down as the most excruciating one-and-a-half-hour journey of my life.

I lost all feeling of my legs and judging by the Christmas ham appearance of them afterwards something clearly went wrong.

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And, after yet another breakfast of stale white bread and jam we commenced our 11-hour minivan journey back to Marrakech.

My iPod had long since run out of battery, leaving me with no choice but to listen to the Moroccan pop music blearing out of the radio with lyrics like – ‘girl, we’ll turn the desert into an oasis’ and ‘ooooooh mirage, mirage, mirage, mirage.’

They’re also very fond of crappy western pop music and our local guide went crazy for a Ke$ha song called ‘Cannibal,’ though I wonder if he knew what he was dancing to given the lyrics include –

‘I eat boys up, breakfast and lunch
Then when I’m thirsty, I drink their blood
Carnivore animal, I am a Cannibal
I eat boys up, you better run
I am Cannibal.’

Many crap songs later we arrived back into the madness that is Marrakech, made even crazier given it was the end of Ramadan and every man and his dog was in the medina celebrating being able to eat and drink again in daylight hours after a month of fasting.

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We ventured into the medina too, but our cause for celebration was surviving yet another seriously random tour and the fact we found a hotel that would sell us beers in this dry Muslim country, even though my two beers cost roughly the same as a night’s accommodation at my hostel.

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And finally, thanks Melbourne hipster (Nick Antonopoulos) for providing some of the photos for this post.

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Where the hell are we?

For the first time since ages ago I have a travel buddy.

I’ll call him Melbourne hipster.

We made a pact back in Turkey, where we met, to do Morocco together, something I was warned on no uncertain terms I could do alone.

As one well-travelled friend put it – ‘Morocco is Turkey on drugs.’

So still recovering from my 23-day straight stint of Olympic reporting I met Melbourne hipster in London at 3.10am to get the bus to the airport.

I hadn’t slept as I barricaded myself in the bedroom of the place I was purebred cat-sitting, in paranoid fear someone was trying to kill me.

Melbourne hipster hadn’t slept either, in fact he was still drunk from his leaving party the night before.

So over the course of the morning I witness his transformation from a drunk ranter to a horrifically hungover 21-year-old, who looks even more like death after we are smacked by a wall of moist air when we get off the plane in Marrakech.

Given we are both as disorganised as each other, our first challenge is to work out what language they speak and what their currency is.

In fact, I was so disorganised for this trip the only thing I was prepared for was the Turkey-style jibes of ‘Lady Gaga’ and ‘Shakira’ that seem to plague blonde females in Muslim countries and I couldn’t believe my luck when I was just given the cold shoulder and the odd sideways glance.

Ok, it helps that I’m travelling with a male and it helps even more that this male is a Greek-Australian who looks like a minted Moroccan, especially after I peer pressured him into getting rid of his asymmetrical hipster locks in favour of an all over number two.

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That day was going well until my credit card got swallowed by an ATM and the guy at the bank wouldn’t open up to help me retrieve it, all at the same time as a young light-fingered local kept poking me in the chest and trying to ply open my money belt.

Luckily, Melbourne hipster has a rationale calming effect on me, as if i’d been by myself tears would have ensued.

Apart from the card swallowing incident, we managed to survive all the Marrakech tourist traps – including one where we were led to what we were told was a ‘colour festival’ only to discover it was some crappy pots of paint. Thanks Melbourne hipster (Nick Antonopoulos) for the photo.

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It soon became clear that it was all just a ploy to get us to buy some overpriced scarves, which we avoided, though not before we were swaddled in them.

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And despite our utter lack of planning, we only managed to get properly lost once while trying to find the Kaspar, which we wanted to visit primarily because of the song – ‘Rock the Kaspar.’

But in further proof of what a small world it is, just as we were about to give up the three uber organised, efficient and slightly dorky German backpackers from our hostel strolled past. Turns out we were deep in a cyber park where locals come to surf the interweb amongst the lush oasis in what is otherwise a urine-smelling, chaotic, grubby, colourful, sun-scorched city.

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As for our hostel, it was called Rainbow Marrakech – fitting given the interior looked like a rainbow had just projectile spewed on it and an open-air roof, much appreciated when the mercury rose into the mid 40s.

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It was also home to staff who didn’t speak to us at all, a bathroom that smelt like warm cabbage and the smallest bed I’ve ever slept on in my life.

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But I can’t complain, you get what you pay for and it was $8 New Zealand a night, though we left wondering if you could really put a price on waking up without being in a pool of your own sweat.

It was the same kind of feeling as waking up when you’re really really hungover, something that you should not have to encounter given it’s a dry muslim country.

I must say though, my body is thanking me for the lack of alcohol and it’s by far the most sober I’ve been since I began backpacking.

Besides, I swear there’s some sort of drug in the ubiquitous mint tea, as whenever I have it I feel like I’m stoned.
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Or perhaps it’s just Morocco, everything here is so random and out there there’s been a number of times Melbourne hipster and I have turned to each other and simply said – ‘where the hell are we?’

Olympic groupie

My best friend pointed out the other day after seeing me in these photos with New Zealand’s rowing golden boys that I’ve turned into somewhat of an Olympic groupie.

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I must admit I did enjoy getting close to the rowing boys, particularly Nathan Cohen, though I am thanking my lucky stars I was spared from the actual sports reporting side of things.

I’ve never been much of a sports follower and only yesterday I asked a sheep shearer with a slight rats tail who I actually quite fancied (no lies) if the hammer throw was called the clean and jerk.

In truth, if there’s one phrase to sum up my Olympic reporting over the last three weeks it would be – Kiwi House Correspondent.

Basically Kiwi House is the expat supporters’ base for our Olympic team set up in the heart of London’s Kings Cross, with home TV coverage of the games on the big screen, pies, and kiwi brews and BBQs.

And though I tried to avoid it, I have been here pretty much every day voxpopping people.

For those of you not familiar with the journalistic lingo, voxpops are the cold calling, charity street collecting of journalism, which involves interrupting people mid conversation/pie/beer and asking them this question what felt like a thousand times over – ‘what do you think of …. …..’s medal?’

So for my own sanity on Wednesday night I decided not to spend my evening at Kiwi House and went to the pub with a friend.

Murphy’s Law – less than an hour later the BBQ caught on fire, two gas cylinders exploded and the outdoor area was engulfed in flames (thankfully no-one was hurt).

Personally I’m glad I wasn’t there.

Professionally it would have made a better story if I was, as by the time I got back this is what it looked like.

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Amazingly, a day later thanks to some good old fashioned kiwi can-do it reopened – minus the BBQ area – and I found myself again voxpopping, though this time the question was – ‘what do you think of the fact Kiwi House reopened less than 24 hours after the fire?’

And it was good to see that Kiwi House had a sense of humour.

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But of course tomorrow it will all be over, the Olympics will cease to be London’s and I will get my life back.

I will again be very very happily unemployed, riding camels in the Sahara.

On golden pond

In New Zealand we have this thing called ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ which basically means we don’t like to stand out from the crowd.

Well today I say screw Tall Poppy Syndrome, because today we dominated in the Olympic men’s rowing and should be bloody proud of it.

I was lucky enough to watch the golden moments with London’s most staunch New Zealand supporters at Kiwi House and can honestly say, aside from Anzac Day, I have never been prouder to call New Zealand home.

Apologises in advance for the photographic proof but it’s pretty hard to record audio for my radio reporting gig and take photos at the same time using the same iPhone.

Anyway I’ll work with what I’ve got… so here’s the crowd of 300 watching our men’s pair of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray take gold.

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And a few minutes later Mahe Drysdale backed it up with another gold in the men’s single skulls.

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That’s our forth medal on the pond, with Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan yesterday taking gold in the men’s double skulls and Rebecca Scown and Juliette Haigh taking the bronze in the women’s pairs.

Not bad for a population of 4.5 million.

And I’ll finish by pointing out (given our fierce rivalry with Australia) that our ratio of golds to our across the ditch counterparts is now 3-1.

Yeah boy!

My first week of Olympicsing

Poor blog.

It’s been neglected somewhat as I focus on my real job, my first paid employment in eight months.

I’m back freelance radio reporting for my old company for the Olympics, something I haven’t done since early 2010 when I was lured to the dark side.

It’s a sweet gig but I can’t say it got off to a smooth start.

To begin with I’ve lost my radio voice (it’s arguable I ever had one in the first place) so it took me a good few hours to spit out my first four voice reports.

Then I got lost after travelling for an hour to see kiwi Olympic legend Barbara Kendall carry the torch. I was at the right street but in the wrong suburb.

Later that day I left £150 of prepaid travel cards on the tube. Luckily the London Media Centre was kind enough to give me another £90 travel card.

And not long after that, I received the devastating news that all my audio from my first few days reporting sounds like the people are aliens or that I interviewed them in a tunnel. What could I expect, I guess, I am using an iPad as if it’s a microphone, which is slightly awkward when it comes to holding it up in a press scrum.

Luckily one of my colleagues came to my rescue, giving me an iPhone to use, though the sim card tray promptly snapped, seeing me make an urgent visit to the Apple store to get a technician to ply it out.

But I feel I’ve finally overcome the teething problems and are now well and truly enjoying myself.

Here’s my top ten moments so far.

1. Going to cheer on New Zealand Olympic torchbearer Susan Grace who was selected for her work with London’s homeless. She was swamped by crowds and received such a roaring reception in the London suburb of Merton that many people asked me – ‘is she famous?’

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2. Getting to see Kate, Wills and Harry in the flesh when I reported on the torch’s visit to Buckingham Palace. Sadly I was so focused on getting audio and trying to move my arse out of the way of the guy behind me who kept ramming it, that the only photo I got obscures Kate’s face.

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3. Watching the Queen’s row barge Gloriana, which carried the Olympic flame, float past my old next door neighbours’ front lawn in Hampton Wick on the morning of the Opening Ceremony.

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4. Spending the evening of the Opening Ceremony at Hyde Park listening to Duran Duran belting out their 80’s hits, although I was bitterly disappointed they didn’t play ‘Girls on Film’ as it’s their only song I know all the words to. It was also amazing to look up to see the sky painted red, white and blue by some planes. I missed the plane part but did get a photo of the vapour trail.

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5. Being a groupie and getting my photo with New Zealand Governor General Jerry Mateparae. I know I’m supposed to be impartial as a journo but I love him. He’s a brilliant public speaker and is incredibly down to earth.

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6. Interviewing children on what they thought of the Olympic mascots and accidentally laugh/snorting (I blame my best friend’s mum for that bad habit) at a kid’s answer to my question ‘what do you think Wenlock actually is?’ and he replied – ‘They just like made it up, they had like left over scraps and they made it up, like random stuff.’ I couldn’t agree more, seriously what is this thing?

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7. Being the only journalists to actually turn up to an Olympic-themed high tea at a five star hotel in central London = more food for me.

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8. Getting to see all the troops wandering around town in their uniforms. Thank you G4S for failing to recruit enough staff! I will endeavour to get photos in the coming days…

9. Again being a groupie and getting my photo taken with Andrew Nicholson, part of our first 2012 medal winning eventing team.

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10. And finally, feeling exceptionally proud to be a kiwi after rowers Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan produced New Zealand’s first gold medal.