IGO Adventures in Morocco | Drawing New Lines in the Desert
We took on an IGO Adventure Quadrathlon deep in the Moroccan desert
Words by Hugh Anderson | Photography by Johnny Fenn/IGO Adventures
My eyes begin to droop as I lie under the canopy of a traditional Moroccan Berber tent. On the horizon, the last of the day’s sun trickles behind a faraway mountain peak, and the sound of the evening call to prayer rides along the slight breeze.
I’m on the banks of Lake Lalla Takerkoust, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, Morocco. The day has been long and tiring, yet unfathomably enjoyable. With the fading light, the fires are lit, and the light dances off the faces of the fellow participants around me. I glance at my teammate Will Hadman and smile. “This is the life," I say. “This is the life," he replies.
We’re out here in the depths of Morocco to take part in the inaugural IGO Adventures NW05o Moroccan Challenge. Over four days, the event covers some 150 kilometres on foot, bike, and kayak. From the outset, we know it’s going to be hard. Indeed, I first met Will while partaking in the inaugural IGO Adventures event in Norway in 2015. Then, in sub-zero temperatures, we skied, ran and cycled over 150 kilometres in four days, competing against one another.
"The heat penetrates almost immediately, and the shade offers little solace."
Yet the sense of competition on an IGO Adventures event wanes almost immediately, and Will and I became good friends. After cycling across southern Norway together earlier this year, we were looking for our next adventure. “Shall we do the IGO in Morocco?" Will suggested. “Yes, I think we should," I replied. And so we found ourselves in Marrakesh just eight weeks later, standing outside Menara Airport waiting for our transfer into the desert.
The heat penetrates almost immediately, and the shade offers little solace. Before long we were in a Land Cruiser jostling with local traffic as we skirted the fringes of the city. An hour later, we arrived at Terre des Etoiles, a grand desert camp in the Agafay Desert. In this oasis in the sand, it’s hard to imagine that in 48 hours we’ll be half-way through our first marathon distance day. A sense of nervousness builds within.
Standing near the camp’s bar I spot IGO Adventures founder, Bobby Melville. As always, a wide smile stretches across Bobby’s face. It’s like seeing family. And so, the afternoon and following day continue with gorging on carbohydrates, guzzling water and lightly exercising, all in preparation for the first day to begin.
It’s a cool morning as I change into my cycling gear. Routine is everything. Water bottles and Camelbak lie next to each other, each with electrolyte tablets fizzing inside. Energy bars, Jelly Babies and trail-mix get packed into accessible pockets, and a smothering of sun-cream is applied. Forecasts threaten with 40°C heat today and I’m nervous. We clamber onto our mountain bikes, secure our packs and fasten our helmets. Will and I glance at each other. “Good luck buddy," we say in unison.
"By mid-morning the sun is almost unbearable, and the only relief is to cycle quicker in the hope of a breeze."
The flag drops and we rise out of our saddles, pounding hard at the pedals in the hope of an early break from the pack. IGO events certainly aren’t purely about competition, but there’s always going to be some competitiveness lurking nonetheless. From our camp, we ride hard into the Agafay Desert. Before long, all sense of place and time dissipates; we’re alone in a vast expanse of sand and rock.
By mid-morning the sun is almost unbearable, and the only relief is to cycle quicker in the hope of a breeze. Sweat pours from under my helmet and splashes onto the dust around. My lycra shirt has turned white from the salt in my sweat, and I suck heavily at my Camelbak for more electrolytes. It’s approaching 40°C and starting to hurt.
As the Atlas Mountains in the distance draw ever-closer, we pass through numerous villages, guided by blue arrow markings sprayed on rocks. Out here in the hinterland, I’m hit by the dramatic change in the people. Sinewy children run alongside us, reaching their already-worn hands out in the hope of a high-five.
The gaunt women and men gaze on, intrigued, as we pass through the desolate streets, a quizzical look on their faces. Here we are, lycra-clad and punishing our bodies in the pursuit of something more, in the pursuit of adventure, whereas these people appear to be trying to survive from one day to the next. We may be hurting now, but I’m achingly aware that we represent the lucky few.
"We may be hurting now, but I’m achingly aware that we represent the lucky few."
Four hours after starting, we sail downhill to Lake Lalla Takerkoust and through the finish line. We drop our bikes and embrace. What a day. As we all sit around the fire on the first evening, our spirits are high. We’ve all made it through trouble-free, and the sense of camaraderie is growing; we’re becoming a family.
With the knowledge that the following day sees us kayak around Lake Lalla Takerkoust before an orienteer and scramble into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, we all clamber into our communal Berber tents to bed down for the night. The temperature is a cool 25°C, and I’m asleep within seconds.
Will nudges me early the next morning. I open my eyes; the sun is not yet up. Weary-eyed, I put fresh kit on and wander outside for a breakfast of rehydrated porridge and black coffee. As the sun slowly lights the sky, the energy in camp begins to grow, and by 8am we’re all chomping at the bit.
George Bullard, explorer and IGO Adventures partner, leads a brief warm-up. Having covered 2,000 miles on foot in polar regions, kayaked from Iceland to Scotland, and guided over 350 people on expeditions around the globe, George knows more than most about the demands of adventuring. With a cheerful, “Enjoy it," he begins our second day. Little did we know what lay in store.
"We don’t know our route, and only our map-reading skills will see us through the day. But alas, before the first checkpoint we lose our bearings…"
Will and I race to the bank of the river, grab our paddles and push-off in a two-up open-topped kayak. This first stage sees us hammer at the paddles, racing across the lake to various checkpoints before heading back to shore. In just over an hour Will and I are back on dry land. We wrestle our trainers on, grab a map and a compass, and head off at a light jog across the dry parts of the lake-bed.
We don’t know our route, and only our map-reading skills will see us through the day. But alas, before the first checkpoint we lose our bearings, and so too do competitors Mark Hart and Matt Bennett. Pledging to stay together for the rest of the day, we finally find our way again and run upwards along dry riverbeds, ticking off checkpoints as we go. When we reach the half-way water stop, after four hours, the 38°C heat and beating midday sun make us almost delusional.
We hurriedly refuel and continue on our way, through thorn-fields, up and down the ever-steepening foothills, at points almost climbing vertically, before finally reaching the finish line. It’s been a nine-hour day and our bodies are shot. We collapse in the camp, have our aching muscles seen to by the diligent physio Louise Coates, and gulp down food and water. Today, we competed as a four-man team, and we’re all thankful we did.
I arise on the penultimate day to utter exhaustion. My body has not had enough time to recover and every step hurts as I clamber out of the Berber tent. I’m dreading the day to come. I already feel weak, and to know that we’re back on the mountain bikes today and cycling uphill for the duration, right into the high Atlas Mountains, is a torturous notion.
Nevertheless, Will and I make sure we’re at the front of the start line in order to charge ahead. But, today is not our day. Within minutes I suffer a puncture, and we have to wait until everyone has passed before the support truck can bring supplies.
We stubbornly charge again in order to catch the field, and as we’re almost at the front once again, my rear-derailleur snaps. It’s a full 45 minutes before the bike is up and running again, by which time the sun and heat have penetrated deep, and I feel my energy entirely seep away. By the end of the day, Will is some 18 minutes ahead of me. I’ve collapsed three times already, but I’m adamant to reach the finish line.
I see the camp far up ahead, on a plateau surrounded by looming mountains. “F**k," I scream. As I approach, Will clambers down to walk beside me as I push on to the finish line. “You’ve got this mate," he bellows. I hear the participants that are already through whooping and hollering in support, and with a final burst of the legs, I crash through the finish line and writhe in the dust like a tormented animal.
I curse my body, I curse myself for wanting to take part, but as I begin to recover, I begin to feel energised once again, I almost feel good. “It’s good to bury yourself from time to time," says photographer and ex-Ghurka, Johnny Fenn, and he’s right. It feels amazing.
"'It’s good to bury yourself from time to time,' says photographer and ex-Ghurka, Johnny Fenn, and he’s right. It feels amazing."
When I do begin to look around camp, I’m astonished by the immensity of the mountains. We’re over 1,500 metres above sea level, and the crisp mountain breeze is a welcome respite from the heat of the day. As I munch on a rehydrated packet of macaroni cheese, I think about the following day, our final day. It may only be 15km, but it will take us over 1,000 metres higher in elevation, eventually bringing us to Oukaimeden, Africa’s highest ski-resort. I struggle to get my head around that last statement.
The energy in camp on the last day is almost electric. Participants smile broadly, everyone is itching to run, to scramble and to climb. We all joke that 15km is nothing, but we all know it’s going to be tough. And so, we charge off at a moderate run, hoping to gain some time on the flat plateau before the climbing begins. The blue markings guide us suddenly off the paths and we’re scrambling down into the valley. “Why the hell are we going down?" I call to Will.
At the bottom, we begin to follow a dry-riverbed, which gradually gains elevation. It is only at this point that we glance up to see the mountain that we’re to summit, over half a kilometre above us. The terrain begins to change too. The once dry and arid landscape falls away to luscious greens and rich vegetation. Endless strands of ivy cling to the valley walls; grass, flowers and trees adorn the banks of the river, and hidden up here in the mountains, the minaret of a mosque appears, as if protecting the village at its feet.
Two hours in and the lactic acid in my legs is excruciating. “I didn’t train enough for this," I mutter under my breath. Before long the riverbed dissipates and we’re above the treeline. Loose rock and shingle moves freely beneath our feet, and we struggle to keep our footing. Just as the sun reaches its highest point, now beating down on us with ferocity once again, Will spots the checkpoint flags near the summit.
With a sudden burst of energy, I pound up the remaining mountain and pass through the flags. I double over, heaving heavily. “The finish line is 2km down the valley," says Gilles Gaubert, the route planner. Two minutes later, Will and I head off at a run, with 2km to go to the finish, we’re itching to push hard until the end. We run through the village of Oukaimeden, across a sheep-filled plateau, and up the last climb with the finish line in sight.
We cross the line and embrace, before collapsing on the ground. Minutes later, we’re back on our feet to cheer the next participant across the line; our exhaustion masked by our elation. As the celebrations begin in the last of our traditional Berber camps, it is with a communal sense of achievement. We while the night away around camp-fires, talking about the past four days, four days that have moulded total strangers into the best of friends.
There’s a reason Will and I returned to participate in another IGO Adventures event, and using the term "life-changing" to describe them is not something I do lightly. In fact, they’re so spectacular that we’re already planning to enter the next IGO Adventures event in Montana in September. As Bobby Melville once said, “Touch the wild, and the wild will touch you." I couldn’t agree more.
For more information visit igoadventures.com