I’m scared. My face is planted face down into a pool, and I’m supposed to hold my breath to the near point of blacking out. I feel lumps in my throat with the urge to continually swallow, and I’m fighting against every natural instinct to lift my head and gasp for air.

I keep getting these white flashes behind my eyelids because they’re closed; I don’t want to stare at the ground floor of the pool. I’m trying my hardest to meditate and imagine me being in a deep dark blue hole with everything around me silent. I feel my heart rate slow down. The convulsions have slowed. I hear my instructor in the faint distance telling me I still have plenty of air. The convulsions come back. I can’t take it, and I stand on my own two feet gasping for air taking several deep breaths. In and out. In and out. In and out.

It feels good to breathe again. Almost euphoric, and there’s a burning, tingling sensation running through my stomach. My head feels heavy and lightheaded at the same time.

Welcome to the world of freediving. Freediving is THE most mentally and physically challenging sport I have ever tried. I’m disappointed in myself. I thought that if I were to follow all the rules that I could get through my SSI Level 1 Freediving Course in Byron Bay with no problems, but that’s not what happened even with the support of my friends and family.

Let’s back up a second, though and talk about the requirements.

Preliminary work:
I signed up for a three-day SSI Level 1 Freediving course with Dive Byron Bay for A$550. It’s another strong aquatic investment that I thought would compliment the recent Divemaster certification I completed in Indonesia.

Before starting our classroom theory training, we were required to complete 4 online modules through the SSI Level 1 Freediving Course. It takes several hours to complete the online course work. Easy enough.

Day 1: Classroom and Pool
Skills to complete: Theory and Confined Water

Objectives: (I’ll highlight only a couple to keep your attention span)

  • Be able to state what triggers the Urge to Breathe
  • Be prepared to explain how O2 enters the body
  • Be prepared to indicate the 4 responses of the Mammalian Dive Reflex
  • Be able to tell how pressure affects Freedivers
  • Be able to describe proper equalization techniques
  • Be able to describe appropriate breathing for Freedivin

It began in a classroom setting at Byron Bay Dive with two other girls about my age and one younger guy who also happened to be interning at the dive shop. Andrew, our Freediving Instructor, begins with brief introductions. I learn we are all scuba divers trying to take our skills to the next level. Two of the girls, who also happen to be friends, grew up spearfishing but wanted to learn the proper way to go about it moving forward. Andrew comments on this and shares his perspective about how he sees a huge opportunity for spearfishers to practice safer techniques than what they’re infamously known for, and that’s going into hyperventilation with rapid breaths before taking one deep breath and then holding your breath for as long as possible. This is not Freediving, as many people misconceive.

Now that we’re all acquainted, Andrew puts on an inspirational Freediving video for us to watch.
(Time: 20-minutes, if you have it!)

We have an idea of what our potential can be now, so Andrew starts us with our first breath hold exercise and asks everyone to hold their breath from our seats for as long as we can. Easy enough. I hold my breath and then let out one large exhale at one minute and eleven seconds (1:11).

“Now I want you to splash some water on your face and do this again.” Andrew continues.

I splash some water on my face, take another giant breath and then again let out one large exhale.

“2:46. More than double your first attempt. Great job!” Andrew encourages me.

I’m pretty stoked at this point. I don’t know if I have ever held my breath this long, and it’s because of something as simple as splashing water on my face?

This is because of something we call “Mammalian Dive Reflex.”

According to SSI, it’s explained like this:
The Mammalian Dive Reflex allows mammals to stay underwater for extended periods. Although manifesting itself strongly in aquatic mammals like seals, otters, dolphins, and whales, the reflex is much weaker in other mammals, including humans. Every animal’s diving reflex is specifically triggered by cold water coming into contact with the face. Submersion of body parts other than the face will not trigger the reflex. It is always exhibited more dramatically in young people and animals, thus granting them longer survival times in cold water.

Pretty cool, right?

The more Freediving we do, the quicker and stronger our reflex gets resulting in longer and deeper dives. It’s like we’re slowing turning ourselves into a real mermaid. I don’t know about you, but I think this is one of the most brilliant discoveries of humanity. Our bodies are so adaptable.

I also learn in our theory lecture that that urge to breathe because you’re out of oxygen is not actually what’s happening at all. I’ll break it down in the simplest terms I can with the basic knowledge I have.

The air that we breathe is 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. So when you are holding your breath and feel the urge to breathe, your body still has plenty of oxygen stored in your lungs. It’s the nitrogen that causes that urge. If you pass that desire to breathe, your body goes through all sorts of crazy things, and, in my case, I had a warm tingling sensation, convulsions, and flashes when my eyes were closed. But if you hang on just a little longer, longer than what your body instinctually tells you, you get past the convulsions, and you feel your heart rate slow down, and then everything starts to get calm again (besides your mind that may be freaking the f*ck out).

(By the way, please don’t try this at home on your own. I’m explaining this while I was in under care of a professional with supervision and only encouraged you to do the same.)

We get through the rest of our theory, break for lunch, and are told to meet at the shop’s on-site pool afterward.

The pool water is only about waist high and where we spend the rest of our afternoon. Andrew has us lie floating face down in our wetsuit and mask one at a time. We go into another breath-hold (also called static apnea) and try doing the same thing we did in the classroom only with our face submerged in the water now.

I felt a lot more fear doing it this way. I knew I was safe, but I am afraid of accidentally swallowing water. My time was 1:58. I’m disappointed I didn’t hold it for 2:46 like I did in the classroom. I know I can do better.

Everyone goes for their third round, and this time the young guy is really pushing his limits. I’m watching his body convulse from the surface and him fighting the urge to get up. Andrew is telling him he still has plenty of air and the guy patting his hands on the edge of the pool still holding his breath. The guy can’t take it anymore and stands on his two feet, but I notice his face is pale and looks sunken in. Andrew tells him to breathe and the guy blacks out.

Andrew catches him holding him in his arms, lightly taps his cheeks on both sides and face and keeps calling for his attention, telling him to breathe…then breathe again in a calm voice…while still lightly tapping his face. The guy snaps out of it, color comes back to his face, and he smiles.

“You all right there, buddy?” Andrew asks.

“Yeah. I feel good.” guy responds.

This is that state of euphoria I mentioned earlier. You learn a little about this mental state also in scuba diving with nitrogen narcosis, also explained as feeling drunk.

It’s my turn to go. After that episode, I’m a little relieved to see what a shallow water blackout looks like. The guy was smiling and said that he didn’t feel scared when it was all happening. Instead, he felt a state of euphoria.

In scientific terms, the human body goes through some amazing-ass shit, and I desperately want to be able to fly underwater. I go again feeling motivated by the blackout and how easy it was to bring the guy back that this time I got my time up to 2:34.

Day 2: Confined Water and Ocean Dive
Skills to complete: Dynamic Freediving
Objective: Swim 50 meters in lap pool on a single breath

  • Duck Dive
  • Finning Style
  • The Dolphin Kick
  • Streamlining

Confined Water
We start the morning at Byron Bay Pool, an Olympic sized pool where we spend our morning going over different techniques and skills. Andrew told us not to drink anything caffeinated or eat anything before class so that we could begin our morning with some thoracic exercises.

For those of you new to Freediving or even yoga, thoracic exercises are diaphragmatic breathing and without going into too much detail, will mainly help you gain the most out of a breath-hold. The average human lungs measure 4-6L where some competitive Freedivers have tripled that. I’ll spare you most of the yoga-Sanskrit jargon and try to break it down for you in laymen terms.

I watch Andrew demonstrate his first exercise, teaching us how to take a proper yogic using 4-7-8 breathing. Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7, then exhale slowly for 8 seconds.

We move into another exercise and this time compartmentalizing our breath and learning how to breathe separately from our stomach and then our chest. It usually works like this: inhale from your stomach solely for 4 seconds, and without exhaling, continue inhaling through your chest for another 3 seconds. Hold your breath completely now. Then reverse and slowly breathe out from chest to stomach.

Our third thoracic exercise is short, powerful exhales and passive inhales from a seated position.

The pranayama session goes on for about 30 minutes with a few additional demonstrations helping us stretch the thoracic area that prepares us for the rest of our day.

I didn’t have any yogic breathing practice before this, so if you’re new to yoga, I wouldn’t feel alarmed or nervous about it. But if you are getting into Freediving over the long haul, learning proper breathing techniques (pranayama) is essential.

Great! We are feeling zen and ready to gear up for the pool for some dynamic apnea. Something to note is Freediving wetsuits are different from scuba diving wetsuits. First, they are two pieces. Second, they’re made to be mostly at the surface meaning the neoprene is thinner (low-density neoprene) than a scuba diving wetsuit (high-density neoprene) meant to sustain colder temperatures longer. Wetsuits can be stubborn little fuckers, so if you’re having trouble putting either on, baby soap always helps.

Okay, so we’re zen and all suited up. Let’s get into skills.

One of the sets of skills we had to complete was to swim 50 meters in a lap pool on a single breath. This is harder than it seems because you have your fracked up mind playing games with you the whole time telling you, “Breath. Get up. This is good enough. You’re going to pass out. You’re going to drown. Get the f*ck up and breathe, damn it! ” Nobody in my class got it the first round, and for some, it took several attempts, and that was a real struggle for them.

I played sports growing up, and I remember coaches telling me, “It’s all in your head. This is the most mental sport you’ll ever play.”

Bullshit. Freediving is the most mental sport you’ll ever play. I remember when I was caught 22 meters deep diving in a rapid current change in Indonesia and having to escape into a cave until it settled down a bit. I thought I might die at that moment, and so I’d say this sport mentally compares the same to me feeling like I might almost die but instead of that one-off dive incident, this happened each time my head submerged the water. Fear is a bitch, and I can’t wait to get past this stage.

Andrew went over a few other techniques as listed in my objectives above like finning style, dolphin kick (useful for monofins), and streaming. And, at around noon, we all successfully completed our pool exercise.

[confetti pops]

Ocean Dive
In the afternoon, Andrew arranged a boat for us to start our first oceanic Freedive. A red training buoy/float with a line dropped to about 10 meters is set up at Julian Rocks, a favorite dive spot in Byron Bay. The weather isn’t particularly beautiful, and it’s also a little choppy, but I’m excited to give line diving a first try finally.

We gather circled around training buoy and begin with our head submerged in the water and working on our slowing our heart rate and feeling really relaxed and calm.

It’s my turn to go, and I’m feeling like my breath ups were good and began with a duck dive. As I’m approaching a deeper depth, I keep my eyes only on the line in front of me and resisting the temptation to look at the above and below. At about 10 meters, I’m having trouble equalizing. I stop where I am on the line upside down and try to equalize from there, and it’s still not helping. Ugh, I need to go up. I turn my body around and slowly climb my way back to the surface.


I give the okay sign and verbally confirm, “I’m okay.” and take steady breaths in and out.

10 meters, I’m told.

My turn comes up again, and I’m finding myself leaning a bit on the conservative side and not pushing my limits. The equalization brought in an entirely different element into the game.

I remember when I first started diving and having equalization be an issue. Then when I tried to take a refresher course in Los Angeles, it was a huge issue. Finally, when I flew into Labuan Bajo, to dive in Komodo National Park for several months and work on my Advanced through Divemaster certification, I got past the equalization issues, and now I seldom have to equalize unless I’m sick.

I think the same is going to happen with Freediving for me. I don’t know if it’s that I grew up with a lot of ear infections as a child that makes this a hurdle for me or if it’s only science. Either way, I’m going to persevere. There’s still a tiny bit of fear of letting go, but I’ll get there. Progress not perfection, right?

DAY 3: Ocean Dive #2
Skills to Complete: Depth to 20 meters

  • Free Immersion
  • Constant Weight

It’s game day. This is where I get to apply my knowledge, and practical skills learned over the last two days.

My morning already started off a bit wonky. We pull up to the same dive site but are delayed because they spotted a shark in the area. Byron Bay is infamous for bull sharks and shark attacks, but after about 20 minutes, they confirm that they think it was a hammerhead and it went away. This makes me nervous. It’s not like diving where I can see anything and everything coming my way. I hate being on the surface and not knowing what’s below me. The weather is similar to yesterday, and the ocean is very choppy. There’s some wind bringing a slight chill to us.

Conditions are meh, and it’s game time. We do our breathe ups and go for my first try and, ugh, even worse than yesterday. I lost my weight belt sometime in the last 15 minutes and have to borrow one from one of the girls inconveniently.

I go in for my duck dive and get to about 10 meters, and I can’t equalize. Annoyed, I turn around for the surface and feel a sudden sting on my hand. Motherfucker. It’s a jellyfish sting. I tried to avoid them, and I’m protected in my wetsuit, but this one somehow found itself on my hand.

Shark. Jellyfish sting. Choppy water. Equalization issues. Lost my weight belt. Ugh. The Universe is not working with me!

It’s my turn again. I duck dive, focused on the line in front of me, equalizing as I go, and then I’m stuck still. I can’t equalize. I push myself a couple more meters, and the pressure is intense. I have to get to 20 meters to pass, and we only have time for best out of three. I’m going through the convulsions, but the pressure in my head is too intense and turn around back to the surface again. I failed.

I come up to the surface, signal OK, and follow up with I’m okay. After several minutes, I started getting a really nasty headache. The worse I’ve ever had and so when my turn came up, I told Andrew to go without me and I’ll go after the rest of the group was done. I’m lying with my hands on the buoy and face submerged in the water, and then I put my head to rest on the float over my crossed arms and start yogic breathing.

My turn comes up again, and my headache is still pounding. I regrettably tell Andrew I’m not going to be able to finish the exercise. The course pass rate ended up being 50% pass. Only 2 out of 4 of us passed the ocean skills but were told we could make it up another time for free.

I feel like such a failure. How could I not do this? I’m beating myself up, and I’m embarrassed to give the update to friends and family that I didn’t complete my ocean course. But this is life, and I’m more motivated than ever to jump back into the sport and succeed.

I feel like there are many misconceptions about what freediving is – including my own. Some consider breath-holding and diving into water (skin-diving) as freediving or spearfishing as freediving – which technically in a way are. But very few understand the underlying theory, physiology, skills, and safety protocols behind it. How does pressure affect your body underwater? Did you know many experiences a state of euphoria right before a shallow water blackout? Why are more and more people becoming intrigued with the sport? Taking my SSI Level 1 helped me become a better scuba diver. I know I have plenty of oxygen stored in my lungs than my body reflexes want me to think. I’m pretty stoked to have all this knowledge at my fingertips. Last I learned, you can’t pee on a jellyfish sting to make it better. 😉

***Sorry I don’t have more photos to share. It’s hard when you’re in a learning environment to take them and the ones offered to us weren’t that great.

I’m a little nervous about my first winter trek not knowing how technical this hike is going to be, but I feel overwhelmed by the number of guides trying to sell me tours to the Sahara Desert that I need to get away from it all.

(I use ‘all’ in code because I received two pieces of important news less than a week ago and one of those is about to change my life.)

Now I am in Morocco, a place I know nothing about other than mint tea, mosaic tile, and that Penny Lane from the movie, Almost Famous, said she was going to escape there for a year.

Back to the trek, right… my ADD is kicking in again.

DAY ONE: Marrakech to Imlil
13,880 steps, 5.8 miles, 93 floors

I start my morning with an 8:30 am pickup at the Rooftop Hostel. I’ve been staying at this hostel for the last week that I got to know the staff quite well. Rabir, usually dressed in a warm neutral colored djellaba, speaks broken English, but for some reason likes to always say “Marhba!” when he sees me which means, “Welcome!” I always respond just as enthusiastically with, “Choukran!” which means “Thank you!” and that was how we bonded.

My driver picks me up and he helps me carry the sleeping bag that was lent to me by another Moroccan who owns, Atlas Extreme, an outdoor equipment rental shop in Imlil. I’m packed a little light and insist on carrying my own backpack.

It’s a long drive to pick up the other girl who is supposed to join me on this trip. Well, I’m actually joining her. The trekking company, Trek in Morocco, I booked through said the girl signed up for a private tour but didn’t want to trek alone so apparently I got a decent price – until I found the same trek for about $60 cheaper on Tour Radar. Ugh, I hate negotiating tour rates. I always feel like I’m getting ripped off.

Back to the girl.

The distance to the girl’s riad felt far outside the medina. We park just outside of an alleyway – very common for Marrakech – the city is built to confuse you and doesn’t allow any parking in many areas of the Jemaa el-Fnaa (marketplace and square). My driver is gone for around 15 minutes, and I sit patiently in the backseat keeping myself busy on social media. He comes back and tells me she is finishing breakfast, but we’ll drive around to a closer pickup point. It’s nearly 9:30 am at this point that I have a feeling this girl is the type to habitually run late.

We drive around, and he leaves again for another 20 minutes until I finally see them. She’s a light brown skinned, petite girl with a dark brown pixie cut and one subtle highlight into her fringe. I hear her from behind asking the driver, “Is anyone else in the car?” and he tells her I’m there. Then she asks about the group of British guys that were also supposed to come until she learns that it’s just the two of us.

Nina (pseudo name) introduces herself. She’s Pakistani living in UAE and working in advertising. I find the advertising business very sexy and started to ask her lots of questions.

I told her a little about myself. It’s my first time to Morocco, yadda, yadda.

About an hour and a half later, we drive up the mountain to our first checkpoint. There was an “incident” that happened a couple weeks ago involving two Scandinavian girls. I try to ignore it as the guards review our passports and driver’s paperwork.

Not long after we finally reach our destination to a windy hill in a small village. I read on the sign, “Riad Oussagou.” More men help us with our bags, Nina’s being oversized. We are both shown our rooms, and I am surprised to find that I had my own. This is the first bit of privacy I’ll have in a week.

The room is very comfortable and cozy with extra heavy blankets, a hanging djellaba, and *cheering * a bathtub. Woot! I’m luxury living now and can’t wait to use that later.

It’s only around 10:30 am by this point, so we have enough time to take a small break before we go on a short acclimatization hike. The trails are well-defined, and it’s actually quite warm once we hit the sun.

A few hours later, we make it to a viewpoint where our cook, Hamid, prepares a nice lunch for us – pasta salad with sardines and kefta served in a tagine.

We head back down the hill after lunch and before sunset, so I use the free time to take a nap before dinner. It’s actually quite cold once the sun hid behind the mountains. I lost my down jacket in the airport on my way to Morocco, so I layer myself with all that I have to work with, and that’s a long sleeve top, a yoga jacket, and my jean jacket. It’s still not warm enough, so I grab the brown djellaba; albeit I don’t think brown is my color. It was money though. Money in the sense I felt like Riad Oussagou did me a solid by keeping me warm.

It’s very quiet that I wonder if anyone else is staying here besides the two of us. I use silence as an opportunity to explore the riad and discover a heated room where our meals would later be served. Pakistani girl is writing in a small journal. She shared in the car that she likes to write poetry. Then one other guy joins but keeps his distance in the corner of the entrance and doesn’t spark up a conversation. The room is furnished with several heat lamps and a fireplace that’s lit. I like that it’s cozy and acts as a heated lounge.

We’re served tagine for dinner, and I could tell Nina wanted company afterward, but a decent nights rest sounded better to me, and I turned in around 9:00 pm.

DAY 2: Imlil to Base Camp (6 hours turned into 8 hours)
25,880 steps, 11.2 miles, 77 floors

Breakfast is ready around 7:30 am, and I’m the only one there. It’s continental with breads and spreads, pancakes, boiled eggs, instant coffee, and orange juice. I help myself to a couple of boiled eggs and coffee, but I’m wondering if Pakistani girl is running late again and go back to my room to remove my bags into a central area.

After having lunch yesterday and dinner last night, I realize that the Trip Advisor reviews I read weren’t very accurate and that I packed too much food. I pull out a zipped bag of a pesto gouda, cumin gouda, and aged cheddar. I want you all so bad, but pesto and cumin are out. Apples and oranges? You’re out too. I’ll keep the cured meat though. Pretzels, done. Almonds, you get to stay. Energy bars, stay. Okay, now I can fit a hard shell jacket and windbreaker pants my guide brought for me.

I finally see Nina get up and head for breakfast, late. Again. We were scheduled to leave now, but I guess it’s okay. I’m trying not to be so German on this trip, “We must leave at nein!” and check myself. We’ll have plenty of time to sit around at base camp. “Inshallah.” as they say in Morocco, which means “if Allah wills it.” That I interpret as, “No worries.” Or as Moroccans also say, “Relax, Max. No fax.” And “No hurry like Ferrari.”

We leave around 9:00 am, and Nina’s oversized bag and my sleeping bag gets thrown on the mule that our cook, Hamid, will navigate up the mountain. The trail is wide enough trail for cars to pass by until we get to a waterfall.

I’m usually a bit of a power walker uphill, but we had to make continuous stops for my trekking buddy who moved at a different pace. This is her second time attempting to summit, so I’m finding myself being more patient than usual and cheerleading her from the sidelines. The snow melted on the trail making our journey up a lot easier and less technical.

My patient pose.

About halfway up, we stop for lunch at a shackie-looking restaurant called, Café Chamharouch, that rests near a river in a tiny village. It works as an open kitchen for groups and where Hamid would prepare our lunch. Hamid serves a similar plate from yesterday, but I find myself enjoying it just the same. I use the rest of the hour to take pictures and explore the souvenir merch nearby and see a yellow Mount Toubkal shirt I’m going to buy on the way back down.

Selfie with my cook
Soaking up the sun after lunch.

We move at a steady pace up the hill, slower than others, and I’m craving a sugary snack. Yes, I forgot I left these in here! La, la, la, la, la, la…

Or is it…LA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA?

SoCal roots representing the West siiiide!!!

Boom. Old snow starts to show on the higher trails but not enough where we had to put our crampons on. I’m mostly fascinated by the windblown packed snow and seeing my first frozen waterfall.

Once we see basecamp, I sort of leave my group behind and trek at a pace I’m comfortable with. It allowed me enough time to selfie-timer these shots. The sun is falling behind the mountains, and I’m eager to get to our refuge before it gets colder than it already is, and head for shelter on my own. My guide, Brahim, and Nina aren’t too far behind, and I wait outside for them to join me at Refuge du Toubkal, Les Mouflons.

Finally! We made it…8 hours later…instead of 6.

Rufuge de Toubkal

We step into the refuge, and it’s dark without power (the lights don’t come on until officially after sunset.) Brahim shows me my room in a deep shared bunker of about 20 people. He grabs me a couple of heavy blankets for the night, but then Nina asks if I wouldn’t mind sharing space in her private room instead. That’s so kind of her. See where my patience gets me? I think she found more comfort (and warmth) in not sleeping alone.

We drop our bags and meet Brahim who saved a couple of chairs for us to warm up next to the fireplace and then pours us tea. Socks are dangling from chairs and on a pole next to the furnace and a bunch of hiking boots on the floor trying to get dry.

We’re guided to a common area like the one at our riad earlier. It’s warm and full of other trekkers, mostly guys but a small handful of women. I think we only saw one or two women hiking down earlier today, so it was nice to see more at the top.

One observation I noticed is a “No alcohol” sign posted on the door entry. What in the eff? Ha. Just kidding. I didn’t bring any wine on this trip.

We have our dinner and then make our way to bed noting the condensation and heavy moisture in the air. We fell asleep with smoky breath and woke up too damp clothes.

Day 3: Summit Day
16,370 steps, 7.2 miles, 77 floors

I wake up to all the shuffling around from trekkers getting up much earlier for the summit. A group of 10 mentioned the night before they were going to peak and then hike back to Imlil in the same day. That will make it a 12-hour trip if you’re going at a steady pace.

Meh. I’m not that ambitious nor am I in a hurry. I’d much rather enjoy a 6-hour day and rest another night at the refuge.

I fall back into a light sleep keeping a squinty eye on my 6:30 am alarm. I’m not much of an early bird, and since I have the sneaky feeling that my trekking buddy won’t be ready to leave on time, I’ll wait for her to get up first.

Her alarm goes off after mine, and she snoozes. Again. Snoozes. Again. Snoozes. Now Brahim is shining a flashlight into our window and knocks lightly on the door. He’s probably thinking, “Get the hell up, ladies! Chop, chop!” Nina finally gets up and starts to get ready. I meet her downstairs with my bags, and she later joins for breakfast when…guess? When we’re supposed to leave. Are you getting the theme here? Inshallah.


We’re almost last to leave the refuge. The sun is rising, and we start the trail with our crampons and an ice ax. There are frequent stops. I finally decide to lead once the snow began to make a bit of a path. Then stopping to wait and use the time as a photo opp.

Brahim sees Nina is struggling and asks me if I wanted to join a faster group that was passing us. I am surprised when I tell him, “No, I’ll wait. We’re a team. We go up together, and we’ll come down together.”

“Who are you?” I’m questioning myself. “That’s very selfless of you.”

So we play this game of I run ahead, then wait, then we walk together, and repeat.

We make it to our first viewpoint at the top of the mountain. Brahim is carrying Nina’s pack over his chest with her elbow interlocked into his arm. Fina-fucking-ly.

Brahim removes our crampons, and I share with them that I’m actually quite content with where we are if we decide not to make it to the top. We’re about 100 meters away, and it is already 2:00 pm and took us 6 hours to get up the hill instead of 3. I don’t want to have to hike in the dark.

Brahim pours me some tea he kept hidden until now. Yum. So soothing. We eat a couple of snacks and take a few photos.

“What do you think?” Brahim asks.

“I’m good if you guys want to turn around. My feet and fingers are frozen.” I answer.

He pauses and looks at Nina. This is her second attempt. Last year there was snow sometimes as high as her waist. Then he looks at me.

“I think we can make it.” He encourages.

Ugh. Not the answer I really want to hear, but exactly the motivation I needed to hear at that moment. Brahim points at the summit, and it looks far. Ugh, again.

Do you see it? Tiny little triangular shape on top?

Let’s go!

It was maybe only another 30-45 minutes before we found ourselves at the top and went by a lot quicker than I imagined it would.

I sigh in relief wiping all the snot running alongside my swollen face. Yaaasssss! We did it! We give hugs, struggle to find a rock that could take a group photo, and then rush back down the hill.

We are back to base camp around 4:30 pm and get a couple of cheers and claps when they see us. I think we’re the last down the hill. Hamid prepares us a late lunch, and we Airdrop exchange photos in the lounge area while observing the several guides who seem to be drawn to the windows where they suspect might be able to get a bar of wifi. We tell Hamid we don’t need dinner since we had such a late lunch, but to instead to bring us some soup, bread, and bite-sized pre-packaged cheese he served to us at breakfast. I stay up a little later and finally get to bed around 9:30 pm.

Day 4: Basecamp to Imlil
25,447 steps, 9.9 miles, 10 floors

The trek down was a lot easier and faster on the way down. We didn’t make many stops, and the one we did was so that I could buy my yellow Mount Toubkal souvenir shirt. We passed the same villages we saw on the way up and then had a nice lunch at the riad we stayed a couple nights before. I am contemplating staying in Imlil for a few more nights to enjoy the mountain life, but I heard the weather was supposed to drop and get quite cold. Instead, I joined Nina back to Marrakech where we would later have dinner over the next couple of nights.

In total, I took 81,687 steps, walked 55 kilometers, and climbed 279 floors. Not too shabby for a California girl going on her first winter altitude trek on North Africa’s tallest mountains.

It starts off by me standing on the outside of a silver Toyota Prado 4×4 holding onto an “oh shit” handle with my left hand and the roof rack handle with my right. My feet are firmly placed on a slim running board while the rest of my body presses against the driver’s side door like a starfish, and I’m asked to hand over my phone.

A stalky man dressed in a blue djellaba and black headscarf puts the car into drive and starts to peel out up and down the orangey-colored dunes shouting, “Ahhfreeeeekaaaah!!” while I’m holding on trying not to fall.

“This would never happen [legally] in the states,” I’m thinking.

Moroccan music plays in a medium volume in the background, the skies are bright blue, the weather is warm, and there isn’t anyone else in sight. This is life. This is living.

“Advaaaaaaaantuuuurrrreee!!” he screams.

My thoughts are interrupted by the fine orangey-colored sand gripping the tires behind me. We drive near someone’s campsite, and a dog about the size of a small poodle begins to chase us. If we don’t go fast enough, the dog might just have enough opportunity to sink its teeth into my ankles. We eventually outrun the dog, and his barking comes to nothing but a faint stop.

We go up and then down again. Up…shit, a second dog. A similar sized dog chases us and this time starts to gain on us. The other dog finds his way back and then buddies up from the opposite end. I’m coming up with alternatives in my head if either dog catches up, but then we roll down another hill and then up another.

“Advaaaaaaaantuuuurrrreee. Ahhfreeeeekaaaahh!” he repeats, keeping watch of the dogs from his rearview mirror.

Sneaking in a quick shot after outrunning the desert dogs.

About a half an hour later, we roll down a hill into a campsite with 16 white tents. This is going to be my home. I learn my driver’s name is Hsain and he shows me my tent, the fourth one on the left side. He quickly inspects the room, peeks behind the partitioned curtain where the bathroom sits, but then tells me the room is not ready and proceeds to cross the camp into another tent.

My replacement tent had a queen sized bed and twin in it. I’m not feeling the vibe as much and hesitantly put my bags down before finally admitting I liked the other room better and wouldn’t mind waiting for it to be cleaned. He calls the housekeeper a few tents away and speaks Berber to her. He tells me it’s okay and then carries a long table near the bonfire circle and places it in a shaded area with a chair for me to wait.

Hsain apologizes and tells me he needs to pick up other guests. I sit in the shaded area swatting the occasional fly and then pull out my laptop from my backpack recalling how many countries and mountains this bag has traveled with me. I then begin to extract my memories from Mount Toubkal less than a week ago and the panoramic mountain views at the summit. My calves are still slightly sore, and I can tell my abs feel stronger.

I’m tired. All I want to do is sleep. One of the male staff calls me and tells me my tent is ready. It’s next to the one I initially wanted, but I think I’ll like it just as much. It’s almost 4:00 pm now and I can’t wait for my nap. I fall flat on top of the bed with my arms extended out, set my alarm on my phone, and close my eyes falling into a deep sleep over the next 40 minutes. Sigh. This is exactly what I needed. It’s so silent here.

I eventually wake to faint voices. Tourists must be coming back from their day trips. I open my eyes and look outside the tented door I never closed and see some Chinese people on the hill above. I get up and look even closer outside and see another Chinese woman to my right swinging on a porch-like bench studying her phone.

I lie back down and continue to peek at the family on the top of the dune from a distance. They have a child about 4 years old who is dragging his butt down the hill making one continuous line. They’re paying no attention to him, and he runs back up to do it again.

I’m still not in the mood to deal with all the beauty and instead am finding the comfort of my own tent to be exactly why I came here. The sun begins to set, and I step out to the restaurant to ask what time dinner is being served. 8 o’clock. There’s another Chinese lady on the carpeted runway to the restaurant having her photo taken by her boyfriend in her Berber garb and running shoes. Her outfit doesn’t really match how natural she is trying to photograph. Imagine a runway model trying to do the catwalk in New Balance walking shoes. But to each’s own. I was at least able to capture this improv photo soon after she left.

My friend, William, video calls me after I briefly comment on his Facebook wishing him a Happy Birthday. He’s my first virtual guest in my tent! We keep losing a signal, and the call keeps getting dropped, but we facetiously blame it on the LA rain and not the fact that I’m in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

8 o’clock quickly rolls around. I’m about half finished with my bottle of wine I bought from a restaurant earlier, so I’m feeling pretty relaxed.

I am the last one to stroll into dinner and am greeted and then seated alone. I am smiling and observing each of the couples and groups. I am the only solo traveler here. Should I feel lonely? Psh. Lonely is for kittens. I am a cheetah. To my left sits a group of Chinese with the child I saw earlier and his back facing me. He is immobile and hasn’t moved, so I’m wondering if he has fallen asleep at the table while his parents pay no attention to him again chatting with the other adults. Then there is a Chinese couple next to them. They sit side by side, and the man has one of those Berber scarfs on his head paired with his prescription lens glasses over his eyes. He’s feeling the Berber part. A Chinese Berber man. It actually suits him well. Then working my way to the right of them sits a black couple. They’re the only black people in here, and I wonder if they might be from London considering our proximity and their fashion sense. The girl actually looks more mixed with very fair skin but with an afro hairdo. Her boyfriend has dreaded-like hair. Then moving again to the right sits a wealthy looking Chinese couple. The man is groomed well and put together nicely in his black knitted shirt and his wife graciously uses her eating utensils on her plate. They are sharing their dishes, and I can silently see them exchanging few words perhaps discussing their thoughts on the meal. “What is this?” I overhear them ask the server. “Couscous,” he responds, and then they nod their heads in approval.

My first course is a bowl of vegetable soup. I’m served the same bread I find all over Morocco, but this time it came with olive oil and white vinegar instead of balsamic vinegar. Interesting. I like it just the same. I get a good whiff of the olive oil and then taste it. It’s clean, aromatic, and a little sweet.

The soup is pureed and green. I’m not sure of the contents, but I’m enjoying it and finish it. It’s now my turn for a 7 vegetable couscous salad. It’s the best I’ve had out here, and I suspect it must have been cooked in a broth or stock of some sort. I am stuffed by this point and regrettably have to tell my server I won’t be eating the main course. My server continues insisting I stay and only have a couple bites, but I can’t. I’m so full! So I tell him I’ll be right back and never return. I felt bad, but I’m here for a few days and will leave more room for tomorrow night.

I later hear “Cee!” then again, “Cee!” I jump out of bed, and it’s Hsain, my driver and who I now learn is the camp owner. He checks in on me asking if I need anything else and offers to bring snacks. I’m so stuffed, but I suggest I might be able to wiggle in a few peanuts into my stomach to go with my wine.

The bonfire goes on outside, and I’m listening to the steady drumming from the privacy of my tent.

It’s between 10-11:00 pm and Hsain returns with a spread of snacks: a bowl of peanuts, a variety of olives, a bag of chips (that his staff wanted but left behind) and dried fruit. This is VIP service all the way that I wonder if anyone else is getting the same treatment.

I invite Hsain to join me for some snacks while I sip on my wine, and I didn’t realize it before, but he is actually quite funny. I was laughing most of the night in his company hysterically. He tells me I am to be treated like family and to make sure I leave a great Airbnb review. That’s always the disclaimer, but he would undoubtedly be getting an excellent review for throwing the good-natured vibes my way.

Tears continued to roll out of my eyes from laughter throughout the evening and while he dresses me up in his black headscarf. Admittedly, I don’t think black is my color!

Having his company wasn’t something I anticipated, but having him around brought a lot of warmth and comfort into my stay. It turned out to be one of those things I didn’t realize I needed, but it was what I needed – especially after a slightly awkward lonesome dinner.

I’m finding myself falling more in love with Morocco as time passes. I’m coming up on my third week, and Moroccans have been so honest with me. A taxi guy drove out of his way to drop off a hat I left in his car, the sunglasses and credit card I lost that were returned, and even the young guy who guided me through a labyrinth of alleys to my hostel and didn’t ask for money. Then there’s the Atlas Extreme guy who kindly lent me a sleeping bag, beanie, and gloves for my winter trekking trip to Mount Toubkal and the two guides from Morocco Daily Tours, who bought my friend and me dinner one night in Gueliz. Moroccans have been very generous and hospitable to me.

It’s getting late, and I finally make it to bed at around 1:00 am. I knew I wouldn’t bother getting up early for the breakfast buffet, but Hsain was kind enough to have his staff keep the buffet out until 10:00 am for me. VIP, I’m telling you! It’s such a wonderful feeling being spoiled and getting the royal treatment, and that is exactly what my first day impression was glamping in the Sahara Desert.

It was a long travel day waking up at 3 am in Melbourne to catch my connecting flight in Sydney at 9:50 am to Auckland. I was pretty nervous I was going to miss my flight to Auckland because I was cutting it so close with a different airline. Jetstar is infamous for being late, but I took a chance because I knew it was the first flight of the day and I really had no choice since I was dealing with computer stuff over the last few days.

The timing ended up working out perfectly and I arrive into Auckland in the early afternoon. The airport is much smaller than I remember for being a big city in New Zealand. I didn’t see an area I could buy a SIM card, but in a way, I didn’t want to either knowing I’d only be around for 24 hours.

I had the option of taking the Skybus to the city and then catching a bus from there to my Airbnb but I was feeling lazy having my heavy dive bag. I couldn’t reach my host because the wifi was weak at SYD airport. So I had to wing it and hope he was home. I kept asking the taxi how soon before we’d get there. The cab was WAY more than I thought at about $100 NZD, about $70 USD. Ouch!

I don’t know that I’d normally choose a Chinese man as my Airbnb host but he said he was gay-friendly so I thought he might be pretty outgoing. I arrive at an apartment in a very residential neighborhood and it’s not as centrally located as I thought. I tried ringing the intercom but no answer. The taxi driver allowed me to use his phone and my host just got to the gym but said he’d turn back around. He arrived after 10 minutes and let me up to his apartment. It was on the second floor, and he helped carry my dive bag upstairs.

His place is clean, but I wasn’t as excited as I was about my stay in Melbourne. He shows me my way around and said he’ll be back in a couple hours. I get settled and noticed he had a bathtub. He didn’t mention where the hot tub was so I opted in for second best. I don’t remember the last time I had a hot bath outside of the massage I had recently at my Bali hotel, but it was really hard to relax at the Bali spa because I wasn’t sure how long was appropriate to stay after a massage.

I forgot to buy shampoo because I was trying to reduce weight in my bag and so I figured he wouldn’t mind if I used his. The water was piping hot and I just laid there soaking. I exhale long and hard. This feels amazing. I wish I had a bubble bath, but it’s good enough. I lied there thinking about my last few months on Flores Island and how exhausted my body really was from all of that hard laborious work. Being a divemaster is almost slave work, or maybe it was the company I was working for being overly demanding. Who cares. It’s over and now I’m in beautiful Auckland for a day, but I’m almost too tired to explore.

I let the water run out of the tub and then turn the shower on washing the rest of my body a second time. I turn the water off and see a squeegee off to the side and decide to be nice and squeegee the ½ glass door that covered the shower area.

The lights are still off in the apartment so I decide to venture out. I hate venturing without GPS. I guess I don’t hate venturing. I hate getting lost and like being efficient with my time.

There weren’t many close walking options to restaurants but Yang said there was a Japanese restaurant across the stop light. I decide to go there since it’s dark, wet outside, and I’m feeling lazy. I read a few reviews on Google about their service and food. It didn’t seem too impressive and rated 3 ½ stars out of 5 but I decided I’d go with it anyway.

I arrive and ask if I could take a seat at the sushi bar. She said they were full with reservations but had a place for me outside if I wanted. I accepted and she said she’d even put the heat lamp on. I started with a ½ dozen raw oysters and an assortment of sushi. Both were okay but not anything worth mentioning. I also requested a large hot sake. I didn’t feel like getting fancy tonight. Usually, I’d pair it with an Asahi but it was $8 and didn’t seem worth it when I could get a 6 pack for that in the States. I am still hungry and order some of the pork belly. It was okay. Then I ordered a plate of rice and minced chicken to go. I ask for one more saki while I wait for my to-go order. The food eventually comes out and I ask for the check. I ask a second and third time – eventually saying that if I didn’t get the check in two minutes I was going to walk out. That was after 30+ minutes of waiting of course. I understand all the reviews about the service. Needless to say, I finally got my check. This was the first time I acted in a very Western manner. If I were in SEA, I probably wouldn’t have said that. Funny how we acclimate to what we’re accustomed to.

After dinner, I walk back home and into my room. I hear the TV on in the living room and try being social with Yang. I ask him if there’s a place I can pick up wine around the area. He suggested a local convenient store next to the Japanese restaurant and then a supermarket about 10 minutes walk away. I decide to make the run and stop by the first store but they didn’t sell alcohol so I walked to the market about 10 minutes away. I was a little buzzed from the sake so it was a fun dancing sort of stroll. I get there and decide I was going to drink Porter Ale instead of wine. I pick up a bag of nuts for a late night snack as well.

I get back to the apartment and Yang is still there. I sit at the dinner table and try sparking up a conversation asking him if he’s from Auckland. He then tells his story how he’s from a small tribe in China. Fascinating. He has a Kiwi accent. He then shared his story about how he always loved learning English from middle school and kept practicing and getting great at speaking it. From that opened up opportunities for him to Bangkok and then his friends eventually brought him to Auckland where he’s been for the last long leg of his life. He gets a call in the middle of our conversation. He’s speaking lower as if he didn’t want his conversation to be heard and then excused himself into his room where he stayed the rest of the night. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was his boyfriend. I continued to listen to his Chill sessions music playing from his super large 70” flat screen. Then I decided to go back to my room and put on a movie via Amazon Prime (rental) and called it a night.

The next morning I wake up around 8:30 am and pack my things. I make myself a coffee and see Yang. I tell him I’ll be out between 11-11: 30 am. I guess he has someone coming in at 2 pm. I finish up earlier and call an Uber just before 11 am and decide to leave early. He helps me carry my bag and that was that. A very polite and also a private guy.

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