I was half asleep when I was awakened by beams of light and the sound of rocks cracking. Two men with flashlights were walking towards me, with some urgency, and they were calling for something. I saw one of the men: his face was partially obscured by a scarf. I opened the shelter’s zipper, rushed over to my flashlight, put on my boots, and panicked tried to remember where I had stored my knife.
Travel agency Black Tomato based its business, in part, on the idea that many affluent vacationers no longer want to laze around for a week by an infinity pool: they do. to win their enjoyment in one way or another, either by physical effort or by doing good works abroad. Black Tomato specializes in adventure, and its website invites daring customers with offers such as “Iceland: snorkeling and diving between the tectonic plates. “The company’s packages are expensive. Some cost over fifteen thousand dollars per person.
The concept of Get Lost is not just that customers have to find their way out of dire situations; they have no idea where they are going in the world, until the last minute. Participants are also encouraged to return their cell phones. The imperative is not only to disappear but to disconnect. At the end of an expedition, clients are pampered at a beautiful hotel before returning home. Get Lost locations range from the Mongolian steppe to the jungles of Costa Rica to the deserts of Namibia. Its clientele is also varied. As might be expected, several technical brethren made such trips. But the company also organized an ambitious expedition for a newlywed couple and a stay-at-home mom who, upon her return home, applied to join the Air Force.
As soon as I read the idea, I also wanted to lose myself, although I couldn’t quite explain the urge. I live in Manchester, England, and unlike many of my friends there, I have never been an enthusiastic camper. In fact, I avoid such weekends if I can, not least because UK campsites are laden with picky rules about where you can bathe and where your children can play sports. It’s like being back to school, except less comfortable. You have to put on your shoes if you need to pee at night. Also, I am a huge man and find it annoying to be crouching in tents. Still, the Get Lost concept had an alluring sense of scale, and there didn’t seem to be too many rules. During the various confinements, unable to travel, I had wanted adventure. It was here.
I had some reservations about Get Lost. It would be strange for me to travel without having first researched my destination. In my job as a journalist, I often go abroad and would never fly to a new country without at least reading a few books or talking to other journalists about their experiences there. But I realized that it could be liberating, just this time, to travel with few preconceptions and without any control. I discussed Get Lost with my wife. She said it sounded funny; I also detected eye rolling. We agreed that I would take a six day trip. Black Tomato began planning an itinerary that would begin in early October.
Two weeks before takeoff, Black Tomato sent me a packing list. Suggested items – not too much warm clothing, sunscreen, hiking boots, long-sleeved shirts, a waterproof jacket – indicated a mix of desert and mountainous terrain. Because the travel schedule was tight, I figured it wouldn’t make sense for the company to send me too far away from Greenwich Mean Time. I guessed that I would go somewhere in North Africa. Two days before my flight, I received my tickets: Manchester to Marrakech.
The day after my arrival in town, Rachid Imerhane, a brilliant mountain guide with combed hair and a mischievous smile, picked me up from my hotel. I turned off my phone and put it in a bag in the back of the car. We traveled ten hours to the starting point of my adventure. I tried to indicate my destination from Imerhane, but he was relentless. Once we left Marrakech I looked out the window a lot. The experience was like a very pleasant kidnapping, with coffee breaks.
We crossed high winding passes and descended into a desert plateau, through the city of Ouarzazate, sometimes referred to as the Hollywood of Africa because it has a thriving film business. A giant clapper adorns the entrance to the city; “Gladiator” was filmed there, among many other films. After Ouarzazate, the High Atlas mountains rose to our left. On our right was the Anti-Atlas. We turned right onto a deserted asphalt road and out of the plateau.
The elevation increased as the roads became narrower and more twisty. We exchanged our cars, to let our driver return to Marrakech. A sturdy white Toyota took us over gravel and dirt tracks higher into the mountains. We took a farmer and his two shy doe-eyed children – a boy and a girl – to a small property at the top of a secluded road. They were about the same age as my children, who are nine and six, and clearly not used to seeing tourists. Their father – speaking Berber, which Imerhane translated – said his son had visited a town before, but his daughter had never left the mountains. Imerhane pointed out to me: “It is a Morocco that Moroccans do not know.
Finally, at sunset, after many harum-scarum switchbacks, we reached a summit where two high valleys met. Standing there, dressed in a black T-shirt and combat pants, stood Phil Asher. He squeezed my hand firmly and offered to put on a jacket. “It’s about to get cold,” he said, and he was right. He tended to be right about things like that.
Asher motioned to one of the two camp chairs that had been set up under a tarp. He explained to me what my expedition would entail, which seemed intimidating; what lessons he would try to teach me the next morning, in a brief period of training that seemed insufficient; and where I was going to sleep that night, which was not in the comfortably decorated canvas tent where Asher himself stayed but under a mosquito shelter, on a treadmill, by myself. As a treat for the first night, I was allowed to eat tagine in the canvas tent with Asher, Imerhane and Hicham Niaarebene, the driver, who prepared the meal. It turned out that he was also a chef. The three men made up the Black Tomato support team in the mountains.
Asher, looking me straight in the eye, asked me, “What do you want to have of all that ?
I didn’t get a good answer. I also felt a rush of nerves.
As the two men with flashlights approached me in the dark, I realized they were calling in French, which I know well enough to get by. They were curious about what I was doing alone in the mountains. I got to my feet and shook their hands, trying to explain to them that I was going for a long walk. They shrugged, looked at each other and left.
I didn’t know what to think. Although I was almost certain that this meeting was not a cause for alarm, I took out the tracker and sent a text message saying that I had received a visit from some locals. Imerhane knew people in a nearby village. I figured he could make a call and determine if I was having problems. I received no response to the text. It took me a few hours to fall asleep.
I woke up at 5:30 am a m.-well before dawn. I was cold and crouched in my sleeping bag, looking at the stars. I think I saw the plow, although I have always been baffled by the constellations – it seems like any group of stars can be linked together to create a pattern. As the light in the valley turned milder, I put on my boots and started my morning chores. I filled my water bottles for the day into a large drum that Asher had left, lit a fire for breakfast, made a meal, hit the shelter, loaded my Samsung, brushed my teeth and packed my bag. I also put on my yellow and black shemagh, or scarf, which Asher had insisted I wear, telling me it could be over a hundred degrees in the sun in the hottest part of the day. In Asher’s words, the scarf would keep my head from “boiling”. I felt ridiculous wearing the shemagh, as if I was disguised as an Afghan war chief, but I wanted my head not to be boiled. I folded the free ends around my head and took a selfie. My kids, I knew, would laugh at themselves when they saw the picture.
As I started my itinerary for the day, around 8:15 am a m., I got a message on the tracker, from Asher: “How was your night?” I replied that it was good, but I did not receive a response.
According to my maps, I was to follow the river bed where I had slept, then take a left into a steep valley to a high peak called Jbel Kouaouch. After climbing to about eight thousand feet, I began to make my way along an escarpment, eventually descending plateaus and valleys to a plain, where I spent the night. The day’s walk was about nine miles.
The first hour was hard. I run most of the time when I’m at home, but there is a difference between running and carrying weight. Loose rocks on the ground often gave way, especially on steep slopes. Navigation posed its own challenges. The GPS kept me pointed in the right general direction, but sometimes choosing the precise path I was supposed to take was devilish. Asher had encouraged me to follow goat droppings or boot tracks. Sometimes I found them, but for almost two hours I often found myself off the course, climbing steep banks to move a path. After a while I got better at spotting the slightly different shade of the zigzag trail.