Tuesday 22 October 2019

My dream holiday had meltdown moments, but also times of indescribable bliss that I will never forget - Victoria Mary Clarke


Victoria Mary Clarke in Marrakesh
Victoria Mary Clarke in Marrakesh
Great African Adventure .... Victoria Mary Clarke living it up in Marrakesh
The group are about to embark on a hot air balloon ride across the Atlas Mountains

I really only wanted a holiday somewhere sunny, I was actually fantasising about lying on a beach when the email came in. "Would you like to go to Morocco and film a travel series?" A no-brainer. These people wanted to pay me to lie in the sun.

I implode with jealousy at people like Joanna Lumley getting to swan around the world doing travel shows and getting paid for it. And so I didn't bother to read the itinerary, I just said yes.

The producer wanted to ask me some questions. The questions did unnerve me a bit... how would I function with lack of sleep, snakes and spiders, driving really fast, jumping off cliffs or out of planes, that kind of thing. But she assured me that they just wanted to design a really personalised holiday.

I have had the most hideous experiences imaginable on a reality telly show in the past, where we had to sleep in tents and there was no loo paper, but she told me that we would be mostly staying in expensive riads and only occasionally in tents but they would definitely have loo paper, although perhaps not any heating.

Another thing she mentioned was that there would be five other 'celebrities' on the trip, and that we would each take it in turns to be the tour guide.

It was to be an extremely eclectic bunch - singer and politician Dana, Senator David Norris, comedienne Alison Spittle, Derek Burke from the band Crystal Swing, Olympic athlete David Gillick, and me.

I spent ages trying to work out what weird logic would put us together, and what kind of entertainment they would expect from us. When I told friends, they said it sounded lovely. And reminded me that two English girls had just been beheaded while trekking in the Atlas Mountains where we would be going. But at this point it was too late to back out.

At the airport, with my two suitcases (I really needed four) I was sweating. In situations like this, meeting new people and knowing that I will be filmed, I get in an awful state trying to work out how to appear super friendly, but not too over-the-top nice, just the right amount of authentic. It's exhausting.

Derek and David junior were the first to arrive, and they both seemed completely normal, wholesome boys. Dana was next, and knowing very little about her except that she won the Eurovision, I was immediately impressed by the warmth of her smile, the sweetness of her voice (very girly) and the fact that she gave me a hug. Alison I had seen on telly and I thought she was funny, but in real life she was immediately affectionate, sensitive and compassionate as well, which is not what you expect comedians to be.

David Norris was the only person who I already knew and he was exactly as he always is, exuberant, aristocratic, and entirely uninhibited.

We were introduced to the crew, who all seemed to be called Mike, although they were obviously not all called Mike, and I made a mental note to be especially nice to them in case they made me look dreadful. And to try and remember their names.

As I made my way through duty free with two of the producers, Maggi and Milene who were very giggly, I decided to buy a bottle of gin. "You never know," I thought ominously, "I might need a drink." On the plane, David Norris was regaling the two younger guys with entirely unprintable stories about himself and his lover in Morocco. Which made me realise how much more liberated David's generation was, and also made me aware that if there were any gaps in the conversation, David would effortlessly fill them.

Upon arriving in Marrakesh, we had to walk to the riad because the bus couldn't get down the narrow street, so there we were, wandering in the dark, surrounded by baleful old men in hooded jellabas, mangy cats and bratty young boys on bicycles who blocked our path and demanded money, and then offered us kif. It was different, it was exotic, it was not Dublin. It was kind of exciting.

The low, heavy, carved wood door of the riad was opened by a good-looking guy in monkish robes, who greeted us in French and swept us into a magnificently opulent courtyard with Arabic copper sculptures and dusky pink ottomans and a perfect, sparkling aquamarine swimming pool surrounded by giant ceramic bowls of oranges.

It was fancy. Breathtaking. But absolutely freezing. There was no evidence of any kind of heating and the roof was open to the night sky.

This, I was soon to discover was the major drawback to the glamour of the riads, what they make up for in space and beauty, they lack in creature comforts.

My room, a spartan white gallery space, overlooking the pool had nothing but a bed. No telly, no minibar, none of your nonsense.

Immediately upon dumping my bags I put on a fur coat, which I wore for the rest of the trip, sometimes with a leather jacket and three pairs of trousers. The shorts and sundresses stayed in the suitcase.

I went in search of a gin and tonic just to cope with the strangeness and was met by Maggi and Milene who assured me that the first three days would probably be the worst.

We were given the first of many, many chicken tagines for dinner, with slices of orange sprinkled with cinnamon.

Within half an hour of eating, everyone else was in bed and I found myself completely alone, wondering whether to have another gin.

It didn't take long to discover that this was not a holiday. I was up at 6.30 to have make-up done before breakfast, and not feeling the love as I tried in vain to get myself an almond milk latte.

Breakfast quickly became a battleground. Having given up carbs (partly so as to look better on the telly) I went into the kitchen and demanded an omelette. Other people saw my omelette and wanted some. I knew that this was my chance to be seen as easy-going and chilled or a bit of a diva but I couldn't help myself, I went with diva.

David Norris was the tour guide for the first day which was an enormous relief because it meant he would be doing the talking and we could just smile and look happy to be there.

I'm not saying I was not happy to be there, it was glorious to be wandering around Marrakesh in the sunshine, half listening to the history. But when you are being filmed for the telly and you know you are being filmed for the telly, you either have to get over yourself completely and 'act natural' or else you have to figure out a way to appear to have got over yourself. I think it takes practice.

I would be walking along, buying sugar cane juice, or stroking a snake and I would catch myself wondering 'how is this going to look?' And then somebody would say something funny and I would forget, but then I would be reminded because Evan the director would tell us to stop, walk back to the sugar cane guy and do the whole thing again. And then again so they could film a wide shot.

Some people are made for the camera, they come alive when they are being filmed. David Norris had admitted that he wasn't feeling the best physically and sometimes he needed to rest, but he lit up for the camera and was always ready with a filthy innuendo or an amusing anecdote, as we traipsed after him through the souks and visited Yves Saint Laurent's garden.

He never hesitated to say what he really felt about anything, which was enormously refreshing if you were not easily offended.

"He chose this blue because it reminded him of the working men's trousers," David informed us on his tour. "But personally I think it's ghastly."

In a different way, Alison and Dana always sparkled and thought of funny things to say. I worried that most of the time I just stood there feeling self-conscious.

For my day as the tour guide, we flew in a hot air balloon. This meant getting up at 5am and driving to the desert, so we could ascend at sunrise.

I am not a morning person and we didn't get to have breakfast which made me even less of a morning person, but there is nothing quite as serene and floaty as a hot air balloon, even if, like me, you are afraid of heights.

Even with no coffee, it felt transcendently beautiful and I was relieved to see that everyone appeared to be enjoying it. The balloon is not like a plane, you can only make it go up or down, you can't choose where you will land and I did once land in a tree. As we tumbled back to earth, there was a moment when we were not sure we would survive, but they were troupers and didn't flinch.

For the rest of my day, we went shopping in the souk, to buy holistic medicines, including stuff that was supposed to cure nasal congestion that looked like crystal meth and made your eyes stream, and all kinds of natural Viagra which prompted lots of amusing banter for the cameras.

We were given money to buy traditional Moroccan costumes to wear to a dinner party that I would be pretending to have organised, complete with a band and a fortune teller and a lady who danced with a tray of candles on her head. There was a lot of filming of us haggling which I was useless at, and the men complained that the women got more glamorous costumes, which definitely was not true.

At our riad, the dinner table had been decorated with rose petals and it looked like something from Vogue. We sat around in velvet robes, dying for a drink and desperate to eat.

Dana gamefully got up and danced with candles on her head, and Derek joined the band on the bongos, and then they gave us the food which was admittedly delicious, but they filmed us eating it which worried me in case there were bits in my teeth.

The fortune teller had no takers except David Norris who explained to us that he had already organised his own funeral.

My usual holiday would involve lying around doing nothing. This was not happening. If we weren't on the buses, we were doing activities, or being interviewed about the activities.

We rode camels, raced dune buggies in the desert, climbed a mountain on mules and stayed in an inaccessible eco lodge. We bought a live goat and presented it to a family in the Atlas mountains just next to where the two girls were beheaded a few weeks previously.

We slept in tents with no heating, and ate meals around a campfire. We had a disastrous hammam experience and had our hands tattooed with henna. We ate boiled brains and other unidentified objects in the market. We explored Chefchaouen, where everything is painted blue. We baked bread, and cooked tagines. We saw olives being harvested and hauled down the mountain on donkeys. We went into the oldest university in the world, we purchased jellabas and headscarves and got the inside track on Islam at the mosque.

We bought carpets that had been woven by hand in front of us. We drank champagne and sang All Kinds Of Everything with Dana at Rick's bar in Casablanca.

There were total meltdown moments. I was absolutely starving and about to bite into a fried chicken and the director told me to go outside for an interview. I stared him in the eye, stomped my foot and refused, and then I bit into the chicken only to discover that it was raw on the inside.

There were moments of such indescribable bliss that I will never, ever forget them, including my birthday when I got to ride at sunrise on a mule, and was presented with a cake and an antique silver compass, at the campfire.

There were hysterical bits that couldn't be filmed, including singing Irish rebel songs with Alison, Derek and Dana on the bus, late at night.

I learned the names of the crew, Mark, Dave, Michael and Finny, and discovered that they were some of the funniest men you could meet, as well as the kindest.

I have absolutely no idea how I will look or come across on the show, but I don't care.

Morocco is beautiful (if a little chilly) but going there with Dana, the two Davids, Derek and Alison is an experience that will stay with me forever. In a good way.

No sunshine holiday could have been this memorable. Although admittedly I am absolutely over chicken tagine.

'Celebrity Globetrotters' starts this Thursday on RTE One at 8.30pm.

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