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Morocco, The High Atlas Mountains, 2001.

"My planet earth was just a dot in the universe. From space, not even China is recognisable. The intense blue of the oceans, the green of the forests and a reddish trace left by the Atlas mountain chain can be made out. That is all." - Michael Collins, Lunar Astronaught, 1969.

23 September 2001. Getting There.

 

The last time I went away I had 19kg of kit with me. On this trip my pack weighs around 16kg - another five trips and i'll only have to take 1kg of crap with me! The aircraft leaves a rain sodden Heathrow shortly after six in the evening and arrives three hours later in Casablanca, Morocco. A second flight aboard a smaller takes me from Casablanca to Marrakech. I sit next to a pair of pretty young Moroccan girls who chatted away in a half-French/half-Arabic patois - "tres chic."

24 September 2001. Awake in Morocco.

 

It's 29*C in the shade and not even mid-morning yet. I spend the morning getting prepared. I change some money and buy essentials - toilet roles and cigarette lighters. We drive from Marrakech, sometimes on a road, sometimes on a dirt track and sometimes on a dry river bed to arrive at the town of Imli. I drink mint-tea at the Cafe Soliel and avoid the attention of the hawkers and traders. We walk the final hour to Arroumd where we are to spend the night. There is a road that can be used by vehicles but they have a habit of falling off it, so it's just not worth the risk.

25 September 2001. Beneath the Walnut Trees.

 

We walk over passes, past terrace fields and past small dust coloured villages. The campsite is a good one, beneath a grove of walnut trees. It's strange but if anybody had asked me where walnuts came from I'd have answered in full confidence - "South America." Everywhere we pass are small gardens of mint. It is always custom to accept the local sweet mint-tea when offered and always drink two glasses. To drink one glass is considered rude, two glasses civilised and three greedy.

26 September 2001. Of Mules

 

A good days walk even if it was under a hot blazing sun; a slow, steady pace helped. Highlight of the day was lunch: salad, rice, cheese, curried sardines and mint-tea. Mules carry the gear. Mules don't have names, individual names. You ask a muleteer what the name of his mule is and he answers "mule." You explain that you want to know the name of his own mule, he looks blankly and says "mule." No you explain, you want to know the name of the individual mule that belongs to him, the name of his mule that differentiates his mule from all others; his face is a question mark and he answers - "mule."

27 September 2001. Peanuts by the Handful.

 

It's hot, very hot. I've found a nice big rock in the shade to rest my back against, a cool breeze blows by every now and again. The camp is silent and dead as everybody avoids the uncomfortable heat of the day. The berber believe peanuts to be an aphrodisiac. It's an unfounded belief that should be taken with a pinch of salt - salted peanuts perhaps!

28 September 2001. The Gracious Host

 

We descend from the high camp down into an inhabited valley. Clusters of camouflaged houses cling to the precipitous valley sides. Terraced fields are fed by small irregation chanels, some fields are green with life and still await harvesting. We are invited into a Berber house, the doorway is low so we have to bow our heads as we enter. The parlour is the best room in the house and that is where we sit on its concrete floor. Through an ornate metal grill can be seen a cow shed and the terrace looks out onto a small garden, a stream and the mountains beyond. Unseen but heard are the women of the house who boil kettles of water to make mint-tea. The owner of the house, dressed in traditional Berber clothes and with a smart, neatly clipped beard passes round a plate of fruit and nuts.

29 September 2001. Food Glorious Food.

 

A superb lunch of mixed salad, cheese, cous-cous, fish and bread. Plenty of mint-tea to was it down with and fruit and nuts to follow. A flock of small black and white goats pass by guided by and elderly goatherd. The plan is to buy a big goat from him and eat it tonight with a little bit left over for tomorrow. Amidst glasses of mint-tea, much gesticulating and shouting a deal is struck. - The goat is a little on the tough side.

30 September 2001. Amongst the Shrines.

 

I sit on a rock amongst 'five shrines dedicated to Berber holy men.' They are in the form of a small dry stone circular enclosure that seem to be orientated to the south-east. These five shrines have a watching brief. They are built upon a crossroads high on a ridge, at the conjunction of a path that traverses the ridge and another that links one valley to another. From this advantage point you can hear the life of the surrounding villages, the animals, the songs and the call to prayer. They watch of the mountains round about and the Jebel Sahro beyond. The goat meat is good tonight, nice and tender.

1 October 2001. 'La Chant De La Berber'

 

All around is the singing, whoops, shouts and cries of the Berber - 'la chant de la Berber.' A polyglot of languages echo and repeat, Berber, French, English, Spanish and Arabic. The Berber songs are mostly (mostly)about love. About a boy or girl seeking their love, a call and answer:

 

"A boy and girl were very much in love. They lived in seperate villages either side of a valley. However the two villages were at war and so a chance to marry was denied. The boy and girl cried and cried as they chanted and sang their love for each other. Their tears formed two lakes on the valley floor and then slowly the two lakes came together forming one lake, uniting the two lovers. Today, where these two lakes are joined a great feast is held on its single shore."

2 October 2001. Coke, Fanta, Sprite and Mars Bars.

 

We walk along the valley bottoms, along mule tracks, trails and dirt roads. We pass by houses, hamlets and peer at mosques half hidden in mud-brick villages.Back on the main tourist route to Mount Toubkal, signs advertise camping and hotels; shops sell coke, fanta, sprite, kit-kats and mars bars. I watch a cow being butchered, its legs stuck straight into the air, its fat glistens against the redness of its flesh the skin having been peeled away. Blood trickles into a stream. In the garden of the Hotel Toubkal we eat lunch and then play football with the local kids on a makeshift pitch, with makeshift teams and makeshift rules. Three large walnut trees act as stout defenders in the 'Terry Butcher' role. We continue through the fertile valley and then onto a trail that turns into a boulder field (I hate boulder fields). We pick our way through the boulders to the turquoise shores of Lac D'Ifini, it appears a fascinationg, poisonous and dead place; althought I'm told fish do live in its considerable depths. The camp is situated a little way beyond in a sheer walled canyon. Stones skitter from above, rocks tumble and explode like gunfire, boulders crash and bang canonading until there is a deadly silence.

3 October 2001. Not A Good Day.

 

I lay awake most of the night with painful stomach cramps listening to the rocks fall. I miss breakfast and there is an immediate climb afterwards. I'm sick and leak from every orrifice and struggle to rehydrate. I feel realy bad, my legs sieze up and my head spins, I dry retch and collapse to my knee's, my stomach cramps up and spasms. I stand and walk, the effort brings me to tears. I fall stand and walk on - if only I could find a rythem, if only I could find a rythem. I collapse in my tent and go to sleep. I eat three spoonfulls of boiled rice, drink two litres of water and have a hot sweet cup of tea before returning to my tent.

4 October 2001. Mount Toubkal.

 

I had no intention of climbing Mount Toubkal, but it's amazing what a little sleep and a few litres of liquid can do. In the early hours of the moring I drink as much water as I possibly can and eat a bowl of porridge with plenty of honey in it. The slow walk to the summit begins, a steady but quick pace. I constantly sip at water and eat a chocolate bar when we stop for a rest. night turns into dawn, turns into morning. Reaching out I touch the iron of the summit pyramid, how do I feel - good, elated, strong, excited, healthy and smiling!!! We descend, we pass by the Toubkal Refuge, through Sidi Chammarouch where 'The Prince of Devils' is imprisoned beneath a great white rock; very much revered.

5 October 2001. Civilisation!

 

We walk the trail back to Imli and drink mint-tea once again at the 'Cafe Soliel.' A 4x4 carries me back to Marrakech, I have a seafood pizza and a beer for lunch and swim in the hotel pool in the afternoon. In the evening I have a buffet of traditional Moroccan dishes in a resteraunt overlooking the Koutoubia Mosque. I catch a taxi to the Medina and walk back to the hotel through the Djemma el-Fna. The hotel is lively. I drink beer on the terrace and eat the complimentary fruit and nuts.

6 October 2001. The Pink City

 

I Amble slowly through the maze of bustling bazaars, palaces and souks. Looking impoverished as I do the street traders tend to leave me in peace although I'm occasionaly asked if I want to buy some 'kif.' The Koutoubia Mosque is said to be the first constructed in Marrakech, it's actualy the second as it replaced one that was demolished as it wasn't orientated towards Mecca. The tower is serviced by a ramp rather than a staircase so the Muezzin could ride his horse to the top when calling the faithful for prayer. At night I return to the spectacular Djemma el-Fna, the 'place of death' as it was once the place where the Sultan used to display the heads of their enemies.

7 October 2001. The End of an Adventure.