Going to Morocco started as a replacement for skiing. The snow conditions had been poor. Walking in Scotland with the poor weather and our over-familiarity with all the best walks around Cairngorm made us think of going some where warm and sunny. The trek we chose in the Jebel Sahro was the last one of the season, since it then gets too hot and sunny for trekking (or so the story goes) and then the treks are all in the High Atlas range. Nearly the whole holiday would be spent under canvas with mules to carry the luggage. That sounded a good way to enjoy walking.
The trip out was completed in two flights. These took us to Marrakech, where we were to have two nights in an hotel, with a day for looking around Marrakech. The hotel appeared a little haphazard but comfortable and welcoming. One little shock was when we opened the curtains of our room to discover that the roof adjacent to the window was covered in sleeping people.
The following day we went as a group (16) on a guided tour of Marrakech. (We were told that unguided tours would be a continuous hassle of beating-off prospective guides.) The alleys of the town were narrow and picturesque
The tour contained the usual mix of museums and old buildings. Some had very attractive central courtyards with trees and even fountains or pools. The buildings themselves made a lot of use of elaborate stone screens cut to intricate patterns.
More down-to-earth was a visit to a tannery in a yard behind a street of buildings. As we entered we were each given a sprig of mint. We tried crushing and sniffing it and, sure enough, it did offset the stench of the tannery. More relaxing were the narrow streets, each with concentrations of crafts: blacksmithing, leatherwork, weaving, copperware etc. We had a longer visit to a room full of aromatic herbs and lotions which were all offered for demonstration. By now I had become used to being addressed as "Ali Babba", because I have a greying beard I think. Amongst the goods on sale, Ali Babba got pressed strongly to purchase a stock of Spanish Fly!
Our final visit of the day was to a weaver and seller of carpets. The weaving was interesting and so was our welcome where we sat cross-legged on the floor and were given lots of hot sweet mint tea as hundreds of rugs were displayed for us. We felt rather embarrassed than none of us actually wanted any Berber rugs.
Late in the afternoon I went with Tim and Barry to a hammam, or bath. We settled for both bath and massage. You walk through hot rooms to the hottest and then sit until you are really very hot. At that stage the attendant scrubs you all over with soap and something of a loofah-like texture. Then comes the massage with this guy standing on you, pulling your arms and legs to all angles and generally trying to tear you limb from limb. When he had finally failed to destroy us we sneaked away, room by room, with rests in each and dousing with buckets of warm water. We eventually got dressed and walked back to the hotel through streets still wet from a heavy thunder shower. Surprisingly perhaps, we felt very good.
Joan and some of the women had gone to another hammam and had paid the same as us, but had then been told that the massage costs extra.
The evening, after dinner, consisted of a shameful visit to one of the special vice dens where non-Muslim visitors are allowed to indulge their disgusting passion for drinking iced beer.
In the morning a moderately modern motor coach collected us for a drive across the only pass through the Atlas mountains for many miles. We had a couple of stops for coffee and light food and arrived at our destination Al Kalar in the middle of the afternoon.
This was to be the point at which we and Civilisation went our separate ways for the next ten days. You can probably imagine our feelings on finding that much of the small town was awash with flood water and the ground was covered with an inch-thick layer of large hailstones. We wandered around in a state of mild shock and looked at the market where the traders were shovelling piles of hailstones from their wrecked stalls. I took some photos of leaves with circular holes in them and little circular bits of leaf lying on the ground below where the hailstones had punched their way through. Most of the trees had piles of leaves under them where the hailstones had stripped them off.
We set off carrying our light rucksacks and leaving the rest to be loaded on to mules. We walked away from town across rolling ground covered in stones. Eventually we reached the river where there should have been a bridge, but sadly it had been washed away. Luckily the water was not too high at the time, so we took our boots off and waded across it. Unfortunately we had not allowed for any wading on this trip and did not have any sandals. The pain of trying to balance while one's bare feet wedge between rounded and slippery boulders will be well recognised by readers who have experienced it; others will be mercifully unaware.
Beyond the river was the hamlet of Ait Youl, the nominal starting-point of our trek. We were greeted at the adobe house of le How, one of our muleteers. We entered through cool courtyards and sat on carpets while we were offered and accepted the three helpings of hot sweet mint tea as custom dictates. We then walked onwards to where our tents stood ready-pitched on a stony site by a well in the middle of a vast expanse of stony ground dotted with sparse plants. (This scenery would become very familiar over the next week or more). We had a good meal of vegetable tajeen served in the communal dining tent and watched the sun setting before getting in to our nice warm sleeping bags.
In the morning we were up at 6 to pack our tents, have our breakfast porridge and set off walking. The country is bare and stony. There are only a few spaced-out plants between the stones. Here and there one meets flocks of black goats and white sheep being herded by young children.
Our day was not too long and we camped where a small stream flowed from a nearby hill. There were some lawn-sized fields of barley and a few almond trees, presumably all cultivated by someone who did not live within sight of the area. The place was a popular mule-stop and there was an area where the worst of the stones had been cast aside to give a space for tents. By now my admiration for the carrying power of mules had begun to grow. Although our tents were of a modern lightweight type with aluminium A-poles, each tent was provided with its own metal-handled lump-hammer and missing tent pegs had been replaced by bits of concrete-reinforcing bar. All this and much more was carried by the mules, who looked to be quite happy with it and were going faster than us over very rough paths and even crossing steep rock on the mountains.
In the afternoon there was a walk up a local mountain, but Joan and I opted for extra rest and quiet walking around the local area. At this stage we were beginning to get to know our travelling companions. Our guide was a young Englishman by the name of Tim who used to work for a civil engineering firm but was now an Explore tour leader. Many of the sixteen members of the trip were schoolteachers. We were lucky in having people who fitted-in and got along well together. The muleteers and guides were pleasant people. Conversation was limited by their sketchy knowledge of French and our lack of both Arabic and the local language.
At twilight a couple of commercial mule trains arrived from the Al Kalar souk and camped for the night near us. In the morning we got up at first light to find our neighbours nearly ready to go. Many of our own party said they had little sleep with the tent flysheets flapping loudly in the wind all night. After we had packed up and had breakfast we set off. Today the surroundings became more interesting as we entered the mountainous region and even passed through one spectacular rocky canyon. We were scheduled to have a swimming stop at a rock pool. However, customers for swimming were very few as it was cold and windy.
Our destination was a substantial adobe building with stables and a central courtyard. It was sitting alone but within sight of other similar buildings in a wide valley with a small river at its centre. Tonight we were to sleep in one of the rooms where we would also eat.
In the afternoon we went on a walk along the valley, dressed in our rainwear as drizzle fell on us. We put in a little practice in the useful art of throwing stones at barking dogs: this is very necessary since they move in and bite if you overlook this formality. At first it seems a little fraught with problems of etiquette for those used to UK habits. Hence it was a relief to meet a few of the dog owners and find that they greet you with a big friendly smile and then join you in heaving rocks at their own dogs!
It was on the way back from this walk that we saw a boy riding a bicycle. That was the only wheel that we saw during our ten days of trekking.
Back at our house we did a little lazing around after a meal of delicious thin evenly-cooked pancakes. Eventually we got to dinner time and an early night packed in a sardine-row in our room. It rained during the night and at one stage I woke up to hear a steady drip of water. For a few minutes I wondered where it was falling and then I realised that my sleeping bag was soaking wet. I switched on my torch and realised that I could get out of the way of the falling water by moving to one side. I also succeeded in shoving Jeanette out of the splash zone, although she did not properly know what was going on until I told her about it the following afternoon.
By morning the sleeping bag had dried out rather well. We set off on our walk for the day over some dull countryside along the wide valley in grey and cold conditions with a little rain. We passed a French party, very similar to our own, at one stage. We pressed on and arrived early at our next camp. It was on the threshing ground of a well-constructed village of some twenty or so buildings.
As usual the local people watch us when they think we are not looking. They have a pleasant and friendly manner. The children often come and sit close and watch us intently. All ages resist being photographed. This is a pity since they have dramatic features and look striking; the women in ankle length robes and the men in ankle length hooded jellabahs. Our muleteers wore the same. As well as the villagers we had sometimes passed nomad encampments. The shelters of the nomads are very basic. If it rained during the night, I suspect they have some bits of plastic sheeting since their shelters would not keep the rain out.
After lunch I discovered that crossing the stream to the hillside opposite gave some attractive views of our camp and the village. I also sat some time at the edge of an almond grove watching village life go on. Later, Tim and four of us went for a walk. Near the next village there was a rocky mountain and we did a little scrambling up a ridge of it.
At the top we met the French party again and we all admired the bird's eye view of the village below. Tim said it was a good place for scorpions and after turning over a vast number of rocks I finally found one. I managed to get a few pictures of it, despite Tim going on about it being the black type that can kill a human and it being the biggest one he had ever seen. I suppose there must be some sort of conflict in the "instructions for tour guides" between keeping clients amused and not getting them damaged.
The French group set off before us. We had intended to go back down the path, but reasons of national pride meant that we had to show-off by going down the other ridge, luckily without incident.
The next day was a long one, up and over the mountains. The morning ended with a descent of a fine rocky canyon. Beyond the canyon we met a guide who had gone on ahead to prepare a juicy salad lunch for us by the side of a little stream. We continued some distance after lunch to reach the camp site. Unusually, the muleteers had put up the tents for us. It was a tight fit to get the tents all in place on the threshing ground of a small hamlet. After lunch I went a short distance to a deeper section of river where I could bathe. It was a bit of a problem getting my bathe since local customs are such that we had to stop before each village and put long trousers on over our shorts. With this sort of thing, it can make a good wash really tricky.
At mid-afternoon our cook produced a set of so-called doughnuts which were actually vast waffle-like affairs. They were very good. A quiet afternoon was spent relaxing before an early dinner. After dinner it was decided that mutual entertainment should take place. For our part we did our best to do "On Ilkla Moor baht 'hat" for the muleteers. It was not really a brilliant rendering. (For me it did bring back memories of a time years before, when I had tried to teach it to a hut full of Austrian mountaineers. I remember they were fascinated by it and wanted it translated word for word: "In Ilkley Moor ohne hut") The muleteers did rather better with a set of basic dances performed in two rows on the threshing ground, to music from beaten enamelled dinner plates and plastic washing-up bowls. They had learned that one dance goes down particularly well. It consists of long droning verses which are totally unintelligible, and then everyone joins a chorus of "Housey-housey". Whilst that is equally unintelligible at least one can join in and feel one has contributed.
Today was our rest day and the tents stayed pitched. Instead of an onward journey we were all off for a long walk. The morning tended towards the grey and cool, which helped with the walking. The route was up to a col then down river valleys for the rest of the day, crossing to and fro by boulder-hopping as the path became easier on one bank or the other. At our destination, lunch was being prepared beside a stream; one mule had carried the food by a shorter route.
Before lunch we went to visit a school teacher nearby. In Morocco young teachers all have to do one or two years in an outlying school. This school was pretty typical. It consisted of one very small adobe building in the middle of a flat barren plain and no other buildings within a kilometre or two. The teacher had to live in one small room and teach in the other. Provisions were collected by means of a 27km round trip. He was a pleasant young Arab who gave an impression of being a young Frenchman from any provincial town. He spoke French and English fluently as well as Arabic, but apparently did not speak the local language. He mentioned that he got through six sets of batteries for his radio each week. The walls of his room were decorated by photos of members of his family. All things considered, he seemed to be in a very sound state of mind and getting along well. To be sure he was looking forward to the end of his rural teaching.
After lunch, we were just about to set off when Pippa found a tree frog. She had read somewhere that there were tree frogs in the region and her searches had finally succeeded. We took its photograph and then set off to retrace our route. It was now quite warm and sunny for a change. We saw a good number of large toads during our journey and finally arrived back at the campsite where I went for another surreptitious bathe in the river.
Today we moved on. The path included a gain of height of 2,200ft. There were some spectacular flat-topped mountains to be seen, rather like the tepuis of Venezuela.
I also got some nice photos of a largish bluey-green lizard. We finally arrived at a very isolated campsite in a hollow high on the mountain (about 6,700ft I think). Joan and I did not do the optional afternoon walk, but I spent some time walking along a stream taking photos of plants and insects while Joan stayed back at the tent keeping warm since she felt a little off-colour. The night was cold, but we were warm enough once we had settled into our sleeping bags.
The next day was very cold and it started to rain as we moved off. We stopped once to scramble to the top of a little rocky summit which was the highest point of the area. Finally we arrived at a campsite which was near a hamlet and opposite a gully containing a number of carefully-irrigated fields. After lunch there was a walk arranged, but I went off on my own to get some photos. I found some ground squirrels in the retaining wall of one of the fields and I was able to get close enough for a photo. I don't think anyone else saw a ground squirrel during the whole trip. The rest of the day was too cold to be enjoyable and the night was actually colder than the previous higher-altitude night. It rained too. Again we were comfortable in the sleeping bags.
The following day was much better. We had our breakfast in the open. Walking was pleasant in cool sunshine. Todays campsite was at the junction of several mule trails. I did not join the afternoon walk, but had a wash and then walked quite a long way up a narrow valley. As I was returning I walked around one corner and got an interesting view of Pippa standing naked by the side of the stream. It took me a couple of tries before I convinced her and Barry that I was not joking when I said there was a mule train following me down the valley. Later when I spoke to Pippa again, she said that she got her skirt on in time but that it was still a bit damp inside. At least she had avoided the fate of some French women who we heard were pelted with stones by local women who found them, lightly-clothed, bathing by a river.
The next morning was reasonable with a little high cloud. We walked though some pleasant rocky valleys and a lot of boulder-strewn river beds. At one stage we acquired a few children including one little girl so small she looked as if she had just learned to walk. They all followed us for perhaps a kilometre and I noticed that at one stage the little girl in her bare feet was gaining on us slightly as she ran along the stony path!
It was later that Barry and I stopped to look at some caves that had been dug in the side of an earth bank. Each was about 5-6m deep and about 2m wide with only the doorway supported. It was outside one of these caves that Barry spotted a huge beetle-like creature. It must have been about 80mm long plus its long antennae. The main part of the body was about the size of half a tangerine in shiny black. It had a spiky ring coloured maroon between the body and the head region. I have photos to prove it!
The camp was at a God-forsaken site in the middle of a wide stony valley which had been developed as something approximating to a communal market garden. I spent the afternoon ambling around the small stony fields and irrigation channels. There must have been a total of a dozen small diesel pumps that presumably got used in the dry season. It looked a horrible place to live and work. It was a great contrast to the charm of the hill fields. There they build a tiny channel branching from a mountain stream. It is arranged to lose less height than the main stream until it can finally be diverted into little fields tucked in above the stream.
The following day was, at long last, a really clear and sunny day. We reached the final high point to see the High Atlas range, heavily snow-covered, in the distance. It looked very fine. By now we were nearly at the end of our trip. We walked downhill over featureless stony ground in a big detour. One of the muleteers had explored it for us the previous afternoon. The intended bridge was still down and the unseasonal rainfall had by now saturated the ground and was giving a fast runoff. Our route lead to the NE of Al Kalar where there was a bridge still intact.
When we reached the bridge the river was fierce and the danger of wading it was clear. We finished our detour and set up camp on a miserable site near the last outlying houses of Al Kalar. At least it meant that after lunch we could walk down into town and most of us went to a hammam to get clean. From there we went to the swimming pool patio of a rather sterile hotel built by the Moroccan tourist agency. At least the iced beer and the weather were excellent. A brisk walk back to the camp to demolish a waiting pile of pancakes finished the formal business of the day. The weather was still beautifully clear and we could see a storm in the distance, working its way across the very big river valley with Al Kalar at its centre. Luckily it was not tracking towards us so we could sit at ease and watch it moving along dropping its rain and flashing its lightning.
Our last night under canvas finished with pancakes for breakfast instead of porridge. We walked into town with a limited amount of help from one mule that ditched our baggage and ran on ahead. The coach was there to collect us and we had a lazy day sitting in the bus as we journeyed back to Marrakech.
The afternoon was free. At first I wanted to explore the town on my own. However, when I crept out of the back door of the hotel and set off at speed, my freedom did not last long. After an initial run to the edge of the tourist area I found myself accompanied by a Moroccan of twenty years or so who followed alongside, making a a string of suggestions undeterred by my replies of "Non, merci". When I finally changed this to something less polite I got a stream of interesting swearwords in a variety of languages. He backed off when I turned to face him, but the idea of further progress into the heart of the back-alleys had a limited appeal.
Instead I went back and joined Joan, Barry, Pippa and Viv in a horse-carriage ride to Le Jardin Majorelle. The garden was interesting and unusual with its many royal-blue buildings but a little over-elaborate for my liking. We did enjoy watching a garden employee shooing away an expensively-dressed French lady visitor who had walked right through a flower bed and who was standing gazing into an ornamental lake. The local one stumped off back to her ticket office muttering "Ils cherchent toujours les grenouilles".
After the ride we purchased our only souvenir: a kilo of almonds. Finally we had a party and dinner before a night in a real bed before our journey back home to the UK.
We had hardly had a sunny trip. The weather had been unusually cold, which is limiting when you are in tents. However, the walking and the local interest were excellent. We had enjoyed it very much and the weather was, on average, better than Scotland!
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