Seventeen hours in to day one of our Expedition. It was dark and we had been walking since 5.30am. One of our headtorches had given out, so we had one left and an iphone. We were going down a near-vertical slope beside a waterfall. It went on endlessly. I was holding on to my guide and expedition partner, Rachid’s shoulder so that I wouldn’t fall flat on my bottom. I swore myself a solemn vow, ” This is the last time I torture my body like this till at least next year…”
The Atlas to Atlantic Expedition was a “first”. It started at the top of Mount Toubkal (4167m), the highest point in North Africa and took us down to the lowest, sea level, at the town of Agadir on the Atlantic Ocean. Charlie, the CEO of Epic Morocco had come up with the idea and had also offered to be my sponsor. Rachid Ait Elmahjoub, a 26 year old Amazigh mountain guide from the Imlil valley, was the guide, and we were going to do it self-supported, carrying all our own kit.
When we planned the route, it came out at around 300km, but we didn’t know exactly where it would take us as it hadn’t been done before. We calculated on doing around 30km per day, although I knew that for some days in the mountains this would be impossible. They are very high and pointy. It wasn’t distance that was going to be our enemy it was the amount of ascending and descending in very tough terrain.
After the second day, we had left tourist Morocco far behind. We were still in the high part of the mountains, but we were now passing through villages where I was the first western person they had met. The landscape was stunning. High, rocky passes dotted with juniper trees, long sand and boulder filled river valleys and, wherever there was water, the brilliant green of intensively-farmed terraces cut out of the rock.
The modern world was gone. Every place we passed through, we were offered hospitality. In Amslan village, we were invited in for some tea by a local builder. As we approached the house, the 15 year old daughter caught sight of me and started crying hysterically and ran to hide behind her mother. A couple of months before, she had been working in the house alone and heard a knock at the door. She went to open it and was confronted by a strange man on the doorstep holding a large snake. He was a travelling snake charmer, who regularly go round the villages, acting as soothsayers and entertainers. But she hadn’t recovered from the shock, and seeing another strange-looking person, she wasn’t taking any chances.
Water was a constant preoccupation. In the mountains, we could fill up from clear springs, just making sure we weren’t near any animal or human contamination. In the villages, we could knock at any door, and someone would come out with a bottle wrapped in a cool wet rag. That first sip of cold water when you are really hot and really thirsty tastes better than any other thing on earth.
Our food staple was bread, which we bought or were given along the way, sardines in tomato sauce which we had bought in Imlil, and one precious cucumber for the first few days. Rachid swore it was that cucumber that made his bag so heavy.
We saw lots of wild life as we walked. Turtles swimming free in the river, rock squirrels, neon-winged crickets who serenaded us along the route, a chameleon and some absolutely enormous frogs. I swear one was as big as a small cat.
One particularly heavy day, we set off from Ouizamar and headed for the Tischka Plateau, which is a popular camp for nomads for the summer pastures. It was a very wild section, following a river up towards a clutch of rocky passes. We didn’t see anyone all day. We had been walking for around ten hours and there was no still no sign of anyone. We needed to get up as high as we could, so that Rachid could spot out which of the passes to go for. There weren’t even any goat tracks. We struggled up another steep ascent, and then suddenly, the sweet smell of shampoo assailed us. A very smart young guy in loafers with a little backpack, popped his head up over the rocks.
” Ah the Tischka Plateau, you need to go that way, he said pointing over a high pass. This whole region is called Tischka, if you had taken the earlier pass on the left, you would have ended up far away from where you need to be.”
Rachid turned to me after he had left. “God sent him to us, Alice,” he said and I had to agree. Two hours later, we were setting up camp in a spot that could have been Switzerland, with happily munching cows all around us, and young nomad children coming over to make friends and give us firewood in exchange for lollipops.
Most of our nights were spent sleeping in villages. A family would take us in and feed us, heat up water for us to wash in and then let us sleep in their salon. The people in this part of Morocco are mainly Amazigh – free men – the correct word for Berber, which is a name introduced by the French. They speak Tashlaheet, and some also speak Arabic. They are Muslims. Their society is traditional, communal and based on subsistence farming. Everyone works hard, including the children. Most children get to go to primary school, there will be one that serves several villages, but very few go to secondary school. Extended families tend to live together and sharing is at the core of their way of life.
Their kindness and hospitality were staggering. People who had so little, were willing, in fact desperate, to share it with us. “Ish, ish, (eat eat),” they would urge, as they set out whatever they had in front of us. Bread, fermented butter, honey, oil and cold buttermilk with couscous or rice. At night, we would all sit together, or sometimes the men and women would be segregated, to share a tagine – a meat and vegetable stew, steamed in a clay pot with a pointed lid.
There is a very particular way to eat tagine. You sit on the floor around the circular table, with the big pot in the middle. The host breaks up big pieces of bread and then shares them round the table. You all say, “Bismillah – in the Name of God,” and then tuck in, using your bread as a spoon. You only eat with your right hand. Everyone eats sparingly, sopping up the gravy first and then taking pieces of vegetables and potatoes. The mother or father takes the meat out of the tagine and at the end, divides it up equally and then puts a little pile in front of you to eat, so that everyone gets a fair share of that precious protein.
Once we had crossed over from the Toubkal side of the mountains, the temperatures soared into the 40s, and the sun got really hot, especially in the valleys. My feet had swollen hugely, exploding out of my boots by the third day and I spent the rest of the Expedition walking in Rachid’s knackered but blissfully soft old Brook’s trainers. Those trainers saved me, I would not have been able to finish it in my boots. I had been wearing them happily for five years, but the difference between trekking and this journey where we were on our legs for 12 – 18 hours a day straight up and down over the high and rocky mountain passes, rendered them useless.
We were on a mission to successfully complete the Expedition and this kept us going, long after we had stopped enjoying that particular day or segment. We had wonderful truants, though. One day in the river valley on the way to Teswakht, we passed a group of about ten boys frolicking in a deep pool, surrounded by rocks. ” Do you want to go in?” Rachid asked. My shoes were off, and I was in, fully clothed and happy as a porpoise by the time he had got his rucksack off. Cool water and weightlessness with lots of laughing boys dive bombing us, that memory stayed with me for days.
Three days before the end, we left the mountains, hit the motorway and the desert plains with goats eating the argan nuts in the trees and camels sheltering under them. I took a nasty fall about 90 kms before the end as we were trying to stay off the highway and clambering over slag heaps. My foot twisted under me, and I dreaded a break, but although it swelled and throbbed, it was still walkable. God was still watching over us.
One whole day walking by the main road, with never a water stop in sight. We came across a truck full of melons heading for Agadir, stopped under a flyover. We bought one and then had a melon party, inviting a hitchhiker and the two truck drivers to join our feast. The Amazigh mentality, like the Scots, is not to waste anything, so we continued on that day, fuller of melon than you would normally wish to be.
From the days, feeling endless, suddenly the end was in sight. We got up at 4 am for our last day on the road, eager now to reach our goal. Our last 10km was past the car salesrooms and suburbs of the modern city of Agadir. Just three days before, we had been in the simple purity of the mountains. We were ready for the end. First, we heard the sea, the low strum of the waves, then we smelt it, and a few kilometres on, after second breakfast, we caught our first glimpse. Then, there it was ahead of us.
Rachid and I walked straight down onto the sand; tired, limping and filthy. We clasped hands, looked at each other and waded into the water, grinning from ear to ear. The Atlas to Atlantic Expedition was done. We had become the first people ever to walk that route, from the highest point in North Africa, down to the sea. 300km of joy, pain and indelible memories. A Scottish/Amazigh triumph.
….. and a massive thank you to our Sponsor, Charlie Shepherd and Epic Morocco, who came up with the idea and then helped and supported us all the way through. Epic are looking at ways to make the journey doable as a challenge/holiday, so if you are interested please email [email protected]
Thank you, Charlie!
If you liked the blog, there is more in my book Dodging Elephants available on Amazon.