Addi let out a yelp and jumped about 3 foot in the air, ‘Danger, Zahra, danger!’ He put his walking stick in front of me to stop me going any further. I was startled out of a kind of daze brought on by hours of walking rhythmically beside the camels with the wide golden plain ahead reaching for the mountains beyond and the blue sky above.
Ali and Brahim pulled the camels up short behind me and there was a concertinaing of the caravan. ‘Look, look!’ Addi pointed with his stick to a low, mottled shrub and there hissing and inflating itself was a giant lizard. ‘It’s not dangerous,’ said Ali. ‘Don’t worry, it is scared of us, that is why it has swelled itself.’ ‘By God, it is a wonder,’ said Brahim. The lizard measured about a metre from head to tail and its dusty brown and tan markings made it virtually invisible against the ground – a beautiful creature but clearly wanting us to move out of its territory. Brahim backed the camels up and then led them out and away from it. I stayed behind and watched as the lizard seeing our threat disappear slowly let the air out of its inflated chest and head and moved slowly forward across the path.
We were heading for the Finger of Heaven, having left the Tribe of Lions two days before. The Finger of Heaven is a large mountain which – you’ve guessed it – looks like a finger pointing at the sky. For about ten days we walked through the open landscape cracked with hidden canyons caused by long ago floods. Navigating these with the camels takes time as they can not go down or up anything too steep. Overhead we often saw buzzards circling slowly enjoying the high air.
Then we hit the foothills and the air became filled with the smell of wild thyme and rosemary. We came across a small encampment with two tents and huge bales wrapped in blue plastic. The local herdsman had been out picking the rosemary which then gets sold on and finally finds its way to a factory where it is pressed for oil or dried. ‘It’s always the poor that eat the stick,’ said Brahim. ‘How much do they sell the oil for and how much do they pay for a kilo of the rosemary? They are stripping the mountains of their heritage but what can they do? People have to live.’
Water started to trickle into our lives. It felt like an abrupt transition from the trance-like plains to suddenly be in villages with people again and passing rich agricultural fields in the valleys now framed by the edges of the High Atlas.
‘We are in the heart of Morocco now,’ said Ali. The long narrow houses built of the local earth cluster together in small hamlets with a piste going through them. Tarmac is coming to this region and we passed road workers glad to be out and earning money after the pause for the Corona lockdown. It will change everything and I feel that we are lucky to be able to see life now with so many of the old ways intact before it transforms for the future. We passed men tilling the fields using two donkeys or mules to pull the plough, women harvesting the ripe maize in the fields and then piling it high on their donkeys to carry back home, where it is stacked in neat sheaves to dry out along the walls, and everywhere people harvesting their apples. Midelt is famous for its apples and they are crisp and sweet and plentiful.
Every time we came to a village, though, we caused mayhem. The children are back at school but many are on a week on week off or day on day off basis because of Covid and the arrival of a troop of camels, 3 Sahrawis (the men in their robes and head coverings) and a Gawriyya (foreigner) was far better than any circus. If we stop anywhere where there is a crowd of children, we have to be vigilant as they all want to run under the camels’ bellies. ‘It banishes fear,’ Brahim told me, ‘They believe that if they do it, then they won’t be scared ever again.’ We stopped to be given some apples in a remote gorge and two mothers actually passed Brahim their babies so he could pass them under a bemused Farquhar.
The last three days we have been crossing the mountains proper – the High Atlas. It’s been hard going for the camels and stressful for the men. I feel slightly guilty for loving the sheer scale and magnificence of it all. Rose red peaks and plunging ravines flank moorlands covered in grazing sheep and goats. We have been up to 2900 metres and so the air is thin and I am panting a bit on the ascents. Water is plentiful now and we have walked out of summer and into autumn. It is jacket time.
What has become clear to me in the past weeks is that it is an extraordinary thing to walk. It is a slow process and yet you suddenly find yourself in a totally different environment, in a totally different season. There’s no need to rush or push, you just have to put one foot in front of the other and the world unfolds in front of you
If you enjoyed the blog, please do check out my books.
You can follow the expedition live on my podcast – Alice in Wanderland.
And the best of my images are on instagram – @aliceoutthere1
I’m also putting up little films on my YouTube channel.