Exploring Morocco in this strange time of Corona means that sometimes it feels like we are the only travellers in the country We are nearly three weeks in to the Atlas Expedition now and have covered around 350km, walking between four and six hours a day. Our start was not entirely auspicious. Leaving the Mediterranean coast at dawn from the outskirts of Nador we walked through a corridor of towering aloe plants towards the foothills of the Rif Mountains and straight into a heat wave.
The mountains wound up and the camels wound down. I had been shocked when I first saw them. They have been grazing in the Sahara as there has been no work for them and the drought has meant that pasture is very low. Thin and with no winter fur to bulk them out, their necks looked strangely etoliated. I had been worried about keeping the pace after so many months of corona confinement but we kept the pace very slow for the camels. After about four hours, Struan, one of the new boys, just gave up. He sat down at the side of the piste and refused to move. No amount of coaxing was going to get him back on his feet. Apparently extreme heat and mountains is the equivalent of leaves on the track…. We left him there and went back to get him and bring him into camp once the sun had set and the air had cooled slightly.
Those first few days, there was no respite from the heat but we took it easy and I greedily drank in the freedom of the road after lockdown. We walked through rolling hills covererd in pine with high red cliffs which threw back echoes from Brahim’s evening prayers and wide river beds, empty of water but filled instead with pink oleanders and met only one shepherd who had a sleek, black greyhound of a dog with him. She looked as though she should have been drawn on a Pharoah’s tomb and, very unusually, came to me to have her silky ears pulled.
We came down from the mountains and into an area of broad agricultural plains. Olive and fig trees jostled with almonds and pomegranates and we started to meet with people in scattered hamlets and small farms. I wondered how we would be met as strangers walking through their land at this time of Corona. The first indication was a man in his sixties who was harvesting his almond trees. He saw us walking up the hill and climbed down, hurrying towards us. ‘Welcome, welcome, Peace be upon You,’ he beamed at us. ‘My house is just over the other side of the valley, you must come and have tea. Where are you from? We love strangers here. Come, come and drink tea with me.’ When we said that we had to keep going as the camels were fully charged, he dashed back into the orchard and came back with armfuls of fresh almonds still in their green jackets. As we kept going, people came out of their houses to shower us with gifts of food: freshly-baked bread and bags of deep purple and lime green figs straight from their trees. We have our masks with us at all times and always ou them on as we approach people but no-one in these remote areas is using them or social distancing, except for the local officials we check in with. The women greet me with kisses and we all drink from the same glass and eat from the same plate. There are no cases here and no big settlements so people feel safe.
After the rich plains, we crossed back into mountainous country and just as I was beginning to smell worse than Hamish the camel, we bivouacked at the head of a river valley – with an actual river in it. Water! Addi, Brahim and I headed straight down after we had set up camp and had lunch, with bundles of very smelly washing. We had had 10 straight days of late thirties, early forties temperatures which lasted well after the sunset and the feeling of plunging into cool, abundant water was fantastic. My swollen hands and feet and legs all started to deflate and go back to normal size. My scalp felt like a part of me again and not like a particularly itchy hat. I lay down full tilt, hanging on to rocks to stop myself being carried down the river and just rolled around in it.
However, the next day we had to take the camels through it and that was a more difficult proposition. The river was quite fast flowing and under the water there was a mixture of rocks and mud. I’m not sure if some of the camels had ever seen water like this before. We split them into two groups of three with Ali and Addi with one group and me and Brahim with the other, Jean-Pierre, our expedition organiser had come up to join us and brought Abdellah the cameraman to film. At the first crossing, the camels went through happily enough but as we got further into the gorge, Hamish and Hector started to balk. I’m pretty sure that Hamish was basically saying, ‘Walk through that moving, slippery thing that I can’t see the bottom of and through all sorts of mud and rocks while it pulls at my legs and tries to drag me under? I don’t think so!’ Brahim and Addi re-ordered the caravan so that Farquhar, who is devastatingly handsome and has a sweet nature and is biddable, went at the front and the others, with much encouragement and some threats, followed through. The valley was like the Garden of Eden. On each side of the water were little orchards and farmed plots with grapes and red peppers, bamboo groves, tamarind trees with their lilac flowers drowning in butterflies and fat pomegranates threatening to drop off the branches. The people we passed were evidently poor, though, living in tents and mud houses, some attached to caves.
I’m glad I had the chance to spend a couple of days in water because after that we entered the Rekkam plateau where we still are. 100km of straight, flat desert. This country has its own strange beauty. The golden plain is flanked on either side by mountains and all you feel is space. The sky is bright and for the last two nights we have been treated to a lightning display over the peaks vying for attention with the Milky Way which gleams brightly above us.
The nomads here are settled. Typically, they have big black tents woven from goat’s hair with a kitchen, an area for the lambs and kids and all their blankets, mats and cushions piled up neatly in the middle so they can bring them down to make an instant sitting room or sleeping area. They have a lorry to transport water and food and also a one roomed concrete or clay building with a huge solar panel on top which powers their lights and fridge. The market for their sheep and goats has collapsed. No-one is buying as the economic squeeze of Corona sets in. A sheep goes for as little as 200 Dirhams (about £18) so many families are relying on the money being sent to them from relatives working in Spain. Every family we met had at least one member working abroad. They are also Arabic speakers and trace their heritage back to the Beni Hilal who migrated to North Africa from the Arabian Peninsula 13 centuries ago.
One particular family invited us for supper and slaughtered a sheep for us, roasting it over an open fire in the tent on one enormous kebab stick. I was brought out from the tent and the women’s quarters to eat with the men and we demolished it in about ten minutes. Addi was in heaven, cracking the ribs with his teeth. The meat was burning hot to the touch and seeing me struggling, our host ripped pieces off for me so that I could pick them up in the bread. At the end of the meal, something very special happened. Brahim sang a prayer from the Quran. His voice is strong and melodic and all the younger members of the family ran in to listen. I watched his face as it transformed with the words and looked around at the circle of men and boys united in prayer as the words flowed over me. As we walked back to our tents, Brahim explained, ‘The prayer is the seal on the evening, it makes everything pure. We eat, we drink and we talk and it is good but if we pray, then it is a night with meaning.’
The whole trilogy of expeditions including this one of exploring Morocco in the time of Morocco has been organised by Jean-Pierre Datcharry of Désert et Montagne Maroc and Dar Daif who has over 40 years of experience in the field and has explored all over North Africa himself.
The Atlas Expedition is sponsored by Craghoppers who have also supplied all my hiking kit – which is brilliant and so durable! – and NTT DATA UK Diversity and Inclusion Team.
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