Morocco’s corona lockdown was to be eased tomorrow and I wanted to be ready. I’d set the alarm for 6 am, baked some bread, dug out the national cheese of Morocco ‘La vache qui rit’, filled my camelbak, made sure I had my first aid kit, basic safety equipment including a whistle, mirror and my walking poles, and put my rucksack by the front door. I was poised for freedom. Of course, it took ages to get to sleep, think Christmas Eve when you are eight and then double it. For the first time in 13 weeks, I was allowed out to walk in the mountains I had been looking at every day from my terrace.
Morocco has been strict on lockdown: no going out except for necessary shopping, medical assistance or essential work. It has paid off as the number of deaths is low – 213 to date – but for all of us, it has been a strain. We have not had a single case of corona within a 40 mile radius, but everyone has still obeyed the rules. This first easing was to let those of us in the low-infection Zone 1 out within our own provinces, but the poor inhabitants of Zone 2 which comprises most of the main cities including Marrakech, have had to wait a bit longer. Travel between zones is still not to be allowed.
The alarm went off and, for perhaps the first time in my life, I didn’t groan and press snooze. A quick coffee and some porridge and I was off and out, my obligatory mask on, and the weight of the pack feeling odd on my back after all these weeks.
The first thing that I noticed was that women were out and about. I have seen almost none in the street since lockdown started. Two teenage girls passed me blithely shouting, ‘We are off to do some sport,’ cantering past me on long, slender legs. Then, two young women in bright jellabas and headscarves on the way to the pharmacy smiled and stopped to exchange pleasantries. You can see when someone is smiling even when you’re wearing masks. And that was the second thing I noticed, everyone was smiling and you could almost feel the relief in the air. We were out.
I started up the hill towards Tizi Mizik. Tizi Mizik is my local pass and lies at around 2300m. It was my training run when I was doing the Everest Trail Race and the round trip is 14.5km with 750m of ascent. Immediately, I could feel how much fitness I have lost. In amongst all the losses that people have suffered through corona it is a small thing, but I do feel sad that all my efforts in the Sahara are now worth nothing and I am starting again. The women in my compound have taken great pleasure in grabbing my belly roll and laughing, ‘Ahha Alice, too much food, not enough exercise.’
Up, up, up. The walnut trees are all in full leaf so everything is a Robin Hood green. It’s cherry season and although some were lost to the late snowstorms we had, there are still lots of dark red clusters glinting on the branches. “My sister, how are you? How is the family? How are you with corona? Here take these – hubb al mulouk – cherries, Health and Rest!,” every farmer I passed beamed with goodwill and gave with open hands. The cherries here are the best I have ever tasted and the name for them in Arabic makes them taste even better – hubb means seed but it also means love and mulouk means kings.
Yellow broom, wild camomile, purple thistles and the tiny alpine flowers that grow only in the heights lined the track. I had to push through overhanging branches, a sure sign that no mules and few people have used it for months. I was soon over-heated and sweating and my legs were stinging but I really didn’t care. I was gulping down the sweet-smelling air as if it were going to run out, just so happy to be moving and filling my lungs with oxygen. I stopped to watch a huge flock of black choughs wheel overhead making the most of the heated air. Ahead, I could see the tiny black dots of goats being let out of their overnight shelter and trotting up the mountain.
I paused to look at my house far below me. The best view in the world because I was outside looking in, rather than trapped inside looking longingly out. I halted again at the half way point to catch my breath and just gaze down at the two valleys stretching out before me, revelling in the feeling of space.
The last bit before the pass is always a slog. It’s very sleep and rolls away under your feet, but my goal was in sight and I topped it with the reflection that, even though I had been dreaming about this hike for thirteen weeks, there were still bits of it that were not pure enjoyment. I added my stone to the cairn and then sat down under the shade of the big juniper tree to the left of the shack where – when there are tourists – Mohammed comes to serve up fresh orange juice and tea. Cool, green and with the fresh smell of resin, I got out my stove to brew my own.
On the hill opposite, I could see the goats and their shepherd. Should I shout a hello and share my tea? Or should I just enjoy the feeling of being out alone in nature? ‘Salaam alaykum,’ I yelled, ‘come and have some tea and cherries.” Hassan, as I discovered, sprang down the hill and sat down beside me. Now, we should have been wearing masks but neither of us did, I had taken mine off when I got out of the village, and (full disclosure) we didn’t socially distance either. The fact is that there hasn’t been any corona here and this was the first day after 13 weeks of being in the house, I reckoned our odds were pretty good.
I brought out my bread and cheese and cherries and he brought out his much better bread and a couple of glasses for the tea. We chatted about corona as we ate and drank and mutually ascertained that all the various members of each of our families were in good health. I asked him how many goats he had and he proudly told me 200. From time to time, he’d get up and whistle and throw stones towards the side of the goats to make sure they didn’t stray too far. Eventually it was time to go, and then something totally unexpected and very surprising happened. As I stood up, he leaned over and kissed me gently on both cheeks. Men here never kiss women they don’t know and who are outside the family.
It was a gesture of pure human solidarity.
Come and join me (virtually for now) in Morocco. I’d like to offer you some free content, so there are more blogs here
I also have a podcast called Alice in Wanderland. It is on all the platforms or here and I talk to Vic about my adventures (episodes 4-10 are from the Sahara Expedition) and corona life in Imlil.
If you’d like to buy any of my books, thank you for your support! My latest is an Amazon Travel best seller (whoop). The books are here. They are all on kindle/ereader as well as in paperback. You can ride across Africa with me in Dodging Elephants – beware saddle sores. get the full story of my TV show in Morocco to Timbuktu, or come round Morocco from the cities and the mountains to the desert and the sea in Adventures in Morocco.