Now the bad news is - we thought we were actually at the top when this picture was taken. Oh, ha ha, sounds funny, doesn't it? Yeah. Just a crack up, let me tell you.
But I am a little ahead of myself. In actual fact this tale begins back in Marrakech, where we wound up staying rather longer than anticipated - just for something new and different - and also where we witnessed one of the truly miraculous events of our walk: a Marrakshi Moroccan, a Djemaar el Fna wily trader, being merrily ripped off by a "stupid rich tourist". Oh, my friends, it was a thing of wonder; and went something like this:
We ran into a couple of blokes by the names of Joe and Roger, over in Morocco from Scotland and England respectively, who proceeded to utterly destroy our healthy living campaign by taking us to the lone bar and buying us endless beers. (Bloody fabulous.) After we had all sunk a few, we decided to brave the Fna for a bite to eat.
Now, Gary and I had been charged such extortionate prices and fed such ordinary food both times we had eaten there that we were a little wary; but never underestimate the combined forces of Brits and Scots to perform a good swindle.
When it was time to pay, Roger dangled his faux Louis Vuitton watch, bought in that very same Fna a week earlier for fifty dirham, in front of the eagle eyed stall manager. The manager promptly got extremely excited and his eye began to glow with that special, bargain spotting glint; he asked if the watch was Moroccan or English bought, to which the boys all of course replied "English" - and at that point he agreed to take the watch in exchange for dinner. The deal left us about fifty dirham in front - which is almost exactly what he had ripped Gary and I off for a few nights earlier.
Ah, only those who have ever been ruthlessly ripped off on a daily basis by the very special Marrakshi scammers can truly appreciate what a fabulous moment of triumph that was for all of us. We hastily adjourned to the bar to celebrate. To Roger and Joe: thankyou for a wonderful night of company and much-missed booze, and may all your plans come to fruition.
In fact, the main reason we took so long to leave Marrakech was that we kept running into travellers. And after months of our own company, or conversing in French, it really was bliss to talk to other people. So to the boys on the terrace at the Riad Assia, Steve and Rose from the States, and Jamie and Emma, THANKYOU for your company and conversation - we loved meeting you and hope you all stay in touch.
We finally dragged ourselves away, though, and headed out through the lovely lush valley toward the mountains. It was hot - really hot - and the landscape kept changing, from weird lunar scape gravel hills to date-palm filled valleys. We trudged for miles; over twenty, in fact - by which stage we were a bit shattered and wondering if perhaps we should have stayed in Marrakech - when suddenly, across the dried up river bed of the Oued Zat, we saw a most welcome hotel sign. When we got inside the archway and saw this, we decided resistance was futile, and paid our twenty bucks with a big, fat smile.
Heaven does not begin to describe that pool.
It took us another day to move any further, not least because we could see the vague outlines of the rather large looking Atlas mountains in the distance, and felt a little daunted and reluctant to leave cool comfort for hot heights. Eventually we compromised and did a couple of short days, fortunately finding walker's auberges along the way. Walking is a pretty big past time around the Atlas, so in some parts there are really good cheap backpacker set ups.
The road gradually began to pull upwards, although for around fifty kilometres it wasn't a big deal, just a steady pull. The tall peaks came closer and closer, and we kept looking up at them and wondering if it was time to get worried yet. At the end of one of those days we decided that they looked rather too close, and that it was time to find somewhere to sleep; we had done about 36km that day, and were in need of a bed rather badly. Unfortunately it was all either harsh hillscape or cultivated fields, and we couldn't see where we could camp.
In order to introduce Mahdi properly, I have to say a little about the Berber people of Morocco - apologies to those of you well versed in Moroccan culture.
The Berbers, for several thousand years, were the principle inhabitants of the entire Maghreb region - Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Morocco. It has been suggested that they are distant relatives of the Celts and Basque people, and their language has ties to that of the Egyptians. Despite the Arabic colonisation of Morocco over one thousand years ago, the Berber people have retained both their language and culture, and today are fighting to have both recognised as an identity independent of the Arabic population. The Berber people live now predominantly in the mountainous regions of Morocco - and their reputation for legendary hospitality and warmth to strangers, is a renowned part of the proud heritage they carry on.
Soon after we entered the mountain country, the people we encountered were at pains to tell us that we were "in Berber country now", as they smiled and invited us in for tea or to stay. "It is tranquil here, no problems," we were told, over and over. "You can camp, rest, whatever you need - there is no danger here." On the back of these kind overtures we ran into Mahdi, in a tiny village where we stopped to eat.
"You must come home to my house - my mother will cook for you," he told us. We gratefully accepted and followed him down the steep steps cut into the hillside, to his Berber village, a peaceful settlement of baked mud houses above a lush valley. We soon became the village attraction, particularly down at the waterhole, where all the local girls were collecting drinking water. Mahdi told us the water comes from a subterranean spring, which has been running as long as anyone can remember. In the summer it runs cool; in the winter, when there is snow two feet deep here, it runs 'warm'. It tasted wonderful.
Mahdi's mother was indeed the cook of the century - I think it is a national trait - and we sat with the family and ate an enormous platter of cous cous with vegetables and chicken. No sooner did we attempt to cease attacking the food, than we were exhorted to carry on, by the whole family: "Ish!" they all said at once, the Berber word for 'eat', waving at us and insisting we consume all the choice parts of the platter. Like we need any encouragement to eat.
Later that night we sat up on the rooftop in the cool with Mahdi and his friends, who indulged in a creative bit of electrical work. They wanted to play music as well as see, so without ceremony or any regard for health and safety issues they spliced a live wire by torch light and powered up both stereo and bulb. We sat on the mud rooftop and listened to Berber music interspersed at intervals with Celine Dion. Quite a mix.
Here they are, hiding from the daylight under a blanket, bulb and stereo still there.
We had a lovely night in the cool breeze with the mountains overhead, although I have never been woken by a rooster crowing quite this close before - it was two feet from my head. Hence the following shot.
We headed off for Taddert, the base of the big climb, where we spent the night before setting off for the mountain pass.
After about five kilometres the next day we saw the beginning of the big haul, and sat down to have a drink and contemplate it. Pity we had no whisky. Watching the trucks labouring up wasn't too promising at all.
We started to climb, and it wasn't really too bad; after about an hour and a half we reached the point where the opening picture was taken. There were loads of bus groups up there getting panoramic shots, so we figured we must be fairly much at the top; ha.
Anyway. Enough bragging and swagger (maaaan! Did you see how huge those mountains are? No, really, look again. I insist). Actually, it was a long, tough day - we did forty kilometres over the mountain pass, some of it cross country behind a Berber bloke who showed us a short cut. It was short, but very very steep. Those guys are like mountain goats.
On the other side the landscape was stunning - weird, harsh stony mountains, cut through with green swathes of date palms and crops, and red mud villages. I have so many photographs of the amazing contrasts that I think I will have to make a new album - but maybe not until Zagora, as this connection is really slow.
The walking became hotter than hades and very tough, after the cool of the mountains; dramatic though it is, mid July is definitely not the time to be experiencing Southern Morocco. In the end we actually rose long before the dawn to get here - we walked a lot of the last seventy kilometres in the nighttime. Just crazy heat, and there are long stretches without water.
We had wanted to detour off into the valley of Ait Benhaddou, where many films - such as Gladiator - were shot; but unfortunately we couldn't buy water before the turnoff, and weren't game to chance the supply. In weather like this and with up to twenty kilometres between places to buy water, we figure safety is good. There are few farms in between the villages now - everything is clustered around the few water sources in the valley, so we can't rely on other people for our water.
I can't tell you how good it was to get into town here and have a SHOWER; we are planning to sloth it in air con-ned comfort for a couple of days (no pun intended, although the hotel did sting us a bit, I reckon...) before heading down to Zagora.
This stretch has been one of the most visually stunning of the walk so far - the immense scale of the landscape is difficult to convey in photographs. It has also been one of the toughest - Gary is pretty crook after dehydrating quite badly, and is currently tucked up in bed. But we are quite anxious to push on now, and knock the rest of Morocco off before the seriously mad swelter of mid August.