Hot footing in the High Atlas

By Peter Dobbie, Mail on Sunday

Last updated at 13:29 08 July 2002


Behind me there are seven others following in the footsteps of Mohammed.

A young couple from Cork with the sweetness that comes from unsullied love, two women travelling alone with the weariness of recently failed marriages and a middle-aged lesbian couple from Canada.

There is also an Essex doctor whose hilarious readings of our unpredictable bowel functions disguise the deep sadness of caring for a severely handicapped child at home.

And then there is Mohammed, a descendant of the Berbers, a father of three children from an agreed tribal marriage, who leads us across the High Atlas mountains to his home.

Two hours after the minibus drops us in a fierce midday heat we are walking back centuries to stay at a mountain lodge from where we will attack the highlands of North Africa.

Planning the holiday two months earlier, I had pressed my wife to join a more testing trek.

'This one is for girls,' I decreed airily after an exhausting slog from the pub.

'It will be hot in Morocco in June,' warned my wife, and so we opted for the easier itinerary.

Now I am quietly relieved to be with the 'girls'.

As the heat teases the last out of the water bottles, Mohammed points to a sizeable building set on a rock face, his very own Berber B&B in a small village settlement scratched on a local map as Wawrikt.

The news revives wilting calf muscles.

The Canadian pair surge ahead to mutterings from others of: 'They're after bagging the best room,' which is undoubtedly the truth.

Then there is the unspoken question of the 'one flush toilet', mentioned in tour notes, to which several have obviously placed a mental claim as first port of call.

We receive a warm welcome from Mohammed's brother, who is the house cook.

Thus settled in we are asked to join our host for sweet mint tea.

'Tomorrow, we will walk for six maybe seven hours,' Mohammed explains, his voice punctuated by chirrups of impish laughter.

We sit on cushions around a long table and that evening dine handsomely on a tajine, a delicious stew, followed by a creamy yoghurt made from local goats' milk.

The overhead lamp flickers and dies just as Nick, the doctor, produces a bottle of malt whisky.

'Only three hours of electricity each day,' grins Mohammed, who strictly observes Islamic abstinence from alcohol.

We take off to bed, a mattress in a beautifully cool room, basic but impeccably clean, where I, for one, enjoy several nights of serene concussion.

Breakfast, to general surprise, is piping hot porrridge, perfect in texture, fuel for our first full day's trekking in what the Berber people call Idraren Draren - Mountains of Mountains.

We set off past the flat-roofed, earthen homes, Mohammed picking out the well-used trails which once carried ancient trade caravans and pilgrims and which are still busy with mule traffic.

Out of Wawrikt we quickly leave behind terraced plantations of walnuts, cherries and figs and an entire market garden of vegetables that are fed from a sophisticated system of targa - small irrigation channels.

A posse of dark-eyed children, in clothes of fabulously rich colours, ritually pursue us to the village borders shouting, pleading in their second language of French for 'bon bons'.

Walking on upwards there are thickets of Spanish juniper and thick, gnarled trees.

Still higher, spiny domed bushes scatter the route like giant hedgehogs while herbs such as lavender, rosemary and thyme are recognisable.

And then on upwards, rise the spectacular peaks, rugged, sparsely vegetated, with enormous escarpments, gorges and flat-topped summits.

As we scrabble to find our footing and send up clouds of dust, we marvel at our guide's grace of movement.

Each footfall is instinctively judged to minimise effort, a ballet learned from a childhood roaming the High Atlas.

After a few hours we rest and Mohammed distributes succulent figs and dates.

A lone figure tending sheep, emerges from behind a stone wall and shares our treat.

As the morning progresses so the babble of our excited voices subsides.

We are climbing steadily without trouble.

Yet it is very hot and I can hear my own breathing, and thankfully others, beginning to catch.

The water bottles are out in number and by the time we break for lunch the shade of an overhang and a small waterfall are welcome.

Here Mohammed has arranged for us to be met by an ass laden with lunch of sardines and salad.

This is a lengthy affair (I sleep) and the group sits in deep, contemplative silences.

These mountains are unconventional in their beauty; a harsh mosaic of Jurassic limestone, at first unappealing, but, as the traveller takes in the expanses of rock and colours, they inspire both calm and awe.

We return along the Quarikt river bottom, passing shepherds grouped around a lazy fire, who call out 'ssalamu lekum' - 'peace upon you'.

An eaglet is overhead. Geckos and small, quite harmless snakes, disappear as we approach.

Today, and for the rest of our stay, we see no other walkers.

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