A few years ago I found myself on top of Mount Toubkal, the highest point in North Africa. It isn’t a difficult climb just requiring decent shoes and decent lungs. But it is ‘a highest spot’, and though I like to ramble and explore getting to the top of things is usually beyond what I do. So perhaps that is why, as I sat there looking out over the High Atlas range through air as clear as the day it was made, there arose the notion that I might travel over these ancient time shattered peaks all the way to the desert. And as it surfaced unbidden into my brain, I ruefully cursed, as it was immediately obvious that it was one of those ideas that must be nurtured and adapted to, like an unplanned child. To walk from this ‘highest spot’ on and over into the great, sprawling wilderness of the Sahara Desert was an offer from the gods which I could not turn down.
But that was nearly ten years ago…
One of the things that has kept me going over the years is that a great idea and the action that must follow do not have to be contiguous – that it is OK to wait for an idea to swell and grow like a seed well planted. Of course, there is a danger here of procrastination and I have surely have been guilty of that, but part of the art of life surely is to recognise the right moment, when through time, and rain, and sun that the seed is ripe for harvesting.
So in the middle of last year I took up the idea again as I sensed parts of my life slowing and closing and towards the end of Autumn made a firm commitment.
With my Berber friend 'Brahim, in May I am going to walk the old fashioned way with mules from the highest point in North Africa into the desert, down from Toubkal through the Draa Valley to M'hamid around 400 km away. This is not an established trek or route and not an 'organised event ' and I have not so far been able to find anyone else who has done it.
But just recently I found someone who nearly did - Gavin Maxwell. Gavin Maxwell was one of those spellmakers who cast magic over my childhood with his wonderful book Ring of Bright Water. For several years, I nursed a resulting ambition to live on an island on the West Coast of Scotland looking after otters. Oh, and following the film of it, with someone who looked a lot like Virginia McKenna!
Much later when I first went to the Kasbah du Toubkal I came across another book by Maxwell called Lords of The Atlas. It is about an astonishing period of Moroccan history which played out in the area through which I shall trek. Featuring stunning photographs by Maxwell himself, the writing is beautifully wrought and evocative. As the book cover says: it “tells the extraordinary story of the Madani and T'hami el Glaoui, warlord brothers who carved out a feudal fiefdom in southern Morocco in the early twentieth century. Quislings of the French colonial administration, they combined the aggression of gangland mobsters with the opulence of hereditary Indian princes, and ruled with a mixture of flamboyance and terror. On returning from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, T'hami ordered the severed heads of his enemies to be mounted on his gates.”
I shall tramp along through many of the places mentioned in the book but it may be that I am also undertaking a journey he planned but never made. Very recently I picked a second hand copy of the biography of the author by Donald Botting who knew Maxwell really well both as a friend and a fellow explorer. In it he describes how Maxwell was desperate to do an expedition on foot and mule and for Botting to join him. He wrote a letter to his friend imploring him to come.
“We MUST do the trip and nothing must stand in the way, You’d agree if you had seen the mountains and the mountain’s Kasbahs – it’s a country that it’s impossible to exaggerate pictorially”
It appears the trip never happened - probably beset by the money and personal problems that dogged Gavin Maxwell through his life it seems to have been shelved.
Coming across this AFTER I had made plans for the trip was an unexpected delight – I’ve noticed this before this a compelling idea at the right time seems to attract a richness of unforeseen opportunities to it - a kind of cosmic serendipity where the a single seed becomes a bigger harvest.
One of the goals of this trek is to raise money for Education for All Morocco - raising money to fund the education of Berber girls in the High Atlas. If you would like to find out more click here.