Well the reasons to go just keep on growing! Further to my last blog on Gavin Maxwell, not only does my forthcoming trek take me into the heartlands of the Glauoa - the tribe of the Lords of the Atlas who in the early 20th Century with the active connivance of the French subdued and destroyed a Berber culture and people remarkable for their independence and sense of freedom, replacing it with a regime of ferocious brutality and flamboyance - it now appears I may doing some accidental anthropological research! I may be searching for a lost tribe of dwarfs.
There were serious arguments at the end of the 19th Century put forward by a Canadian lawyer Robert Halliburton for the existence, on the Southern side of the Atlas Mountains, of a tribe of curly haired red-skinned dwarfs. Not surprisingly this was a somewhat controversial assertion ,with vigorous debates in various academic bodies. The region itself was almost unvisited by westerners - indeed the reason the French armed the Gluoua with modern weapons was to keep this remote under some sort of control.
. Halliburton continued to insist that he had more than enough evidence to prove this true until the day he died. After which the controversy seems to have died away. My old pal, Robert Twigger mentioned them in passing years ago - just one in a flow of esoteric comments that makes time with him so enjoyable. A search of the internet - this is when the internet is truly magnificent - revealed a series of archive documents indicating the dwarfs in the remote region around the D’raa valley through which I will be rambling. More to follow..
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
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.
I have been working on some poems recently as a kind of limbering exercise before I get back to the book I am avoiding writing! A bit rough and ready but here it is - not only T. Gray got to chill his backside in a churchyard in contemplation of greater things.
Made me wonder, in a electronic age, when all things are filed in the cumulus nimbus - will we all end with the press of the delete button!
They buried kings of little kingdoms here once,
And then centuries of peasants,
Yeoman, all countryfolk,
Made equal in the rotting clay,
Until the rising of the common word,
Brought on weathered purple stone
The single word biographies of
Curate, wife, child and parishioner
Of Jacob, Bessy, Seth and James
Given a temporary glimpse of immortality.
Such as this might have lingered in the thoughts
Of the unexpected rows of airmen,
Who fell from the clouds to lie,
In rows of white cross uniforms,
Still on duty, still on parade,
By the tumbling wall.
I sat upon the memorial bench
Watching the light of the long-shadowed
As it sparkled on the frosted grass,
And played upon the old church wall,
Against the face of the curious knight above the door,
Whose rusty sword, blunt with age,
Is no guardian of truth or desire,
Or that which should remain.
This time last year I joined a two week expedition across the frozen lakes and forests of Northern Ontario. For days a small group of us pulled toboggans containing tents, stoves, food through miles of the Canadian wilderness. It was a disorienting experience, I am unbelievably glad I did it but still have no idea why!
We came out of the wilderness
Through eight days of snow and the grinding wind
Along the ways of the Cree and over the creaking lake
A land where the dragging earth and the heavens were separated
By no more than the distant smudge of
White Cedar, Spruce and Fir.
And the translucent hide of a weary sun
Faltered at the edge of the world
All life seemed suspended
Only the circling hawk
The marks of lynx, otter and snowshoe hare
And ourselves bore witness that things breathed upon this land.
We were bent like old people against the strain,
As frost biting fingers reached up through the slush and grasped
And clawed at the underside of our toboggans
Making us curse and sweat even as the ice froze around our legs and feet.
And each night we had built our camp,
Cutting the bushy branches from the spruce to lay over the snow and frozen waters
Swinging axes against standing dead wood to fire a battered stove,
Scraping a hollow to catch the depth of the cold
Pulling stiff, reluctant, ill-fitting canvas over frame
Sawing a hole though dark ice to draw up brown water
Then dropping into a half-sleep watching in the rigid darkness.
That we might feed the flickering flame
Until we woke before dawn
And began again.
Where people greet you with razor wire smiles,
Eyes narrowed against the neon wind
And the scent of cinnamon, clove and hot oil lingers outside from the whirling eye Of the Lebanese restaurant,
The sweet sour smoke from the snout of a Chinese dragon
Frets upon on the sidewalk
Above which the towers of the possessed rise like giant fists with outstretched fingers
And the sports bar zombies dance to silent flashing screens
We might hold onto the wilderness keeping
The songs of our days like lightening in a jar
As we walk towards the first embrace of loneliness.
In this wasteland of dreams
Steve Bonham 2017
New year 2017. Today I walked a while around my old town. I don't get here much. From the shuttered shops and empty spaces it seems, like many places, they are closing it down. So far they have taken everything up to the knees. As I sat drinking a coffee waiting for a phone to be mended I thought back to my childhood and the dirty, busy, mysterious town this once was.
OK it wasn’t so great,
When the winter damp rolled
The chimney smoke over and over
Till the days were a long twilight of sulphur mist,
In which strangers, shuffling and apologetic
Materialised at your side, hunched a little lower,
And in the same moment of trickery
An entire trolley bus, sparking and clattering, became visible
Carrying sombre mannequins in hats and scarves,
In a long retreat
Before vanishing to a muffled tolling bell.
When my mother taking our hands,
And telling us not to breathe
Would pull us home
Under the iron bridge smouldering in a fiery glow from
A steam train as it slowed and sighed above
Onto an empty platform
Adding its underbreath to the stinking mustard air.
Past the strange shop windows
Lonely and lost in a melancholy air;
Along the looming giants of furious Plane trees
Into the serious dark of the sidestreet
To the haunted nervous places
Past the ‘rec’, the bowling club and the brook,
Lingering only it seems in the young memory of summer.
Back to home to the worried dog and the cold, cleaner air
Watching the fire kindle in the grate
Pressing my cheek against the tears on the window
I would watch till my still dark father would return.
(c) Steve Bonham 2017
So I am sitting late at night in a hotel in the Gulf. It is not necessarily a great hotel. It is hot and steamy about 30°C and I am sitting at a riggety little table alongside the pool. I have just flown in from the UK. The sweet, oddly resonant smell of the shisha drifts across the water but I am drinking an ice cold beer, watching the condensation run down the outside of the glass cooling my fingers.
I look around. A desert moon filters down through a hazy hot Sunday night between the tall, oddly shaped buildings: one looking like it’s busting out of corsets; another like the stretched neck of a pepperpot; another an index finger of truculent misanthropy bearing the baleful title of an international bank.
Closer to, a blue neon light stretches a few metres along the top of the glass outer wall of the International buffet, where a few desperate individuals make their choices from semi-warm, stainless steel buckets of Italian, Lebanese, Chinese, Indian and Arabic food.
Low shoulder height plastic shrubbery surrounds me, some of which glows vibrant blue and the others, violent lilac. A silent huge television screen by the pool seems to alternate between showing a rerun of a long forgotten Premier league match and a wildlife programme showing the very graphic reconstruction of swimmers being torn to pieces by hungry sharks.
I note my Dutch beer is a Japanese glass in a country whose religion forbids consumption of alcohol.
Welcome I think to the spendthrift, flotsam and jetsam of global culture turning up everywhere wherever the wind blows. Is this the way it will go? I once ate a meal in a traditional Gulf restaurant complete with wooden dhow in the window, served fish by a Sri Lankan waiter in local dress whilst being serenaded by Mexican mariachi band consisting of Filipino musicians costumed appropriately