Twelve years ago I found myself on top of Mount Toubkal, the highest point in North Africa. It isn’t a difficult climb, just needing 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 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 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’ into the great, sprawling wilderness of the Sahara Desert was an offer from the gods which I could not turn down. Twelve years passed, until this year I decided the time was right to accept it.
I am an obsessive note- taker and the following are excerpts from the Moleskine notebook I carry with me on every journey. (This post is a version of a recent article: see http://www.kasbahdutoubkal.com/news/
April 29th 2017
Maybe it’s me or maybe it’s Berber culture but establishing a specific itinerary and timetable is always elusive and I have found it more my style to embrace the ambiguity and happenstance that seems to go so easily with my time in Morocco. So it was after a good breakfast, some decent coffee and well-wishes of Abdul and his friends at the Kasbah du Toubkal I set off back down the hillside into Imlil to drive to Telouet, where we would visit the remains of the Kasbah of the ‘Lords of the Atlas’, the fearsome but compelling Glaoui family. Moha and I would also rendezvous with two mules and possibly one or more muleteers before and setting off on the 500 km trek.
May 4 th
Seventy-five miles in the first four days – so much for my planned gentle start! The journey though the western side of the High Atlas was a joyous outpouring of early summer exuberance, even the toxic oleanda joining in the fun. Moha tells me the Lords and Pashas used to keep it in their bedrooms to kill insects. The eastern, desert side, is much drier and getting unexpectedly very hot much earlier than anticipated. The soil and grit is tinted by the minerals within it and I have become obsessed with trying to name the colours of the mountains. I can spend ages plodding along thinking of the best description – late-apple russet, copper bloom, olive green, dirty saffron, old-soldier beige. The ground, too, sometimes glistens as if covered by tiny shy diamonds – specks of sodium chloride washed down from the salt mountains behind us.
From the High Atlas we are heading to the Anti-Atlas. We’ve got about two days to cross this plain - very hot. I walked down a long river bed today - amazing wildlife in the green, surrounded by hot dry mud and rock canyons, including a large turtle hanging around a rock pool.
May 11th - Agdz
Just over half way there - about 160 miles. Crossing the Anti-Atlas won't go on my Tripadvisor recommended list! It was a never-ending, black basalt moonscape of steep tracks and long flat high plain - no water, no vegetation, no people except for the occasional trucker battling through in low gear.
The first night was too windy to erect my tent on the high, stony plateau so I made a style of open sarcophagus with my bags to minimise dust and slept in the open air with Black, the big golden dog who has decided to adopt us. A pack of wild dogs roamed around outside, presumably once attracted by the temporarily abandoned road makers’ camp down the road . Black sat upright staring into the darkness as they growled their challenges from the gloom. Every so often he would decide they were too close and disappear into the night; there would be a sharp bark or yelp and he would trot back and sit down again. Bloody hero! All the same, I slept with a Bushcraft knife beside me and tried to recall a drunken conversation with an old, tough friend about killing coyotes. It was a gorgeous moonlit night, though, and I fell asleep listening to Dark Side of the Moon on my iPod, which is about as spiritual as this old dude gets.
May 15 th – Zagora
Made it to Zagora - seventy miles in four days. Tough going and feet in bits but really pleased to be here. Zagora was my original planned destination and is held to be in the middle of the Moroccan desert, approximately 250 miles from where I started. I want to try and get to M'Hammid near the Algerian border, which is where the dunes really get going but definitely need a rest day first . We have to bid farewell to the mules, Hassan and Mohammed and find ourselves some camels, as mules aren’t designed for sand.
There were some really great discoveries getting here, alongside the usual on-going police discussions, being trailed for three days by mysterious older men in white djellabas who took it in turns to ride past us on an ancient Velocette, and an altercation with a juvenile delinquent Egyptian cobra. The highlight, which we came across shortly after we set off from Agdz, was finding the Palmerie.
We followed as far as possible the Draa valley, sometimes across the volcanic escarpment at the top, sometimes along the dirt roads through extraordinary villages containing ancient and decaying Kasbahs made of mud bricks, and sometimes through the wonderful patchwork of small irrigated fields surrounded by shoulder-height mud walls and shaded by great date palms. Each of the fields is no bigger than a suburban garden but growing an abundance of wheat, alfalfa, barley, or with small orchards of pomegranate, almonds, figs, or apricots. In the flickering sunlight, low volume tropical bird song, serenade of frogs and tinkling streams it was likely stumbling over Eden.
M’Hammid May 19th
At 12.45 today, N 29 51.474 W005 38.566, I achieved an ambition held for over twelve years; to trek from the High Atlas Mountains into the desert . I had actually been in the desert for about ten days but in my mind’s eye it began at the start of the sand dunes. The last four days have been pretty horrible because of the heat - over 40 degrees today - and I was in a sorry state when I sat under a scrubby Acacia tree and marked the final way point. But job done!
Of all the tough things - heat, wild dogs, the never ending scrambling over scree, police harassment, altitude, Egyptian cobras, sleeping habits of camels, a more-or-less three week teetotal vegetarian diet - the unexpected one was, when was I there? When does this, any, journey stop? It was the sight of the sand dunes, beautiful, curved, carved by shadows that made it plain and simple. I was there.