This afternoon, there was a violent rainstorm. As it drew closer, the whole family, sprang into action, covering the tent with a big sheet of plastic, doing the same to all the piles of provisions, bringing in anything that might get ruined by the rain and making sure the firewood had somewhere dry to sit.
There we were, our motley crew of foreigners and Berbers, with no languages in common but masses of goodwill. So, we did what all good people do when stuck in a rainstorm, we played a game guessing how many stones there were in everyone’s hands. In the UK it is a drinking game, here we did it with just mint tea. Everyone loved it.
Rain and water is the big preoccupation for Zaid and his family. There has been a drought in the region for the last three years and it has affected him badly. This year he spent over €1000 on feed for some sheep he had in his flock, but he lost 35 of them through starvation. Goats eat anything, but sheep are fussier. I am holding the lone survivor up above. We could see the lack of water even in the little wells and springs that dotted the route. All were just puddles.
For Zaid and his family to survive, everyone works and does their share. From first thing in the morning, even the little ones are working. The tea goes on, the family sit together and eat bread and olive oil or butter, then they are packing up the tent and provisions and getting the animals ready. The chicken is strapped to the mule, Zahra, picks up the little sheep, Zaid and Izza count the goats out of the enclosure and everyone sets off.
Sharing is instinctual here. On the walk, I had lent my poles to Maymoun to try out. He loved them, he was so proud, walking in front like our guide, checking back to make sure we were all following and joyously prodding every piece of dung on the route. But when I looked up 5 minutes later, he had made one of the poles shorter and given it to his little brother, Hassan, so they could both enjoy it.
It is a small illustration of the core value of this culture. It is completely communal, everyone sleeps in the same place, eats from the same bowl of food, takes their share of the work and sits together in rest time. It would be very hard to be lonely.
Tomorrow: Herding and endings
To do this walk: http://www.shepherdswalksholidays.co.uk
210 goats, 1 sheep, 7 mules, 10 camels, 3 donkeys, 2 dogs, 22 people and one chicken. It was crowded in the early morning light as we kicked off the first proper day of the migration. Izza and Zahra left before us with the goats, the dogs and Shaun the Sheep. Their job was to take the slow route and find as much grazing as possible on the way.
We set off in grand convoy, up to the first pass out of camp and down past the last road we would see for days. We were a motley bunch from Mohammed El Kabir, resplendent in robes, turban, and proper moustache to us with our fleeces, hats and walking poles. Mohammed El Kabir was very taken with my solar recharger and wanted to swap it for his enormous dagger (no, that is not a euphemism). After a spirited negotiation, he was even willing to throw in a donkey, but I wasn’t sure my landlord in Marrakech would go for that.
Our route was undulating with some rocky, sharp passes. The rhythm was completely new to me as I have never walked with a big convoy of animals before. We were slowing down and speeding up with them. Sometimes, it was hard even to watch. One small donkey was very heavily laden. Twice she fell over a boulder as she was going uphill and had to be hauled up to standing again by Zaid and the muleteers.
I was fascinated by the camels, especially by their feet. They walk very elegantly and precisely, and the soles of their feet puff up and down like little hover crafts. No obstacle seemed to phase them, and whenever they caught up to us, they would just stop and wait till we had gone a little way ahead, and then start again.
We got to camp by lunchtime. Then the rest of the work day started, the tents were put up, bread was baked, the chicken was taken off the mule and tethered in a little home made chicken hut and we all had tea and a siesta.
In the late afternoon, we walked up to a ridge and looked down onto a tiny farm which supported one family. Everywhere there is water, there is life. There, we appointed our tribal leader for the week, Paul became Dada Atta and for the rest of the trip, he was to hold sway. It is amazing how a well-wrapped turban can bestow authority.
We didn’t see Zahra and Izza with the goats till much later. around six, as they had spent all day foraging, Izza walking with Aisha slung round her back. By sundown and shortly after supper, we were all ready for bed.
That night, it was cold so I was in the mess tent with the boys. I drifted off easily and in the middle of the night, felt warm breath on my cheek as someone moved in for a kiss. It felt lovely, a little peck and nibble – nibble??!!! I sat up with a yelp to find the little lone Shaun the sheep looking at me earnestly. He had come into the tent to try and get warm and clearly thought I was his best bet.
Tomorrow: prodding camel poo, spinning, and the economics of goats.
To do this walk: http://www.shepherdswalksholidays.co.uk
Endurance training this week – four days hiking in the High AtlasOver Mountains with the indomitable Noureddine Bachar of Epic Morocco http://www.epicmorocco.co.uk . If I had done this trip before I had signed up for the Marathon Des Sables (MdS), I may not have signed up! It has brought home just how brutal this challenge is going to be.
The distances don’t look too horrific but add in altitude, rocks, rivers, ascent and strong sun and I was a broken woman at the end of it.
DAY 1 – 22 km. Ouarzazt to the Yagour Plateau. Began at 1,680 m and ended at 2,400 m. The terrain was very typical Morocco – rocky with some steep ups and downs and a strong push up to the Plateau. Wild flowers everywhere and lush grasslands at the top.
Grazing on the plateau is shared by the villages in the area who all have their own patch and who agree a date every year that they will take their herds there for the summer. We were to pass several migrating herds, making a noisy, smelly progress.The newborn kids are carried either by the shepherds or in a big basket on a mule with a mother goat in a basket on the other side to keep them from getting nervous.
By the end of the day my tendons were screaming from keeping my feet stabilised on the rocky ground and the ups and downs.
We arrived at Hussein and Rqiyya’s house unannounced early in the evening. Nouri had not seen them for 7 years but they welcomed us as long lost friends and put us up for the night with typical Berber generosity, giving us the guest room and preparing a big celebratory couscous. Rqiyya’s kitchen quickly filled up with the extended family as we sat and chatted and she cooked. Nouri beguiled the children with his magic tricks and I was beguiled by the warmth, humour and openheartedness of the family.
DAY 2 – 34 km. Over the Tizi N’Outfi Pass at 2,600 m then on to Taghouzirt in the Zat Valley. After a glorious morning send off, we quickly got up over the pass and then a long, steep down to the valley. The sun was at its hottest as we went up a dirt road for several kms. Nouri marched ahead and I panted along as fast as I could, thinking, “good training, good training.”
The rest of the day was through the Zat river which is sparkling and beautiful. Halfway up we detoured to some waterfalls and couldn’t resist a swim – the boots were wet anyway. But then I started to get really tired and feel all the various pains in my feet and legs from walking through a rocky river. My neck was also groaning from the weight of my pack – 10 kg, what it will be for the Marathon Des Sables. I was feeling pretty rough by the time we got to the Gite, and kept thinking, “If this was the MdS, I would have another 8km to go and it would be 13 degrees hotter.” Not a happy concept.
DAY 3 – 28 km. Along the Zat River then up 800 near-vertical metres over the Tizi N’Tilst Pass at 3,000 m and down to Tourcht. 800 metres just doesnt’ sound that bad and so I was hoping for a relatively easy day. How wrong I was. We were out for 12 hours and by about 8 hours in, my legs had stiffened up so much I couldn’t actually bend them so was walking like a zombie. This was not useful on a near vertical descent down scree.
The hike up to the pass was very, very steep. I was walking ten steps and then resting, it reminded me a little of Kilimanjaro. But it was the down that did it for me. I am tentative on scree and rocks anyway but this was unlike anything I have encountered. I had to hang on to Nouri for dear life and at one point was obsessively chanting, “Okay, okay, okay,” to try and persuade myself that it was. But at last it ended and we were on the last 5 km up to the village. The joy when the suffering stops!
We slept on Idar’s roof after another hospitable family meal and searched the Milky Way for shooting stars. The idyll was only marred by a cacophony of cockerels at about 3 am vying for the prize of “loudest crow in the village”. They all shut up when the Muezzin sounded the call to prayer, though. Either they are religious birds or they know when they are beaten.
DAY 4 – 10 km. Easy walk to Sitti Fatma and plenty of time to think about the challenge to come. I need to ramp up the training. I always think my endurance is good but this has made me think again. I really suffered and I wasn’t covering nearly the distances I will be doing or in the heat I’ll be facing come next April.
It had all started out so well. Nouri (of Epic Morocco) and I had got up at just after 3 am and were breakfasted and out on Mount Toubkal by 4.30am. A beautiful night with the stars shining brightly and the Milky Way unfurling above us.
Mount Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa at 4,167m and I have wanted to climb it since I saw it in 2008 when I was doing the trans-Atlas traverse on the mountainbike with Charlie Shepherd and a dozen others.
Crampons and an ice axe were absolute necessities and the beginning of the climb from the refuge (3,207 metres) was fiercely steep and really challenging. My legs felt like little short stumps as I bashed my crampons in at every step to get purchase. An hour into the climb, I was starting to feel more confident and thought I had pretty well sorted my crampon gait but not according to Nouri – “legs wider, legs wider” He was obviously imagining the dreaded trouser catch and subsequent tumble down several hundred metres……
He’s a merciful man though and I was allowed a sit down on a big rock and eat a Bounty half way up to the first pass. The dawn was breaking and it was stunning, fingers of pink stretching out through the peaks. The sun took another hour to come out and hit us just as we were about to reach the pass.
From there, it was crampons off as we got to the scree. The gradient had loosened off a bit and the climb was lighter. Just one really nasty section which was a traverse from right to left across snow and boulders with a vertiginous drop to the side. “I don’t like this, Nouri, I don’t like this.”
Until then, we had been the only folk on the mountain, but just at that point two young Moroccan men cheerfully passed us.
The final metres trudge to the top. I felt great, I’d done it at last and no altitude sickness at all. Bright sunshine, La Vache Qui Rit and bread on our own private picnic ledge and a heart stopping 360 view of the High Atlas.
But all good picnics come to an end and we started back down the scree. Within half an hour the two lads bounded past us – Nouri called out to follow the paths and watch their legs, but they were on a high and weren’t listening.
150 metres later, disaster struck. One of them tripped and flipped right over landing on his face. I watched it happen and felt sick with fear. Nouri covered the distance to him in about 45 seconds – it took me another 20 minutes. The boy was lying like a rag doll, unconscious, sprawled and bleeding on the slope and his friend was distraught.
Nouri saved him. He got him into the recovery position, bandaged up his head and got a foil blanket and then my down jacket on him. By the time I got there, the boy (Ibrahim) was conscious but thrashing around and Nouri and I tried to support his head and stop him bashing himself. Nouri got some water and sugar into him but he vomited it straight up. By incredibly good luck, he didn’t appear to have any fractures – when I saw him fall, I thought he’d broken his neck.
At last, a second mountain guide appeared on the horizon and ran down when he saw what had happened. So, there we were on the mountain with a barely conscious boy who was alternately throwing himself around and lying as limp as a rag doll, with no phone reception, air ambulance or any way off except on foot. There was only one option and Nouri and his fellow guide got Ibrahim on his feet between them and started carrying him down.
It was amazing to watch – they were so quick and sure footed even when they were sinking thigh deep in the snow which had now softened under the strength of the sun. They were quickly way ahead of me as I made my tentative way down. I am not that confident in the snow and having just seen such a horrible fall did NOT improve my courage. Two and a half hours later, I saw the refuge and Nouri walking back up to me – the man is a machine!
When I got to the refuge, Ibrahim was lying down, looking much much better and waiting for a mule, which he was put onto and taken down to Imlil where an ambulance was waiting to take him to the hospital in Marrakech.
Lucky, lucky boy that Nouri was so close to him when he fell, and a reminder that mountains have to be treated with respect and caution!
For me, there was still a long long way to go as we were going on to Imlil and Douar Samra that day. The full walk is 38km, and by the end of it my legs were screaming. We were late due to all the drama but set off in good spirits and the walk down was truly beautiful, following the valleys and gorges with the sun bouncing off the mountains and then deepening into the evening light.
The next few hours passed in a blur – a mixture of pleasure at the beauty of the place, teaching Nouri nationalistic Scottish songs, and pain as I thumped down and down and down over the rocky ground.
At quarter to nine, we finally got to the last and final set of rocky steps up to the guest house. Nirvana! Fluffy blankets, a fire in my bedroom and big fat cushions for my achy legs. Mohammed and Rashida had saved me supper and even brought it to my room because I was too knackered to tackle the steps back up to the dining room.
So, the love affair with Morocco continues. Fun, energy, beauty and a hint of danger are pretty irresistible.
I travelled with http://www.epicmorocco.co.uk – brilliant!
I’d been working in Rabat and had added a week’s holiday on. Jo, Karina and Cian came out to meet me in Marrakech for adventures in the Medina and the Mountains. I’d started the week with the Marrakesh half marathon. Very nice running conditions and Charlie – travel entrepreneur, racer and buddy – and I triumphed. He did as he smashed his personal best, and I did because I ran all the way even if I was more Tortoise than Hare!
After a couple of days of extreme shopping, mint tea consumption and spa sweating, we left the city for the hills. I reluctantly took off my marathon medal which I had been wearing to garner as much attention as possible, and donned the pigtails and hiking boots. There was a very sad moment when we had to leave the gorgeous Riad Samsarra, Princess Jade the resident cat and chef extraordinaire Moolida, but we pushed through.
Nuri established himself early on as both loopy and hugely knowledgeable. He also has legs like a giraffe – as does Cian – so the pace was cracking.
It’s always hard to describe the actual hiking. Your legs move (mine at a gentle trot to try and keep up) and you get to see everything around you for a long time, and feel the air and smell the different smells. It was cool and sunny. Perfect conditions with a perfect blue sky.
We passed through lots of little Berber villages where we got to practice our newly acquired vocabulary – MamanCadGit and Tshweet. Nuri was asked for help by a mother whose little boy had a nasty bite on his cheek, and brought out the antiseptic cream. He also did a couple of magic tricks and then offered to leave me behind for the village. Well, my Berber would have improved!Eight hours later we got to our first stop – Cian and Nuri celebrated with a full-length, air-guitar rendition of the Final Countdown. Katrina (the mule) wasn’t particularly impressed but we were. We stayed in a newly-bullt hostel beside the Shepherds’ summer pastures, flanked by some high and icy peaks. Icy inside as well. But a big fire, a big dinner and some singing and dancing helped.
Day two, we headed up to the high pass where we unloaded Katrina, and Nuri and our brave muleteers broke up the ice on the path so that she could pick her way over it. At the summit, we met a man with a magnificent beard. Silky and auburn and generally mesmerising. The rest of the day was a long walk down and then up to our guesthouse. We had lunch in the shade of Mount Toukbal and got invited for thyme tea in a neighbouring village.
As we climbed up out of it, we saw a whole group of boys running up ahead of us. They were heading twenty minutes uphill to the only flat place they could find – where they had constructed a football pitch. We were puffing from the steep drag by the time we got there, but they were all earnestly practising, a whole mixtures of sizes and ages enjoying the game and ignoring the amazing views.
Nuri – bless him – cycled with us. It was his first time on a mountain bike and he coped manfully. Charlie worried for his life and limb as Nouri careened towards cliff faces, looking over his shoulder and talking ten to the dozen, and I worried for his Zuq which benefitted neither from cycling shorts nor from a layer of fat.. apparently he couldn’t sit down for a week post-ride.
That night we were billeted in the most beautiful art deco hotel run by the glamorous Paul and his mother. All the fixtures and fittings had been rescued from villas where wealthy owners were modernising and throwing out the walnut sofas, painted mirrors and iron-worked doors.Our last day was really varied biking up and down the hills and surrounding valley. Lots of very nice singletrack through forests, along rivers and one heart-stopping and satisfyingly nasty descent through a village. Very pleased I made it without a foot down or a further fall!
Perfect conditions and another perfect day. Sadly, it was then straight to the airport and back to Blighty but I have already booked my flight back….And if you want a fantastic holiday contact Charlie at http://www.epicmorocco.co.uk He’ll do you proud!