across the Jbel Sahro - narrative

This five day walk through the Jbel Sahro took us through an impressive series of mountain passes, a wild and remote area, with few inhabitants. We chose to walk from Nkob in the south, northwards towards Boumalne du Dades; this meant we had the sun on our backs for much of the journey, and we were incredibly lucky with the weather - brilliant blue skies gave us warm days (and cold, starry nights) and the way ahead was lit up in bright sunlight; we hardly saw any clouds. I think food seems to taste especially good when eaten out - al fresco meals are to be relished, and I did; quite ordinary food seemed really delicious to me; I even enjoyed instant coffee! Having our own guide and muletier/cuisinier seemed slightly colonial to us, but it was lovely not to have to worry about the route or the food. We certainly went places we couldn't have gone without them.

DAY 1.
All the blue clichés came to mind for the sky: azure, cobalt, cerulean, turquoise, aquamarine - it was stunning. Our day started with meeting Yidir (our guide) and Hemad (the muletier). First we visited Yidir's Mother's house, to collect his things. He asked tactful questions about whether we needed a thermos, vitamin pills, a light for our tent, etc. His eight year old brother hovered about, and his Mother gave us tea and nuts. Then out, onto the small track road, with Yidir greeting everyone as we went; this was a small community, where everyone was connected. The land is all shared out; everyone owns a portion. Where there's enough water they grow barley and lucerne for the animals; we also saw henna plants. The wide plain stretched out for a few miles and we made steady progress towards the hills. The rocky surface was basalt, with burnt red-brown rocks strewn everywhere, and generally it was pretty barren.

Hemad's mule seemed to be called Dowrest; though that might have been the name of the dark brown species to which she belonged. They usually went ahead, and made lunch or camp for us. They got to the place near a little village where we had lunch. He made us sweet tea, and then a mixed salad: tomatoes, red onions, peppers and cucumber, with tinned tuna and bread - yes, it was good. Hemad is an expert at handing the mule, who stood patiently while being loaded up, piled high with all our things, and then all roped on tightly.

Then we began to get into the hills, among more dramatic rock formations; eventually over the lip, and round the corner to the final valley of the day: a kind of ribbon oasis, along a river (and so, cultivated), more lucerne, palm trees and bamboos (possibly including oboe reed grasses: arundo donax). The long ribbon of houses must've belonged to the farmers; there were various people on the track, including kids shouting "donne-moi un stylo!" There were still a few vehicles around on the track, including a bloke on a motor-bike, who turned out to be Yidir's cousin. Indeed he turned up again as we set up camp, and he helped us pitch the tents. As the sun set, the light dimmed, and the mountains loomed up around.

Dowrest was given a nosebag of barley and lucerne. Hemad made lentil soup for us - welcome after our long day. Next we had a fine tagine-style stew: chicken, vegetables, olives and potatoes, all cooked together in a pressure cooker. Yidir told us a bit about the Berber name coming from the Romans abusing them, calling them barbarians; now they want to be called the Imazighen (Free People). Final view of the day: an amazing sky - SO many stars!

DAY 2.
We were near Tiguiza, at 1234m; however, with sleeping bags and blankets, we kept warm through the night; as they'd brought mattresses, we didn't even use our thermarests. Eggs with salt and cumin, plus bread and jam and instant coffee made a good breakfast. We struck camp, and loaded Dowrest, again admiring Hemad's packing, piling and secure tying skills. Then off, westward and northward, sun on our backs, climbing and climbing. The morning was all climbing up, and we regularly achieved new passes, new viewpoints, with ever-spreading views of moutain layers. The brilliant blue day, with chrystal clear visibility, showed we were right among the heaving seas: waves of mountain tops all around. Much of this landscape is very, very old. Frequently the edges look like dinosaur spines; most of the time there was little sign of man's interferance with nature; certainly there were no motors, only Yidir sometimes calling or texting on his mobile; I loved the timelessness of it all. A mule with empty sacks came the other way; the owner turned out to be a cousin of Yidir's Father. More of everyone knowing everyone around.

Our Christmas Lunch was on the top of the world. We had sardines, vegetable stew, rice, bread, sweet tea and mandarin oranges - delicious. Even in this high place there was more greenery, with rough grasses all around.

Then we went on, up a little more, to the highest pass of the day, with a splendid new view into the next valley. So then it was down, into the valley, and on down the hillside into a broad plain. Here there was a nomad encampment - a big, dark-brown tent inside a circle of built-up stone walls. Perhaps they stayed there for a few months and then moved on. We saw two big herds of goats, one looked after by a girl plus dog, the other by a young boy with his dog, which barked long and loud, to keep us away.

We passed a graveyard, in the middle of nowhere. Then on, down into a dramatic gorge - narrow and steep-sided, with massive, dark rocks. Irhissi Gorge was a spectacular contrast to all the previous countryside. Many of the rocks were a slightly surreal dark red-purple, giving a somewhat psychedelic effect. And there was a stream dropping down the middle of the cleft, with lots of lush oleander bushes growing in the narrow space. The profusion of greenery, such rich foliage was another surprise. This all made for a gloriously varied day - we had seen many of the wonders of nature.

We came out of the gorge to a small farm with an orchard of almond trees. Round the corner, there was our camp space. Hemad provided tea and nuts. Next we pitched our tents, as the light was glowing and then fading on the distant rocks. Next Hemad conjured up soup, then couscous with meat and vegetables, from his single gas ring - a ongoing miracle. That night, the sky was full of more brilliant and unbelieveably numerous stars.

DAY 3.
Higher again (1625m) it was a very cold morning: Yidir's thermometer showed 1 degree C! As we packed up, there was a young nomad girl sitting at the edge of our camp place, with a little line of colourful items for sale on the ground in front of her. They were ornamental things made from brightly coloured wool and some spangles, perhaps for decorating a camel or a mule. We got her agreement for Jeremy to take a photo, while I bought one of them for 10dh - no bargaining! Then Dowrest was loaded up, I waved the girl goodbye, and set off Eastward, along the Northern (shady) side of the valley. We met more nomad children displaying their wares as we went. Their sitting there probably wasn't the bush telegraph, as it looked like it was a way of the children earning a bit of money. Gradually we worked our way into the sun, relieved to be warmer. There were small hamlets below, with skilfully built terrace walls, so that they had fields in which to grow their food. One of the houses even had a couple of solar panels - how valuable in a country with so much sun.

We came to the end of this valley, Akka n'Imersidene, by a school, and then turned North, up Akka n'Ouine Tirhettane, a huge canyon, with magnificent, majestic mountain sides. There was a small river flowing down the middle; but it was more like walking up a huge wadi. We met several goatherds, with numerous goats, one of which licked the salt from my palm of my hand. They were quite pretty animals, with their glossy, black, shaggy coats, and charming kids. We paused for a rest on a rock, while Yidir visited another set of relations, from the same family of his Father's cousins.

Then we did a steep climb up the side of the canyon, arriving at a magnificent lunch picnic spot, overlooking the river valley and surrounding mountains. After another splendid salad of tomatoes, red onions, peppers, sweet corn, cucumber, sardines, boiled eggs, bread and mandarins, we set off, upwards again, to reach a high plateau. Sometimes it reminded me of a kind of moonscape, in its strangeness; some huge boulders were almost elephantine in shape; another was named the Dromedary Head.

It was a beautiful afternoon. But I was tired, from our long climbs; I missed my footing, and fell, bruising my elbow lightly - not serious, but they gathered round, to check I was OK. The slanting light was lovely. Our campsite was near a Gite d'étape enabling Jeremy to have a shower; I stayed dirty. Except for some spectacular rocks to be climbed on the morrow, we felt as if we were on the roof of the world. Through the day I had mused on what gave happiness and why nature is so nurturing. For me it seemed to relate to feeling like the tiniest ant on the surface of a huge world - I think it's good to be reminded of a bigger perspective of both size and time. Passing through these mountains, which speak of aeons of millenia, it was valuable to be reminded of the smallness of our lives. We pitched camp late, in fading, beautiful light, and admired the millions of stars.

DAY 4.
At 2256m, Igli provided us with frost on the tent in the morning: 0 degrees C. Yes, it was very cold. Jeremy had not been feeling well, and so had restrained his indulgence the previous evening of the very tasty veg and spaghetti. So he was hungry for a bigger breakfast, with 2 salt/cumin eggs, cheese, bread and strawberry jam (mmmm). We packed up, looked in the Gite shop, spurned their chocolate bars, noticed the solar panel, and started on the steep up. An hour and a half later, puffing and panting from the slightly thin air, we reached the massive rock pillars standing high above the landscape like great towers. Back on top, the huge horizon spread around like waves in the sea of mountains. We passed a couple more nomad girls with their wares on the ground. Yidir started talking with them and (not surprisingly) it emerged that they were cousins. We spent the day switch-backing (more up than down) through the troughs and crests of this wild landscape. Again, much of it seemed untouched by man, except for our path, which I imagined had been a long-distance trading path through the ages. We even thought it was too barren for goats, and then, later, saw a large herd silhouetted on the skyline.

Lunch was rice, veg and sardines, in a flat space by the river. A large group of German trekkers passed, and I felt glad we were a small number. Then on, and up some more. Today was not such a long day as yesterday, and before long we arrived at 2200m, and a nomad camp; the hut seemed to belong to some of Hemad's relatives, and so it was OK for us to camp there. He and Yidir slept in the small stone hut, while we were in our tent. It was even colder than before; so we put more clothes on. As we pitched our tent, Yidir and Hemad sang songs. The hills across the valley, on the shadey side of the slope, had many pockets of snow - that's how cold it was.

DAY 5.
Imi Nwareg was our highest camp, and unbelieveably cold: the thermometer showed minus 3 degrees. I survived the night dressed in 2 shirts, 2 jerseys, a silk-sheet inner, sleeping bag and a doubled-up blanket. But packing up the tent was painful in the freezing air. We were off at the usual 9am, and quite a steep up was welcome for warming me up. Next there was a broad high plateau, and then on up again, through huge slopes of cannon-ball boulders. Our highest point was something over 2300m, and the wind was very chilly. There was one more high plateau, and at the northern-most pass, we came to a splendid view of the High Atlas mountains: the whole horizon was a series of jagged spines, covered in snow - a very impressive sight. Below lay the wide plane of the Dades Valley, and in the distance, our objective: Boumalne.

The top was pretty barren, and then we met fir trees by the streams channels. We had quite a long descent, not too steep at first, then down some gulleys, full of tumbled rocks, and later green with oleander bushes. It got steeper, and I had to curb my wish to watch the changing view, in order not to stumble. Yidir played the conscientious guide and helped me over patches of snow and ice, making sure his clients didn't fall on the last stretch. The horizon changed as we got down among the foothills, and there were hundreds of different brown tones everywhere.

Eventually we came to a flat place near a river, where Hemad was making lunch, and Dowrest had been set free to munch the grasses. So, our last lunch with Hemad: eggs, sardines, lentils, bread, and the omnipresent sweet tea. I gave the orange peels to Dowrest, and thanked Hemad; I put my hands together and used his word "Hamdullah". I felt sad to say good-bye; he'd been a good cook, a hard-working muletier/cuisinier, and a comfortable companion. Leaving a bit of my heart behind, we shouldered our packs, and walked off to the waiting van.

Housseine had arranged for us to do the last bit by van, as, after the mountains, it would be a boring, flat walk (12K) from Tagdilt to Boumalne. The driver slung our packs in the back, we got in, and we rattled our way along the rough track towards civilization. After five days as a pedestrian, the smell of petrol and being behing glass felt pretty strange; but probably better than a tedious long tramp. Of course, my problem was that the walk was over. I was returning to the big, noisy world of machines, people and strange cultural ideas.

We bumped on, onto better-made stoney tracks, across dry river beds, and eventually onto tarmac in the outskirts of Boumalne. Yidir dropped us at the Hotel Al Manader and we said our final good-byes. It was a quiet, characterful places, with colourful paintings on the walls, of local scenes, and the rooms overlooked the Dades River and North to the high mountains. Eventually the shower ran hot water, and I removed nearly a week of honest sweat and no washing. We walked into town - not too busy or too noisy; we saw the end of the weekly market, and had a real coffee and fresh orange (mmmm). Like the villages around, the pervasive colours melded with the countryside: earth-rose-pink; tawny blush; terra cotta - it was all the deep red colour of the High Atlas. Frequently the buildings were decorated with the endlessly inventive geometric patterns of their art. The squat, flat houses seemed to grow like mushrooms in the mountain valleys, always near the all-important water. The many fields and orchards were alongside rivers and water sources, continually demonstrating the life-giving power of water.

When travelling, one of my favourite phrases is that the human imagination is alive and well, and living in ...... Morocco. I love seeing other ways of living; it's so stimulating to see other people's ideas, the smells, the colours, the patterns of life. My shallow appreciation of Moroccans included that they are proud and pushy; friendly and family-minded; hassley, hopeful, helpful and hospitable. There was a rare quiet - not just no motors, but no planes either. The vast blue vault, and the staggering views of the stars were difficult to absorb. I found the peace and timelessness expanded my mind; space, and a change of pace were valuable in reconnecting to myself, and the world of nature.

Yidir and Hemad provided a very good travelling hotel. They seemed to natter together happily. Frequently Hemad's sentences started in a high soprano register and gradually fell down to a regular tenor. Both wore traditional turbans, which frequently came off a lunch time; then they wound them elegantly back round their heads. Yidir's was in the Amazhir blue, and Hemad's was white. Hemad sometimes sang as he cooked, and occasionally Yidir joined in; perhaps it was an Amazhir song.

© Diana Ambache 2012