MY TRAVELS: Meandering in Morocco – From Marrakech to the mountains (Part 2)
“J'Alla, J'Alla... Madam, give me bag... Very heavy... Not for lady to carry.”
I watch in embarrassment as he is loaded with tonne after tonne. He just stands there obediently, showing no sign of resistance, not uttering a single complaint, just the odd blink and the occasional neigh. Finally, my mule is fully laden and ready to go.
I follow Ibrahim, my guide, up the winding mountain path, riddled with guilt as I carry nothing but a pathetically small, light rucksack, not daring to look back at my poor mule. Flashes of uselessly-packed items rush through my head. Thin fleece, thick fleece, even thicker fleece to sleep in? Well, they did warn that mountain temperatures drop to extreme lows at night. Enough cereal bars to feed the whole village. Actually, those could be my reward to Mr Mule at the end of the trip. OK, my conscience is a little clearer now.
So, where exactly am I, you may ask?
I needed to get away from the maddening masses in Marrakech. A mere hour away, the village of Imlil, the gateway to the Atlas Mountains, is my salvation – a complete change of scenery, climate and way of life. Fully equipped with crampons, ice axe, gaiters, waterproofs and trekking boots, I am about to spend the next seven days walking through rock and scree, snow and ice, traversing rivers, stopping in Berber villages that seem to appear out of nowhere from within the mountains, led by my guide Ibrahim, 10 other trekkers and, of course, my forever faithful mule.
Crisp blue skies, chalet-style huts, rivers and waterfalls, green valleys and knee-deep snow... Are we really not at a Swiss Alpine resort?
Suddenly, the screeching prayers to Allah echoing down the mountain (and of course, the presence of Mr Mule) kind of put it all back into perspective. This sure is Morocco. I had always imagined dry desert, intense heat, yet here I am wrapped up like a bursting snowman and still freezing.
The base camp of Netner, at 3,200m, is our destination for the first day, a moderate six-hour trek from Imlil, nothing too back-breaking. We settle into our gite, which is to become our home for the next few days. Ibrahim brings us mint tea and a sumptuous dinner of couscous and lamb before briefing us on tomorrow's climb. We are to be up at 04.00h, ready to attempt the summit of Jebel Toubkal which, at 4,167m, is the highest mountain in the region. He stresses the importance of crampons and ice axes. They can save lives. One wrong step in the snow can send you tumbling down the mountain.
I spend a stomach-churning night awake and restless. Why am I so apprehensive? I have climbed mountains before. In actual fact, it is not nerves, but a traditional stomach bug that seems to faithfully plague me every single time I travel. I sadly miss the climb and crash out in bed, and by the end of the day I'm nicknamed Vomit Queen. It works wonders on my morale.
My fellow trekkers are back. A fantastic climb apparently. They've all made it to the summit. I'm happy for them, but an inevitable feeling of envy niggles inside. The harsh reality is that I did not get there.
Still, there are two more peaks to climb, and over the next couple of days, fully recovered from my nasty bug, I tackle both with caution and determination and both are a success.
One is Ouanoukrim, commanding spectacular views of the desert beyond, and the other, the Tizi 'n' Ouanoums pass, with a panorama of the lake below and High and Middle Atlas Mountains all around. Not easy climbs, as the snow is knee-deep and every step exhausting. Some paths are dizzyingly high and narrow and one look below sets off a rush of vertigo that has me panic and almost freeze to the spot.
Still, I make it. Ibrahim is pleased. No one is injured. The descent is thrilling. We simulate sledges using our rain jackets, and with ice axes to steer, we speed down the mountain, and I really mean speed. The momentum we pick up is incredible, scary almost. We make it to the bottom, red-cheeked, high on adrenaline, covered in snow, but in one piece.
Back at base camp, the atmosphere is relaxed. Some adventurous spirits have just skied down from the summit of Toubkal. No easy feat. Others are trekking up, carrying their own gear, unlike us weaker beings. Inside our cozy gite, the Berbers light up the fireplace for us. It is so damn cold. Ibrahim brings us lemon tea and a pack of cards. We spend hours playing a brainless card game. The locals join in – guides, porters, cooks. Ibrahim tells us Moroccan folk stories. We exchange views on our different cultures.
It’s a long night but we bond. I have made some lifelong friends. A Nomadic existence at the moment, yet it feels like home. And this is why I travel. And will never stop.