The Balwyn boys had long been concocting the idea of a three day trek in the High Atlas Mountains; starting from Imlil, an obscure Berber village right near Morocco’s highest peak, Jebel Toubkal. Being a total health and fitness fanatic, I think this sounds grand – I can see myself strolling peacefully about rugged scenery, thermos in one hand, hard-boiled egg in the other, chatting amiably with kindly and picturesque Berber locals. This fantasy was too good – I figure the desert could wait for a while.
We catch an ancient bus from Marrakech to Asni, a scruffy patch of mud about 10k’s from Imlil. After three hours of continual piercing and high-decibel Moroccan music onboard, we are not prepared for the onslaught of traders at the bus stop. We decide we have to depart Asni as soon as possible, and quickly load our backpacks onto the nearest minivan. As usual, the locals have another agenda – a group is squabbling over a stalled car, and busily attach it to our van with what appears to be bits of twine. Standing in a row, we try not to laugh as it breaks time and time again, then jump back in alarm as the two vehicles roar off. Ben sprints down the road to catch it, and emerges about ten minutes later, his chin glistening with Hrira.
“It’s gone. Just hooned off ’round the corner. I couldn’t catch it.”
Michael kicks the mud glumly with his boot, as Steve, ever-gentle and polite, fobs off a group of hustlers. It looked as if we were suck here for a while.
As inexplicably as it departed the minivan returns, groaning with happy locals. At least our bags are still in place. Michael finds a spot up the front with a red-haired Berber woman and her child, while Ben, Steve and myself are tucked into the back row with an old guy and a rapidly-shedding bale of straw. For the next hour and a half, we, and about fifteen others are treated to some of the most awe-inspiring views in Morocco – clay kasbahs, olive trees in little groves, plains, terraced crops, rugged snow-covered peaks, villages crouching under rocky outcrops, and all with the trickling, sparkly Mizane River coursing along the valley. The balding tyres of the minivan are used on every angle, as the driver roars dangerously around pebbly bends, defying the roadside goats and chickens to get in his way.
In Imlil, we hole up at the Café Soleil, a place that, as our guidebook tells us, washed away in 1995 during one of the biggest floods of Morocco. Well, that was OK. The spun-cotton clouds drifting slowly down the mountainsides as we wait for our tagine don’t look like they’d do much damage. The grim manager is one of Morocco’s unfriendliest, but the food is great and the views incredible, so we are happy, and consequently sleep like logs in the cold mountain air.
The next morning we are up yawning at the windows, to see that the weather has grown disturbingly dark and rainy. The chattering wee brook has grown into a colossal monster, roaring hungrily in a brown gush over the now-impassable bridge. We grill every local source in Imlil for expected weather conditions, and get the usual Moroccan jumble of conflicting ideas – part sales talk, part fortune-telling, mostly confusing hand gestures. We have to assume from this that they are trying to sell us a guide, so reason that as it is only drizzling, we will be OK. But first we have to cross that damn river.
After an hour of mad scrambling about on wet rocks, and blackberry vines that clutch at my skirt, I’m beat. Surely people don’t do this sort of thing for fun, in this age of cars, helicopters and motorised scooters. But the boys are understanding, and Michael generously offers a hand to help me over the slipperier bits. I nearly weep with gratitude when we reach the high concrete bridge above Imlil’s only river – O God I realise – we are still in Imlil.
For the next two hours we lurch, stumble, stride and edge our way through some pretty amazing countryside. Whilst sidling past cows in the high passes I find that my hastily-learned Berber expressions have absolutely no effect. When I direct “La bes darim” to a passing Berber woman, it is returned with a polite “Bonjour Madame”. So much for being culturally sensitive. My long skirt is becoming distinctively soggy – hell, there are even some tourists up ahead wearing shorts. Two Berber women (identified by their colourful clothes, leggings and stripey skirts) offer me some nuts and sign urgently ‘Leave the boys alone, come and stay in our house’. They pluck at my skirt, gasping in horror at the gleam of pale leg, and scuttle off, giggling.
Puffing mightily I move on, always twenty metres behind the Balwyn boys. After another hour of this I am ragged. Having no pride in these matters, I stop to tell them I am thinking of turning back and lie groaning on the ground, with my pack still on, like an upended tortoise. Again, I am touched by the boys’ generosity and patience. Ben brews up a lifesaving cup of coffee, which we all pass around with some biscuits I find in my pack. We take a well-earned breather in the drizzle, while clouds drift past our heads. They agree to stop whenever I want and urge me on, saying it is probably only a couple of hours to Ouansekra.
So we continue on, with me lamenting quietly. By this stage we are completely surrounded by cloud, and the drizzle has increased to a steady pour – despite our waterproof gear, we are soaked through to the skin. Two hours later when we get to the top of the mountain (imagine the pebble slopes from ‘Monkey’, I half expect someone to run out in flippers and bad makeup), we find a tiny weather-beaten shed with the obligatory Coke sign on top, and a man eager to make a sale. To his chagrin, he finds us unwilling to ingest any more liquids, and reluctantly advises us the road ahead to Ouansekra is fine.
As we tramp off, it is getting seriously stormy and kind of dark. Better to press on ahead rather than go back over that river. I am getting more drenched and tired, and both my feet have developed blisters on each heel. By an amazing stroke of luck, two men and their donkeys trudge past, and offer to carry our packs. This is one of our many lessons in the ‘nothing comes for free’ attitude of the Moroccans, and we gratefully shell out 100 dirhams for the favour. In the now driving rain the two men struggle with a flapping sheet of plastic, eventually securing it over our backpacks with bits of rope. The ever-patient donkeys stand uncomplaining at this extra baggage, and blink drearily in the soaking rain. The donkey men are friendly though, and one even gives me a bendy walking stick to negotiate my way down the rough pathway.
Now I am exhilarated and ready to fly off down the mountain with the delight of no pack. I consider that even my underwear is wet, but this doesn’t bother me in the slightest, as I lustily sing a personal selection from the ‘Sound of Music’. Of course the boys and the Moroccans are hundreds of metres ahead of me, and I imagine them strolling into Ouansekra, negotiating a comfortable bed and huge dinner in a welcoming local household. I am woken from my reverie by Michael, quickly rounding a corner. He tells me they passed a bloke from Imlil who told them a river had sprung up between us and Ouansekra. It would be best to turn back. I swear loudly, but looking about the ravaged hillsides can see why. Mini-mudslides are tumbling over the path, and waterfalls springing up everywhere are dislodging large clay-ey rocks from the upper slopes. The clouds are too thick to penetrate through to the valley floor below, however to cut straight downhill would be impossible.
Michael sprints off to consort with the guys about turning back, while I wait near an ever-increasing wall of water. Shit, it looked as though the landscape was crumbling around our ears, and we were right in the middle of it. I swear some more, picking my way across the flooded path. With some sort of endless energy reserve, Michael bounds back to say the unanimous verdict is to keep going, and that the donkey men believe it is possible to cross any river. I hobble down the mountain, my shredded heels sending hot and urgent messages of pain all the way up my legs.
Michael and I catch up with the others and gasp. An incredible torrent of water is rushing from between two slopes, bouncing and thrashing against larger slopes and hurtling down into the gloom. Even the placid donkeys shy away from it, and I must admit I am doing some shying myself. The donkey men stand scratching their beards as though they have all day, while Steve and Ben trek further uphill to see if the river gets any narrower. From my vantage point (where I have sunk to my knees in horror) it looks like a torn-up, blasted, confusing tangle of immense rocks and stones, impassable by foot or hoof.
Michael then has the bright idea of leading the pack donkey through the stream. Figuring out a tenuous path he braves the water, jumping and sliding from one slippery surface to another and wading in thigh-deep to emerge triumphant on a calm bit in the middle. He motions to one of the men to shove the animal with our packs towards him, which he does reluctantly, standing back again with his hands on his hips. We all watch nervously while Michael tames the skittish donkey, encouraging it to walk straight, even though the water threatens to sweep it off its’ wobbly legs. With flattened ears and unsteady trot, the donkey makes it to the opposite bank, while Ben, Steve and I cheer Michael’s bravery. Then it is time for us to cross. The second donkey is emboldened by the first, so the Moroccans get it across with little fuss. Ben hops nimbly from outcrop to outcrop, only splashing in up to his calves. Steve jumps ahead, urging me to brave it, while I lift up my skirt and bare my shameful legs, caring little for the Moroccans’ sensibilities.
We trudge up the little dip in the land (I have to hold my sodden skirt aloft in order to walk) and yell with pleasure. Through the rain, Ouansekra floats in the distance, the soft light in every window giving the mud-walled village a magical appearance. Passing some dilapidated sheds on the hill, we reason that it was just as well, as it is 5:00 in the afternoon and starting to get dark. Talking and singing excitedly, we trot down the steep hill, our glum and trudging mood suddenly transformed.
The descent of the hill reveals an awful sight – another river blocks our path, this time genuinely impassable. Energetic spouts of brown water shoot down the gully, directly in front of Ouansekra. The roar of water seems to increase with the steady bucketing of rain as we gape at it, arms hanging limply by our sides, soaked, exhausted. We have to find shelter. I stamp about in a circle, vowing to break down the doors to the sheds we had passed, but the donkey men are disapproving. We toil up the hill again to take a closer look – one shack has a partially-destroyed roof, while the other is completely flooded. I inspect the padlocks on the other two sheds, and announce that if I had enough strength, I would kick the door in. One of the men disappears down the hill to yell to the villagers for the key – I would have loved to see the local chucking it over the torrent to him. The Balwyn boys stand in a sopping, dispirited line, hands wedged firmly in pockets. Ben is finding it hard to move his arms, and I am finding it hard to get the other shivering boys to move at all. I am too scared and mad to keep still and circle about, wondering aloud why I can’t break down any damn door I want to. Incredibly, the key doesn’t sink to a watery grave, but is borne briskly uphill and into its place in the padlock.
Sodden and frozen to the bone, we survey our new home. For a low-ceilinged 5 by 3 metre mud hut, a tiny deep-set barred window, and two huge moulding piles of potatoes (which the men generously shovel away with a bucket), it is a palace. Throwing all modesty to the winds, we strip off our wet clothes, hang them off the roof beams, and plunge into warm and dry sleeping bags. So we settle into a little circle on some old potato crates and take our bearings. Luckily the donkey men and their beasts are in the hut next door, as we are pretty cramped. The gale has blown up outside, the roof develops dozens of drips, and mud spatters occasionally from the roof with a shock, usually on someone’s head. As long as we can keep our stuff dry we will be OK. We spend an hour shifting around the wet bits for the best spot and look at the time. 6:30!!!! It is going to be a long evening.
With the light almost gone we decide to cook up some grub on the boys’ Trangia stove. With Ben near the low shelf on one wall, Steve and I on the potato crates and Michael in the corner on his tent fly, we eat a terrific meal of pasta, tuna, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes, shovelled out of the bottoms of old water bottles, sharing the only fork and spoon. One of the men crowds inside to present us with two candles to make our hotel more complete, and the shed actually looks kind of cosy in the warm fuzzy glow. When warming up I have a quiet panic to myself. What if we are stuck here for weeks? There is only enough food for two days, and the water is running out. What if the roof caved in? The rain certainly isn’t easing off, and Steve reported a new river right outside our door. While these unhappy thoughts fly about, the boys’ relaxed attitude start to rub off, and Ben lights up the first of many joints that night.
The toilet situation is dire “Just stick ya dick out the door, Michael”, and I have to hop outside in the dark, blisters chafing against sodden boots, cursing my anatomy. Ben proclaims he won’t go another step in wet boots, and sets up a nifty drying apparatus over the Trangia, which we all huddle around for comfort. Not to be outdone, Steve invents speakers for the Walkman out of the leftover ends of the water bottles, and stuffs the earpieces into the ends. Although I hadn’t thought it possible, we eventually drift off with the tinny sounds of Bob Dylan in the air. At about midnight the drips from the ceiling gradually stop, and we poke our heads outside to Ben’s shout – it is a clear, cloudless, magnificent night, with thousands of stars! Ben abandons his ideas of cutting out a fireplace and holing up for the winter on a potato-only diet, and thinks it a good time to set up camp outside on the drystone wall. Again, we sleep.
At 6:30 the next morning it is light enough to stagger out and survey the damage. The river near our door is now a gurgling creek, the donkeys quietly crop the grass in front of the sheds, and the sun starts to trace its’ way down the side of the mountain range, where a fresh dusting of snow lies on its peaks. The donkey men have been up for a while tending to their animals, and we marvel at how rugged they are. From a distance, we can hear the trademark sounds of a village waking up – roosters crowing, donkeys braying, bells ringing – obviously Ouansekra has survived the flood. It is calm and breathtaking at the same time, so we hang our clothes in the sun to dry on some trees, and sit down to drink it in.
I decide my raw feet aren’t going to take another two days of hiking, and think it safe enough to trek back to Imlil, alone in the sunshine. The Balwyn boys consider the previous evening to be a minor inconvenience, and load up their stuff, impatient to take on the mountains again! So we part ways (promising to meet in two days), amid the confusing babble of a group of locals, all eager to take advantage of our situation. I secure the smaller of the donkey men to ferry me back for another 100 dirham.
Perched up on the wide back of the donkey with my headscarf and sunnies, I am in heaven – clear skies, a magnificent vista of endless coloured peaks, happy feet and a little humming Berber man to lead the way. That is, until he hops on in front of me, arranging my legs on the beast like a load. I have seen Moroccans ride donkeys side-saddle, and this is not it. Mohammed wants me to wrap my arms and legs around him while he steers the animal. No way. I keep shifting back, and he keeps squeezing me forward firmly as though I am his prize goat – even slapping and pinching my outstretched legs with approval. I blanch, wishing I had slipped on leggings, but it is too late. Protests that I am married fail – I keep gesturing to the mountain, saying in French that my husband would be slightly miffed, but Mohammed is not to be deterred. I spend an annoying hour trying to get him to stop turning around to kiss me – 2000 year-old blackened teeth, patchy beards and ears that fold over in the middle aren’t exactly my speed. So I have to weigh up my throbbing feet versus the road, and unfortunately the feet win.
We stop at the same lonely Coke stand at the summit to pause for some tea. Mohammed turns snaky, insisting I pay for his glass too. I peer into my wallet and realise I have no more small change left. The stallholder insists I pay it to the hotel manager later on, and takes my last precious tin of tuna as a down payment. Mohammed taps his forehead, whining for any drugs I might have in my bag. These guys are seriously starting to piss me off. Then the final straw. Mohammed insists our journey is complete, and that I pay him his money sharpish. The two men look menacing. Calling them both sons of jackals, I limp off downhill, shouldering the damp and heavy pack for the journey ahead.
Imlil sparkles invitingly in the valley, however I know I have a good three hours ahead of me yet. Again, the spirit is willing but the flesh becoming very weak. As I roar the lyrics to ‘A Few of my Favourite Things’, I notice a few grey clouds come in over the mountain range behind me. I hasten my step. I hope the boys will be OK. The landscape is completely altered during the descent – I realise the dangerous river we forded in the rain has disappeared and that I can see dozens of villages like Ouansekra, deep into the multicoloured Atlas Mountains. The only remainder of last night is the occasional stretch of path that has washed away, and left deep vertical grooves in its place. Apart from the ominous clouds in the distance, the sun is getting quite strong.
I think I meet some of the best and worst Moroccans on that mountainside – gaggles of threadbare children pester me for chocolate and push my pack, some want me to stay in their house for a modest 200 dirhams, and one little boy even shows me his willie. On the positive side, a kindly old couple help me and my shaking legs across a stream and one man leads me down an excellent path, cracking walnuts off the trees for me to eat, and assuring me I am the most beautiful woman he’s ever met. I arrive on the wrong side of Imlil and goggle at how much the stream has swollen. Leaning tiredly against a rock, I am only spurred on by a clan of wasps that refuse to leave me alone. I leap up shrieking, and a curious group of villagers burst out laughing.
I stagger into Imlil at 2:30 and fall face down in the crucifix position, on the cool floor of the hotel lobby. The manager (taking the meaning of the word ‘surly’ to new extremes) stands at the doorway as though he wants to vacuum me out of the way. When I make it clear that I am going to buy not only food, but a room for the next few nights, he disappears into the kitchen, visibly relieved.
After a feed, a freezing shower and lengthy doze, I am quite restored. I spend the next two days pottering about, treating my swollen feet and putting my pack to rights. On the evening of the second day, the boys return victorious from their trek, arriving at the Café Soleil just as it starts to rain again. They had a great time (albeit on Coke and muesli rations), passing through Ouansekra, Arg (how I’d longed to go there, just for the name!) and staying in Imska in the sociable Berber household of my imagination. Quizzing the manager, we realise how lucky we’d been – the rains are worse than those in 1995, and the army is moving in, fixing up large sections of road. The boys report that we are now completely cut off. On the hike back to the village they saw a 4WD belly up, with smashed windows after it had plunged down a crevasse. It looks like we will embark on another trek to get out of Imlil. After the boys dry out their stuff, and we gobbled down the fourth plastic cheese omelette in a row, we are quite ready to depart by foot, under any weather conditions.
The hotel has developed a kind of siege culture of omelette-devouring foreigners, with a trio of Canadians, a handful of Americans, and even a bus full of stranded Czechs, who pass the time by playing volleyball in the square, trying not to think about their expiring visas. Ben is up all night playing poker with the Canadians and their New Zealand friend, and the manager is very disturbed by the sounds of bongo drums and laughter echoing down his tidy corridors.
He glares at us accusingly from the doorway as we toil off into the drizzle the next day, to ensure we leave for good. We have to pick our way around the tremendous rocks which now form the bed of the valley, and soon enough, I find myself lagging behind again. Like our adventure on the mountaintop, it is becoming quite grey and drizzly, and as we pick our way around the eroded inclines on the road, Imlil disappears from view behind us in the mist. We are followed by a succession of small boys, dressed up like mini-gangsters in their second-hand suits, who insist the river is too swollen up ahead to walk alongside it. Because of my previous experience with Morocco’s children, I am disinclined to believe them, and protest loudly when the Balwyn boys start climbing up the vertical cliff to avoid the river. Michael literally has to haul me up those muddy slopes – with my bulky pack on the back and daypack on the front, a single stagger would have sent me flying. We all have to clamber about using our hands as well, as the treacherous clay and rock slopes are steep.
Halfway up, we meet our Canadian and New Zealand friends from the night before, and stop for a breather to admire the valley. Again, rocks are clattering and skipping about us in the rain, so we have to hurry on while the kids ahead of us trot about us like goats, always out of reach. Finally we come to a recognisable stretch of road, and skid downhill in the mud. The gangster-kids I have been cursing all along, stand in a row and high-five us as we come off the mountain, and motion us to a smooth rock, perfect for collapsing upon. We look up at a battered and rusty sign, and realise we are at a bus stop – civilisation!