On top of the world in Morocco
GO MOROCCO: Trekking in the Atlas mountains turns out to be the adventure of a lifetime for NUALA SMITH– with more than a few spine-tingling moments on the way
TODAY, ON my mantelpiece, stands a little wooden mule named Toubkal. My daughter Naomi gave him to me. The highest mountain in Morocco is also called Toubkal and my mule is to remind me of it. As though I could ever forget.
When Naomi invited her god-mother Claire and I to join her on her trek to Toubkal, we thought “great”. After all, she didn’t make it the first time because they went when it was snowing. This trip was in July and thoughts turn to sunshine. In our 60s we may be, but she tells us we’re “good 60s”.
So now, after midnight, our taxi rattles us into Imlil, the mountain village where treks begin. A trio of lads, complete with mule, loads our bags from the boot and point to rocks that double as steps up an incline.
“Fifteen minutes to guest house,” one says and flashes his torch over the boulders. Giggling, we follow the dainty steps of the mule. Here I should have had a premonition.
After breakfast, our handsome Berber guide arrives. His name is Ibrahim, though in my excitement I hear it as “Brian”, thinking it’s his way of easing things for this Irish group. With time, I get very good at his name as I will be shrieking it a lot over the next while. But I don’t know that yet.
Sun hats, litres of water, backpacks – our trio looks the part as we set off. The steep slope from the front door gets us on our way to Toubkal, more than 4,000m above.
Vast stretches of mountain lie ahead. At first we chat, raving about the view. Gradually we fall silent, saving our breath. Around 11.30am, my thighs begin to complain. Now our bottles hold tepid water. The sun is blazing.
Like Lot’s wife, I look back and see the huge drop behind – and wish I hadn’t. A fear of heights that I thought I’d conquered years ago starts to whisper. In front, our guide speaks little, his scarlet shirt and wide brimmed hat moving steadily on.
I begin to gasp. Having scanned Lonely Planet’s bit about altitude sickness, a new fear begins. We have brief stops where I gulp water, then double at the waist like a marathon runner. This is definitely not the Wicklow Way.
“The pass there,” Brian/Ibrahim points skywards to a distant ridge. To my eye, it keeps moving up. But by two o’clock we do finally breast it and he spreads a mat for us, taken from the mule that came on ahead with our luggage, as we’ll be walking from refuge to refuge each day. That’s the plan.
Boots off, stretched under the juniper trees, its pure bliss. Ibrahim cooks lentils in garlic which we eat from our magic carpet, with a teapot of sugary mint tea. Heavenly. Then we all go flat out under the junipers and I consider settling here for good.
But this paradise is temporary. Ibrahim is loading the mule.
“Walk, walk,” he beams at us, gesturing towards the path. We set off, discussing juniper and gin. The narrow path that leads gradually to a bend in the rocks looks fine. We’re in great form now. Claire starts up with The Lark in the Clear Air.
Laughing and singing, we round the bend. And here I meet scree in a new incarnation. Scree ascending is quite okay, but scree descending is just like ice. Your feet cannot grip it. It’s like so many tiny marbles under your soles. So, every time the path slopes downwards, my feet take off like someone on roller skates. I shriek and grab the nearest bit of scrub. But now, as the terrain gets wilder, there is little to grab.
The wind has come up. The track is 15cm, the drop at its side, thousands of metres. Each time I come to an impossibly narrow bit I scream and, saint that this young man is, he re-traces his steps, winds his arm round mine to propel me across.
“The blue windows,” he smiles now. “See?”
Miles away near the sky, I see tiny squares like windows and yes, that could be a building.
In a catatonic state, I stumble into the refuge, fling myself down on my sleeping bag, and bawl.
SOMEWHAT recovered, I join in to eat another of Ibrahim’s tasty bean concoctions, and a decision is reached. I’m not to go on, so tomorrow, only Naomi will trek with Ibrahim. We, “good 60s” will retrace our steps back down to Imlil. There’s a spare muleteer at the refuge. Hammed doesn’t speak English, but we know bits of French.
By 7am, I’m a nervous wreck. Naomi has grit in her eye and is now sporting an eye patch. But, boots on, she’s ready to go when Ibrahim calls. I marvel as she disappears to a tiny speck beside him, up towards an area straight out of Lord of the Rings, the sort of gnarled rock that should split open and a fire-belching dragon burst out at you.
I’m sure I will never see her again and become tearful until I remember I have to get back down today, and then everything dries up, especially my mouth – dry as chalk.
Hammed, loading a white mule, gestures to us to start. I step it out behind Claire, concentrating on the straw hat I brought her from holidays. She looks so positive from behind.
“Be down by 12,” she calls back to me. “Hammed said, ‘Quatre heures’.”
“Brilliant!” I call back, tapping along with my pole.
Then we round the first bend. Ahead a three-metre downward slope of scree and a drop you don’t want to know about.
“You okay?” she calls back.
I’m half-way, when something switches off in me. My feet refuse to move. I can go neither forward, nor back. I am here forever.
Wonderwoman Claire inches back and tries to take my arm. I scream. Behind, Hammed is approaching on the mule. I panic that he and mule will push us off together. He’s standing beside us now.
“You ride,” he gestures to me to get up. The mule, its four dainty feet on this narrow ledge, has its eyes fixed ahead as though thinking of a recipe for bran mach. On its bony back sits the pile of our bags: Hammed’s cooking stuff, our mattresses, doubled over on top to form a sort of seat. This lot tied on with ropes.
“Up,” he insists again, cupping his hands on his bent thigh, indicating that I should step onto them and “spring” up on top of the load. This is not a good time to explain that my fear of horses includes mules.
“No! No!” I scream, again and again.
But Hammed keeps repeating: “Yes, yes,” his steady gaze a little weary but determined. Claire tries too, till finally it sinks in that I have no choice. It’s the mule, or die. I manage it, though the load wobbles horribly as I land on top.
Hammed points to the ropes, one each side of my thighs. I grab them, my fingers pushing under the tautness of the load. My feet stick out in front of me and we’re off, he walking briskly in front while I bounce about on top of the mule, like a pea in boiling water.
Terrified beyond any fear-measuring scale, I squeeze my eyes shut and I – contented atheist of 30 years – begin to chant out loud, my mother’s prayer, reserved for only the direst of situations: “JesusMaryanJosephprotectus, JesusMaryanJosephprotectus.”
As to my great friend Claire, I canter away, without even a backward glance, sure that I will never see her again either. Faintly, I hear her call that I must stop my chanting as it may upset the Muslims. Now I can hear her, warbling an off-key, Hail Glorious St Patrick. I have yet to check with her about this inconsistency.
At the pass of Tizi n’ Mzik, Hammed pauses, waiting till Claire comes into view behind. I’m not allowed off but I risk opening my eyes. Some elegant French people jog into sight, one a svelte, grey-haired woman in walking shorts and sleeveless shirt. Late 50s, I surmise bitterly, noting her tanned muscled legs and matching husband. As they disappear over the ridge like goats, I resolve to come back French.
Now, three muleteers join us, their animals piled high with luggage. We take off together, single file, off down the steepest part of all. The path is almost vertical. I’ve been shifted to the back now, over the animal’s tail, so the load may stop me pitching over its head.
Desperately, I cling to the ropes as the four young men run down alongside the mules. I’ve shut my eyes again. They’re singing in Arabic and doing that strange yodelling thing, flipping their lips and blowing out with high-pitched sounds.
Like a rag-doll, I pitch and bounce with the mule’s every movement. I feel his tail flick on my back as he kicks up over high boulders.
My Great Outdoors hat takes off to swing from its snazzy peg like a hanged man. The sun is boiling, the ropes are biting hard. The blood has long ago left my fingers.
My nails are drawing blood from my palms, so tightly are my fingers closed on them. My entire body hangs by those hands and should I let go for a second, I know I will set out alone through the sunny Saturday air.
AND SO MY decent into hell continues for almost six hours. Claire makes it down, having sung her way, all alone. We wait for her at the bottom, Hammed sitting silently under a tree, me gasping with head on knees and the unfortunate mule nibbling on a thistle.
At the door of the guest house, my legs like rubber, I lean against the wall and weep. I barely manage a watery “Thank you” to Hammed, the marvel to whom I owe my safe return to Dublin. He shakes hands with us, smiles, and then quietly trots off on his mule. Only then I see how his boots are ripped almost from heel to toe.
When Naomi finally crunches to the door, I try to hide tears of relief along with horror at the state of her: scarlet-faced, eyepatch askew, hair wet with sweat, but smiling, smiling the broadest of smiles; grinning at us, Ibrahim grinning proudly beside her. So we run to her, hug her frantically and together we cheer: “You did it!”
- Nuala Smith flew to Marrakech with Ryanair, paying about €150 return. She paid €250 for her three-day trek and four nights in Dar Adrar guesthouse in Imlil, with all meals, and guide cost €250 each. For more information email@example.com and 00212 (0) 6 68 76 01 65