Rush Hour in the High Atlas Mountains

 

Heavy traffic in the High Atlas Mountains

I hear someone shout, ‘Hello’, but when I look around I can’t see anyone. They call again, and following the sound of the voice I see a young man perched on the branch of a walnut tree above my head, camouflaged by the dappled sun and shadow of the leaves.

When the footpath ends I walk along the edge of the narrow walls of an irrigation channel, often no more than my size nine boot wide. Just as the hillside to my right drops a rubble-strewn twenty metres, I have to bend almost double to duck under the overhang of a large boulder, and shuffle along sideways on my heels, leaning as far back into the concavity of the rock as I can, but nowhere near as much as I would like to.

For a while I sit on a rock by a small cascade, staring into the middle distance, its plashing, tinkling and bubbling as meditative as any flickering candle, ‘omm’ chant or Zen koan. The stony grey earth that struggles to give life to tiny terraced crops of corn and potatoes will never be picture-postcard material, but the translucent midday haze gives the scene a pleasing Victorian sepia wash. In the brief post-dawn period, the light and air this high are so clear that you can have difficulty focusing, the eye bemused by the sharpness.

What looks like a scattering of stones to a western eye is someone’s footpath home. As I sit on my rock a young lady dressed in a pale blue gelaba and headscarf of midnight blue passes with a baby strapped on her back, swathed in a black shawl. As protection for them both against the glaring sun she holds an ancient black city gent’s umbrella, large enough to provide shade for an entire family. Behind her skips a small girl not yet of hijab age, wearing a pink dress with the grinning face of ‘Hello Kitty’ flapping about as the young madam jumps from rock to rock, making a game of her steep walk home.

My own walk takes me up the hill to Armed, and I see the remains of a small white Puegot jammed against a tree trunk, the stopping point of a metal-crushing tumble of a hundred metres from the narrow road above. A warning – usually ignored – about the combination of speed and stony mountain tracks that should be navigated with extreme caution, and which, in this case, wasn’t.

Near the village, cultivated terraces of apple trees, one of the main crops of the valley, have pockets of iris along their perimeter, not grown for their luscious purple bloom but for the corm that will be dried and powdered for medicinal use. Just beyond the fruit trees the village begins with a hand painted sign on a pink shop wall that says, •CaFé.For.Drinks•  •Berber.Gift.Shop•. I walk past the open front with the owner sitting stretched out on a rug, his back resting against the internal side wall of his premises. ‘Fatigue.’ he says. I’m not sure if he’s referring to me, who’s slowly striding up the hill, or explaining why he’s sitting on the floor instead of attending to business. ‘A cup of té,’ he suggests, or perhaps hopes that I’ll make him one in the small cafe adjoining his shop. I smile, wave, and move on.

Crossing the flat cement-slab bridge over the river below Armed, I watch a group of small boys sat on rocks, who are in turn watching an older boy in the middle of the river build a dam, dragging large stones from the riverside and packing the spaces with the small stones below his feet. In striped football shirt and calf-length trousers he is thoroughly occupied with his labours, seemingly totally oblivious that he’s soaked from thigh down. But his mother isn’t. In pink housecoat and dull gray headscarf she struts across the bridge, yelling at him to get himself out of there, which he does with a sheepish and sorrowful face. She continues the harangue as he passes under the bridge and takes the footpath uphill, head and shoulders bowed, followed by his shouting and gesticulating mum.

Meanwhile, a short distance upstream on the other side of the river, a girl in her early teens, clothed in a knee-length shift over a long-sleeved T-shirt, jumps into the waist-deep icy water, splashing a few strokes back to the bank, then repeats the cycle. Water and kids – an eternal combination.

As I join the road that leads along the other side of the valley, down to Imlil, a Mercedes grand taxi pulls up. From the passenger side a slim man slides out and unloads two overflowing shopping bags. He lifts the boot lid and pulls out a young bleating sheep, brought home for fattening. He’s obviously been to the weekly souk at Asni. He rolls the sheep onto its back and grabs its four legs in his right hand, picking it up as if it were another bag of shopping. Resigned to its future, the sheep stops bleating as together they descend the slope to the bridge, the man to his home and the sheep, eventually, to the pot.

The taxi does a hazardous three-point turn and the driver offers me a free ride to the top of the zig-zag track that will take me back to the Kasbah du Toubkal and lunch. As I climb in a muleteer canters up and, in true cowboy style bends from the saddle to exchange a few words with the driver. En route the driver tries to get a booking to take me to Marrakech, but I’m going nowhere for the next few days, so we shake hands and make our goodbyes as he drops me off.

Kasbah du Toubkal, Imlil, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco. www.kasbahtoubkal.com