One of my most memorable trips travelling solo
in Morocco was into the High Atlas Mountains
by Grand Taxi
On the lower mountain slopes, exuberant swaths of green and pink oleander bushes traced the paths of numerous streams and rivers; lustrous against a backdrop of biscuit-coloured mountains.
Higher up the bare-rock cliffsides swirled, tilting and tumbling. Gigantic scribblings that diarised colossal upheavals. A work that echoed still with latent power.
Tabant to Zaouit Ahansal
My destination was Tabant, a small town with a school for mountain guides, that served hill-walkers and climbers.
In the town I hired a guide with a car as I wanted to visit a woman’s cooperative in the village of Zaouiat Ahansal
some distance away.
It was one of those rare journeys where I truly shifted to a spectator’s seat; the backdrop so endowed, it took on a cinematic quality.
The first part of the journey took us along the Ait Bougomez Valley, past many Berber villages and the towers of ruined kasbahs that looked as if they had hatched out of the mud.
Irrigation schemes instituted half-a-century before had transformed the valley floor and it was gorgeously banded with orchards and fields of bright green and gold. On the hillsides above, ancient mud-brick terraces were abandoned - built with so much effort, sweat and tears, they were gradually returning to the earth.
The car made heavy work of the climb and we had to stop frequently to let the engine cool
My troubles didn’t start until we were far above the villages, when Mohammad pulled off the road to take a last look over his valley before we swung over the Tizi’Tirghist Pass.
“Let us look at the view,” he said, but Mohammad had something else in mind for our stop. “Kissy kissy now?”
I looked at him in amazement, primly adjusted my headscarf, and stared him down. “No. No kissy, kissy."
He was an agile little spiv, his verdant mustache fanning with his enormous grin. He was agitated and hopped
from foot to foot.
“Just little kissy kissy,” he repeated, reaching to take my hand.
I snatched it away and took a few steps back.
“Absolutely not,” I said in my best English accent. I was taller than him and I hoped, rather imposing. A sort of Maggie Smith moment.
But I didn’t feel that confident. I was, after all, standing on a precipice, we had seen one other car in the last two hours and in any case we were off-road.
I gave Mohammad a withering glare and walked resolutely back to the car.
I was surprised and unnerved, but it didn't take much thought to know it was too ridiculous to be menacing. I was at least twenty years his senior, a grandmother, short-sighted, seriously deaf and rather grubby - I had been backpacking for weeks - and I had a horrible rash from mites I had encountered earlier at an so-called eco-gite. I was hardly hot stuff.
I thought about imperiously demanding a return to Tabant, but whatever I had got myself into, I was halfway there. Past the point of no return.
Back in the car, I talked of my husband, daughters and grandchildren. He remained determinedly unconvinced. The stops on the deserted road for sight-seeing were frequent and he repeated his offer at each one. Back in the car, he’d reverse with his arm along the back of my seat, touching my shoulders. As he drove, he constantly adjusted the car windows, pinning me back as he reached across to mine. Even tilting his rear-view mirror he managed to brush my forehead. I squirmed to keep out of his reach and pulled my headscarf tighter, my sleeves lower.
“No kissy, kissy!”
I grew more confident too, until I just rolled my eyes and tossed my head like a recalcitrant old grey mare.
Little did he know, I thought, focusing my glare on his mustache, how I loathed facial hair.
The Tizi'Tirghist Pass
The Pass, the highest in Northern Africa at 2,629 metres, was well defined. The rough road was originally built by the French in the 1930s and it there that the last wild Barbary Lion, Africa’s largest cat, was sighted and sadly shot in 1942.
Once through the Pass, mountains stretched forever, turbulent, earthy, wild and harsh. Patches of snow were still about, shrinking in the spring thaw. There were a few stunted trees scattered over the taupe landscape, but mostly the vegetation was ‘hedgehog’ clusters - greenery that had adapted and grew stunted, bunched together in pincushions clinging to the steep rough terrain. Many were in flower and made a puffy patchwork of mauve, yellow and white tussocks while some remained shades of green with a velvet sheen.
Nomad Tents Made of Camel-Hair
At first I gazed unseeing at the spectacular and grim mountain slopes until Mohammad pointed out black camel-hair tents of nomad camps and in some places, stone built kraals and low huts. Gradually I too was able to pick out a flash of washing or a group of camels, but it was the black tents that really thrilled me.
Eggs never tasted better
We reached a mud house that had turned one room into a cafe where a smiling Berber girl boiled us eggs in a kettle. She deftly sliced them, sprinkling salt and spices, before dousing the dish with oil. Served with hot mint tea and flat bread, it was absolutely delicious.
Making it Plain in a Pretty Gite
From there it wasn’t far to Zaouiat Ahansal, a village clustered around a river-crossing in a gorge. I had specifically asked Mohammad to drop me at a gite that was run entirely by women. He said yes, but took me elsewhere to his friend’s gite. It was charming and clean overlooking a rushing river tributary with pink hollyhocks in the garden.
A girl showed me to a room with four mattresses on the floor and I choose one and dropped my backpack beside it. Within moments Mohammad was there too dropping his bag by the mattress next to mine.
“No way Mohammad, you are not sleeping in this room.”
He feigned surprise, shrugged and said it was the only room.
“Well, you can sleep in the car.” I picked up his bag and slung it unceremoniously out the door.
I got on well with the family although I felt the father, the proprietor, took a dim view of me. After dinner the three of us sat in the little lounge, With solemn disapproval on one side and crazy man approval on the other, I excused myself and took a walk up the road.
I was soon joined by my ardent friend.
“Fuck off!” I growled. I was out of patience.
He licked his lips nervously and I wondered if I might have made a mistake. Maybe he liked rough talk. I strode back to the village.
That night I stuck a chair against the door of my room, it’s back under the handle. From my mattress, I watched the handle move up and down in the candlelight but my improvised door lock held and had it not, I was ready to do a fair impersonation of a banshee that would have summoned the entire village.
I didn’t want to drive back with Mohammad but when I spoke to the proprietor there was clearly little alternative.
Delightful Zaouiat Ahansal
In the morning Mustafa, the son of the household, took me down to see the small Atelier du Tissages de l’Association du Zaouiat Ahsal - a women's weaving centre. I would have liked to have bought a rug but they were too heavy. I watched the girls at work and took mint tea with them. To my dismay were very enthusiastic about the artificial colours they were starting to use. They didn’t fade, were so bright and cheerful and easy to prepare.
Mustafa told me about the Association he had set up to control the rubbish in the village because trekkers were discarding plastic bottles and other garbage that the village had no way to deal with it.
The highlight of the morning though, was not the women’s weaving that I had travelled so far to see, but Mustafa’s tour of the village’s magnificent ancient kasbah. He led me through a dark passage, up a staircase so black, I had to feel my way slowly as he scampered ahead. We emerged onto a precarious roof space and mounted a wooden ladder to access an imposing tower and then he took me down again by a different route, using steps which were no more than axed notches in heavy wooden poles. Villagers used the lower rooms to stable their donkeys. The site was being restored with money from Government; a casual process.
The journey back was punctuated by Mohammad’s protestations of infatuation which by now didn’t even get a rise out of me. I was glad to part from his company but wished him well for after all he had taken me safely on an extraordinary odyssey.
A week or so later I met some seasoned Moroccan travellers who asked if I’d had any difficulty travelling alone.
No, I said, for the Moroccans were genuinely warm and delightful hosts.
“You didn’t you have any trouble with Moroccan men?”
“No, well not really.”
“We wondered because, you see, it’s well established that mature German and English women come to Morocco travelling solo looking for toyboys. They pay good money to have a fling.”
“Not my kind of travel!” I laughed... but then I thought about poor old Mohammad.
“Ahhhhhh……,” I added, “Well that might explain one particular encounter.”
Footnote: I have changed the real name of my guide. He was not called Mohammad!