J OUR­NEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DIS­COV­ERY High and flighty

Heather Far­ish ex­plores Morocco’s spec­tac­u­lar High At­las moun­tain range on foot and frisky mule

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

ALK­ING slowly through the Ber­ber vil­lage of Imesker, I meet a woman with a tri­an­gu­lar clay pot, a tagine, perched pre­car­i­ously on her scarf-cov­ered head with a scrub­bing board un­der her arm. In the dap­pled shade of the gnarled, droop­ing wal­nut trees, a small boy in black pants and grey jacket walks a group of mostly white sheep from the vil­lage to graze on the sur­round­ing moun­tain­side. Close en­coun­ters such as th­ese are a typ­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence while hik­ing through Morocco’s High At­las moun­tains.

Imesker is the home for night one on my three-day hike from Imough­lad to Aguer­sioual via Imesker, Tinghourine and Imlil. From the ter­race of the gite, a lo­cal Ber­ber house that pro­vides ac­com­mo­da­tion, the vil­lage’s minaret is like a mush­room sprout­ing through the leaves of the wal­nut trees, its white trim glow­ing un­der the evening sun. The minaret merges into the brown moun­tain­sides, the sky clear blue above. Later the sky turns black and is trans­formed into a sparkling ceil­ing, fea­tur­ing the odd shoot­ing star, when the ter­race be­comes my bed­room.

This is a typ­i­cal Ber­ber vil­lage con­sist­ing of a ran­dom stair­case of box-like, flat-roofed earthen houses con­glom­er­ated part way up the moun­tain­side. Be­low in the prime lo­ca­tion, ad­join­ing the stream in the val­ley floor, is the farm­land. There are groves of wal­nuts, cher­ries, ap­ples and plums with ter­raced hill­sides con­tain­ing the sta­ple crops of bar­ley and corn. Some are green, some gold as the grain ripens, some brown as the bare earth is tilled. Tra­di­tional ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nels me­an­der down the moun­tain­side, en­abling th­ese crops to thrive.

On day two, as we reach a moun­tain pass, we are over­taken by a cy­clist; moun­tain bik­ing is an­other ad­ven­tur­ous ac­tiv­ity for the brave in the High At­las moun­tains. But the good news on reach­ing a pass is that the trail then goes down. Stand­ing at the pass, my eyes dart in one di­rec­tion, then an­other. Such views: tow­er­ing brown moun­tains sur­round me with a strip of green wind­ing be­tween them. ‘‘ It is so beau­ti­ful,’’ says one of the teenage girls with me. A city girl who’s strug­gling with the hik­ing (cars are her usual form of trans­port), she can still ap­pre­ci­ate the scenery.

Down the bot­tom I hear the gen­tle roar of the fast­flow­ing stream as it passes over rocks and boul­ders. From within a dense grove of trees I hear a voice. Looking closely I see a boy high in a cherry tree with a smaller boy stand­ing in its fork. They are pick­ing dark, shiny bun­dles that glow bright red in the sun­shine. They are large cher­ries, juicy and sweet. Be­low the tree a woman waves; I wave back.

Th­ese groves of wal­nut trees pro­vide an ideal place for our lunch stop. Mats are spread out in the shade and we sit around the edge with the cen­tre as our ta­ble. My mouth starts to wa­ter as spicy smells waft from the out­door kitchen. Fi­nally a large plate of mixed sal­ads is served: po­tato, beans, beet­root, rice, corn and toma­toes. Then bro­chettes, spicy chunks of grilled lamb on bam­boo skew­ers, with fresh or­anges and, of course, cher­ries to fol­low.

Later, as I sit by a stream, my eyes are drawn away from the bub­bling pools up to the moun­tain op­po­site where I see a flash of white. High up the slope, a man in a djellaba fol­lows the trail to­wards the top. He stops to look down, no doubt hear­ing the noisy teenagers. On the other side of the stream, a shep­herd boy herds five black goats fol­lowed by four black and white sheep along the trail, a wooden staff in his hand.

The moun­tain trails we are us­ing for leisure hik­ing have for cen­turies served as high­ways for the Ber­bers of the High At­las. They walk from vil­lage to vil­lage, or use mules to trans­port their goods to the next set­tle­ment, or to a road to catch a taxi to the near­est town.

Each vil­lage means some shade, a break from the sun burn­ing my skin on the ex­posed moun­tain­side trails. Colour­ful car­pets in reds, yel­lows and or­anges cover earthen walls. A woman sits on an up­stairs ter­race. A mound of freshly cut grass comes to­wards me. Looking closely, be­neath it is a small woman bent dou­ble, dressed in blue with a mul­ti­coloured apron. Grass is piled high on her back, hang­ing so low at each side that it reaches al­most to the ground.

Tinghourine clings pre­car­i­ously to the moun­tain­side and is dis­tinc­tive for its ab­sence of satel­lite dishes; elec­tric­ity is still on the way. In this vil­lage, which is our home for night two, so­lar pan­els are vis­i­ble on some of the rooftops. What a con­trast this visit is to the one I made three months ear­lier. The bare branches of the wal­nut trees are now lushly clad in green, the stark brown moun­tain­sides no longer have the soft­en­ing sprin­kle of early-morn­ing snow and the pink and white blos­som­ing of peach and cherry trees has fin­ished.

Across the val­ley, a small vil­lage looks like nine brown pa­per-wrapped parcels, with white-framed square win­dows. Chick­ens peck in the dirt and women watch cau­tiously from their door­ways. Looking down, pud­dles of white froth are scat­tered along a sparkling sil­ver stream. Two big plas­tic bowls sit on the rocks as a young girl uses a small bucket to fill them, shut­tling wa­ter back and forth from the stream. A woman in black bends over an­other bowl, knead­ing the laun­dry, then pulling it up in both hands to see if it is clean. A

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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