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
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