Driving back into Marrakech feels like visiting an old friend – its now familiar boisterousness and crazy traffic welcomes us home. The Hotel Gallia is fabulous – a beautiful comfortable Riad with 19 rooms off a central courtyard. It is literally a stone’s throw from the main square, but surprisingly quiet – and for me a nice wifi internet cafe around the corner. We have a night to get sorted before heading off to the Atlas mountains overnight with just a backpack and sleeping bag. Another friendly cheaper nearby accommodation – more a backpackers is Hotel Challah – another lovely Riad.We meet our hiking guide Mohamed (another one!) firstname.lastname@example.org who will lead us up the mountain.
And it is a MOUNTAIN – no wee hill. We arrive at a village at the end the beautiful Ourika Gorge, where the road stops abruptly having recently been washed away.There we meet our host Lahcen and his three mules. I anxiously look up the steep cliffs and wonder how I am going to do it as we load up the mules with supplies and sleeping bags. It is a steep zig zag path pretty much straight up the mountain. I last a short hour before it is suggested I might like to hop on the donkey – I am not too proud to jump at the chance and I am not the only one – for the and the next hour two of us ride the mules as it follows the zig zag path up the hill. I am SO grateful I don’t have to walk it, and riding a sure footed mule is a dream.
Lahcen sings a kind of chant as we climb (he also has breath as he is on the other donkey) and I join in as best I can.We stop for lunch at a beautiful spot under a cedar tree, on the edge of a very steep ravine. It is not long before children come out from a village looking for sweets – we have been warned and have brought supplies along.Mohamed cooks a tasty tangine for us all on a gas cylinder which has magically appeared from the back of one of the mules. Angela has sprained her calf muscle and a sleeping bag is brought to support her leg. When she moves, the sleeping bag rolls down the hill and we all watch as it slowly (but out of our reach) bounces once, twice and then into the ravine. Bugger, as we say in NZ.
No problem Mohamed climbs down the precipitous cliffs and recovers it. Sigh of relief all round when Mohamed appears breathless from the climb, sleeping bag in hand, as it has clearly been snowing on the mountain tops.Another hour and we can see the Berber village. The houses of stone and earth are barely distinguishable from the mountain from which they were made, but as we draw closer we can make out the square doors and windows.Below the village lush gardens fill the terraces which stretch all the way down the valley – there is clearly a spring and simple irrigation system at work here. Power poles have made their way almost to the village – power is clearly on its way, but not yet. However it turns out that satellite TV has already arrived, powered by solar panels – Fox Movies in arabic is the favourite. No sun, no TV I guess.
A half hour hike traversing the mountain and we arrive to meet our hosts for the night. There is the grandmother Fatima, Lahcen and his wife, daughters – Fatiha who at 18 is marrying age, Zahra, Nora the baby, and just one boy still at home – Osama. Aicha and Soumaya are nieces living there, making a household of 9, plus 10 of us for the night.We have come prepared with presents – Sarah, who works for Rebel Sport, is best prepared with a soccer ball for Osama and lots of girlie clips, hair ties and hand crème for the girls. The loot is shared out, with lots of giggles and shyness as we make friends with our host family, making sure we leave some for the rest of the village kids when we leave.
We are showed to the squat toilet which is out a door, down a corridor, out a door, across a courtyard, out a door, up a steep step, through a narrow gap, and around a corner – all but the corridor is outside in the strongly freshening mountain air. I decide at 5pm to stop drinking any liquids at all to try and avoid a night trip.We settle down in the kitchen by the fire – its warm here, but very smoky, my eyes start to smart. Fatiha is cooking couscous – not feeble instant stuff, but the real thing, which takes 3 hours to cook in three stages over boiling vegetables.When the hooker pipe and apple tobacco is fired up, it is the last straw for my eyes, and I have to leave. I head up to our communal bedroom, it’s freezing, but not smoky so I wrap myself up in a sleeping bag and watch the sun set over the mountains.
Soumaya is the shyest of the family and notices me alone. She brings a candle and sits down with me on the floor. We have no language in common, but the next hour passes quickly as I teach her to play shadows on the wall, I sing a song, she sings a song and so it goes.Eventually others join us and the party is on, until word arrives that the couscous is ready. It is the best couscous I have ever tasted. We fall into bed – well not actually bed, but a few rugs on the floor and more over our sleeping bags, and 6 of us in the room – we are quite snug,if not outrageously comfortable.Despite not having anything to drink I have to get up and visit the toilet, but have not brought my torch, so wait for someone else to stir – it is good to have some company on the trek – we hold the door and the torch for each other – all thoughts of privacy long gone. We fare better than Kate who has to get up 3 times, and the last time gets locked out in the cold.
She eventually makes it back and we are all awake at 4.30 commiserating with her, and vaguely hysterical waiting for the sunrise to come. Luckily we drift off to sleep again before breakfast.Before we head off the mountain, there are the rest of the presents to give out to the village kids. Crayons, pens and paper and sweets are dispensed while the mules are loaded. We all manage to walk under our own steam down the mountain, though my knees were screaming by the bottom of the gorge. Another tagine for lunch before heading back into town.There are about 50 families in this village, with about 10 per household that gives a population of nearly 500. There is a primary school, and a small mosque with an iman who comes very few months. When I ask what happens if someone gets sick, the answer is they go to bed. Then they get better or they go to the cemetery.This is life raw and basic and real – the way many in the world live. I am humbled by my affluence and discomfort, and the fact I know I can escape to comfort again.