Imagine a country which on first impressions is so unlike yours that upon arriving it seems as if you have fallen into Alice’s Wonderland. You clear customs and step into unspeakable heat, taxi drivers crowd around you and after a haggle you get sped off to a city enclosed by huge walls and looming under enormous minarets, you get led down narrow cobbled streets and through an archway that leads to a broad square where snake charmers blow crazy tunes at cobras and boys walk around with monkeys on their shoulders. Beyond the square lies a marketplace stuffed with things beautiful, things unimaginable and things smelling worse than death itself.
The place you have been taken to spend your first night is like something out of “Arabian Nights”, a traditional riad with magnificent arched windows and Korana verse beautifully engraved on the colorful tapestries that adorn the walls of your surreal bedroom. A welcome mint tea is poured from a great height from an elegant long snout silver tea pot into tiny glasses – you have arrived!
AND this is only a three hour flight away by Easyjet. To come to Morocco for a mission to climb is never just a mission to climb. It’s a mission that gets soon swept away by the exhilarating experience that is Morocco itself.
My great “True Berber” friend Lahcen is in his element. We are going to be climbing in his homeland: the mighty Atlas Mountains and to start we are going to visit his home village Imlil. Lachen has been away from home for almost a year busy getting married and making a life in the UK with his lovely Essex wife. His home-coming is akin to being part of a presidential election as people literally flock the streets to shake his hand, the offers of tea or coffee on everyone’s lips and with all the excitement it is not long before we have a mule team organised to take our kit bags to the high refuge.
The great thing about knowing the Berbers is that they can’t help but charm their way into every part of the adventure. My three clients – friends of many missions – are soon commenting on how different things feel here and how they are simply overwhelmed by a Muslim’s generosity. The invites for tea, bread, and walnuts follow us up to the refuge and even here we are given an open-armed welcome and told that we can have an entire 32 bed dorm just for ourselves. Our generous hosts serve up feast after feast and offer to wake us up “especially” early to take us up our first mission: Jebel Uonkrim – a 4,080m peak that looms a two hour walk away.
With Lahcen in the lead clapping his hands to Mohammed’s singing and me taking up the rear to document the adventure on video we depart in the darkness. As the sun creeps over the jagged horizon we get to understand the uniqueness of this mountain range. Tall, dark red, and deep brown barren rocky crags and spires link ridge after ridge. Ancient glacial valleys have carved terrific smooth uber-climbable rock into this landscape wherever you look.
Our objective is a peak pronounced “one-cream, not ice-cream stupid” does not shun from providing a bit of excitement itself. We follow a rugged but surprisingly solid narrow ridge climbing finger like pinnacles and smooth slabs to gain a huge hanging valley which we cross to climb a loose scree slope to the summit. We are alone up there. From a huge distance we can see that the upper slopes of tomorrow’s mission, the highest mountain in the Atlas (as well as North Africa) – the shapely Jebel Toubkal, is crawling with people. Our perspective reached through a bit of hard yakka is well earned and we feel privileged to be seeing the Atlas from a viewpoint that nobody seems to bother to reach.
After a traditional Berber “on-the-hoof lunch” we set off down into the valley to once again savor the refuge’s special hospitality and another round of Berber delicacies.
The next morning we get woken up especially early again and begin the climb up Jebel Toubkal (4,180m) in the company of many other head-torches trying to pick their way through the large boulder fields. A phrase remembered from an old climbing magazine springs to mind: “just because it’s the biggest mountain doesn’t mean it’s the best mountain”.
We welcome the sunrise and welcome the trekkers around us. At first we feel a bit grumpy about having to share “our mountains” but soon the Berbers and the Atlas begin to weave their magic. The colors change through every conceivable spectrum of red as the sun creeps over the eastern ridge. Looking up we see surreal silhouettes of trekkers climbing high above us. The Berbers begin their clapping and singing and as we reach the high ridge ourselves an incredible views open up before us: jagged peaks blend into more jagged peaks and if you look carefully you can see the mighty Sahara reach deep into the hazy horizon.
The summit is reached and shared with a lot of people: Spanish, French, German, Swiss and of course my little group of Brits. It’s almost a complete European Union and you know the thought occurs to me that under the guidance from our great hosts perhaps this mountain top might not be a bad place to stage an international meeting. In a place like this it isn’t too much of an effort to smile and say a heartfelt well done to a fellow climber, even if he is a German.
Pleasantries over and done with we focus on our next mission: the mighty Sahara! We make our way back down the valley towards civilisation and another great Riad where we are once again blown away by the mystical beauty of this amazing country. Then the next morning, shunting our way through countless people wanting to shake Lahcen’s hand we find a vehicle that will drive us across this land through the spectacular Tagine shaped mountain pass which proudly announces that we have arrived in the Sahara desert.
It is here also that we pick a group of folk representing the TREKSTOCK charity: four very nice girls and a cameraman who will relieve me from my amateur efforts and film the journey from here.
The Sahara Desert defies a simple man’s attempt at description. A picture will tell a million words but it is perhaps important to mention that for us capable Alpine folk who think we have met a challenge or two in our careers, a dip into this super-heated, sandy world will feel as alien as being thrown into the deep end of the pool as a toddler and being told to do the perfect breast stroke.
Apart from our steadfast Berbers our support came from three surprisingly mellow camels that carried our luggage. The days, straight out of “Lawrence” melted into each other as the temperatures reached 55 Degrees Celsius. We climbed massive sand dunes. Descended massive sand dunes. Crossed salt-flats, were battered by sandstorms and even a flood! We slept in Nomad tents at night and crashed under the shade of casurina and palms as the midday temperatures soared to unimaginable highs. The Berbers provided excellent company for whom nothing was too much and the group was fantastic. How nice it was to exchange bearded porridge eating mountain types for young hyper-energetic sand trekkers who were as entranced by the landscape and experience as I was.
When you are on the road as much as I am it becomes difficult to find a single highlight within a year. However this experience in terms of contrast must rate up there as one of the best. I am now of to climb 4 x 6,000m peaks in the Himalayas. I know I am going to enjoy this expedition. It will feel familiar and will undoubtably bring me huge rewards but I know that in the back of my mind will be a memory of standing on top of a huge sand dune and watching the sun set as a huge fiery ball into an endless dusty red horizon whilst behind me three camels can be heard slobbering as my proud Berber friends busy themselves feeding them.
I urge you all to get in touch with 360 Expeditions, my company (www.360-expeditions.com) and see what adventure we can offer you. If you want to experience all that I have on this expedition then you are also in luck as we have another running this time next year. If you have specific dates: “no worries” we can tailor make any trip to your preferred dates.