Saturday, March 29, 2008

From Marrakech to the Mountains

A Struggle to the Summit of North Africa

Realising that you "have" to take some time off work before mid-December is not the worst thing that can happen to you. The thought was a long weekend to somewhere in Europe, maybe 2 days, maybe 3. Then the thoughts progress as they invariably do and you think maybe one more day, maybe I'll head to a further reach of Europe. The little bug in your mind says, why not take a week, in fact sod Europe why not head to Africa…..oh no, that is too far away and too costly….but I have always wanted to go there and Africa is the one non-polar continent that I have thus far not been lucky enough to visit…what about North Africa….

And so it came to pass that Dave and I booked up flights to Marrakech (Morocco) and got on with our lives. Some culture, maybe a trek on foot, or on a single humped animal (I automatically think bi-humped, but a colleague of mine informed me that the dual humped camel lives in places such as Mongolia, not North Africa and/or the Sahara).

Then you know how it goes….week before you finally get away….sitting in front of the computer…staring at the screen…mmmm…google…"trekking Morocco"….light treks……medium treks….mountain treks….mountain climbing…..highest mountain in North Africa….in snow conditions…."strenuous to tough"….that is what we're talking about…….the seeds were sown.

The excitement you feel when you see something that not only you have never seen before, but longed to see for so long. A true buzz of life injected into the jugular. That is how I felt looking out the plane window over the arid plain between the sea and the Atlas. Grand snow-capped mountains guarding the south. And to think we would be climbing the highest of them all – Jebel Toubkal.

It is strange when you land into a country and culture for the first time. You may have seen it on TV, read about it, or heard about it from mates, but it takes a while to actually get it. The more you travel and see new places, the more aware you are of just how little you know when you arrive. Jumping out the taxi and into dusty, crowded street Mohammed 5th, I was consciously aware that I could not make judgements easily. From paying the taxi driver, understanding levels of negotiation, to looking women in the eyes – you only learn these things with time. This is the enjoyment of a new place.

Not knowing quite where we were or where we were going, we sat by the street in a little coffee shop that seems typical of the city, taking the scene in and chatting with a delightful Spanish lady called Laia. One of those people with deep, open eyes who is taking in life. Refreshing.

The place was hustle and bustle, but not quite to the extent I expected. No India. A positive - the women rode motor-bikes and made eye-contact. The hawkers hawked.

On first entering a Riad (town mansion) the serenity is bright. We stayed at the cheap Riad Charma. Like your standard Riad it has little to show to the outside world but once through the low door you enter a fine courtyard surrounded by 2 story white balconies and a polished floor inhabited by healthy orange-trees. London can not reproduce such calm. Initial impressions of the people was also exceedingly friendly, though the guard stays up.

We spent a day and a night wandering through the old twisting streets. Through the colourful markets selling, to my shock, more than just tat. Some real artisans. A place simply teeming with sights, smells and sounds. Past aggressive snake charmers and onto one of many balcony restaurants overlooking the famous Djamaa El Fna - the grand square at the heart of the city sprawled with food stalls, hawkers selling everything from rugs to monkeys, spices - herds of humanity. Watching the sun drop behind the main mosque as the call to prayer wrung over the noise and bustle of the square as smoke rose from a hundred cooking pots. One of those moments.

Into the new town, back with a couple of bevvies to talk into the night with Laia and a bunch of Aussies.

Arranging the wished for climb proved straight forward. The "guides" (read business men) tried to put us off with stories off too much snow, possible danger, very difficult this time of year…come try our camel trek – read more money, less effort on their part. We persevered and struck a bargain that while well below their asking price, was still above the going rate if done solo. We knew it, they knew it, we were happy, they were happy. Business. This is the problem with time. Not enough of it and plans have to change. If I had months, or just weeks I would say screw the middleman….this time we used him as best we could.

Off to the hills and up to the Refuge:

From the heat of Marrakech, with clear weather, you can see the mighty Atlas hogging the horizon with their teeth-like snow settled summits.

Driving first through the dirty plain, initially littered with water-guzzling water parks and golf courses and then dirt and villages, the mountains slowly approach. Into the winding foothills and past many a local Bereber adorned with Obi-Wan Kenobi/Tatooine esque brown hooded robes.

I love the excitement of looking round every winding, sloping corner, peering and leaning to see the next grand vista. Searching for that mountain - our aim.

After a couple of hours we arrived at the base of our trek, Imlil. Freezing cold in the frosted shade of the morning. Once a further 7-8kg has been added to each of our packs and another couple of kg of climbing gear at the next village we have a full 20 odd on our backs.

The villages we pass as we climb are simple but beautiful. We stay a while in the charming house of a local family. A place covered in scrubbed tiles. We eat heartening bread with sticky butter and tea until we are full. Nothing like filling up the stomach for pure energy purposes. Not fuelling fat production on a stool in an office.

Note of etiquette that I found rather interesting – breaking wind is seen as particularly rude amongst these people – a struggle for many a foreign trekker as increasing altitude plays havoc with their guts

The trek out from this last village took across a snow-strewn boulder field and then, via long trodden tracks up the side of a mountain side and along the widening, heightening valley until we reached a little hamlet that exist for two purposes – a tea and munch stop before the lengthy trek to the Toubkal refuge and more interestingly a local holy site. Moroccans have a particular tradition of venerating Muslim saints and here, across a bridge (blocked to non-Muslims like us) exists the site of one such saint. Pilgrims trudge up the valley all year round.

Our progress was thus far comfortable, but not rapid. Personally I was not quite right, but happy to be far far away and going further. Up into the deeper snow with inevitable slips with our heavy packs despite my trusty trekking boots bought to climb a Bornean mountain when I was 18. Around a headland and what a view. For me, there is a point when mountains become intimidating and to a point over-bearing. This was that point.

Steep, snow and ice clad slopes leading to jagged imposing summits. We trekked on, past the last hut and my breathing became heavier. Before I knew it I was having to stop every 5 minutes to catch my breath. Then 2 minutes…then 30 steps. As we climbed up and into the long stretched out valley of our destination I ever slowed.

Strange, for this was at only circa 3,000m. I’ve been up twice that without similar breathing problems. When it strikes, IT STRIKES.

No point in heading back. Dingo and Asiz are encouraging, but I am slowing. A trick of perspective adds a degree of cruelty. In the distance the small refuge does not seem far. Only 30 minuets away one feels. Soon I realized that it was not a small refuge close-by but a large refuge a good hour away at my diminutive current pace.

I was down to 20 steps between stops, heart palpitations and general weakness.

Minor headaches kicked in. If I trudged more than 15 steps my vision blurred and I had to stop. No point in turning back, refuge is hours behind and I can see my destination.

A break of minor entertainment is brought by the passing of a group of shorts and skate shoes clad freezing Aussies. There mates had come through a couple of weeks earlier on sun baked dirt. The snow had come and they were left high and anything but dry. I even afforded my self a little chuckle with one of the guys and his boogie board.

On again as the light began to fail. Behind us sheer beauty. A “V” between the slopes of the valley lights up in darkening blood red as the stars come out. Breath-taking is a rather apt expression for my situation. A simply awesome view for Dingo and Asiz as looked back from ahead.

The final 300,250,200,150..100…80….60……40………20…………10m. Pain, pain………….RELIEF! We had made it before the light went – just.

A night of staring into space in front of the fire, warming the numb feet and fingers. A bitter headache as I toss and turn fully clothed in my sleeping bag within the freezing bunk room.

3,300m and my mind is doubting my will to do such things. When it hurts it hurts. People have told me over and over and now it strikes home!

Purgatory – recovery:

Asiz shook me awake before first light, I tuned away. A couple of hours later the same. A splitting headache, weak, and short of breath - I was going nowhere, let alone further up a mountain. Asiz got the message and Dave (btw Dave and Dingo are the same guy) and he set-off for the summit. I finally got some sleep after a painful night as the temperature rose back towards zero.

Past midday I scrambled out of bed. Better than last night but the walk to toilet left me gasping for air. For the first time I properly take in the surroundings. At the head of the steep long valley a concrete building, part of the French mountaineering association (Club Alpin Francais de Casablanca), keeps continual groups of keen climbers in varying conditions of warmth. Freezing dorms, kitchen, Asian toilets and dining area contrast with the sympathetically heated communal room (at least after night fall). Kneeling on the far edge of the latter room, staring out at the valley before me I drew a big breath. What a place! I feel sick but alive.

Climbers start to come back. I hear from the first in that Dave is making good progress – the sort of news I like to hear. A couple of hours later he bombles down with a big grin on his face. Good on him.

A night of cards, recovery and chill. Should I attempt the climb tomorrow? The thought was spinning around my head. Seriously in two minds – my situation had rather shaken me up in a way I am unaccustomed to. We stand in the cold air that freezes to the bone, and stare at the magical stars over the looming peaks. Draw in breath.

We wake, I’m 60%. No more. Enough, just about to give it a go. Dave is a great sport and up for a re-climb. Asiz is not quite so keen….but convincable.

Toubkal is not usually a particularly challenging climb, but in the deep snow it shattered most of those who attempted it while we were there. Dave is practically running.

With doubt and caution, the layers are shoved on one after another (not that I’d taken many of them off I am afraid to say). I’m shivering. Crampons strapped on and we are off. Fuck it. No more doubts – no point.

So Dave, Asiz, me and second Dave start the slow ascend, criss-crossing the steep first face adjacent to the refuge. The latter of the party is a cool 60 year old who is up here on his own and particularly good company. I befriended him the day before and he took up the offer of joining us.

Trudge by trudge, over the next 4 hours up and over the first two faces we make it to the pre-summit. The others are racing along. I make steady progress but take my time lagging a bit behind – better to make it slowly than to have to turn back with symptoms like I suffered just 36 hours before. Every time you look around you are blessed by newly adjusted picture perfect views as you take in the increasingly thin air. You digest it deep and it replenishes. Only at height or submerged do you appreciate such an essential.

Some snacks, an encouraging smile as usual from the big guy (Asiz), and we transverse the only really precipitous bit. Inching across a steep drop clutching the ice-axe, up, up and onto the summit.

WOW! I get it. This is what I live for. These moments connect together where your mind is in bliss. The self-significance drains away and leaves gaping open-eyes and pure feeling. Love washes out the fear and you’re essence is content.

From all sides around the tragedy of an iron frame pyramid (erected by the government to mark the highest point in North Africa – 4,200m – just under 14,000ft), the Atlas stretch out.

We are at the summit of a great spine that jags out the earth in whitened glory. This falls down into foothills on either side and then to the far-off hot plains. Past the clutches of the cloud, a glimpse of desert – the endless Sahara stretched beyond. My word. Again my breath is taken away.

At the top time lasts for an eternity and a minute. Manly hugs (we convince ourselves), thoughts staring into the distance and we are off. Like that… we leave this staggering place behind.

Dave was still bouncing, the other three of us a bit less so (I was perhaps 70%). We slide down the mountain.

Down and Out……

Contrary to the insinuation of that title, getting down and then out was pretty straight forward and pleasant.

The couple of hour descent from the summit to the lodges was slow, steady and beautiful. A couple of slips and many a trudge were interrupted by a Moroccan documentary. We had noticed some guys with cameras and big fluffy sound devices following a couple of climbers – father and son from France. We caught them up at the summit and as we descended the camera increasingly flitted to us. Different, but not much to write home about.

Their part in my memories of that week in North Africa were cemented by a comical evening. Post-climb, we huddled by the fire, played cards and chatted about the exploits gone by and to come. Warming the chilled parts and drying out the boots. One more hearty chicken terrine brewed up by the wonder chef Asiz and good conversation. This idyllic scene was disturbed by two groups of people.

On the one hand a bunch of Spaniards. When in big groups, people often seem to take on characteristics of their background, or at least they heighten. Like the universally criticized British med tourist, who becomes a drunken lager-lout, so a bunch of Spanish climbers became the most noisy, unthinking group of sober people I have met. To look past the general levels of noise violating the atmosphere, the real corker was people coming into our room, throwing their wet shit all over our stuff, walking all over it and generally being absurdly inconsiderate. Dave, lost the plot with this lot. I have not seen him quite like that before, but they deserved it.

The Moroccan film crew made a re-entry. For context, shall we just say a certain number of the company were suitably chilled on local products when the microphone started going around. Seeing such people struggling in a multi-lingual translated Moroccan interview was something else. Nice to know that we had had a good “clumb” up some mountain people could not remember.

The next morning we were the last to awake in the lodge (as usual). The four hour descent to the origins of our climb was slippery and gorgeous. The Atlas hold their own majesty and mystery and we were soaking it up. The sliding, bum-bone breaking nature of the way down was not helped by either Asiz having to go down in sandals due to his damaged foot, or the dodging of numerous donkeys carrying bags of those who did not see fit to carry their own.

Hamam, hospitality and home:

After the last few days, all I wanted to do was get back to Marrakech and chill. We were pretty knackered in all truth and Asiz’s generous offer of another hours journey beyond Marrakech to his home village just seemed like too much. Against the wishes of tired bones, we took his offer. You have to take up these opportunities and my word was it worth it.

Stopping by some market on the edge of the big city in the dark early evening, we bundled from the taxi into the back of a little van. Squeezed is an apt word when you are sharing a small space with Asiz. Mountain of a man.

We traveled for 50km or so through God knows where to, at least from our perspective, God knows where. A smallish village beside a shallow valley within the open plain that is the region. Up and around a few dusty streets and into Asiz’s house. Far bigger than I expected. He has built himself, with the help of tourist money and a lot of hard graft, an expanding demi-mansion of a place. The new part is adourned with a greeting room which could comfortably fit 50. The old part is cosy and warm. His children, boy and girl of not many years, are cute but a little shy. I don’t blame them. His wife is quiet, but smiles.

Before we have settled in we have bucket, towel and soap in our hand and are heading back down and through those dusty streets to the village Hamam – Turkish bath to many. A multi-roomed complex fit with old man smoking hashish on the door. We are welcomed in, strip down to our boxers and are giggled at by all the young boys. The Hamam is single sex, but alternates men/women through the week. It is men’s night.

Beyond the first room, are three rooms connected with open doors. Mud-brick, domed ceilings and dripping walls. A claustrophobic dark atmosphere full of sweat-sodden men. We saunter through to the far room. The heat builds as we move through the complex. In the final room is the heat-source. We knelt down working up a sweat by a large boiler. Here are a couple of older men who do not know quite how to deal with us. Avoiding eyes. Here at my most exposed – naught but a modern loin cloth – my mind suddenly focused. Here we are in a place I do not even know the name of, in the depths of a local hot house. No one knows we’re here apart from those round us who we do not know and we have put ourselves in the hands of man-mountain Asiz. The odd looks heighten these thoughts, but then a ramble of kids come in and lighten the atmosphere. Chucking water all over the place and being told off by their elders. What awesome cheeky smiles.

Asiz reappears and starts to rub me down with strange gluttonous soapy stuff. A little awkward but when in Rome… This is the start of a cleaning ritual that has several stages and has the result of a cleaner me than I have met before. From sweating to soaping to dunking to rubbing to sweating. Over a couple of hours we moved from room to room and eventually to the climax. A bone-breaking massage from the big man. Pain. Then the scrubbing. A coarse hand-brush scraping off layer after layer of skin. As my back was rubbed near to the point of bleeding while Dave looked on half laughing half concerned (especially as he was next), I realized what an amazing experience this was. The smells of soap and sweat. The echoey sounds of splash and rub. The steam. The mildewed arching walls and peering faces in the dim light.

Exhausted, but as clean as a whistle we laboured back to Asiz’s for feast of food and collapsed asleep.

This incomparable hospitality was topped off with gifts of robes and fossil Asiz had collected on his travels through the desert. Words cannot describe his generosity. This was not for payment – we paid nothing and he would not have accepted it if we offered – this was humbling Berber hospitality the likes of which I have barely ever seen.

Back to the road and via a taxi, a horse-cart and long thankful good-byes and we were back on our own in Marrakech.

A final day through the markets, around deserted rotting palaces and a long meal overlooking the famous square. What rounded this off, was the company of Jez and his lady. Dave was traveling with the Aussie when I first met him in Ecuador. We had traveled up to the north, across into Colombia and through Guerrilla territory via a couple of mind-changing weekends in Cali. So nice to meet up with old friends.

What a fantastic few days. Another place that has managed to grab a small piece of me - and not only the layer of skin I left in the Hamam…
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