Monday, 18 November 2013

Sand Seas and Satellites - Morocco 2006

Sand Seas and Satellites                                                                    Morocco, April 2006

The mule’s rear hoof stumbled on a loose stone and it missed its footing. The hoof folded rearwards as weight went onto it. Instead of falling over – with me on its back – the marvellous beast managed to keep us upright by standing on its wrist.

Over the previous couple of hours I had learned to put my faith in her ability. She was as sure-footed as a... well, a mule. The path we were following was a narrow ledge, a horizontal contour snaking along the bare grey hillside. To the left it sloped gently up; to the right steeply down. Hardly a “precipice”, but nonetheless life-threatening if we were to cartwheel a hundred metres down the abrasive shale which would flay the skin from a tumbling human, flay the hide off a tumbling mule.

We were in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains – a name to conjure with. Ahead of me, nested in the enormous cloth saddle, little Charlie looked carefree and comfy as an Indian prince on his mule. Ahead of him, Tish in her wide-brimmed “adventurous hat”, unaware that I am studying her horsewomanship. How does she make it look so easy? Her slim waist was flexing and adapting to the movement of her mule, her shapely bottom wiggling this way and that. Very attractive, I thought.   

Behind me, Harriet gave out a squeak of alarm: “Oh my God, did you feel that, Brent? Your mule went down on BOTH legs, the poor thing, and just carried on.” She may have used a horsey word like “fetlocks” instead of “wrists”, she being a horse enthusiast. She was in her element – very pleased to be be on muleback. A few days before, this little trek was in doubt. I was glad that we had made her modest dream come true after all.


Mule Train. And Barbary Ape. Same species as at Gibraltar. In fact this is a misnomer: it is not an ape but a monkey, as evidenced by the lack of a glint of intelligence in its eyes. 

Beauty surrounded us. The simple beauty of primary colours: a big blue sky; the ash-grey bald mineral undulations of the Middle Atlas; the deep healthy green of the brooding and patient cedar trees. These curious creatures have an unusual geometry. Instead of tapering gracefully, the trunks rise almost cylindrically, like telegraph poles. As a member of the fir family (and their sticky, gooey, cones exude a scent which confirms this), the eye is puzzled that the outline of the branches is not a Chrisrmas-tree pyramid. These trees are of an ancient species. One can imagine a Stegasaurus smashing into these gawky trees with their tusks and gorging on the the nutritious cones. The cedar’s clever relatives have evolved, becoming more flexible and more fertile, and have conquered Siberia and Canada. But the stately cedar has been banished to barren margins such as this, a niche ecology of no interest to johnny-come-lately Christmas trees.

In ancient times, the cedars of Lebanon flourished. In ancient times, the Persian Empire contained such slow-growing forests. But mankind has pillaged such treasure-troves for aromatic bone-hard timber. Deforestation of such places is an act of greed and ignorance: once gone, the forest does not grow back. Enclaves like this (protected species in a World Heritage Site) are rare on the planet.    

The Cedars of Barbary

So we are privileged to be here, riding our mules, rubbernecking at the contours and hummocks and peaks and outcrops, enjoying the three-dimensionality of it all as the foreground parades in front of us and the middle ground more slowly, so confident in the mules’ surefootedness that we can raise our eyes and drink in this awesome scene.

Up and up we rise, reaching a “saddle point” – a pass between two dry valleys, taking a sharp right turn to follow a ridge, as if riding along the backbone of a whale, admiring the landscape in not one valley but two. Can we hear music? We turn our heads left and right to negate any wind. It sounds like pipes. Where is it coming from? There. Way over on our left. On the downward slope, facing us from the far side of the valley, crisply visible in this dry air is a swarming mass of black dots. Sheep? No, goats. And where is the musical goatherd? There he is. No, there, sitting on a fallen tree trunk, spinning his musical magic for his own pleasure, probably aware that we are trooping along the far slope and probably unaware that he is touching our hearts with his simple art. 

We are heading for an isolated village, a Berber village. We will get there by early evening. But the mules’ owners, who are walking alongside us, will have to make the return journey in the dark. The price we pay for all this is tiny. But the company who organized it for us is adamant that tourist income is a significant benefit to villages like these. So we feel more like travellers than tourists. More like guests than travellers. Rather than exploiting the locals, we feel that we are joining in with something.

An hour before, in great discomfort, I had been on the brink of dismounting and footslogging it instead, such was the pounding  on my poor bum.

But my observation of Tish’s technique paid off. I twigged it. One’s spine must be supple, not rigid: in this way, the horse’s pitch roll and yaw can be dissociated from one’s own torso, which can progress in a smooth straight line. Additionally, one‘s centre of gravity must be maintained over the horse’s own centre of gravity.

With this new insight, mule riding became a pleasure, not an ordeal. I like to think that my mule sensed the newfound harmony. We became a team. She was quite competitive – forever running into the hind quarters of the mule ahead and when becoming lead-mule anxious to stay in front. I began to use the mule’s own initiative: point her in my desired direction and off she’d go. Unlike a car, she didn’t have to be directed every step of the way. We would build up a lead, and then stop for a snack. But as soon as the competition caught up she would stop munching up the green stuff and skedaddle back to her rightful place at the head of the convoy.

Suppleness, balance and harmony: surely this trio of qualities is useful in one’s wider life!


The Sahara. Say it with passion and emphasize the second syllable. The Sa-HA-ra!

Of course, the Sahara isn’t all sand sea. Much of it is gravel or rock or polished black crazy paving. But this place, the “Erg Chebbi” is the Real McCoy. It is a sea of dunes. Some of them are gigantic, all of them have graceful curves. Even an atheist can see that there is a pattern at work here, some organizing principle. A beleiver will see the hand of God sculpting this beauty.

“Erg Chebbi” can be seen on satellite images. It’s shaped like a giant teardrop. When you’re in it, with only dunes as far as the eye can see, you think that it’s going to be like this all the way to Egypt. In fact, it can be crossed in only four hours on camelback. To be riding a camel in this pure, clean environment can be deeply soothing. The hateful 4WDs can sometimes disturb the peace, but it is rare.

Charlie of the Desert; Harriet of the Desert

We had taken taxis from the city of Fes, southwards across a fertile plain, up into the mountains, across vast bleak high plains, past snow-streaked hillsides, down fertile valleys where the green fecundity contrasts spectacularly with the sterile, humus-free, orange rocks either side, ever dryer, sand drifting across the road, mirages fibrillating on the horizon. The moist atlantic air is clawed out of the sky by the Atlas. Air on the far side is dry. Some of the rainfall gets funnelled into farside rivers, which send out well-intentioned green shoots into the desert. But these rivers are doomed. After their early successes (emerald green palm groves of lusty fruitfulness), they dwindle to a trickle and die in the desert, a last gasp of evaporation. In Roman times, said Herodotus, these rivers arced round to the right and reached the sea. Crocodiles ventured up them. But no longer.

Can it be any clearer than this: where there is water there is fertility and wealth; where there is none the bare bones of the Earth show through. Shropshire would look like this without water.

Our hotel backs onto the sand sea. We can hardly believe our luck in chosing this place from a guide book. Le Kasbah du Touareg has mocked-up crenellated fortifications. We manage to forgive them that lack of authenticity, because genuine kasbahs don’t come with azure swimming pools, nor straw parasols, nor beautifully-tiled bathrooms. After several nights under canvas, we relish our comfort.

The place is run by a laid-back dude with Berber teeth called Hassan. He’s happy to guard our surplus baggage on Night 2 when we troll off into the desert on our camels, and even on Night 3 when we go off freestyle to pitch our tents somewhere out-in-the-void. Oo-err, missus, how daring are we???

Charlie's room (everybody's room, in fact); Oasis in the Erg Chebbi; Hobbled camel - arab equivalent of the wheel clamp. (This certainly looks cruel but I suspect without having proof positive that this ancient practice causes no pain or damage to the animal.)

"Yeah, yeah, you're drop-dead gorgeous...."

Let’s fast-forward to Night 3 at the Erg. We have found a clump of trees on a promontory on the side of one of the great dunes. We pitch our tents inside a circular perimiter: the trees stand guard over us like waggons in Injun Country. The kids zip up and go straight to sleep - pooped after the hot exertions of the day. A pity, because astronomy is on the menu tonight. A meteor shower is expected – Perseids or something. But after a half-hour of stargazing, during which we spot a silver satellite crawling through the constellation of Ursa Major, the kids have retired for the night. As I return to our promontory, toilet roll in hand, I spy…. with my boggling eye…. a gottverdammt holy-moses whatthehellisthat fiery streak in the sky. It looks like a comet! It is as big as my outstretched fist. And it’s moving. I squeal the discovery to Tish and we watch this awesome celestial display as it processes before our eyes, from left to right, heading northwards with the stately consistency of a flying house. I am torn between snapping it and looking at it with my eyeballs. My experience at the 1999 eclipse was useful here – I devoted three quarters of totality to sodding around with a camera. This time I want to SEE the darn thing.

Our room marked with an 'X'.

The show lasts for a minute, maybe just two. Towards the end, the thing is breaking up and some of the particles combust with a lightbulb flash. Have we seen the Perseid to end all Perseids? The actual core comet that caused the piffling showers of microscopic micrometeorites? Or was this a man-made satellite returning to Earth?

We later find out that this was satellite Sich-1M, whose 3rd stage booster had failed to ignite, leaving it in an elliptical orbit of 160 x 320km, rather than the intended circular 320km orbit. Launched from the Ukraine in 2004, and grazing the upper atmosphere more heavily at every orbit, its fiery end was a mathematical certainty.

Our trek into the desert is not a great adventure by any means. But I keep reminding myself that it’s a bigger deal for the others, especially the kids. The afternoon heat was quite challenging when we set off with our rucksacks on our backs. Like a skittish horse, Harriet refused some of the jumps. She was not prepared to walk directly out into the fiery furnace.

With great skill, Tish found the solution: We would proceed in small stages, using clumps of trees as our stepping-stones. We could rest in the shade for as long as we wanted, and only move on when Harriet was content to do so. After an hour or two we reached a sizeable clump of trees – stepping-stone number 6 or 8. There was water! A well, made of circular concrete hoops, was near the clump. Local people would stroll over from the town and fill their buckets. Perched on gnarled tree-trunks, we did a little cooking, but our enthusiasm for the grove was sinking rapidly. There was much broken glass, most of it just under the surface of the sand, waiting to cut little feet. There were discarded sardine tins. There was constant human traffic – hawkers hawking, children begging, adolescents squabbling. This was a far cry from the pure serene desert experience. So when the sun’s fierceness abated, our little column moved on.

"Just to that next clump of trees, Harriet, and then we'll stop...."

Struggling up the fluffy leeward side of dunes, admiring the ripples and curves and knife-edge crests, passing flat patches with some slight vegetation encouraged by camel droppings, adjusting our “sheshes” whenever the wind would blow sand in our faces.

We had bought our sheshes (or is that cheches?) – a couple of metres of fabric to be worn in a stylish turban – the previous day in the town of Merzouga. In a little shack on a dusty street we enquired about prices. The trader, Abdul, took our breath away with his price: ten quid each!! He kindly suggested that we could buy at keener prices in the local “co-operative”, where they make many things. He took time out from his own shop to escort us there down dusty streets and narrow alleys between mud-and-straw houses to his cousin’s place. We ended up in what appeared to be a carpet shop, and were treated like honoured guests. Out came the mint tea and some snacks. We sat on a carpet and thrilled to the exoticism of the experience. We already felt a degree of obligation to buy something. Glass cabinets contained minerals and trinkets; clothing and carpets; musical instruments festooned the walls.

In the world of fashion, with confidence you can pull anything off...

 Or perhaps not...
After finishing off another group of guests, our gracious host gave us a most enlightening talk on the desert people, on the manufacture of hand-made carpets in isolated villages, on the many months it takes to make one. There were four tribes in Morocco: the Berbers, the Touaregs, the Nomads and the Bedouin. His name was also Abdul. He spoke an excellent English. He showed us some stunningly beautiful carpets, and explained the symbols and patterns: “This zigzag represents the wanderings of the Touaregs in the desert when they refused to be turned into farmers, preferring instead the freedom and hardship of the desert.”

Oi, hands off, Abdul! That's my bird...

We sadly told him that we could not think about buying a carpet. We were not rich people. We could not go lugging a great carpet into the desert in our rucksacks. We fully acknowledged the beauty of his carpets, and any price we offered would be an insult to the months of hard work in these distant villages.

But it was Tish’s birthday, and she had fallen for a beautiful red and blue carpet drenched in symbolic meaning and history. Abdul offered it to us at a crazily low price, which he then almost halved because he liked us and Tish had become so moved by the experience that she burst into tears. So we walked out the proud owners of a magnificent carpet. And also…. Four sheshes. My blue one was the colour of freedom and the sky. Charlie’s orange was the colour of the desert. Harriet’s mauve was the colour of hospitality. Tish’s beige was the colour of hope. We all looked magnificent in them.

The excellent Hassan – hotel owner – questioned the veracity of the meanings of those colours. In fact, he closed his eyes and almost despairingly head-butted the steering wheel at the sheer…. the sheer nonsensicality of the proclamations of Abdul…. who wasn’t called Abdul in any case.

Now, my take is rather different to Hassan’s. I was well aware that some of Abdul’s statements were – shall we say ‘open to challenge’. I was also aware that we don’t get all this palaver in the Telford Retail Park. “This palaver” was an exquisite floor show as good as ‘An Evening with Ken Dodd’. We shall forever think of Ali Baba’s cavern when we look at our Berber carpet, and think fondly of a memorable birthday for my beloved Tish.


Three of our days are spent in the Middle Atlas on an organized trip complete with 4WD and guide, Hassan. He is a dapper little dude with a genuine love for these mountains, these people, these gorges so beautiful that one’s heart gives a little flutter. Hassan is clearly gratified that we appreciate these wondrous places; he must on occasion feel he is casting pearls before swine.

And THIS is how we do THAT...
Without Tish’s input, I would never have engaged a guide. This is partly out of my fixation with original experience and self-reliance; partly out of modesty - discomfort at the notion of self-important westerners being pandered to by a local underling. But Hassan adds a whole extra dimension. He allows us to relax: not having to be concerned for safety or navigation we can focus on the aesthetics. He is very attentive to the children, who might otherwise have got fed up being constantly herded by me and Tish. In our many conversations he gives us insights into the state of Morocco and its people. He is a law graduate in his late twenties, but has been unable to get his foot in the door of a closed shop. So he feels underutilised and stranded as a waiter and guide for tourists. He earns a pittance; feels unable to marry because he couldn’t support a family; would like to join the brain drain to France but can’t beat the red tape. Despite working at a level way below his ability, Hassan does his job with good grace and great competence.

Hassan and the witless westerners who have conquered the River Dades

The kids are wonderful throughout all this footslogging. There is hardly ever a word of complaint at the dodgy sanitary arrangements, or the hours of walking, or the sheer unfamiliarity of it all. These splendid children are open-minded, and join in wholeheartedly in observing new environments, new people, new customs.
Charlie crossing the River Dades

Harriet especially, before we set out, had some reservations about safety, remembering the capsized canoe incident last summer. For my part, I wanted to reassure them that they were in good hands; that one can go to exotic and challenging places without having to sacrifice all comfort or safety.
Harriet crossing the River Dades

Tish fearlessly crossing a raging torrent. (Just a little stream actually, but if Bear Grylls can make a career out of fake jeopardy, why can't we?)


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