The little log and stick bridge is supported by sandbags at each end. It has sagged onto the surface of the muddy river, its waters swollen by melting snow from the surrounding peaks. It has no handrail.
Local children skip over its 15-metre span. Village women stoically struggle across, carrying absurdly large bundles of animal fodder on their backs.
Nobody seems to have any trouble. Until it’s our turn – six Dutch hiking friends, one Australian and our Berber guide Khalid, two hours into our five-day trek through the foothills of Morocco’s High Atlas range.
Our cook and three mules with their drivers have gone on ahead, carrying our tents, cooking gear, sleeping bags and spare clothes.
Water splashes over the bridge, making the wood treacherously slippery. We hesitate. There’s a trick to crossing these things. It’s like riding a bike – slow down too much and you wobble. Stride confidently and…
Things happen fast. Two members of our party topple into the river, closely followed by guide Khalid, who loses his footing as he turns back to help. The river is deeper and the current far stronger than it looks. This could end very badly.
It takes a few very anxious minutes for us to steady ourselves and haul them to safety. Our legs have turned to rubber as we totter to the opposite bank. Bert wisely completes the bridge crossing on all fours.
The drama isn’t over yet. One of our friends has sustained an ugly gash on her leg and stitches will be needed. She certainly can’t walk any more.
We’re getting an instant lesson in the problems of hiking in an area that sees few visitors. In the M’Goun Valley we can’t set off the emergency beacon to summon a rescue helicopter. Things work differently here. But work they do.
Khalid dries out his mobile and makes a call. Presently a gentleman on a mule appears up the river. It’s the ambulance service. The patient is ferried to a road, where a vehicle has magically arrived to take her to a doctor. Our guides promise to keep us in touch with her over the next few days while we continue our adventure.
And an adventure it certainly is.
Surviving that early scare has made us slightly euphoric. We may not like to admit it, but the frisson of danger adds to the appeal. The apparent inaccessibility of the country makes us feel more intrepid. We’ve come to a wild place. It’s exotic. It’s primitive. It’s sometimes uncomfortable. We’re not great athletes and certainly not willing risk-takers, but we’re doing something that few outsiders manage.
‘It’s the most famous place in the world that nobody knows about,’ as Bert puts it. I agree. I’ve been in a lot of beautiful places, and usually I’m one of many thousands to see them each year. Here the visitors can be numbered in the hundreds. In the height of the trekking ‘season’, we briefly cross paths with only two other groups and most days we meet none.
Yet it’s extraordinary landscape, in its way as spectacular as anything I’ve ever seen.
The Vallee des Roses (Valley of the Roses) is in full spring bloom. Everything is flourishing – almonds, walnut trees, olives and pomegranates. Wheatfields are separated by rose hedges. Women gather flowers to press into oil and perfume. Birdsong is all around us.
Then we climb cols over 2500metres high, emerging to vistas of cliffs and canyons and snow-speckled mountain peaks. Below us, ochre mud house villages camouflage themselves against the hills. Patches of brilliant green indicate where water has brought the desert to life.
In Agouti Gorge we change our boots for sandals to wade a few kilometres through the cool water of the Talkadit River, with towering sandstone cliffs above and all around the pink-flowering oleanders that are native to the area.
The mules add to the experience. Not only do they carry the heavy stuff, leaving us only water and cameras to tote in our daypacks, the awkward-looking beasts are also sights in themselves. We love watching them being loaded up in the mornings, overtaking us along the track (they travel surprisingly fast and are apparently tireless) and finally waiting patiently at our campsites.
The route we’re trekking is rough and there are no signposts, so Khalid’s guiding is essential. Walking days are long, normally seven to eight hours, and we sometimes climb and descend several hundred metres over rocky terrain – a challenge when the sun is up and there is no shade. But the hiking itself is not overly demanding, even for those of us who are the wrong side of sixty.
Khalid ensures that the pace is manageable, with plenty of short stops for water and the very welcome oranges he carries. We take long lunch breaks in the heat of the day, usually by a river under shady trees.
Most Berber villagers we meet ignore us. The Romans called them ‘barbari’, from which we derived ‘barbarian’. A few return our smiles, waves and greetings, though many do not. They possibly think we’re crazy for being here at all, in a harsh region where few would live if they had a choice. We’re the mad barbarians now.
Herders watch suspiciously as we pass, as if making sure we intruders leave the premises without nicking any goats.
They clearly don’t want to be photographed; ‘I’m working very hard, and I’m not doing it to provide your Instagram shot.’ Fair enough. It’s a pity for us photographers, because there are wonderful faces we’d love to capture, but naturally we respect their wishes and limit our shots to anonymous figures in the landscape.
Amazigh (Berber) villages appear primitive and secretive to our eyes. Clusters of mud huts with tiny windows are enclosed behind high walls, surrounding the tall square tower of the village mosque. Some herding families still live in caves in the hillsides. ‘Medieval,’ says someone. ‘Biblical,’ says someone else, and this seems more accurate.
Sometimes children approach us, hopefully reciting the one phrase they know in French, ‘Donnez-moi een stylo?’ (‘Give me a pen?’) We suspect it’s not really a pen they want; the phrase has become a general one for soliciting donations.
Khalid discourages them. ‘We prefer people to give to organisations, rather than encouraging begging. It gets annoying and creates negative attitudes on both sides.’ Nevertheless, when we meet nomadic families he shares some food with them and it is eagerly devoured.
We learn just a few polite words of Berber language; the lingua franca of Morocco is French. Khalid speaks little English, but his French (and Spanish and Berber) is good. Both of us studied it at school, so I feel encouraged to dust the cobwebs off my high school francais. Our conversations become more complex as my confidence grows and there’s plenty of time for talk on a trek.
After dinner, our guides lead the entertainment, with hand drums, singing and, on one clumsy occasion, dancing. Cook Youssef is the chief drummer and knows all the words. Berber songs have repetitive choruses and lyrics that seem to change only slightly from verse to verse. And when we’re sitting uncomfortably cross-legged on the tent floor, they seem last forever, Berber equivalents of ‘Ten Green Bottles’. There’s no doubting the enthusiasm and good intentions however, so we do our best to join in.
Some nights we pitch tents, though the spring weather is so mild we hardly need them.
When we put up for one night in a Berber family’s farmhouse, sleeping on mattresses lined up on the bare earth floor, I’m delegated to ask Khalid the delicate question about toilet arrangements. The answer is a laugh and a broad sweep of the arm. There’s a lot of desert out there.
He does, however, lead us up the mountain to a spring, where we can perform basic ablutions with only a herd of goats to observe us.
Youssef and his team prepare wonderful food. Lunches are salads of tomatoes, cucumber, corn, olives and smoked fish; dinner usually tagines of couscous, potatoes, rice, vegetables and chicken. This being strict Muslim territory, there is no alcohol. We call it our ‘Betty Ford Clinic – M’Goun Branch.’ With theatrical panache Youssef pours tea with every meal, announcing, ‘Whisky Berbere!’
After five days on the track our clothes are dusty, our bodies are tougher, our French has improved, our camera batteries are low and everything tastes slightly gritty. We’re ready for a beer, a bath and a toilet with a seat.
Magically, in the next village a vehicle is waiting to take us to guesthouse Kasbah Itran. Our injured friend has been well cared for there and is on the road to recovery.
Some day this gorgeous part of the world may see thousands of tourists pouring from buses. There’ll be quad-bike and camel rides and hassling hawkers selling souvenirs. Every bridge will have a handrail.
I hope that day is a long time coming. Possibly Berber villagers feel the same way. Meanwhile, it’s been a privilege to share their place this week.
Merci, thank you, shookran!
Royal Air Maroc flies return from London to Marrakech from EUR171.
Transavia flies return from Amsterdam to Marrakech from EUR120.
Bus from Marrakech to Kasbah Itran via Ouarzazate takes about 6 hours. A private shuttle can be arranged by Kasbah Itran.
Staying/trekking there: Kasbah Itran guesthouse offers 8-day Amazigh Villages adventures, including transfers from Marrakech, 4-5 days trekking, accommodation (guesthouse, tents), guides and all meals from EUR355 p.p. for groups or EUR595 p.p. for two people. See kasbahitran.com
When to go: The trek is offered year round. However, best times are spring (March-May) or autumn (September-October) avoiding the worst summer heat and winter freeze.
First published (in an edited version), Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age, 2015.
The writer travelled at his own expense.