When I head off on one of my solo 'shut-off from work' holidays away from the station after a tourist season of hard work, you can forget lazing around on a beach, reading books or sipping cocktails. Following months of planning (and some regular training thrown in for good measure), I like nothing more than to take a break and put my feet up.... usually on the side of a mountain in some far off, remote location.
It's like a physical meditation for me; it counterbalances my work and my lifestyle at home on the station, where Sunday is the first day of the working week (and Saturday the last!!) .My holiday needs to provide a complete break from the regular pace of life and when I'm focused on just one thing, it takes away all the other stresses and pressures in my life.
Things don't always go to plan of course, and at almost the last moment (following mounting pressure from family and friends), I finally made the decision not to travel to Senegal this trip. The deadly Ebola epidemic was escalating totally out of control, ravaging parts of West Africa, and while there had only been the one reported case in Senegal, the home where he was staying was very close by, in the village of my friends. I wasn't concerned about contracting Ebola, but more the consequences of arriving into Ethiopia (the second part of this holiday) with the flu, looking obviously unwell, possibly with a temperature. Immigration would take one look at where I'd just come from and that would be the end of my hiking adventure in the Simien Mountains. So, all things considered, Senegal would have to wait for another time.
So a hasty decision needed to be made to fill the first two weeks of my break. Somewhere easily reached from Dubai (where my flights to/from Senegal originated) a guaranteed hike, a vacancy for me and one that would fit in with my flights from Australia and then onto Ethiopia. Being early November (the start of winter in Europe, thus the end of their hiking season) there were only three options available; Spain (they never replied to my enquiry), Jordan (that would have been awesome but Gary vetoed it immediately...too close to Syria/Iraq) or Morocco. So, by default, the Anti-Atlas Mountains in Morocco was it.
Alex and I had loved our travels through Morocco the previous year, and as it happened we hadn't had time to venture down to the south-western corner of the country, so other than arriving and departing from Casablanca – the remainder of the two weeks were spent exploring new territory, discovering the dramatic and isolated Anti Atlas Mountains and trekking amongst beautiful terraced valleys and stunning desert oases with the support of a guide, cook, mules and tented 'wild' camps, (a term which indicates there are no facilities other than what you carry in yourselves).
The Anti-Atlas Mountains, the southern-most range of mountains in Morocco, stand as a barrier to the Sahara Desert, and are somewhere to visit if you, like me, have a yearning for real and intoxicating wilderness and are seeking the chance for real insight into Berber culture - in a very quiet and hassle free region. Alex and I had 'done' the touristy side of Morocco last year, so this trip I was looking for the opportunity to explore the country away from the hawkers and noise of the city, to encounter its landscapes and people. As it turned out, Morocco was a brilliant choice and this proved to be a week to forget the outside world and live totally in the moment....a winning combination of solitude and the chance to meet local people. And it very quickly became apparent that the trip was graded challenging for a reason ... by the end of it I found walking down the street without watching where I placed each foot a challenge!
The area is characterised by dramatic valleys, harsh red rock deserts, craggy mountain ridges, and distant snow covered peaks fading into the desert haze and, as expected for such harsh but beautiful terrain, human life was spread thin and far. Other than the major walled market town of Taroudant, where our trek ended – it was predominantly limited to scattered, small Berber settlements, clinging like patches of lichen to the unforgiving landscape, reminding me of the Old Testament. The narrow, windy streets– where it was necessary to dodge not only impossibly overloaded mules and their handlers but also their droppings, were lined with small shops and homes, traditionally made from pise, a combination of stone and mud that has served the indigenous Berber people well over the centuries. Walking through small villages brings close contact with the local way of life and the open hospitality (as long as you didn't wish to photograph them that is) of even the smallest and most remote settlements never failed to surprise me, considering this region is very seldom visited by westerners. In fact our local guide Abdullah leads the only hiking tours through this remote region, and it's this friendliness that makes hiking in this part of Morocco so worthwhile.
Due to the lack of rain in the Anti-Atlas Mountain region, the land is unforgiving: rocky with limited top soil and the principal vegetation – Barbary fig cactus, argon and thistles – are spiny. Without the snow melt of the higher High Atlas chain, the Berber people have traditionally eked out a living from agricultural terraces which still cover the hillsides in rows knitted between dry stone walls. It's an unfortunate fact of life that pretty much every male heads to the cities for work once they are old enough, leaving just the women, elderly men and children at home to work the plots of land. They work incredibly hard and it shows on their faces and the stoop of their bodies from a relatively young age.
Over the years I've learnt the quickest way to be-friend locals who don't understand a word I say is by showing them images of my family on my camera, followed by over exaggerated charades designed to enquire - 'how many children do you have, do you have a husband, are you at school, where do you live, can I please have some water etc.' On this particular trip, after suffering a severe bout of Bali Belly and having to rely on Ishmael, one of our mule men and his mule rather than walking for one day, I resorted to just calling him and then waving my toilet roll when I needed to stop urgently. He would graciously squat down and rest, not looking around- as there was more often than not nowhere to actually duck behind!
I will always remember hearing giggling at sunrise one morning as we were packing up camp, turning to see five women walking back from a wedding at sunrise, the golden morning sun on their brightly coloured clothes quite breathtaking; Hearing and then spotting the biblical like scenes of robed goat herders across the valley, the goats seemingly clinging to the side of the mountains with ease; Getting to the top of each peak or pass and taking in the 360 degree views, and then getting down again; Watching Ishmael coming up a vertiginous slope with extra water for us on a 40 degree day - in his slippers; Women collecting water from wells and streams; The contrast between the rugged sandstone desert rock and slate scree with the beautiful oasis villages with irrigated fields, crops and palm trees towards the end of our week's hike ; Taking my boots off and dipping my feet into irrigation channels to cool down; Lazy lunches in oases followed by a siesta; Staring into the campfire; Banter; A full body wash in the slightly slimy pool at the final camp and the opportunity to camp in remote and unspoilt sites – which inevitably meant days and distances were long, but then at the end of the day the delicious meal and candlelit conversation were worth the journey.