I secretly described my first day of hiking in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco as the “death march.” Unacclimatized for a starting altitude of 8,500 feet at Oukaimeden, Morocco’s only ski resort, but with the ski lift nonfunctioning, we climbed another 1,100 feet to the pass called Tizi n’Edal, near the highest peak in the Atlas: the Toubkal Mountain region. There followed a descent of nearly 3,000 feet on the worst scree my weary hiking feet have ever encountered. But no matter, I have good, strong knees, about the only competent part of my ancient anatomy, and there at the bottom was a lovely, lush green meadow. Foolishly jubilant, I thought it would surely be our campsite. Wrong. Another two miles of traverse followed, then a final 300-foot climb to a “picturesque” site dotted with our tents. That last 300 feet felt like climbing Mount Everest.
Moroccans call mountain passes tizi. With my somewhat jaundiced outlook on that particular day, I thought the word must be misspelled, that in fact, you would get into a dizzy tizzy when you passed through them.
We had two groups of mules with us. The main body carried all the supplies, tents, kitchen equipment, and drinking water. Another four mules were the “riding beasts” to help out the weary. On this first day, the lead mule was literally pushing her nose into my backside, nudging me to move faster. I was still proud and determined to get into camp under my own steam, however. I must confess I rode part of the day, when I felt worn out.
The Atlas Mountains form three distinct ranges in Morocco, each running more or less parallel to the Mediterranean and Atlantic coast. The Atlas Moyen, or Middle Atlas, is to the north, closest to the coastline. The High Atlas stretches twelve hundred miles and covers most of the territory sloping down to the Sahara. The Anti-Atlas is the smallest, tucked away to the west and closest to the Atlantic.
My trip took me to the High Atlas, where the Berber people live; they speak Arabic, some French, and Tachelhayt, which is their own language. They are Muslims and provide most of the country’s agricultural products. They also weave carpets, which they use in their homes and sell in the markets. The women dress colorfully and leave their hair and face uncovered. Still, getting permission for pictures is almost impossible.
The second day was a pleasant up-and-down meander along valleys amply supplied by streams. It was my first sight of the many Berber villages, which cling, sometimes precariously, to the mountainside. Some houses were literally suspended between rocks, others sat firmly and squatly on solid ground, the flat roofs weighed down with grass, mud, and small scree. Built of mud, many looked in an imminent state of dissolution. This was not an illusion. Berbers do not repair or rebuild houses fallen victim to the rains and floods. So there were many ruins interspersed among the lived-in houses.
Under the influence of such movies as Lawrence of Arabia and The Sheltering Sky, my mental image of an Atlas mountain was a huge, solidified sand dune. As the days passed, and we walked over different parts of this long range, I saw rocks aplenty: awesome black peaks, vertical red walls, yellow undulating formations–geological reminders of a violent past–and lopped-off promontories, now convenient, natural habitats for a village or fortification.