Road atlas

Posted by Tom Povey on 06/11/2004
Photo: Tom Povey.

Tom Povey loses himself in Morocco

When I awoke it was silent, but still completely dark. My face was buried in the folds of a sleeping bag, drawn up tightly to form a spout. It was now thick with ice crystals, cold and wet on my nose. The tent air was freezing cold. I contorted myself in an attempt to loosen my arms, which had wedged at unlikely angles during the night.

When I had regained some feeling in one of my arms, I extracted the wads of toilet paper that I had stuffed into my ears the night before. Then, savouring the experience, I let the silence wash over me. I was soothed. I felt tranquil. Then there was a noise. At first it came as a gentle snuffling and shuffling; like a mouse, or another small rodent. Then there was an unmistakable sniffle, and I realised, belatedly, that it was my companion, squashed in beside me in the tent, and now, presumably, awake. “Arthur?” I said quietly.

“The answer is no!” The owner of the voice was the sleeping bag beside me, which had devoured its victim like a boa constrictor. “What do you mean, no? I haven’t asked anything yet,” I retorted. “That’s the answer to whatever you were about to ask.” Baffled, I wondered whether our three-day blizzard-enforced incarceration in the tent had finally sent him loopy. I pondered this in silence. Then the sleeping bag spoke, “I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time. That is what I’m going to say if you call me up with any more stupid ideas… 'the answer is no'. I’m sorry Tom, the answer is no,” the bag emphasised.

I found my torch and turned it on. The tent walls were icy and sagged with the weight of the snow. Tiny avalanches let loose as I bashed the walls, fashioning a space to sit up. I unzipped the door of the tent and dug about in the snow-filled porch with wet, numb hands. I found the stove and a pan, knocked the worst of the snow off them and pulled them inside, “Shall we stick some coffee on?” “Yep, lovely, “ Arthur’s face emerged from the sleeping bag, balaclava-ed, bearded and running with snot. “Might taste a bit funny though. I had to go in the night,” he added. “What do you mean, go?” I scrutinised him. “You know pee. Don’t be a fuss-pot, it's totally sterile! What do you say we have some choccy with it? I say we have some!”
A decision made in haste to embark on a trip to foreign climbs is invariably something which one lives to regret, and this trip would, in due course, prove no exception. It had been arranged in rare haste. Less than a week before we left England, whilst browsing aimlessly in Stanford’s, I’d come across a relief map of North Africa. Spotting white where there should only have been a sort of sandy brown, I learned that North Africa was not merely the desert I had previously supposed it to be. There were mountains there too. Big ones.

I telephoned Arthur in the hospital in which he worked. He was operating, “Hi, fancy going climbing in Morocco?” I asked casually, enjoying the feeling of spontaneity that it gave me. “Yah, why not? When are we going? Tell you what, we’re working on an eye, could you book the tickets?” Six days later we landed in Casablanca. It was an early morning in mid-March, and very hot.

Even King Mohammed VI, depicted in the numerous murals that bedecked the airport (and, we later discovered, every other official and non-official building in Morocco), seemed to be sweating. We traveled by train to Marrakesh, from where we took a bus heading south and into the High Atlas Mountains. In Asni, as the sun went down, we haggled with the driver of a dilapidated Mercedes taxi. Long after dark, we arrived in Imlil, several miles further than the end of the last metalled road. Utterly exhausted, we collapsed in the marketplace. We lay on our packs amongst the orange skins, donkey crap, and general detritus of the square, and gave in to an overwhelming urge to do nothing. After a while we were surprised by a young Berber man, who, unnoticed atop an old lorry a few yards away, had been quietly observing us.“You are tired,” he announced, in perfect English, “I shall now find you somewhere to sleep. Perhaps you will please follow me.” It would have been foolish to decline. We did not.

The following morning was cold, and the concrete floor we had slept on seemed harder than it had been the night before. Our English-speaking friend was nowhere to be seen. We brushed our teeth in an indescribable lavatory, which I assumed was reserved exclusively for guests, and went back to our room. After a length of time that was long enough for us to have discussed leaving several times, but short enough that we had not yet left, a tiny, toothless man with very dark, wrinkled skin, and skeletal limbs appeared at the doorway of our room. He stood there unselfconsciously and fished about within the folds of his long black robe, looking for something. His costume reminded me of the Blackfriars in Oxford, though there was something altogether less jolly about this Blackfriar.

“Good morning, are you the proprietor?” said Arthur, cheerily. The Blackfriar said nothing, and then, majestically, held out three eggs. The smooth shells emphasised the impressively gnarled and twisted hand that held them. The tough, grey-black folds of skin made him look like an old olive tree. We looked at each other in bafflement, then back at the Blackfriar. Then he opened his mouth very wide, tipped back his head, and held one egg aloft, directly above his mouth. Just as I though he was going to perform a trick, Arthur blurted out in excitement, “It’s our brekky!” “Of course we will have some,” he continued, grinning, “Make us up a big Berber omelette, I’m famished. Can we have coffee with it?” The Blackfriar grinned back a toothless grin, then vanished. “He is Berber isn’t he?” said Arthur.

“I’ve no idea; he looked it.” “Oh well, at least he’s going to make us some brekky. I’m famished.” Stuffed with Berber omelette, we struck out at a gentlemanly pace into the mountains. At Aroumd (the highest village in the valley) we engaged a friendly muleteer to carry our packs. We loaded the mule, and, light of step, climbed into the treeless desert of the Moroccan Atlas.

The moment we were out of sight of Aroumd, our muleteer unloaded the mule, exaggeratedly hefted our bags several times, mimed that his mule was very old, and made us feel thoroughly guilty for punishing the poor beast out of pure laziness. Then, having doubled the agreed price (presumably to buy his mule its favourite hay), he reloaded the packs, swung athletically into place on top of them, and remained there for the next five hours, all the while swigging from our only water bottle. We followed at a distance of a quarter of a mile, slowly shrinking through dehydration.

Sometime in the late afternoon we reached the snowline (3200 m). There, leaning against a small crest of snow beside the path, were two packs. Ours. The only signs of either muleteer or mule were a few strands of hay, and an empty water bottle. Arthur sat down wearily, then, lying back in a windblown drift of snow, adopted a puzzled look.

“Do you think he’s buggered off?” he asked “I reckon that he has.” I joined him in the drift, and enjoyed the cool sensation of the melting snow slowly wetting my dusty trousers. Arthur stared up at the sky, a rich turquoise, with here and there a long thin finger of pink candyfloss. He closed his eyes and asked, idly, “Do you think he’ll come back?” “I suppose he probably won’t.”.

The blizzard lasted for three days. We emerged into a beautiful land of deep snow and jagged black cliffs, savoured morning coffee (with just a hint of pee), stretched out crumpled limbs, and decided to travel south, deeper into the mountains. The sun was intense, and we soon realised that it had been foolish of us to leave our hats at home. We fashioned turbans from our cotton sheets, which we refilled with snow at regular intervals - a revitalising ritual.

Higher up, the snow lay deeper on the ground, and eventually, when it became thigh deep, we were forced to turn around. Instead of going back, however, we climbed high on the snowfields on the east side of the valley in an attempt to find a pass through the cliffs that guard the Saharan side of the Atlas. Several times we climbed to the top of a gully but, barred by sheer stretches of vertical rock, were forced to descend, dejected, to the open snowfields below. By late afternoon, the snow was wet, and the going desperately slow. I furrowed my way diagonally up a fifty-degree slope. It was steep enough that a slip would have meant a fall all the way to the valley, over a thousand feet thousand feet below, and there were enough protruding rocks to ensure a pretty rough ride. A large band of rock ran vertically down the centre of the slope, splitting it into to large snowfields. I reached it, glad of the relative safety it offered, took off my pack, and collapsed onto the fl attest boulder I could find.

I broke off a chunk of ice, and started to suck on a corner. In the distance Arthur was sitting in the snow. I could feel his exhaustion across the slope that separated us, and, suddenly, I remembered that there were twenty-five years between us. I felt sorry for him, and guilty for dragging him him to Africa so that he should suffer. The years that had vanished so easily in the normal larking and silliness of our friendship were suddenly apparent.

Then, pity and guilt were replaced with an overwhelming sense of admiration and affection. As he stumbled towards me, I realised that here was a man who, having prepared for it by spending thirty years on-call in a hospital, would set out to cross the Atlas Mountains at the drop of a hat. Just when everyone else was complaining about the decline in standards of service at the Marriott, and worrying about getting the garden in shape for the summer, Arthur had thrown a spare jumper into the back of the car, glued up a hole in his parka, and set out on an extended tramp though the highest mountains in North Africa.

“You OK, Arthur?” I asked. He looked awful. “I think so,” he wheezed. Then, resting his forehead against a rock, “Actually, I don’t think I can make it. I’m completely knackered.”

We sat there in silence for a moment while he regained his breath. The sun was unpleasantly hot. “Come on, let me take something,” I said. “OK, how about the Smash?” He produced two enormous plastic jars from his pack. He put them side-by-side on a rock and we both stared at them. “Do you think we’ll eat all that?” he said. “We would have to be pretty hungry, wouldn’t we?” There was a long pause. “Do you think Berbers eat Smash?” he mused.

That early evening, and miraculously, since our one-centimetre-to-ten-kilometre Michelin road map of Morocco had proved almost useless for navigation, we stumbled upon the pass. The valley fell far below us as we kicked the final steps up the thin cravat of snow in the neck of the couloir. Before reaching the top, we checked the altimeter - it read 3600m, this was definitely it.

We reached the saddle at the top, and a new world opened up before us. Framed by towering ochre walls, and shimmering red in the sun, lay the fl at and arid vastness of the North African desert. We stood there, panting, and stared.

“Golly! Is that the Sahara?” said Arthur. I looked at him, and found that he too, was moved by the vastness of it all. We both gazed long, out, across the dunes, “Do you know? I think it is,” I observed. “Well”, said Arthur, drawing in his first Saharan breath, “I say we jolly well take a peek at it. What do you say you old fool? I say we do.”



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