A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant
Author: Anita Goodfellow
I stuck my head out of the tent just as a man with a large shaggy chocolate and white sheep draped across his shoulders walked by. He gave me a cheery smile as he clung on to the wriggling animal and strode purposefully on.
A few minutes later there was the unmistakable sound of knives being sharpened. The meat eaters in our group enjoyed their meal that night.
We were trekking in the Jebel Sahro region of South East Morocco. I knew little about Jebel Sahro and had a vague expectation of an arid, lifeless landscape. It offered much more than that. The colours were ever changing, the mountains glowing orange in the morning sunlight, changing to shades of purple as the day progressed, huge grotesque pinnacles silhouetted against the cerulean sky.
Hajj, our Berber guide, would enthusiastically name the different rock formations and, glad of an excuse to stop, an animated discussion would ensue on whether said rock did indeed look like an elephant or a camel. Hajj was about six foot tall and walked with an apparently unhurried stride, whilst the rest of the office softened group struggled to keep up.
Trekking along ancient caravan routes we encountered nomadic families eking out a meagre existence from the barren land. Home was an open-sided shelter covered with brightly coloured tarpaulin, surrounded by a dry stone wall to house their goats or, if they were fortunate, a camel or two. Now and then we would stumble across the luminous verdant green of an oasis, complete with palm and almond trees, a colourful contrast to the bleached environment beyond. An oasis would usually mean a permanent dwelling, the mud walls blending in seamlessly with the sandy brown earth. Our arrival would be announced by the barking of a dog, not there to guard against a human threat, but to protect the goat herds from wolves. Inquisitive children would peek at us from doorways or follow us, barefoot, along the path calling “Merci pour un stilo.”
In an almond grove I hoisted a bucket of water from the inky depths of a well and, being careful not to spill this precious resource, joined a nomadic woman crouched on the bank of a parched river bed. She was dressed in an assortment of multi-coloured garments, worn in layers to protect her from the cold mountain nights. Her head was covered by a cerise scarf. After exchanging “salaams” we squatted together in the shade of the trees, scrubbing our clothes. I guessed she was a new mother as dripping baby clothes festooned the branches around her. I breathed in the sweet scent from the delicate white almond blossom and listened as bees buzzed overhead.
At night we ate soups, tagines and couscous served up with warm flat breads. The fiery harissa soup made our lips tingle and eyes water. The bread was made fresh every day, baked on hot stones.
One evening a young herds-woman guided a flock of about 100 goats around the campsite. I sat on a rock, still warm from the sun, and marvelled at her skill in controlling so many animals.
The freezing nights spent under canvas were a small price to pay to enjoy such a remote corner of Morocco, a place where nomadic tribesmen still lived as they must have done for hundreds of years.
At night we would gaze up at the vast star studded sky. “Night River,” Hajj said pointing to the Milky Way.
On our last day we hauled ourselves up to the summit of Amalou n’Mansour. At 2,712 metres it is the highest mountain in the Jebel Sahro. Perched on a snow encrusted bolder we could see an overview of our entire trekking route. Beyond, the empty Sahara stretched endlessly towards the horizon. In the opposite direction, the snow capped peaks of the High Atlas hovered in the distance. Marrakech waited for us on the other side.