The Nearest Far Away Country

Swimming in Lac d’Ifni below the summit of Jbel Toubkal

“Morocco surpasses all other destinations because it is quite simply ‘le pays lointain le plus proche’ (the nearest far away country)”. Alan

Rohantime recently caught up with Alan Palmer, author of Moroccan Atlas – the Trekking Guide. We have a bit of a Morocco theme this month on Rohantime, starting with the Rohan Trio’s trip to Toubkal, Alan’s story and followed by a review of the Rohan Elite trouser on a recent trek in the High Atlas. We are also pleased to offer one lucky winner the chance to win a signed copy of Moroccan Atlas – the Trekking Guide in our prize draw.

alan palmerAlan first trekked in Morocco 25 years ago. This adventure began serendipitously when he jumped aboard a shared taxi outside Bab er Robb, bound for the trailhead town of Asni, to escape the August heat of Marrakech. Once there he decided to climb Mt Toubkal, at 13,670 ft the highest mountain in North Africa, and made it to the top wearing nothing on his feet but a pair of flimsy lounge shoes. Since then he has travelled widely in Europe, often combining his trips with work as an archaeologist. He has trekked through some of the most spectacular mountainous regions of the Himalaya, Karakorum and Hindu Kush, and has contributed to two other guidebooks, Pakistan and The Silk Road, both by Insight Guides.
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Alan returns to Morocco as often as possible and his latest project is to trek the entire length of the spine of the High Atlas Mountains. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the British Moroccan Society.

That shared taxi outside Bab er Robb must have been interesting?
In truth, I was a little uncertain as this was the first time that I had ever been in a Moroccan taxi. I need not have worried. The taxis really can be good fun, especially the long distance old Mercedes which run between towns. Anybody but anybody can climb aboard, so it is a good opportunity to meet all types of Moroccan people, from suited businessmen to rural farmers picked up at the roadside along the way. A long distance taxi usually only sets off once six passengers have been wedged in to its four passenger seats, so at times some might find them just a little too intimate!
I had only decided to take a taxi at all that day because there seemed to be no buses running. I had understood that it was some kind of public holiday but even when one of the passengers invited me into his home at the end of my taxi ride at Asni, where his family proceeded to slaughter a goat before me in their courtyard, I did not realize that they were celebrating Eid ul – Adha. This is one of the very holiest days in the Muslim calendar, marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Looking back, I feel humble that this family so willingly shared their special day with me. I was, after all just a stranger, but their kindness is so typical of so many Moroccans. At the time I did not understand how privileged I was. My ignorance really does serve to emphasise how important it is to learn as much as you can about the culture of a country before you visit.

What is the great attraction of trekking in Morocco?
Morocco is such an exotic location and such a land of contrasts. I love the way that you can start your visit by being pampered, say in the hammam of a fabulous, traditional riad in the depths of an ancient city medina, and yet, in very little time at all, step out into a dramatic wilderness landscape which can leave you feeling as though you are walking on a different planet. Imlil, the trailhead for treks in the Toubkal region, for example, can be reached in just over an hour from Marrakech. On the other hand, even amidst the rugged and spectacular rock formations of the more remote semi-desert of Jbel Sahro, there is always the chance of crossing paths with a self-reliant nomadic Berber on the move, transporting all his worldly goods on the back of his mule. Such encounters are always key moments in any trek and serve to remind us of the wonders of human diversity.

When is the best time of year for a trekking trip in Morocco?
That really does depend upon where in the Atlas you want to trek. If you are heading for the High Atlas Mountains, say to the Toubkal or Mgoun regions, you could almost go at any time of the year. However, the highest peaks there can be under snow from November through to June and in winter mountain passes quickly become quite impassable, especially for mules. At these times, frustratingly, you would therefore probably be limited to walking below the snow line. The best time of year to head to the High Atlas Mountains is therefore between April and early November. This period roughly equates with the dry season, typified by warm daytime temperatures and beautiful, clear, blue skies. Within this season, the best time of all is probably the quiet months of May and June which allow you to avoid not only the often searing heat of the high summer months of July and August but also the steady build up of other trekkers.
On the other hand, if you are planning to trek further south, in either the Jbel Sahro or the Sirwa regions, on the flanks of the Anti-Atlas Mountains, you should go between October and April. At this time of year, although nights can be very cold, temperatures are likely to be very pleasant during the day. Outside of this period, daytime temperatures consistently soar to very uncomfortable heights which would certainly remind you of your close proximity to the Sahara.
Of course, there are exceptional days within any season. Once, while sitting at 4167m on the summit of Jbel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, in the middle of August, I was even treated to a brief flurry of snow!

What practical advice would you offer to someone planning a trekking trip to Morocco and the High Atlas?
The best advice that I can give is to keep your sense of humour. There are huge cultural differences between Morocco and home and there will be times when your patience will be tested to its limit. To begin with, life moves at a different pace in Morocco. Taxis, of course, do not run to timetables, your gîte owner might only begin the preparation for your evening meal once you have placed your order, and one guide’s half day walk is another trekker’s six-hour haul. There is also the question of what makes a fair price. The taxi driver giving you a short ride across town, the guardian at the local hammam , and the stall holder in the souk, not to mention your guide who will lead you through the mountains, will all see you as a Westerner and therefore as rich. The price they quote you will almost always be more than the price to be quoted to a local. However frustrating this might be, remain courteous at all times and negotiate with a smile. After all, you will rarely see a Moroccan losing his temper. Whatever else you do, negotiate a price that you are happy with before accepting any form of service or entering into any sort of agreement.

Lynda against the backdrop of Tizi MezzikIs it safe to drink the water and what about the food?
One of the simplest but most pleasurable delights of trekking anywhere in the world is the opportunity to drink cool spring water from a fresh mountain source. In the High Atlas there are many opportunities to do so, although fewer in the much drier and more southerly Anti-Atlas. Whatever the quality of the water you are drinking, however, my advice is always to play safe. This is a lesson I was taught years ago by my partner, Lynda. Now I never drink any water in the mountains that I have not treated. My preferred method is to use a small filter pump that I always carry with me as its filtering process has no effect at all on the natural, fresh taste of the water. I sometimes think that maybe I am being over cautious but then I remind myself that, throughout the 13 years that I have held to this maxim, I have never had so much as the smallest tummy rumble on a trek… and believe me, at times I have drunk some highly dubious water in some fairly appalling locations.
It is easy to eat safely in the mountains, too. If you go with a guide and cuisinier (cook), or even if you eat in a gîte d’étape (lodge), your main meal, typically tagine or couscous, will be piping hot, freshly prepared and, usually, quite delicious. Salads, too, form an intrinsic part of most trekking menus, especially at lunch times. Understandably, sometimes people worry about eating uncooked food, but as long as you ensure that your salad is freshly prepared, there is no need for concern.

Green hiking what’s that all about?
The mountain environment is very fragile and our very presence has an impact upon it; if we are not very careful, this impact can be for the worst. It can be greatest when we visit a region that is little used to outside visitors. For instance, many mountain villages do not have the means to support the needs of a large trekking group nor, indeed, the means to cope with the material waste that it might generate. We need to think very carefully about what we carry into the mountains and what we carry out again. Despite this, the resourcefulness of many Berber people is quite astonishing. In the Atlas you can see doors constructed from hammered out tin cans, jewellery crafted from low-denomination coins and shoes salvaged from discarded strips of worn-out car tyre.
Ideas, too, can be fragile; it is just as important that we are sensitive to local customs and avoid eroding them. I read recently in a leaflet issued by one very reputable travel agency which specializes in Morocco as a holiday destination that it is now acceptable for Westerners to bathe topless around city hotel swimming pools. It certainly is not and in the more conservative mountain regions of the country there are a thousand other less obvious ways in which we can unwittingly cause offence. What is more, such is the gentleness of many Berbers, the people who live in the mountains, that we can so very easily cause offence to those who are too polite to let us know.
We have a responsibility to be both materially and culturally sensitive. We may be more technologically advanced in the West, and undoubtedly there is much that we can teach the people of the Atlas, notably in areas such as medicine and hygiene, but in return there is much that we can learn from them. The opportunity for learning is a two-way process: always tread softly.

How safe is Morocco as a destination for trekking?
Morocco is a very safe destination for trekking. It disappoints and frustrates me that such a wonderful country is often perceived to be a difficult one in which to travel. The crime rate in Morocco is in fact low and becomes almost non-existent once you head for the mountains. Muslims are asked through the Qur’an to show kindness and respect towards strangers. The Berbers particularly adhere to this calling and justifiably have earned themselves a reputation for warm hospitality. I will never forget the time when Lynda and I became hopelessly lost, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, during an early trek in the Mgoun region. Darkness was falling and we had neither food nor water nor even a tent with us. Just as all hope was fading of finding a safe ending to the day, a lone goatherd emerged from out of the gloom. Although we had no language in common, his intuitive human understanding immediately took over and without hesitation he led us through the descending pitch black of the night to his home. There, he provided us with a meal and a bed for the night, willingly giving over to us the best room in his house, and the only one with so much as a carpet on the floor.

The nearest far away country?
If you want to lift yourself out of the routines of daily life and be swiftly transported into a distant world which you perhaps thought only existed in an Arabian Nights fantasy, this is the country to visit. Culturally and physically, Morocco could hardly be more different from home. With its jewel-studded palaces and its organic mountain villages, with its miraculous life-giving desert oases and its pungent, colourful, bustling souks, this is a land which will set both your heart and your soul free. All this, and so much more, in just over three hours from Heathrow ….

Is there much opportunity to meet the local people?
There is every opportunity to meet local people. From the student sitting next to you on the bus wanting to practise his English on you, to the tout in the souk wanting to guide you to his brother’s shop, from the children following you through their village besieging you to give them “un stylo”, “un bonbon” or “un dirham”, to the family of your guide whose house you might be taken to for a relaxing mint tea, you are likely to meet local people at almost every turn. Sadly, however, who you meet is likely to be influenced by issues of gender which are themselves rooted in Morocco’s conservative culture and tradition. If you are a female who travels alone or within a female-only group, you might receive more unwanted attention from local men than you might ever imagine. Conversely, if you are male, you are unlikely to make the acquaintance of many local women at all, certainly once you have left behind the cosmopolitan city and have entered the world of the mountains. Probably the best way to travel is as a male and female couple because this way you have a chance of experiencing the best of both worlds and fewer of the drawbacks of either. As a couple, doors will be opened to you which would otherwise have remained closed. Better still, as most Moroccans love children, why not travel with one or two of your own ….?

You can buy Moroccan Atlas – the Trekking Guide includes Marrakech City Guide from www.trailblazer-guides.com for £12.99 ( P&P is free anywhere in the world).

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If you have any questions for Alan please use the comments box below.

Competition now closed – thank you to everyone who took part.

Gift Your Gear BANSept16

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