For part one
“J’Alla, J’Alla. Madam, give me bag. Very heavy. Not for lady to carry.”
I watch in embarrassment as he is loaded with tonne after tonne. He just stands there obediently, no sign of resistance, not a complaint, just the odd blink and the occasional neigh. Finally, my mule is fully laden and ready to go!!
I follow Ibrahim, my guide, up the winding mountain path, riddled with guilt, as I carry nothing but a pathetically small rucksack — not daring to look back at my poor mule. Flashes of uselessly packed items rush through my head. Thin fleece, thick fleece, even thicker fleece to sleep in? Well, they did warn that mountain temperatures drop to extreme lows at night. I also brought enough cereal bars to feed the whole village; actually, those bars could be my reward to Mr Mule at the end of the trip. OK, my conscience is a little clearer now.
So, where exactly am I? Let me explain. I needed to get away from the maddening masses in Marrakech. A mere hour away, the village of Imlil, the gateway to the Atlas Mountains, was my salvation. A complete change of scenery, climate and way of life. Fully equipped with crampons, ice axe, gaiters, waterproofs and trekking boots, I am about to spend the next 7 days walking through rock and scree, snow and ice, traversing rivers, stopping in Berber villages that seem to appear out of nowhere from within the mountain, led by my guide Ibrahim, ten other trekkers and of course, my forever faithful mule.
Crisp blue skies, chalet-style huts, rivers and waterfalls, green valleys and knee-deep snow. Am I really not in a Swiss Alpine resort?
Suddenly, the screeching prayers to Allah echoing down the mountain, (and of course the presence of Mr Mule) kind of put it all back into perspective. Yes, this sure is Morocco. I had always imagined dry desert, intense heat, yet here I am wrapped up like a bursting snowman and still freezing.
The base camp of Netner, at 3200m, is the destination of the first day, a moderate six-hour trek from Imlil — nothing too back-breaking. I settle into our gite, which is to become home for the next few days. Ibrahim brings me mint tea and a sumptuous dinner of couscous and lamb, and talks about tomorrow’s climb, which starts at 4am, and attempts the summit of Jebel Toubkal, which at 4167 metres, is the highest mountain in the region. He stresses the importance of crampons and ice axes. They can save lives. One wrong step in the snow can send a climber tumbling down the mountain. I spend a stomach-churning night awake and restless. Why am I so apprehensive? I have climbed mountains before. Actually, it is not nerves, but a traditional stomach bug that seems to faithfully plague me every single time I travel – I sadly miss the climb and crash out in bed — by the end of the day I’m nicknamed “Vomit Queen,” which works wonders for my morale.
My fellow trekkers are back. A fantastic climb apparently. They all made it to the summit. I am happy for them, but an inevitable feeling of envy niggles inside. The harsh reality is that I did not get there.
Still, there are two more peaks to climb, and over the next couple of days, fully recovered from my nasty bug. I tackle both peaks with caution and determination, and both climbs are a success. One is Ouanoukrim, commanding spectacular views of the desert beyond, and the other, the Tizi N’Ouanoums pass, which offers a panorama of the lake below and High and Middle Atlas Mountains all around. Not easy climbs, as the snow is knee-deep and every step exhausting. Some paths are dizzyingly high and narrow and one look below sets off a rush of vertigo that has me in a panic and freeze. Still, I make it. Ibrahim is pleased. No one is injured. The descent is thrilling. Using our rain jackets as sledges and ice axes to steer, we speed down the mountain, and I really mean speed. The momentum I picked up is incredible. I made it to the bottom. Red-cheeked, high on adrenaline, covered in snow, but in one piece.
Back at base camp, the atmosphere is relaxed. Some adventurous spirits have just skied down from the summit of Toubkal, no easy feat. Others are trekking up, carrying their own gear, unlike us weaker beings. Inside the cozy gite, the Berbers light up the fireplace. It is so damn cold. Ibrahim brings lemon tea and a pack of cards. We spend hours playing a brainless card game. The locals join in: guides, porters, cooks. Ibrahim tells Moroccan folk stories. We exchange views on our different cultures.
Its a long night but we bond. I have made some lifelong friends. A Nomadic existence at the moment, yet it feels like home. And this is why I travel. And will never stop!
Photos by Carolyn Bonello
Coming from the tiny island of Malta, my desire to explore the world is intense. Mountains are my greatest inspiration and I especially enjoy trekking in the Alps. I love adventure and have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, been to Everest Base Camp and backpacked through South East Asia. I have visited 30 countries so far and hope to top 50. I work as a Physiotherapist and in my free time love reading, swimming, cycling and any other form of outdoor activity. I keep journals of most of my travels, have written several articles, and love reading about other people’s experiences, as this motivates me to constantly plan where to conquer next!