There are some stories you just don’t want to write and the ending of my glorious 1500km expedition down the Draa River in Morocco is one of them. I don’t want to write it not because it was a disaster or a terrible experience but the opposite. It was one of the best things I have done in a life, which I am lucky enough to say is full of great things, and by writing this final blog I am bringing it to a close.
The expedition started on the 9th January 2019 on the shores of the Mansour Eddahbi Dam just below Ouarzazate. 81 days later after 1500km up barren mountains, along the Draa date palms, over the grand dunes and across the empty wilderness, we ended at the Atlantic at the mouth of Oued Chbika just south of Tan Tan. My companions, Brahim Ahalfi (Expedition Leader), Brahim Boutkhoum (Guide and Cook) and Addi Bin Youssef (Camelteer) and I walked into the sea together, singing and with our arms and our hearts linked.
It has been a proper Girl’s Own adventure. We scaled mountains and crossed deserts, walking always from well to well and scanning the horizon for signs of water. I discovered a lost city and walked over stone age settlements where arrow heads and sharp flints from millennia ago lay scattered. There were mysteries along the way like the giant four metre tombs of the Draa Valley giants which are itching for further research. Did spaceships land on the Draa thousands of years in the past and is that what the giant winged structures on top of the cols represent?
I spent three months walking in rhythm with nature, seeing every dawn and every sunset, watching the moon go through three full cycles when at its brightest it illuminated the earth with the clarity of early daylight.
I spent three months with three Amazigh (Berber) men working completely as a team, sharing all our hardships, discoveries and daily joys.
Addi, the naughty one, always a bit grumpy in the morning but then full of fun and a great teller of very obscure nomadic riddles. I fell for it when he urged me to eat a cactus leaf telling me how delicious it was – but I only fell for it once.
Brahim Boutkhoum, the actor of the group, bringing his stories alive and holding us enthralled during the long nights in the tent. Also, a man who can bake an almond and orange cake in the middle of the desert and who brought us a touch of elegance with his fabulous array of sunglasses.
Brahim Ahalfi, a shining soul, a man who has learnt the Quran off by heart and taught me about the religion from the inside out. He helped me in every way he could, thinking of things I needed or wanted before I even knew I did. He gave me my desert name – Zahra, which means flower and said to me one day, “We only have one Zahra, we have to tend her very carefully.”
It was a journey of small stories like pearls on a string. We were walking through the dunes of Erg Chegaga on a bright, still morning. I’d spent an hour with Addi as he recited the alphabet, which he was learning, and he taught me some new words of tashlaheet. Then, I’d fallen back to be with Brahim Ahalfi, who regaled me with his take on the education system in Morocco reminding me forcibly of my father who is an outspoken socialist.
“Fox, fox,” yelled Addi from the front, and we hurried up to catch him. By the time we got to the top of the dune, the fox had long gone. We broke out the binoculars but there was no trace.
“Come, Zahra, come,” said Brahim Ahalfi,”Here are the tracks, we will follow them.” We consigned our camels to Addi and set off, following the trail which was clear on the pristine sand. The fox had trotted off at its leisure but we had to race to catch him.
“Run, run Zahra,” yelled Brahim who had gained about 200 metres on me and was leaping gazelle-like across the sands. Always game, I speeded up the dune. “Shhhh, Zahra, you are running too heavily – he will hear you,” said Brahim. Chastened, I tried to run and tip toe and stop panting simultaneously and almost suffered a cardiac arrest.
Brahim was undaunted as we circled back to the fox’s lair and then saw his tracks take off again into the distance. My face got redder and redder as I followed my swift leader. Eventually we stopped on top of a high dune and did a final scan of the country. The fox tracks disappeared up and over the horizon but we had lost him. Traitorously, part of me was glad as the effort of running extra kilometres over the dunes when we still had camp to get to was exhausting me.
“Don’t worry, Zahra, you WILL see a fox inchallah,” Brahim said as we walked back. And he was right, I saw one a few weeks later as we were walking through the dry wilderness of the Draa.
Every day had its fox moment – a daily treat or miracle. It could be anything from having a ring-necked dove come and visit us in camp to finding a stone shaped like Africa and this for me was the point, it was the small things.
In the great calm of the wilderness you have time to see and hear everything: a tiny wildflower in a tumble of rocks, the halting song of the black and white mulla mulla bird, the flash of a fat green caterpillar undulating along the sand.
If you enjoyed this story, there are more adventures from Morocco in my latest book, My 1001 Nights
The Draa Expedition was organised by Jean-Pierre Datcharry of Desert et Montagne Maroc and you can book with him to do part of the route or something similar.