Imagine that you are in the place that you love the most, doing the thing you love the most. Take a moment to just enjoy that thought. That is my overwhelming feeling at the start of this Draa Expedition. I am two weeks in now and every day is still filled with wonder and discovery. It’s a long trek – 1200km – and I am sure that there will be dark times but not yet, not today.
Our first day was with the great Al Mansour El Dahhabi dam behind us, a giant basin of water which supports all the life of the city of Ouarzazate and the rich agricultural land of the Draa Valley. My companions for the journey, Brahim (guide), Brahim (camelteer) and Addi (camelteer) and I forged those first few overtures of companionship as we bivouacked on its banks. That first evening as the sun went down, a pure voice sang out the evening prayers and one of the great pleasures of the trip was revealed to me. Brahim C is a Hafiz al Quran, which means that he has learnt the whole Quran off by heart and now every morning I get up to the sound of him reciting it as dawn breaks.
We headed straight into the barren mountains that fringe Jebel Saghro, the mountain of drought, leaving the water behind us. Great chunks of black rock and broken stones strew the path and it is hostile territory for the camels whose elegant hover-pad feet are designed for sand. Alicia, who produced and directed, Morocco to Timbuktu, for BBC2 is with me filming this first part. We are doing a TV taster and also planning a YouTube series and she spends the days running up and down the mountain to get the perfect shot. We are both given Arabic names by Brahim C: I am Zahra and Alicia is Hannan.
Brahim G is not only a guide, he is a whizz in a camp kitchen. I had imagined that our rations would be basic and boring, sardines and bread for lunch and vegetable stew for dinner, so when Brahim G called me over on day 3 to learn how to make a tangerine cake in the middle of the desert mountains, I just about did a dance of joy.
Our daily rhythm is governed by natural light and the camels. We get up at dawn, have breakfast, break camp and load the camels. Once the camels are loaded, they keep going until we get to our bivouac. They maintain their pace whatever the terrain and if you stop for a pee or to take a photo it means you have to run to catch up. Mid-morning break is a five minute rest with snacks of fresh tangerines and biscuits. The camels love the tangerine peel and I think I like feeding it to them even more than I like that first taste of pure orange every day. We usually walk around five hours a day and the last half hour often involves complex discussions on the best place for the camels. Sometimes, I have been looking longingly at at verdant green camping spot under a shady palm tree only to have to head up a stony hill away from a tempting piece of farmland to a hungry camel.
Once we stop the main thing is to get everything off the camels as quickly as possible so they can go and graze. They love the acacia trees and are unaffected by the five centimetre long thorns that always find their way through my sandals, “God made the camel so that those thorns are just like a little piece of salad to them,” is Brahim G’s explanation.
Water is the leit motif of our journey. It’s one of the reasons I’m doing this expedition – to explore first hand the effects of man’s intervention on the water sources of our world. What has struck me hard so far is that wherever there is a tiny drop of water, there is life. Stopping for a moment in the barren mountains, I loop in a 100 metre circle and find five different kinds of tiny flowers hidden in the rocks, existing off dew. We cross a pass and come down into a valley where there is an underground river and suddenly everything is green and the farmer comes down for a chat and to show off his magnificent crop of broad beans, which pop in my mouth.
For us also, water is vital for life and we travel from well to well, bivouacking near enough to fill up and carry the giant plastic containers to camp. I can carry one for about 250 metres before I have to stop and change arms.
We have been meeting fellow travellers on the way: nomads whose way of life has gone on unchanged for centuries and whose creed is hospitality. We are ushered into the guest tent, set a little apart, and crouched there we enjoy sweet tea, fermented goat’s milk, butter, freshly baked bread and dates. It’s a time to relax and chat and Addi, who is a nomad himself, always has news of different families and tribes to exchange.
This life is dictated by the journey and that in itself gives every day a sense of purpose. Then, there are the discoveries: a wild cat spotted running into the distance; a hedgehog skin with all its prickles intact; wild camomile growing on the flat plains.
The evenings are filled with food, stories and riddles. The four of us sit on the rugs on the floor of the tent and after we have had our soup, eaten with bread and fat dates, and our stew or pasta, someone always pipes up with a riddle. Trying to figure them out in languages and a culture that are not my own adds an extra soupçon of challenge. Let me leave you with this one: «This city is circled with green gardens, its houses are red, its inhabitants are black and the key to it is a knife. »The answer is the caption on the final picture below and don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel for regular updates. Click here! it will take one second.
This Expedition is organised by Jean-Pierre Datcharry of Desert et Montagne Maroc. Contact him if you would like to do something (or a part of) similar.
It is sponsored by Craghoppers, www.craghoppers.com, whose kit I am wearing throughout. It is also sponsored by Epic Morocco, whose mountain bike holiday reintroduced me to Morocco and who eventually were the reason I moved here. Thank you also to NTT Data for their sponsorship and unswerving support.