You know that you are going to be getting well off the beaten track when your driving directions read, “Climb through the village of Tolkein and then go on for several kilometres of wilderness. A few kilometres after the sharp, right hairpin bend, you’ll see a flat area to your left and a piste to your right, that’s the parking lot.” Sound simple? Maybe, except as we were going up a mountain there were quite a lot of hairpins… ah well, what is a 10km overshoot amongst friends.
I was driving up into the Atlas mountains to meet Karina, Cian and Feargal who had come over for a week of adventure in Morocco. They had gone on ahead and already done a day of walking, when I caught up with them at Ali’s guest house. I got there just as the sun was setting over the peaks, transforming the roof terrace, where we were drinking mint tea, to pure gold.
The first day from the auberge was everything it promised to be. Big, open landscapes with snow-covered mountains in the distance, it was like nothing else I have seen in Morocco. It reminded me a bit of the moorlands of Scotland although instead of moorland, there was red and silver earth. Big canyons too with layer-cake rock formations and flints and fossils on the river beds.
It was the next day though that will always remain with me. Ali invited the four of us to do something really special, to help him plant the first almond trees in a wood that he is hoping to grow on the hill outside the auberge.
“One of the things that we are told to do in Islam, he said, is to do something that benefits others, for posterity. I hope that one day, when this wood is grown, someone who is hungry will come along and be able to eat the almonds from the trees.”
The field had already been prepared and had had a crop of wheat growing last year to make sure the earth was good. Ahmed and Ali marked out the spots where they wanted the trees to go. It was a grid pattern, not a line, he explained so that whichever direction the wind blew from, the trees could cross-pollinate.
The trees themselves came from a garden centre down on the Marrakech plain and were “pure” almond trees. Often almonds are grafted onto another tree such as apple, which means the nuts are bigger, but these wouldn’t survive at the altitude and also they taste less sweet.
We dug the holes and then cut the wrappings from the roots. Holding the sapling upright, we filled in the holes and then stamped down the earth around the slim trunks. The last part of the process was to bring big stones from the fields to surround them. They looked really pretty, the little white circles, but in fact the point was to capture any moisture in the air which would then cool on the stones and run down them to water the roots.
“It is much better to do this with friends.” said Ali, as we looked around at the first dozen trees in his almond orchard. “And when your children come, they will be able to sit in the shade and eat as many almonds as they want and know what their parents did.”