Autumn in the Atlas Mountains is full of drama. One minute the sun is broiling and I’m sweating like an overloaded mule and dreaming of cold coke, and the next the weather rolls in and hypothermia threatens.
As part of my training for the Everest Trail Race, I have been taking the opportunity to do long hikes and discover new places with old friends. Rachid AitelMahjoub from Pathfinderstreks and I did the Atlas to Atlantic World First in 2015 and he’s brilliant for rooting out the little-trodden and secret places of the mountains. This weekend we were aiming for around 20-25km and three big passes. We started in sunshine at the bottom of Rachid’s village about 8km from Imlil, crossing the river to the bottom of the first of the ascents.
Climbing up, we had to stop briefly as a mother and son pushed their fodder-laden mule through a gate and then paused again to scrump walnuts from the trees. It is walnut season now and the freshly-picked nuts are sweet and taste somehow of green. I introduced Rachid to the joys of eating elderberries, which for some reason they don’t eat here even though they grow in profusion. In return, he showed me how to squeeze a ripe rose hip to extract a tiny squish of sweet jelly.
The rains have been heavy and as we walked on down into the first valley we could see where the mountain had washed away.
I asked Rachid what you would do if you were caught out and a storm came. “If it is really heavy,” he said, ” and you are in this kind of dangerous area where you can see there have already been landslides, you don’t have a lot of time, you have to run. Just get out of the area where you can see the water has come and will come.” As we passed through the next village, we could see the effects on the houses and the alleys. “You should have seen us a couple of days ago,” the women laughed, “the rain was washing us away.”
Our second big pass took us to lunchtime and the obligatory La Vache Qui Rit cheese and fresh bread sandwich. It may not be gourmet, but it tastes really good when you’re hungry. We were in time for the midday prayers which echoed from the mosque on the hillside opposite. The muezzin had a beautiful voice, singing of God and Faith in the stillness of the mountains.
But the shadow on the mountain told the story of what was to come. “Hurry now, Alice,” said Rachid. We have to get down to the river before the rains come.” We stopped for quick pictures (top) of the storm rolling in from Oukaimeden and then cracked on.
Sweat, sweat, pant, pant, plod, plod. The air grew perceptively thicker as it filled with moisture ready for a deluge. The first big, fat spots of rain were plonking down hard on my head when we got to the river and I could see why Rachid had been worried – it was already in spate. We walked down until there was a passable hop-rocking spot. Rachid went first and then it was my turn. Now then, I tend to fall in rivers (check out the Atlas Mountains Chapter!) and so I had a moment of, “I don’t think so. I think I’ll just stay here.” But since the only way was on, I grabbed Rachid’s outstretched hand and leapt over as nimbly as a goat on its way to a particularly tasty shrub.
Another pass, this one in the rain and then we went down to hitch a lift back to our car, feeling good after the walk. That was when the trouble started. There were very few cars and when one finally stopped for us, they said the road was getting dangerous. Two kilometres later and I was wondering how on earth I was going to drive my Toyota Yaris back to Imlil. Rachid invited me to stay but I had lots to do and I was soaking right down to my knickers so I wanted to get back. I decided to brave it.
“Keep in first gear, drive slowly and don’t do anything sudden. Try to keep the steering wheel straight, and if you get stuck, phone me!” were Rachid’s parting words.
I looked at the 4x4s all parked up and deciding not to risk it, fastened my seat belt, thought of a hot shower and fired up Toyota Yaris. We ground up at about 2km an hour, water half way up the wheels concealing hidden ruts and holes. I wept for TY’s undercarriage and gave silent thanks for the wonders of Japanese engineering. In places where the road was washing away, groups of men with shovels were lined up at the side, making good as fast as they could against the flood. At one point, the road had disintegrated on each side, leaving just a car-width with a sheer drop into the riverbed below. I aimed the car, closed my eyes and drove.
Honestly, I probably shouldn’t have made it. But I did- or rather magnificent Toyota Yaris did.
I exploded joyfully into my house, took a second to acknowledge and service the brief welcome and long plaintive demands for food of Squeaky the Cat and dived into the hot shower.
Clean and naked, I nipped out and into my bedroom to be confronted by my Landlady, Fatima, standing with her granddaughter strapped to her back, hospitably holding out a hot plate of couscous for me……
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