Jun 14, 2011

Red hot Atlas mountains

Once settled in a hotel, we haggled half a night over an overpriced map that we didn't want to buy anyway. Neither of us had any intention of paying 15€ for a map dating back to 1994, a year before a natural catastrophe washed away most of the paths drawn on it. Keeping a straight line is not all that easy when a gang of hardened locals does its best to discourage you from walking in the mountains on your own. Too hard for you! Very difficult! was the reaction of most people we talked to. It wasn't easy to explain to all the eager mountain guides that even if we wanted their services, we wouldn't pay anything near their price, which was equal or greater to our whole trip budget. It was even harder to elaborate on the concept that being British is not necessarily the same as being obscenely rich. These are the moments when I can smugly pull out the trump-card from my sleeve - slapping pesterers with the name of a strange foreign land called Estonia that nobody has ever heard about promptly ends 99% of arguments and unwanted pre-mapped conversations, be it in Morocco, India or under the Eiffel tower.

Luckily both of us already have solid experience in ignoring all discouraging advice, because there it couldn't have been further from the truth. While the aforementioned map was hanging on the wall, I wisely took a photo of it, which served as a reference when asking locals on the road to point us towards this or that unpronounceable and unmemorably named village. No professional guides needed.

Tourism is a big business there - actually the only business these days that gets the mouthes fed. But in my opinion that does not take away anyone's right to walk freely in the wilderness. No guides needed does not mean that they are easy to avoid. If a path goes through a village, which it often does, everyone suddenly becomes insistingly helpful and most unwanted help starts or ends with asking for money. Or chocolate. Or a pencil. Or whatever else they see, as in a case of two so small children that they hadn't even learnt enough French to call me Madame instead of Monsieur when alternately pointing at my GPS watch and then their mouths. These two had been sent off to hassle us by their mother as an educational passtime. Not to mention the little boys that ganged up in a berber village to guide us down to the river and across it with many a gallant gesture and sentences made up of a combination of yes, no and madame: "YES, Yes, yes, yes, yes, NO, No, no, no, no, no, YES, Yes, yes, madam, no, No, NO, YES!" There, I lost it.

Their help was a horror we had to endure and couldn't escape. It cost us an extra hour and for me personally, another one of my nineteen lives when I managed to turn a nearly fatal fall into landing on the safe side and getting another major bruise next to the almost gone purple giant from the ski slopes. The little bastard scurrying between my legs and disturbing my safe movement across a dodgy surface made me explosive. One of the main ingredients in the steaming mixture was probably hunger. I badly needed a snack already an hour earlier when the bunch gathered too closely around my bag the moment I had stopped on a rocky path to open it and pull out something edible. So I closed the zipper again in the hopes of finding a more private stopping spot soon. Because, if a tourist stops to open her bag, it is obviously to give a gift to anyone who might be within visual range. Eventually we got rid of them with the help of a professional guide walking in front of a group of slow overequipped hikers who had caught up with us when we had been slowed down by the swarm of kids. Grateful for help, we got to stop, I got to eat (and Alice got to watch me eat and feel the nasty stomach bug laugh inside her) and then we got to run past the group once more.

We did two long day-hikes in the beautiful red Atlas mountains that were very slippery with loose gravel and suitably for Africa, hot and dry - at least until the afternoons when the clouds started gathering. The paths wound through the bright green fertile valleys, taking us up to the yellow sandy mule paths zigzagging on the lower hillsides and to the higher red rocky mountains, all the while the glistening white summits standing on guard high above everything. Sometimes the path would climb up the river valley, forcing us to hop on the rocks for an eternity, followed by a walk on the high edge of an irrigation channel, then leading us to stroll through someone's back yard, rush through minuscule village streets and creep in the dark tunnels under the kasbah.

Starting from the altitude of 1740m, we reached the passes at 2200m on the first and 2400m on the second day, following the path down into the river valleys at midway only to climb back up again later. If I normally don't feel the difference that the three months in Val d'Isère has made, then here it became apparent: being used to Alice running far ahead of me while I'm gasping for breath and feeling a hundred years old, then this time it was the other way round. The 20% less of oxygen had no more effect on me, I was simply struggling with the uphills, which was a fight on it's own on the second day. Slugging painfully slowly up, only faintly confident that the direction picked would take us home and that the top of the hill was where we supposed it to be inside that thick mist, we were surprised to see an old man in flip-flops practically run past us - on the same slope we were busy dying on! He generously waved us back onto the right path, then ran ahead again and waited around the corner to see us coming the right way. We couldn't even shake him off with a lunch stop, because he would wait for us somewhere, lying on his back and leisurely chewing on a straw. This was one of the few occasions when we actually met someone genuinely nice, all the while being scared shitless that they are going to ask us for money in return for their services of accidentally having walked in the same direction. When we had reached the pass and recognized where we were, he simply smiled, waved and took off downhill after a short break to admire the amazing view.

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