Hiking – Er, Donkey-Riding – Through Morocco’s Atlas Mountains

September 27, 2013 2:55 am

Looking out

Here’s the thing about me and hiking: while I appreciate the end goal — whether it’s a panoramic view, denture a hard-to-reach waterfall, search or a rare cultural interaction — the hike itself, the process of actually getting to these destinations through unpredictable terrain with little more than my own two feet? How could I possibly enjoy it, when every step is accompanied by the not-so-melodic chant I recite of “don’t slip, don’t fall, don’t die”? I can’t look beyond two steps ahead of me, let alone enjoy the scenery. I’m baffled by people who actually savor the hiking experience itself, and would happily spend all their free weekends traipsing up a tick-ridden slope in the Catskills, to return home hours later, sweaty, smelly, and possibly afflicted by Lyme disease.

My friend Asma happens to be one of these Lyme-risking types. Asma would like nothing more than to wake up on a Saturday morning long before the sun has even deigned to rise, cook herself a healthy breakfast (egg whites, wheat bread, goat cheese, and grass-colored juices are among the rotating cast of characters), and drive a few hours into the mountains to get out of her car and… walk. Yes, you read that correctly: there are people out there who drive miles and miles just so they can walk. Why she can’t just take laps around her living room with the TV set to National Geographic is beyond me.

Asma

Asma accompanied me on my recent trip to Morocco, and she gamely put up with my nine hotel changes in 10 nights, countless sweaty circuits around various medinas on a quest for the best story angles, and mega tagine overload — tagging along with a travel writer on assignment is not always as fun as it might sound. All she asked for in return was the chance to go on one misery – er, measly – hike. How could I say no, after all her patience? And off Asma went, planning her dream day in the Atlas Mountains, with help from an operator she found online called Berber Travel Adventures. And I went off to have nightmares about what lay ahead.

The company arranged a taxi transfer to Amizmiz, a dusty town in the mountains. There, Asma, Faatima, and I met our guide for the day, Noureddine, his assistant, Mohammed, and… our donkey. Flashback: when I was in Petra a few years ago, I rode a donkey up a precarious hill, and it was one of the most painful, terrifying moments of my life. I swore I’d never do it again, and here I was, confronted by another one. No matter how hard the hike got, I would not be getting on that ass, I promised myself… [Note: this is what writers call foreshadowing.]

And so off we went up a hill, and through some fairly nice terrain, but with little shade protecting us from the scorching Moroccan sun.landscapesWhile I wouldn’t classify the hike as hard, I definitely wouldn’t describe it as fun, either. I scraped my feet through the sand wearily, Faatima lagging behind with me for company, while Asma bounded ahead like the Energizer Bunny. What can I say, I just don’t understand it.

But what I do understand is people — I love meeting locals during my travels, and the highlights of Berber Adventures’ hikes are the visits to mingle with Berber families in tiny villages along the way. At our first stop, we went to a simple, hundred-year-old home where two women showed us how they made bread in a tiny oven in their kitchen. On a level down below, baa-ing goats belted out a pastoral sound track.

Berber Kitchen

Then Noureddine made us some authentic Moroccan tea, served with a smile.

Noureddin tea

window

The freshly baked bread served with local honey was absolutely delicious, and even I enjoyed the mint tea — and I’m definitely not a tea drinker.

tea details

us tea

After our tea break we trekked on, and Noureddine, a Berber himself, told us about the villages and their traditions. As we trudged along we spotted all sorts of cool plants (almond, olive, lavender, mint, verbena, wormwood), doors, and views, and we had fun trying to communicate with a handful of adorable children.

Details

kidsEventually, following much more (seemingly pointless) walking, we came upon yet another village, where we were welcomed by a warm extended family who had us over for lunch. But of course, before there’s lunch, there must be more tea à la Noureddine!

tea

I’m not going to lie: after nearly a week in Morocco, I didn’t think I could handle another tagine. I was really worried about offending our hosts if I couldn’t finish it. “Esssh, esssh,” they kept urging us: “Eat, eat!” My fears were unfounded: the modest yet unspeakably juicy and flavorful tagine was the best I had in my entire 10 days in Morocco. There really is nothing like home cooking!

tagine

After the feast, the only way they were going to be able to get me out of there was by rolling me out… or by putting me on a donkey. I think you can guess what happened next.

donkey2

I will say, however, that when the beast is not teetering at the edge of a steep cliff every chance it gets, it’s really not that bad. Sure, there were a few harrowing moments when his mercurial temperament would betray itself as he unleashed some smack-breighing toward passing donkeys. But mostly, this sweet fellow managed to clear the bad name his Petran brethren had given his species.

I was able to enjoy the hike properly once the hiking was removed from the equation. The views are much better from higher up, and enhanced all the more when you’re actually looking around, and not squinting at the ground trying to predict where your next step should fall.

I may not necessarily “get” hiking, but I’m always willing to try — in fact, I’m prepping myself to hike Argentina’s Perito Moreno glacier, in Patagonia, tomorrow morning. You never know who you might meet, what you might eat, or which animals you might befriend along the way. But my new preferred means of hiking is sans hiking altogether. Till we meet again, donkey.

donkey

All photos courtesy Faatima Tayob

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