We set wildlife and photography guide Paul Goldstein a challenge: go out of his comfort zone on a trekking trip to Mount Toubkal, Morocco, the highest point in North Africa. It’s Africa, but not as I’m used to it. The rolling acacia-dotted plains filled with bounteous wildlife is how I classify this vast continent. Souks, internet cafes and sealed roads are not, but there is something about Morocco which makes it intoxicating, especially its mountains, especially as it is only a few hours from here.
There is a slightly sadistic streak, sometimes beautifully concealed, in any trekking guide. Mohammed’s moustache bristled like Montgomery’s, his dark eyes glittering as he unrolled a map vigorously like the desert general and pointed to the route, a route that had contour markings closing up like isolines before a hurricane. Proudly he pressed his thumb down on the apex of the slope announcing ‘that is where we will be this time tomorrow.’ The flicker faded from the eyes as he surveyed the brittle smiles in front of him. Any peak is a challenge, but Toubkal is more grown up than most and especially when early season weather is sniping up the meltwater valleys.
Moroccans, particularly Berbers, are nice people: kind, gentle and hospitable. Their mountain guides have another faculty: toughness. They have an astonishing affinity with the mountains, policing them proudly as a lioness would her litter. Through squall, blistering sun and rain their stoicism and diligence is exemplary. They may have climbed Toubkal over fifty times, but their demeanour suggests this is their first ascent, or if not, certainly the best they have ever experienced. This is a gift; just as a wildlife guide shows infectious fervour at a distant giraffe, so this art translates into the mountains.
Mohammed was a natural, but not to be outdone was his accomplice Abdullah: short, wiry and fitter than a halal butcher’s dog with the strength of a buffalo and heart of a lion, he led me a merry dance for a day, quickstepping up and down several thousand metres with ease as I sweated and gasped behind. The sun scorched, snow fell, but nothing could wipe the almost evangelical grin off his face. ‘I have not bought much lunch, I knew you would not want to be slowed down’ he said peeling off a loaf the size of a breeze block, fresh tomatoes and the inevitable ‘laughing cows’. He even found me some wildlife – a Moroccan mountain green partridge was a first for me and even though his smile stayed fixed, he must have wondered why a little green blob caused such fevered excitement.
Hours later we were re-united with Mohammed; he had a happy but tired group savouring his every word. He also had his map brandished again, with the same wicked gleam illuminating the route march for the following day. The next morning I saw him gazing at the precious streams being funnelled to Marrakech. ‘Morocco needs this water for drinking, not for golf courses’ he remarked wistfully. He is right. Proud people, Moroccans.
After another day of towering Toubkal thrills Abdullah led me down to a low altitude shrine before the drive back to Marrakech. He stopped at a little cafe where a bubbling Berber embraced him – friends of old – then me. This mountain retailer brought me a chilled juice and batted away my wallet as I tried to regulate my debt to him. Nice people, Moroccans. By Paul Goldstein