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Day 11: Marrakesh

Atlas Mountains, Morocco 
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The road up to Tizi n'Tichka, at 7500 feet, the highest pass over the Atlas Mountains.
Michael Palin - SaharaThe road coils along a gorge beside a riverbed, bone-dry today but bearing the scars of fierce torrents of the past. In two places the concrete highway has collapsed and been washed away, and they have been waiting since 1975 to have it repaired. We pass a precipitous village called Imbil, which sells postcards and has a government centre for hikers. From here a dirt track climbs steeply through a landscape of dry stone-walled terraces, which support sturdy vegetable plots and cherry orchards. The air cools and bubbling streams race down the mountain.

The dusty white hairpin bends are becoming so tight that the hard-worked pick-up, unable to make them in one, negotiates a series of death-defying three-point turns, leaving us at times backed up to the very edge of a precipice, with only a handbrake between us and a 1000-foot drop.

At last we pull up onto a flat saddle of land offering temporary relief and a breathtaking view down the valley. To the south, a dizzy succession of interlocking spurs, and to the north, a spread of horizontal terraces and rooftops. This is the village of Aremd, 8000 feet high, overlooked by jagged raking ridges and wedged in a fold of the mountains, with this narrow, gravelled track as its only lifeline.

The silence of the mountains amplifies any sound that breaks it. The cracking of a twig for a fire, a dog's bark, a child's shout identify the village long before we reach it. A picnic is laid for us on carpets and cushions set on a terrace shaded by walnut trees. After washing our hands in water from a silver salver, a meal of couscous and tagine, the name of the food and also the conical earthenware pot it comes in, is served, with Amina and myself as guests of honour. This brings its own problems. There are no knives, forks or spoons and I have to learn to eat Berber-style, using my right hand only - the left being traditionally reserved for ablutions. This is not without its own very strict etiquette. One does not stick one's hand in and pick out what one wants. Oh dear me, no. One uses one's thumb and two fingers, the thumb squeezing the food into a ball solid enough to dip carefully into the sauces and return to one's mouth. All this from ground level.

I find it hard enough even to reach the rice without swaying most ungracefully off balance, and the rolling of it into a ball using only three digits is a damn sight harder than it sounds. Especially as the rice is hot.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 11
  • Country/sea: Morocco
  • Place: Aremd
  • Book page no: 49

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