Jbel Toubkal (13,671ft) – Highest Point in Morocco
Matthew Gilbertson (October 14, 2012 ), Eric Gilbertson (November 6, 2014)
A WARM WELCOME TO AFRICA
[Report by Matthew]
Honk honk honk! I had just entered into a two-lane roundabout and had mistakenly merged into the inner lane. The drivers were just simply vocalizing a little of their frustration with my driving techniques. I needed to take the next exit but cars were inches away, all around me, blocking my escape. It was bumper to bumper gridlock, with cars coming from seven different directions and wanting to go to seven different directions. The red brake lights from the car in front of me illuminated and I slammed on my brakes, narrowly averting disaster. The sun had just set and the lights from the beat-up old Peugeot in front of me glowed fiercely like two angry eyes.
I was in fight or flight mode, with my pulse and blood pressure sky-high, my eyes darting back and forth from one obstacle to another, muscles tensed and ready to react to the flowing, evolving chaos around me.
Then brake lights of the car in front of me turned off and a gap opened up. OK, this is it, I thought, there’s my gap to freedom, just a few milliseconds before that gap closes, just gotta take my foot off the brake and… sputter-sputter-sputter… lights off. “@#$%&!” I forgot that I was driving a manual!
It was just a pleasant drive through the friendly rush hour traffic of Marrakech.
A FEW DAYS EARLIER…
My goal for the trip was to climb up Jbel Toubkal (13,671 ft) – the highest point in Morocco – and I would have four days to do it. I had just come from the IROS robotics conference in Vilamoura, on the southern coast of Portugal, where I had presented a paper on my research. I’ve gotta admit, the prospect of a trip to Portugal and Morocco is very effective motivation to conduct good research.
A few days before the conference, Amanda and I had flown out to the Azores to climb the highest point in Portugal. Tropical Storm Nadine happened to be tearing through the islands at the time so the weather was not favorable for doing much of anything besides hanging out in the car. I ended up summitting by myself anyhow, in spite of the torrential rain, ferocious wind, and blinding fog.
Amanda did not come back from the trip empty-handed, however. She actually came back from the trip with a shiny ring on her finger because I proposed to her when I got back down to the trailhead. So, given the success of the previous week, I figured that just about anything could happen in Morocco and I’d still be ahead in the game of life.
I had flown out of Lisbon in the morning on a tiny little plane operated by Portugalia Airlines. I was sitting in seat 6B, which was actually a window seat because the seats were in a 1-1 configuration. The flight was especially scenic, because the pilots didn’t bother closing the flight deck door during flight, and you could look out the cockpit window as we pierced through the clouds. You had to keep an eye on the pilot’s altimeter, however, because there wasn’t a flight attendant to tell you when you had reached the 10,000 ft electronics-off altitude.
Even though the closest big airport to Toubkal is Marrakech, I chose to fly into Casablanca instead because, given the flight schedules, it turned out to be faster and cheaper. My plan was to rent a car in Casablanca and drive to the Toubkal trailhead. I’d climb the mountain first and then, if there was extra time that week, I’d drive south and see how far I could get into the Sahara Desert. I mean, what’s a few extra hours of driving in Morocco, anyhow? It can’t be too much different than the US, can it?
After passing through the customs booth at the Casablanca Airport, I made a beeline for the car rental counters. People started to approach me from a few directions, offering taxis and car rentals in English. I was a little stunned at first, but I just smiled, told them “no, thank you,” and continued on my way.
A nice gentleman helped me locate the Budget car rental counter and I presented to the agent a printout of my reservation. “Bonjour,” the agent said. “Hello,” I responded. I soon found out that many Moroccans fluently speak both French and Arabic and many also speak some English, especially in the touristy areas. “Welcome to Morocco,” he said. Before long he gave some keys. A man who spoke no English escorted me to the car, and I strained to recall some of my French. “Aujourd’hui, il fait froid en les Atlas?” I asked. [Is it cold in the Atlas Mountains today?] I gave myself a big mental pat on the back for remembering all of that. I couldn’t understand a word of his response, other than “oui,” but I just smiled and nodded.
We approached a small black Hyundai i10 and stopped. “Mon voiture?” I asked. “Oui,” he answered. “Très bon, très bon,” I said. I signed a few papers and started to load my stuff up in the car. I asked about how to get to Marrakech, and with a combination of a few English words and a lot of hand gestures he communicated the route.
I looked in between the driver’s and passenger’s seats and sure enough it was a stick-shift. But I was expecting that. Ever since early July, when I had known that I would be attending this conference, I had set my sights on Morocco and had started preparing. On Kayak.com’s car rental site I quickly realized that basically all rental cars in Morocco were manuals. My Dad’s Moroccan student Mustapha also gave me the advance warning that I’d need to know how to drive a “five speed.”
To get some practice, Eric and I had decided to rent a manual in Boston and take it on a road trip up to Maine one weekend in September. After some thorough searching, it appears that, in the greater Boston area, there is exactly one manual-transmission car available for rent. It is an orange, circa 2000, Ford Focus from a Haitian-run company called Americar Auto Rental, located in the industrial area of Somerville. I won’t discuss the details here, but it suffices to say that we got some pretty good manual training from the rush hour traffic of downtown Cambridge to the logging roads in rural Maine.
With this bit of experience in the psychological arsenal, along with some more practice driving a manual in the Azores a week earlier, I was actually, cautiously, looking forward to driving in Morocco. I hopped in the car and began to arm it with a few of my gadgets. I mounted to the windshield a Garmin car GPS that was packed with Moroccan road maps, pulled out a regular GPS loaded with satellite photos of Marrakech and Casablanca, and unfolded a printed National Geographic highway map onto the passenger’s seat. And most importantly, I unpacked some special music CDs to enhance the drive.
Man, it’s hot in here, I thought, where’s that A/C button? It was probably in the mid 90F’s outside and I wiped the sweat off my forehead. As I scanned the dashboard, the rental car dude, as if he had read my mind, knocked on the window. I rolled it down and he said “no A/C” Ugh, I groaned to myself. This is not going to be pleasant. When I was reserving the car online I had noticed that there wasn’t the little snowflake symbol that signified A/C. But I figured it must have just been a mistake. I mean, come on, this is Africa, is there a car on the continent that wouldn’t have A/C?
Well if there is one African car without A/C, I certainly found it. And it might also be one of the few cars without a working 12V cigarette lighter. That was bad news because it meant that I couldn’t charge up the GPS or my camera battery. Well that’s pretty unfortunate, I thought, but at least I’ll be able to mention that later on in the trip report.
DRIVING TO MARRAKECH
I waved goodbye to the rental car dude and slowly began to back the car out. I’m not gonna stall, not gonna stall, not gonna stall, I said to myself. But, sure enough, the car stalled. I had originally intended to convey to the rental car people the concept that I knew what I was doing. But I think that their confidence was waning. I managed to get the car started again and pulled out of the lot, with a big wave to the rental dude, and I was on my way.
Somehow I made a wrong turn early on, shortly after merging onto the big expressway, which added about ten miles. But soon I was back on track and my confidence began to build. It’s nice because the Casablanca airport is right next to a straight, smooth, major expressway with a speed limit of 120 kph (75 mph). There are quite a few tolls, but minimal traffic. Plus, it’s fun to accelerate from 0 to 75 mph in a manual. The buildings of Casablanca faded in the rearview mirror and I was on the open road, blasting through the desert. I popped in Born to be Wild, rolled down the windows and maxed out the volume on the speakers.
140 exhilarating miles later the road signs for Marrakech began to appear. All the road signs in Morocco are in Arabic and French so I could basically figure out what was going on. But I knew that as I neared the heart of Marrakech things would get trickier and I would be relying on the GPS. Unfortunately, however, by now the GPS batteries were almost drained after a few hours of uncharged operation. This not good, I thought to myself, I’m going to need that thing to get through this city.
Slowly the speed limit decreased, the roundabouts increased in frequency, and Marrakech came into view. I needed some food for the next four days so I pulled into a big shopping center-looking plaza near the edge of town just as the sun began to set. I soon came to realize that Marrakech is a very modern, well-developed city and you can buy just about anything you need. It was nothing like the dusty desert outpost I had imagined. I picked up an extra USB/12V car adapter at an electronics store that would hopefully solve the GPS power problem. And I stumbled across a super-awesome store called Marjane that is basically the Moroccan equivalent of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. They’ve got food, clothing, and electronics just like the Wal-Mart in Berea, Kentucky. But the shopper demographic is a bit different, to say the least.
The food shoppers were all women dressed in traditional, colorful headscarves. Everyone was pushing to get the worker to weigh their vegetables and print out the price tag sticker. I noticed that I was one of the only guys buying bananas and apples at Marjane today. I picked up almost all the items on my list, from fruit to cereal to sandwich supplies, and a red hat and a ceramic cereal bowl to boot. Wow, that was much easier than I expected, I thought to myself. Morocco is my kind of country.
PLUNGE INTO PANDEMONIUM
But that feeling didn’t last long. The sun had set, traffic had picked up, and with only a few days of practice driving a manual under my belt, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to stop and go driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic. And did I mention that there were hills too? I started the car, turned on some music, took a deep breath, and plunged into the chaos.
It was scary at first, especially at the roundabouts. But soon I began to realize that my car had an invisible force-field around it. It must have, because there’s no other way that my car could have escaped that pandemonium without a scratch. Another possible explanation could be as follows: Moroccan drivers can tolerate much closer proximity to other cars than American drivers can, but they avoid accidents because they go slow and everyone just takes their turn.
At one particularly crazy roundabout, I felt that there’s absolutely no possible way of escaping Marrakech without getting hit. I seem to recall that “Stairway to Heaven” on my CD was playing at the time. I wonder how police deal with accidents around here, I thought to myself. Would the police speak English? Would they blame the tourist for the collision? Or can I find someone else on the street who can drive my car for me?
Somehow, as the faithful GPS pumped out its last few of joules of energy, I reached the edge of town and turned into the mountains. Success! I had made it through Marrakech! With my hands still shaking, I played around with the connector cable and finally got it charging again. It said I had an hour to the trailhead. Just a little longer, I thought, and it’ll just be me and the mountain, and all the variables will be known.
For the next few miles I came to realize that the dangers of driving in Morocco are not restricted to the cities; the country roads have their own dangers at night. I found myself dodging one motorbike after another. Unfortunately, the roads have no shoulders, the motorbikes have no lights, and the roads have no illumination, so it’s nearly impossible to see motorbikes taking up half your lane, especially when the oncoming cars forget to dim their high beams. But, compared with stop-and-go city traffic, this danger was tolerable, I just slowed down.
The road climbed through Bou Ouglas, Tahnaout, and Asni and the traffic fizzled out. Pretty soon the road steepened up, narrowed, and started to wind up through the hills. Now this was my kind of driving, I thought. I was racing around corners, shifting, and slowing down through the villages. I almost didn’t want the road to end but pretty soon I found myself in the village of Imlil. My GPS said the road kept going, and I had read that the trail actually started in a village named Armd, but I couldn’t find the correct turn off. (Aside: “Armd”? “Jbel”? You’ve gotta like those unpronounceable place names.)
I cruised back and forth through town a few times in search of the turnoff and soon a small crowd began to gather nearby. An old, bearded, white-robed man with a cane approached my window. He only had a few teeth but I heard him ask “You go to Toubkal?”
“Yes, I want to climb Toubkal,” I answered. “Is this the road to Armd?”
“No, the road ends here, you park here. Then walk to Armd.”
I paused to think about it. There were a couple of other cars parked in the little lot, one with an Italian license plate. Surely they’re tourists like me who are also climbing Toubkal. If they parked here it must be the right spot. But my GPS said the road kept going, which bugged me. I couldn’t see any more road, and in the darkness the mountains looked pretty steep around me, so I figured that the dude must be right and this is the end of the line.
“Can I park here for one day?” I asked.
“Yes, one day is 20 dirhams,” he answered.
Hmm, that’s only about two dollars, I calculated, so that’s a pretty good deal. “OK, I’d like to park here for one day.”
“Great,” he answered, “my name is Mohammad.”
Awesome, I thought, his name will be hard to forget. “I’m Matthew.” (Editor’s note: he shall henceforth be referred to as “Mohammad #1” in this story.)
I backed into the parking spot, pulled the handbrake, and turned off the car. Whew, I let out a big sigh of relief. Now the rest of the trip would be under my own power, and I won’t have to worry about stalling the car or hitting anything.
I was famished, so I opened up the trunk and started scarfing down some food. Mr. Mohammad #1 came over and started watching my every move. It was a bit creepy at first, but I came to the conclusion that he was simply curious. This brand new rental car, this flashy American gear, this strange looking food, this strangely-garbed foreigner. As I ate my power dinner of cereal and powdered milk, I offered him the box of cereal. He gladly took it, and began to scarf along with me.
“Where you stay tonight?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ll hike for a few hours, then camp,” I said. “I have a tent, see.” And I showed him my brand new ultralight tent.
“Camp? No, it is dark, you should stay here. There is a nice hotel in town.”
“No, I have a torch, I can hike.” And I flicked on my headlamp.
“OK, OK. But it is very far to Toubkal tonight and very cold.” True, I was still wearing shorts and a t-shirt even though I could see my breath.
“I have a jacket and warm clothes.” I produced my fleece and polypro and he nodded in satisfaction. “And I will run up the mountain. I like to run.”
“Do you have a map? The path is too difficult to find at night.”
“Yes I have a GPS.” And I showed him the GPS, loaded with the satellite photos.
And with that, Mohammad #1 came to the conclusion that he was dealing with a crazy person who could not be reasoned with, and stopped imploring me to stay in town tonight. We stood there, together, munching on some Moroccan granola, and I began to get the feeling that Mohammad #1 was a trustworthy fellow. He told me that I could either pay now or after I returned. I said I would only be one night, and he said I could pay him tomorrow when I returned.
Attracted by all the excitement, a few other locals came over and started milling around. One dude approached me, and in perfect English, told me he was a guide. He said he was born nearby and was Berber. I told him my plans to climb up tonight and he smiled. I was ready to defend my plans, as I had to Mohammad #1, but he just nodded his head and told me how to get to the start of the trail. He and a couple of other guides were curious about my GPS and they gathered around as I showed them some of the satellite photos.
As Mohammad #1 continued munching on the granola he watched me intently while I packed up my bags. As trustworthy as he seemed, I didn’t want him to see the laptop that I was leaving in the car. I diverted his attention while I slipped the laptop under the seat. “Wow, look at all those stars,” I said. Many more here than in Boston.”
“Yes, many stars,” he said. I sensed that he probably didn’t even know what I was talking about. He had probably never spent much time in a big city. I mean, stars are stars, how can it be different when you’re in the mountains or in the city?
I grabbed my pack, closed the doors and locked it up. I was ready to roll. “How will I find you tomorrow, Mohammad?”
“Just ask in town and I will come,” he answered.
I guessed that he probably wasn’t the only person in town named Mohammad, but it’s a small enough town that people would probably be able to guess which Mohammad I was talking about. I waved goodbye and started up the path. Little did I know that I had forgotten to roll up the passenger-side window.
I quickly came to the conclusion that I had been duped. The “trail” was actually just a plain old road. It was rough and steep, but the car could have made it up without any problem. It was nothing compared with some of the rough roads Eric and I had driven in Ontario or Labrador. I marched up the road, frustrated that I had taken Mohammad’s word and hadn’t trusted the GPS. Was he trying to trick me, so that he could get my parking money? Or was he genuinely worried that I couldn’t handle the Moroccan gravel? Either way, though, I wasn’t going to turn back so I just kept on climbing.
It felt slow to walk and, energized by the cereal + powdered milk, I decided to start running. Soon I removed my shirt to cool off. I hadn’t seen a sign for Toubkal in over half an hour so I was starting to get skeptical that this was the correct route. I passed right in front of a motel and saw a guy standing outside. I’ll refer to him as Mohammad #2. “Hello,” I said, “is this the trail to Toubkal?”
“Yes, but it is too difficult. You can’t do it tonight. My hotel is very nice and you should stay here tonight.”
I noticed a few other westerners milling around inside but I would not be distracted. I really wanted to say “look, Mohammad #2, I sincerely appreciate your hospitality, but I won’t be staying in your hotel tonight. I’ve already discussed this with Mohammad #1 back in town. Can you tell me if I’m on the right trail?” But I held my tongue and told him “no, thank you, I’ll keep hiking and camp in my tent tonight.” Then I resumed running. He began yelling in French but I just kept going and didn’t look back. I guess it isn’t a spectacle he sees every day: a shirtless foreigner running up this dusty trail, by himself, at 9pm, with just a tiny backpack. I’d read that most people are guided and take 2-3 days round-trip. Not to mention, mules usually carry their gear, as I would later discover.
A little higher up, soaked in sweat, I needed to shed some more layers to keep from sweating so I took off my shorts. I hadn’t seen a single car all night, so I figured there’d be absolutely no chance that anyone would see me. Even if someone did, they’d still think I was wearing some tight shorts. But lo and behold, I soon heard a car rumbling around a curve in front of me, and I ducked behind a boulder. Morocco’s a pretty liberal Muslim country, right? Nobody would mind, would they? The driver had spotted me, and pulled up slowly alongside me.
“Ça va?” the driver asked. [What’s up?]
“Ça va bien, merci,” I answered. [I’m fine, thanks.] The car paused for a moment. Then it slowly rolled away. I can only imagine what the driver must have been thinking.
I kept running and soon I could see the lights of Armd twinkling upon the hill. I ran though another little village and for a brief moment I could see some more westerners hanging out inside a hotel, presumably waiting until the morning to start their hike. Someone started to yell something in French to me, but I just kept running. There was plenty of mountain left to climb, and no time for chatting.
Finally the road fizzled out and I met a heavily-graffiti’ed sign reading (in Arabic & French): “You are entering into the protected zone of Toubkal National Park.” All right, I thought, now I’m making some progress. It was a pleasant night for a run and with the cereal + powdered milk still burning in my belly I picked up the pace. The sky was clear and cool and I could see the Milky Way stretching over me from one horizon to the other.
Suddenly I spotted a pair of orange eyes staring back at me from about 50 feet away. I froze for a moment. But I couldn’t think of any animal that I’d need to be afraid of in Morocco, so I just kept running. It was probably a little cat or something. Higher up, I saw more and more eyes every few minutes. They never made a sound, just stared back in silence, unaware that, due to the glare of their eyes, their stealthy gaze wasn’t actually that stealthy.
I crossed an irrigation channel and spotted a few large toads hopping around. Of course I had to pick one up. I discovered that Moroccan toads are basically the same as Kentucky toads: their body shape is almost exactly the same, they also try to pee on you if you pick them up, and the only difference is their coloring.
By about 10pm my energy started to fade and it was time to activate campsite-finding-mode. But it wasn’t exactly the best place to set up at tent. In the dim light I could tell that there was a steep hill to my left and basically a cliff on my right. I saw a couple of lights in the distance, and wondered if they could be the Toubkal Refuge. I had read that there was a really nice stone hut along the way where most people stay before their climb. But my GPS indicated that it couldn’t be the refuge, it was still four miles away.
As I approached, I realized that it was actually a little mini-village. Hmm… maybe I can just camp here, I thought. As I turned around, trying to locate the trail, a tall shadow emerged from the darkness and I gasped in surprise. “Is this the trail to Toubkal?” I asked.
“No, this is the marabout,” a man said. He pointed to the left. “That is the trail to Toubkal.”
“OK, merci,” I said. I didn’t know exactly what a marabout was, but is seemed to be some sort of mini-mosque or tomb. Also known as: a place where you can’t camp.
FROM FIVE-STAR TO INFINITY-STAR
I kept climbing and soon began to consider just sleeping right on the trail since it was the only flat spot and I was exhausted. But I ruled that out because, and I could tell from the droppings on the trail, there was a lot of mule traffic and they’d probably be walking through pretty early to carry peoples’ packs up the mountain. I climbed a little higher and found a pseudo-flat spot that could possibly fit the tent. I was just about to unpack when I recalled Eric’s Zeroth Law of backpacking: wherever you set up your tent, there’s always a much better campsite just a few hundred feet away, which you’ll discover in the morning. It was a law that we’d observed and validated very frequently on the Appalachian Trail.
So, to beat old Eric at his game, I dropped my pack and hiked a little further. Sure enough, after another hundred feet I spotted a little building and a beautiful flat spot right next to it. I didn’t know what the building was for, but the big steel door seemed to be locked, so I figured nobody would bother me. Exhausted, I set up the tent and prepared my bed. It was already in the lower 40F’s and, with my 45F degree bag I knew it’d be a long, sleepless night. I had packed ultralight on this trip to avoid needing to check any luggage.
In an effort to conserve every last calorie of heat, I pulled out one of the tricks I had discovered on the AT. I emptied my backpack and stuffed my lower third into the pack. My theory was that it would provide an extra tiny bit of insulation for my legs. Unfortunately, it did not.
Just after I turned off my headlamp, I heard the creaky steel door swing open and someone started walking around. I was too tired to panic. “Hello,” I said from inside the tent, “can I sleep here? I’m very, very tired.”
“Oh yes, no problem,” a man answered. “Sleep well.”
“Thank you, sir!” And with that, I collapsed onto my makeshift pillow of shoes and granola bars. It had been a long day, starting at 5:30am at the 5-star Tivoli Marina Resort Hotel in Vilamoura, Portugal, and ending here at midnight on a cold dusty ledge perched high in a canyon in Morocco’s rugged Atlas Mountains, in the earth’s ultimate hotel – the Infinity Star Hotel.
Seven sleepless hours later, I rose to the beep of my alarm. With adrenaline pumping, I was ready to do battle with the mountain. From my GPS I could see I that was only three miles line-of-sight from the summit, but given the ruggedness of the trail, I knew that could take a while. I quickly packed up my stuff and started running. On the way up I passed a few big white tents and saw some local Moroccan fellows preparing breakfast. They looked to be guides; their clients were probably still asleep.
“I just got a picture of the mountain, not you,” I told him. He must have been superstitious about being photographed.
I kept running, and stashed my overnight gear behind a boulder. It was below freezing, but I had stripped down to shorts and a t-shirt to keep from sweating while I ran. I got quite a few stares from guides on their way down – I guess there aren’t many people who solo the mountain clad so lightly.
By 8am I had reached the Toubkal Refuge, a spectacular three-storied stone fortress perched near the top of the valley. I had seen photos online, but was still astounded at the enormity of the entire complex. It looked like an ancient stone temple built to serve the climbers of Toubkal.
The refuge is situated at about 10,500ft, at the point where the trail steepens up and the real climbing actually begins. A few clients and guides were milling around, getting ready, but it looked like most of the climbers had already started up the mountain. I took a quick sip of water, scarfed down some food, and kept running. By now, the summit was within reach, and I knew I would make it back down to the car with plenty of time to spare. The reason I was running was that I still hoped I’d have enough time this week for my road trip foray into Western Sahara.
The trail steepened up and I began to slow down. Headache. Shortness of breath. No desire to eat. Yep, I thought to myself, there’s the altitude sickness. But it wasn’t too bad yet, I knew I just had to get up and down quickly and then I’d be fine. I passed about thirty people and finally emerged into the glorious sunlight. By now I was walking on snow, and judging by the frozen puddles it must have dropped well into the mid 20F’s overnight, but in the dry, thin, low thermal-inertia desert air the sun warmed me rapidly.
I traversed a few small snowfields. No big deal compared with the Sierras of California, I thought, but wait a minute, this is Africa! Can there really be snow in North Africa? I ate some just to be sure, and came to the crunchy conclusion that, indeed, this was genuine, good old-fashioned snow.
The Atlas Mountains and northern Morocco began to unfold beneath me. To the north was a thin sea of clouds blanketing Marrakech and distant Casablanca, and in every other direction, rugged mountains extended to the horizon. I spotted few bushes in an oasis far below, but this was desert and basically the only other living things on the mountain were me, some goats, and my fellow hikers.
A few steps later, at an elevation of 13,671ft, I was on the roof of Morocco. Well, I wasn’t actually on the roof of Morocco, just the highest “natural point.” The actual highest point in Morocco was located on the top of the large twelve foot tall pyramidal steel structure straddling the summit. And of course I had to climb it. Luckily it was built Moroccan-tough and had clearly held the body weight of many climbers over the years.
Sure, I could climb it, but the trickier part would be getting a photo of myself on the top. I was currently the only person on the summit so I would have to use the 10-second delay on my camera. But it didn’t look like ten seconds was going to give me enough time for me to get from the camera’s trigger to the top of the steel summit jungle gym structure. To find the optimal climbing technique, I climbed the structure a few times until I felt that I could do it pretty fluently. Then I pressed the camera trigger, sprinted, climbed up, looked at the camera, and smiled. Darn it! It had already captured. I repeated the little skit five more times until I finally got a photo of myself on the top.
FORGING THE FELLOWSHIP
Pretty soon other people began to arrive until it became a veritable party on the summit: Germans, Spaniards, and then three fellows about my age – the only other young people I had seen on the mountain. People began waiting in line to pose for photos on the summit. “Nice view today, huh?” I asked the three guys, guessing that they probably understood English.
“Yeah,” one fellow responded. I was impressed because he wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I got the sense that these boys were tough. “But it’s a circus up here! Those people are taking forever – let’s get a photo and get outta here.”
I took a photo for them and they reciprocated the favor. “Where are you guys from?” I asked.
“Poland, what about you?
“Cool, I haven’t seen any other Americans up here.”
We struck up a conversation and I found out that their names were Witek (pronounced ‘Vitek’), Andrzej (pronounced ‘Andrey’), and Anton (pronounced, well, like ‘Anton’). Witek and Andrzej had flown to Fès, on the north coast of Morocco, a few weeks ago and had hitchhiked around the country, rendezvousing with Anton in Marrakech a few days ago. Then they had hitchhiked to the Toubkal trailhead. Anton had to fly back to Poland in a few days but Witek and Andrzej were off the leash. They would go where the wind took them for as long as they liked. I told them my story and how I had gotten from Vilamoura to Toubkal over the past 30 hours. “Yeah, and after this I’m planning to drive south into southern Morocco and maybe see if I can climb the highest point in Western Sahara. It’s a long drive though.”
Then it hit me. To get to the Western Sahara high point I still had another 24 hours of driving, according to Google Maps – way too much to accomplish by myself in the next four days, especially considering the fact that I needed to be back in Casablanca in three days for my flight back to the States. But these three fellows had no agenda. Like me, they were searching for adventure too. And having a ride would allow them to cover a lot more ground. Meanwhile, my little Hyundai had three empty seats. And travel is way more fun when you’ve got a friend to share it with…
“Would you guys like to join me?” I asked.
Witek looked to Andrzej, Andrzej looked to Anton, and they began deliberating in Polish. They thought about it for a few minutes. It was a big decision, one that would shape the course of our adventure for the next three days. The four of us stood at a crossroads.
After a few minutes, Andrzej said “ok, we’d like to join you!” with a big smile. And so our mutual adventure began on top of the highest point in Morocco.
Andrzej’s knee was causing him problems, so Witek and I ran ahead to dismantle their tents, which they had pitched at the refuge below, while Anton stayed behind to help Andrzej down. As I talked with Witek on the way down, I got the feeling that the decision to combine forces had been a good one. I could tell that the four of us would get along well together.
As we hopped over boulders, passing about fifty other people, I learned that Witek worked as a window cleaner for tall buildings in Poland. He was fearless of heights. Andrzej worked as an independent investor. The two had saved up for this trip for a long time and would return to Poland when either the money ran out or they stopped having fun. Meanwhile, Anton worked as a firefighter and had managed to carve out a week of vacation for this trip.
Down at the refuge, we dismantled the tents and were joined by Anton and Andrzej a little while later. We enjoyed a hearty meal at the refuge and discussed the plans. They were on board for the plan to drive to Western Sahara, and offered to help drive. Without a license, Witek would only be able to provide moral support, but Anton and Andrzej had grown up driving manual-transmission cars, so I was looking forward to some relaxation in the backseat while they navigated the urban obstacle courses ahead of us. We still had a long hike to the trailhead so we quickly packed up and bid farewell to the refuge.
SMELLY SOCKS FOR SILK
A few small trailside shops had opened up, selling apples and souvenirs from the High Atlas. The apples were too hard to pass up, so we stopped and Andrzej bartered for a bunch of them. He managed to get them for half the original price, an impressive feat. But that was only a prelude – he had his sights set on one of the hand-woven rugs.
“This is very pretty, I want to get this one for my mother,” he said to the gentleman who owned the shop, whom we’ll refer to as Mohammad #3.
“300 dirhams,” Mohammad #3 said.
“300?!” Andrzej replied, “100, I’m just a poor student.”
“I only have 150 in my wallet. Please sir.”
“Ok, how about two for 300? My friend Witek wants to get one for his mother too. I’ll give you my last 150 and so will Witek.”
Mohammad #3 thought about it. “No, 400 dirhams for two,” he said.
“Please sir.” Andrzej clasped his hands together and kneeled down as if in deep prayer. “Look into my eyes,” he said softly, removing his sunglasses, “would these be the eyes of dishonest man? Please sir, this is for my poor mother, and for Witek’s poor mother.”
“OK, 300 for two,” Mohammad #3 said with a big smile.
Andrzej gave Mohammad #3 a big bear hug and we all shook Mohammad #3’s hand. It had been a valiant effort for Mohammad #3, but this time Andrzej had been victorious. Andrzej opened his wallet and, perhaps not completely inadvertently, as he pulled out his “last 150,” he revealed five or so hundred-dirham bills that had been hiding. “Oops, I didn’t see those!” he said. And the five of us – Mohammad #3 included – erupted with laughter.
We continued on, munching our apples triumphantly. Farther down Anton decided to try his own luck with bargaining. We waited outside a shop while he marched into battle. “Man, what’s taking him so long?” Witek said impatiently after a few minutes. “Anton!”
Anton emerged with a huge smile on his face. “I traded them two of my dirty wool socks for this!” It was a beautiful silk handkerchief. “It’s for my girlfriend.” As we looked at the colorful piece of fabric we marveled at how two foul socks could fetch something so beautiful. “I guess socks are hard to come by around here,” I said.
DASH TO THE CAR
As we resumed our descent Andrzej groaned in agony. “It’s my knee, guys, I’m going to have to take this slowly. I hurt this many years ago and it comes back sometimes on big hikes.” Witek and I took turns carrying Andrzej’s pack in order to ease his pain. His knee was already wrapped up in athletic tape and unfortunately there wasn’t much more that we could do for him, short of carrying him down.
Then I had an idea. “How about I run down, get the car, then drive up to meet you guys?” I suggested. The mile or two of roadwalking I had done the previous night, I had concluded, would have been completely drivable after all. I was a little upset with Mohammad #1 for telling me that my car couldn’t get any higher, and getting me to park in Imlil instead of Armd.
“Ok, that sounds good,” Andrzej said. He was definitely looking forward to sparing his knee any unnecessary miles. And with that, I took off and kicked it into gear.
A few miles later I was down to the road, finally able to see what I had run by in the dark last night. The road was perched high up on the side of a canyon, with an awesome one-lane no-guardrail bridge leading to a village perched high up on the other hillside. It was like a bridge out of Lord of the Rings, minus the lushness of Middle Earth.
I consulted the GPS and decided to take a little shortcut in order to shave off a few miles. What started out as a trail quickly deteriorated into nothing and I found myself bushwhacking down an ever-steepening hillside. Soon the bushes stopped and I was faced with almost twenty foot cliff. Darn it! I bushwhacked a little farther to the side and the steepness eased slightly. The GPS, meanwhile, proclaimed that I was just a tenth-mile line-of-sight from the car, tantalizingly close. So I took a deep breath and carefully downclimbed the final twenty feet, holding onto bushes. A few villagers had noticed me and stared in bewilderment as I emerged from the bushes. But I kept running and triumphantly crossed the finish line to my car.
Just then Mohammad #1 appeared out of nowhere. “Hey Mohammad!” I said, “I made it up to the top!”
He smiled but then directed my attention to a rug covering my car’s passenger window. He removed the rug, and to my horror there was no glass. I immediately froze in shock and questions raced through my mind. Someone had broken into my car? Geez, they probably took everything, my laptop, food, extra gear. I wonder how much the rental company is going to charge for this? I wonder if they did anything else to the car?
Mohammad #1, sensing my escalating blood pressure, rushed to reassure, “no, it’s not broken! You forgot!”
And indeed, I noticed then that the window was simply rolled down, and I had just forgotten to roll it up. I opened all the doors and confirmed that everything was still intact, including my laptop. Whew, I breathed a big sigh of relief, and gave Mohammad a hearty handshake. As I reached for 20 dirhams to pay Mohammad, he gently suggested that he might deserve a little more, and pointed to the window. I nodded, and gave him 40. Hopefully he’ll maintain the same level vigilance in the future watching other foreigners’ cars, I thought to myself.
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE HYUNDAI
I fired up the car and began to pull out of Mohammad’s little dirt lot. “Wait, have some dinner!” I heard someone shout, “We have many nice places to stay! You need a good sleep tonight and we have many nice rooms!” I put on a big smile. “Sorry, but I’ve gotta go, I need to pick up my friends.”
I waved farewell to Mohammad #1 and turned onto the rough road that wound up the mountain. The road turned out to be equivalent in roughness to a typical Maine logging road. But there were two important differences. First, I was driving a manual transmission car, for the fifth day in my life. And second, there were some obstacles. Little kids, descending the road on their way home from school, noticed a foreigner at the wheel of the car and decided it’d be fun to scare the driver. They took turns jumping into the road in front of me. I’d slam on the brakes, try to start, stall the car, yell in frustration, and repeat. Finally an adult shooed them out of the way and I waved in thanks.
At last, a few hundred feet higher, Anton and Witek appeared from around a corner, with Andrzej hobbling behind them. He looked exhausted. “Y’all want a ride?” I yelled. I parked the car and we started packing it up. “It’ll be kind of tight,” I said, “you’ll all still up for this little road trip?”
“Definitely!” they answered. “We’ll make it fit.” Andrzej collapsed into the front seat, relieved that he wouldn’t have to walk another meter. Miraculously we managed to cram four smelly dudes and all their gear into the miniscule Hyundai i10.
“Can I drive?” Anton asked me.
“Absolutely,” I answered, “I was hoping you’d ask that.”
He threw it into reverse an expertly turned the car around. I breathed a big sigh of relief that there was now a more competent person at the helm of our little ship. He drives manual-transmission fire trucks around Warsaw, I thought, so no wonder it’s a piece of cake for him to drive this little car!
“Let’s go boys, we’re outta here,” Anton said, shifting into first gear. We had successfully climbed Toubkal, but the Moroccan adventure had just begun.