A Day in the Atlas Mountains (sort of).

They’d been out there on the horizon; during dawn, during dusk, present as if painted on the stretched out on the far-away as the sun begun low, set higher and then sunk again. They’d been out there, looming, daunting with a coy taunt, that slight, beckoning pull that was too soft to acknowledge in reality, but too forceful to ignore.

They’d been out there, on the horizon, whispering ‘ come, come on over’ . And so we went.

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We’d spent three warm days in the city – the first day mostly victims of heavy downpour, the following days merrily welcoming the bright sun that bathed us in rays of light and wrapped itself around our tourist-y presence the inhabitants of Marrakesh are too well adjusted to, as if they are primed into it. It makes sense and with every salesman that manages to break your persistent attempt to ignore him, you look at them and think of your money being his only source of income. The dirham you put in his often unusually clean hands the money that will allow him to put food on the table that night. Overly cautious and always well aware of their sales techniques and the harsh reality that they try to hide while they smooth-talk you into conviction, I am by now a somewhat seasoned travelled, though soft-hearted, but my sister having spent time in Thailand, seems to know the tricks of the trade. Most times she’s resolute. At times I can see her think and know she’s about to give in. Despite of this, I’ve been knowingly tricked a few times – ripped off always sounds so mean – but I’d like to think I’ve contributed to Christmas presents. These salesmen here, they are so awfully clever. And most of them, terribly witty too.

Wanting to escape the madness and chaos that I’ve so often witnessed watching disturbed ant colonies running around one of their recently caved in tunnels, we were eager to leave the city in the distance. And there they were – perpetually on the horizon – the Atlas Mountains.

We’d been told that Ourika Valley was a trip well worth it and armed with negotiation tactics and knowledge shared with us by a local shop owner we befriended, we hassled with an old and short taxi driver that tried to rip us off – like we’d been told – but eventually had to give in to the firm resistance of two Western foreigners.

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We passed uneventful, stretched open, red and dry land and occasionally a villa or apartment complex appears out of the blue as if it was dropped out of the sky accidentally. The shops by the side of the road were all the same – makeshift, in terrible condition and held together by sheer improvisation – and their stock not much different from each other. We finally reached the mouth of the mountains we knew we were heading for but had remained such a tease in the distance. The road slowly took us up, Umar the taxi driver not slowing down as it snaked around in curves out in front of us.

Through the closed windows we think we can hear the river Ourika, at that time a small, delicate stream that cobbles away over the rounded stones and ran along the motorway. Umar wanted to stop several times and we gave in once, knowing fully well we were expected to buy souvenirs or food at the place he dropped us off. The one time we stopped, we were taking up to the roof to overlook a part of the valley and got scarfs wrapped around our heads like locals. We managed with what little French we had in our back pockets to keep him going, keep him driving and I snapped my pictures from the car.

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With the sound of the small river on our left, water splashing and stones snapping away from underneath the yellowish taxi, we placidly drove into the village Ourika. Next to the rush of the river, we found a place to get something to drink, release some stress from a heated altercation with Umar who, yes, tried to rip us off, and we took in our surroundings.

During the summer, this is where tourists attempt to hide from the scorching heat that exists in the city of Marrakesh and an array of wildflowers apparently would have conquered the earth, with almond and cherry orchards in full bloom. But it’s January and there are only little flowers. The ground is dried up and dusty, almost brutally left in the absence of water – be it the river or the rain – though the air is close to humidly refreshing and cool. On both sides along the riverside makeshift (everything is makeshift here) cafes had popped up with cheap, white and red plastic chairs and colourful paper table cloths (orange, purple, green), countless of dangerously looking rope bridges running over the rushing water that allowed a crossing but from where we sat it was unclear where it may have lead.

We strolled along the creek that passed us roaringly proud and was now reduced to a near-dried bed of wet rocks, though sometimes it widened and the flow grew stronger again. We gaze up the mountains that stood so tall above us, towering over our heads and we spotted houses built on the side that would – should – surely, tumble down at the slightest breeze. The mountain tops and crests seemed to overlap, like a timeless painting that knew no depth of field, and sometimes we spotted little hiking wanderers that came down, always accompanied with mountain-goat guides.

At some point, now far away from the strange bubble of the smallest town, the clock tower sticking out misplaced and yet so contemplated, exposed to the sun for quite a while and our shoes covered in red dirt and white dust, we casually walked back down the wide, flat road that seemed so out of place with the laundry only inches above the ground on improvised lines, the chickens running around, the young girl playing with a rock and a stick and the army of cacti that had spread themselves along and across the rocky hills.

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It doesn’t take long before a taxi driver spotted us and shouts “Marrakesh?”. Not wanting to get into trouble again, we check, double-check and then check with the two cabbies that surrounded us, only to double-check with them as well, though only the handler spoke something that resembled English. They must have thought of us as odd people, odd people indeed, those Western travellers. They named the right price, which should have put my mind to ease, but instead stirred within more fret and worry. However, when approaching the taxi, two other boys got in as well. Surely, this must be right then. I offered the front seat to my sister to sit in the back with the two male strangers, but she’s directed back to me. I looked up and a young couple are ushered into the front seat. The four of us remaining pushed ourselves into the back seat and we made the long drive back again.

I guessed this was what they called ‘sharing a taxi’ in Morocco.


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