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ADVENTURE TRAVEL

Villages Far From the Marrakech Express : Two Hikers and Their Berber Guides Trek High Into the Atlas Mountains of Morocco

March 07, 1993|LINDA ILENE SOLOMON | Solomon is a free-lance writer who lives in Paris.

AZILAL, Morocco — In Paris, my home for the last four years, there is a propriety, a striving for perfection in grammar and style, a beauty and refinement and intellectual sophistication that sometimes becomes too much. Perhaps that is why I went seeking Morocco, a place where I imagined life would be simpler, rawer and more relaxing.

(And it's true that my whole being relaxed as I walked down the steps of the Royal Air Maroc jet at midnight last May and felt the hot breeze of Northern Africa flapping the cotton skirt around my calves and saw the relaxed faces at the customs booths.)

Morocco is a country which I had feared and wondered about since I went to West Africa in 1980 and heard stories of how women traveling alone or with men in Tangier, Fez and Marrakech were hassled mercilessly by the local men who could not respect their unveiled state.

Twelve years later, a friend, Bob Edmondson, invited me to take a trip with him to the Atlas Mountains.

"Why the Atlas Mountains?" I asked.

"The Atlas Mountains are twice as big as the French and Italian Alps put together," Bob said. "The peaks are as high as 13,000 feet. From what I can tell, the Atlas is as exciting as the Alps, but much less traveled," he said.

Neither of us had traveled to Northern Africa before or spent time in an Islamic country, but we both wondered about the individuals and the culture behind the negative images of the mass of Islamic people that American television provides. We knew that Berbers, not Arabs, populated the Atlas Mountains, and that they farmed and lived in much the same way as they had for several thousand years.

Our feeling of excitement grew after reading "The Rough Guide to Morocco," a standard for travelers to Morocco's mountains. This book became our bible.

It told us that there are literally endless variations on walking the Atlas Mountains. Some of them require guides and others don't. Guides aren't necessary for a trek up Toubkal, at almost 14,000 feet the highest peak in Northern Africa. Situated in the Toubkal National Park, this mountain is the goal of 95% of people who hike in Morocco. It's easy to get to from Marrakech, and the trail up the mountain is clear and well-trodden.

But Bob and I wanted to get as far away from Western life as possible, so we chose one of the many routes that do require a guide. We arranged our trip at the last minute, too late to write the Provincial Tourist Office of Morocco requesting a guide.

For those who don't speak French, English-speaking guides are best obtained by writing ahead to the tourist office, whose personnel also will suggest routes and have provisions ready to meet you when you arrive.

We were attracted by our guidebook's description of the little-traveled dirt track southeast of the mountain city of Azilal, which led to the village of Ayt Mehammed and on into the Ayt Bou Goumez valley. "The Happy Valley," as the French like to call it, was appealing even by name. This small, sparsely inhabited, agricultural valley serves as a climbing base for the 13,000-foot peaks of the M'Goun, the highest mountains in Morocco outside the Toubkal range.

The flight from Paris to Marrakech took three hours. Outside the airport, we bargained with a thin taxi driver in a checked shirt on the price of a cab ride to the Semiramas Meridian Hotel in Marrakech's new city. The final, agreed-upon price: 80 dirham, or a little more than $9.

We walked into the hotel and saw how standard and safe, yet lovely, it looked, how apart it seemed to be from the ancient Marrakech we'd expected. Our third floor room had a television set that our young porter immediately turned to CNN. (During our first night in Northern Africa, we watched in amazement news clips of Rodney King being beaten by police and parts of Los Angeles going up in flames.)

The sounds of singing birds awakened me at 6 a.m. and I slipped through the curtains out onto the balcony, where I found them singing from palm trees, bushes, and among the riot of purple flowers that filled the garden below.

After breakfast, we decided to see the old city before arranging transportation to the mountains for the next day.

Marrakech is in the flat desert. Across the street from the hotel, small hills and cliffs of reddish-brown sand cut up into the cloudless sky. The traffic was steady into town: Men rode in carts driven by mules, on bicycles and mopeds.

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