KIF IN THE RIF, Part 3
We are by now both curious and a little suspicious of what might greet us around the next corner. It turns out to be nothing more threatening, nor less daunting, than a series of switch-backs climbing steeply up the hill. Lonely Planet had forewarned as much and so, rather than wait for the sun to rise yet higher, we dig into the climb. But it’s not easy. At around the second or third turn, we see a farm-house and adjoining buildings looming in the near distance. An old woman is attending to her mountainous vegetable garden and she offers a wave as we pass by, with a look that I’d like to take as one of support and encouragement but which may just be dismay at the mad antics of western tourists. At least she doesn’t try to push cannabis on us. A little further along, high on a hillock, we see a goat herder – perhaps her husband? – attempting to call in his animals. There’s a breed around here – of goats, not herders – that apparently climb the trees to feed from them, but if these are such specimens, they do not put on a performance for us. Our entertainment is confined to watching conventional cows defy the laws of gravity on what appear to be sheer rock faces.
It is past one o’clock now and we are all feeling the heat. Back home in the Catskills, the trails are shaded by the surrounding forest. Here, we are hopelessly exposed. The road, such as it ever was, has now become an obstacle course, laden with giant boulders, many of which presumably fell down the mountainside years back and have long been considered easier to drive around, by the few jeeps heading towards the national park, than to move by hand. Posie asks to be pulled uphill. I forestall Noel from attempting an about turn in favor of gravity’s pull with a request that he provide plot summations of every Sponge Bob Square Pants episode ever. He falls for it, and continues climbing despite himself.
Eventually, we reach a sharp turn at what we desperately hope to be the last of the switch-backs. It’s not, but there is a boulder at the edge of the road pronouncing us 1600m above sea level. It is accompanied by arrows leading westward, off the 4WD track and on to the land behind the boulders. Only now, it transpires, over four hours after setting off from our Dar, have we reached the “pass” that will lead us to the saddle, and then on to the summit.
On a different day – one on which we had set off two hours earlier, perhaps, in cooler weather for sure – I would have sought the narrow trail from amidst these boulders and, preferably, run my way to the peak of El-Kelaa. On this particular day, and at this particular hour, there is no chance; even at my own pace, I would probably be looking at an additional four hours for the round trip. Officially, we will have to mark today a DNF – a “Did Not Finish” – and put it down to training for what will hopefully be more successful summits later in our journey. But we have at least made the necessary elevation gain. With a last, furious burst of energy, Noel and I dive into the bracken and scramble an additional ten or twenty meters or so up some rock to what we hope is the exact equivalent of El-Kelaa’s peak, and then we all pose for photographs by the boulder that confirms that we are, at 1600 meters, or 1750 yards, considerably higher than anywhere in the Catskills, or indeed my homeland of Great Britain – and by one of those cosmic coincidences one notices when traveling the world, exactly one mile above sea level. It should be said that, despite a slight sense of failure, the photographs nonetheless have a certain satisfying majesty to them: the peak of el-Kelaa is clearly visible off in the distance behind a weary, red-faced Noel and myself, and the clouds are lingering below that peak, and in the mid-distance of another shot I take, you can see the road we have climbed. It looks a long, long way down.
Having claimed our “summit,” we begin our descent, and almost immediately, encounter our only other hikers of the entire day. Naturally, they are tourists; locals clearly have better things to do with their weekends. They are young, French, in their twenties, and both sweating profusely, he with his shirt off, which makes us feel a little better about our own levels of fitness. They are none too happy to hear that the trail to the mountain peak itself only begins at this point, and we assume that they are no more inclined to attempt it than us. That said, we don’t see them again. For all I know, they may still be out there. Indeed, when I finally get back to our Dar in the evening, I re-research our day’s sojourn, seeking out successful trekking accounts for some retroactive advice on where we might have gone wrong. What I find is any number of very frustrated hikers, raging at Lonely Planet for making an undoubtedly arduous task sound impossibly easy; those who made it all the way to the summit and back in a single day are few and far between, and almost invariably, found the view obscured by clouds (of the non-hashish variety). As always the case on our global journey, I try and learn lessons from today for the rest of our voyage. The most important is that while Lonely Planet may be considered the independent travelers’ Bible, much of its contents should, similarly, be taken with a large rock of salt.
Another is that, when in doubt, hire a guide.
We say good bye to the sweaty French couple and start our descent proper, and though we are now dealing with the peak of the afternoon sun, it is of course, far less stressful a journey down hill. Soon enough, we find ourselves back at the farmhouse and the old woman, still tending to her garden. This time, however, she stops and rights herself to greet us. She has the deeply creased and browned face of someone who has spent her entire life engaged in manual labor, which makes it hard to accurately gauge her age. Her hair is wrapped in the obligatory head-scarf, she has barely but a tooth in her mouth and an equally miniscule grasp of English, which she nonetheless puts to use.
Perhaps taken by the presence of a beetroot-faced eleven-year old in our midst, she starts by offering us water, shaping her hand into that of a glass to be sure we understand. It is fine, we say, we have plenty – and this is true: we get some parts of the planning correct, despite ourselves. She then makes the gesture for food, pinching her fingers together and lifting them towards her mouth. Are we hungry? Would we like to come in and eat? As so often proves to be the case on our global adventure, a massive part of me wants to accept her invitation with open arms; what better opportunity than this will we ever have to see how a poor Moroccan farm family lives in the Rif Mountains? But the truth is that we have plenty snacks on us – this is the first day Noel has ever eaten a whole avocado, he notes in a journal conspicuously absent of further details of the hike – and more importantly, the clock is an issue: because we have only this morning made the decision to race to the Sahara desert and back in the next 72 hours, I still have to get to the bus station to buy tickets for tomorrow’s journey to Fes. And so, as also so often the case on our global adventure, we decline the offer of hospitality.
The old lady of the Rif Mountains makes one final offer, and I will never find out if it would have involved a financial transaction.
“Smoke?” she cackles from behind her lone tooth, and draws her right hand towards her mouth in the shape of a joint. “You want hashish?”