When I told my mother I was going to spend fifteen days on the road, ten of which on a big and dangerous motorcycle, she nearly had a heart attack. The brilliant plan to go to Morocco by motorcycle and climb the highest peak of the Atlas mountains was made in a blink of an eye. The itinerary for the trip was to go from Zurich to Granada by car, with the motorcycle on a trailer, catch a ferry to Tanger, and then the plan was basically for the road to be our guide.
Jeux Sans Frontières
As I was previously visiting Morocco, I knew that I can get the visa in a day at the embassy, so I wasn’t really thinking about it until some ten days before the trip. I went to the consulate in Zurich, where the consul said that I could get my visa in three (!) weeks. It turned out that the Moroccan embassy in Switzerland didn’t have an ambassador at the time, and they were sending all visa requests to Rabat for approval!
I left the building pretty pissed off, yet very much determined to make this thing happen. In the following days I reached out to every tourist agency in Belgrade to ask them whether they could help me with the visa application remotely, but without any luck. In the end, I called the Moroccan embassy in Belgrade and explained that I was currently working in Switzerland, where I couldn’t get the visa in time for my travel and asked them whether it’s possible to send my passport and documentation to a friend who would apply for the visa for me. After a long gentle persuasion, they agreed to help me. In an instant my passport, was on a DHL to Serbia, where my good friend Milena managed to finish everything and send my passport back just in time for my trip! (Thanks Milena 🙂 )
A pearl set in emeralds
We were travelling for almost two days when we finally reached Granada. I was eager to get to that ferry to Morocco as soon as possible and finally start our adventure, whereas my friend was overly excited about seeing a fortress near Granada, that he visited as a child. On the following day I could understand the fascination – in front of me was a jewel of Islamic architecture in Europe, a silent witness of vanished power and glory.
Granada, a city that now has about 160,000 inhabitants, received a certain significance during Arab reign in Iberian Peninsula around 711. In 1031, it became the capital of the independent Emirate of Granada and developed into a center of Moorish culture, art and science over the next century. In time of such flourish, Alhambra was built by the Moorish emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar, the first ruler of the Nasrid dynasty, on ruins of a 9th century castle. Reconquista, the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims by the Christian kingdoms, has already started at the time. In the following century, Kingdom of Granada was the only remaining territory of the Moors. In 1492, the last Moorish ruler, King Boabdil, was forced from his Kingdom of Granada by the catholic kings of Aragon and Castile. He is said to have stopped on a mountain path, looked back at the Alhambra palace one final time and shed a tear for what he had lost. This place is known today as “El Suspiro del Moro” or The Sigh of the Moor. When Boabdil broke down, his mother reproached him with the words: ‘Thou dost weep like a woman for what thou couldst not defend as a man.’ After nearly 800 years, Arab rule in the Iberian Peninsula has ended.
No words can express the mesmerising beauty of Alhambra. With its Mocárabe decorations, zellij tiles, exquisitely carved panels of arabesques and verses from Koran carved higher up on the walls, closer to heavens, and poetic verses inscribed closer to eye level, marquetry ceilings and dream-like gardens, it is truly a miracle that this masterpiece of Islamic architecture managed to survive the Spanish Inquisition. After banishing the last Moorish king, Alhambra was neglected for centuries, its buildings were occupied by squatters and its fine artwork was exposed to the elements. Luckily this gem was rediscovered in 19th century by European scholars and travelers. Since 1984, Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is fully restored to its former glory.
With the car and the trailer safely placed at the hotel parking lot in Granada, we could finally hop on the bike and head towards Tarifa, where we caught the last ferry to Tangier. Exhausted after nearly 300 km ride through endless fields of olive trees in Spain and a two-hour ferry ride to Morocco, we crashed in the first hotel we found.
We started early the following day. We had to drive almost 600 km to Marrakech. My friend really stepped on the gas and was driving almost 160km/h on a busy highway. When we finally reached Marrakech I was literally shaking. I was furious at my friend for driving so fast without a break and could hardly stand on my feet from the adrenaline rush. An unexpected feeling creeped in and it felt good. I felt alive.
After our failed attempt to find a decent hotel in the hectic Medina area, where everyone was trying to grab our attention and sell us stuff or somehow lure us into narrow dark streets, we finally asked a policeman to show us a safe place to stay. Dead hungry and tired, we went to the chaotic main square, Djemaa El Fna, where countless food vendors grab your sleeves in an attempt to persuade as many people into coming to their food stands. One Moroccan soup, tagine and a couple of berber whiskeys later and I was purring like a kitten.
Marrakech, Berber for “Land of God”, is the third largest city in Morocco, after Casablanca and Rabat, and lies near the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. It is a few hours from the foot of the Sahara Desert. Founded by the Almoravids, religious and knowledgeable nomad warriors from the desert, who emerged from the south to build their capital on the Tensift River in 1062. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Marrakech became a cosmopolitan centre of culture and learning, numerous mosques and madrasas (Koranic schools) were built, developing the community into a trading center for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Marrakesh grew rapidly and established itself as a cultural and religious center, supplanting Aghmat, which had long been the capital of Haouz. Following 400 years reign of various berber dynasties (the Almoravides, Almohades and Merinides), rulers of Arabic origin arrive in the 16th century. After Saadiens unified Morocco as one country during 16th century, the Alaouites came to the throne in 1659 and still rule Morocco today.
The following day, we have lost ourselves in the endless labyrinths of souks (bazaars) and alleyways in the Medina. The life here hasn’t changed much over the past millennium, as the walls and general layout of the roads, lanes, souks and square set up by the city’s founders are still largely intact. Endless array of people, spices, fruits and vegetables, colorful clothes and beautiful products of fine craftsmanship caught us in a whirlpool of colours and mysterious scents.
The main landmark of Marrakech is the 77m minaret of Koutoubia Mosque, which is dominating the main Medina square, Djemaa El-Fna. It is a twin of the Giralda in Seville and the unfinished Hassan Tower in Rabat. The mosque was fully restored in 1990s, but unfortunately non-muslims are not allowed inside what is said to be one of the unsurpassed creations of Islamic art.
On the way to the top
We arrived in Imlil in late afternoon and headed straight to the local tourist information office to find a guide for the ascent to Jbel Toubkal at 4167m. For 120 euros each, we got ourselves a guide for two days, a mule and a carrier, a place at the Toubkal refuge and food for two days. We started our journey to the top of the High Atlas mountains at 9am. We had to hike 12 km to the refuge, a fairly relaxed ascent from 1,740 to 3208m.
All being very interesting for me, I started taking photos of the scenery and the people, when I noticed that both our guide and the carrier started freaking out. Enjoying people watching as I very much do, I have taken a photo of two local guys passing by. As I later learned, you’re not supposed to take photos of random people without their consent, as they believe that the camera will capture their souls. I stuck to this rule throughout our journey, or at least I took photos when no one was looking.
We arrived at the Toubkal refuge around lunch time. The refuge was very basic: mouldy, crowded, with no toilet paper and no hot water, yet it had a working fireplace, good Moroccan food and was filled with many cheerful people. Several guides gathered around the fireplace and sung beautiful Moroccan songs to everyone’s amusement. Unfortunately, we couldn’t enjoy the party for long as we had a very early start in the morning. We slipped into our sleeping bags around 10pm.
We started the ascent at 7am sharp. The morning was very cold, as the sun was still below the horizon. I was literally frozen. Being at 3200m, I experienced altitude sickness and I could hardly breath due to the thin air. I remember walking for 10-20m and then stopping to catch my breath. I was breathing in large quantities of cold air as my body was trying to grasp as much oxygen possible for normal functioning (This led to a severe cough that stuck with me for over a month). I was mad at myself for my weakness. I was mad at myself for even coming here. I wasn’t fit enough for such climb! Why the heck did I sign up for something I wasn’t able to do? I mean, let’s face it, this peak was so out of my reach! The trail is too vertical! No one in his straight mind can climb this freaking mountain with such strong wind. It’s freezing. The snow is too deep. I’m just not good enough.
But then something extraordinary happened. I could literally hear the little wheels turning inside of my head: You can do this! You can do anything you want! Grab that mountain peak by its scrotum and own it! The moment I made a decision to reach that top, was the moment I stopped focusing on can’ts and started concentrating on dos. I stopped feeling cold. I even stopped feeling the altitude sickness. Most importantly, I stopped feeling weak. With every new step I made, I was farther away from my insecurity and closer to the top.
I felt such an overwhelming feeling of achievement when we finally reached Jbel Toubkal! I’ve come to realize that this whole expedition was more about the fitness of the mind, rather than physical readiness. I doubted myself at the beginning and taught I was not cut from the right cloth. Yet I was determined to achieve my goal. I learned to make firm and balanced steps in order to succeed, as one wrong move could bring me right back where I’ve started. I was definitely not the same person that started the ascent in Imlil. I felt I could conquer the world! As a matter of fact, I felt like I just did!
Aiming for highest heights can be challenging, overpowering even. But it’s all worth it! The view from the top is magnificent!