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The Adventure Journals

Morocco: A Nomadic Compass

"If you want to run fast, run alone; if you want to run far, run together" - an African proverb

In a close, tiled hotel room under a sputtering light, Sarah pops up and down in my periphery, forcing out her jet lag with burpees. A rigorous clanking begins as Matt racks our climbing gear. Behind a palisade of multi-screens, Krystle's face flashes gently like an alien chameleon. My beds up close to the barred window. The acrid scent of leather and old oranges, loosened by evening rain, seeps in from the medina. I close my eyes against the small chaos and imagine the vast, dark African sky outside. I normally travel alone.

Krystle’s an adventure photographer. Living on the road for the last five years; there's not a trace of irony when she refers to herself as a 'child of the universe'. Sarah and Matt are guides and pro #vanlife instagrammers, they drive a wooden-roofed Volkswagen around the West US. I’m a Sheffield-based writer, alone or abroad nearly full-time for the last year. We met on the international festival circuit, and despite nomadic lives, grew a four-way friendship across continents, and kept it flowing with the life-blood of WhatsApp.

We’ve met in Morocco, An ‘exotic gateway' of tribal trade routes between Asia and Europe, a country of desert, mountains, coast and city mazes. Under the arabic surface, the culture of the native nomad; the Berber, goes deep. The tribe refers to themselves as Amazigh, or ‘free people’. Several tell us 'you can do anything here. You never travel truly alone in Africa’. Krystle’s a nomad for sure; but she knows strength occasionally lies in numbers. The four of us live the dream; travel for a living, but as roots grow thin, and friendships falter at home, it’s hard to know if we are #inthemoment, #growingtobeabetterversionofourselves or just getting lost. She reckoned three weeks travelling as a team would refresh us. I was nervous. Would I have enough space? But being alone had got over-serious, and I was becoming cynical. At 5am, the call to prayer has the Americans bolt upright in bed. They’ve never been to an Islamic country, and scramble over my legs to gaze at the minaret singing outside.

'Do you suffer from the migraine?

Do you need rosehip for your womb?

How is your nose, rather full?

Are you awake all the nights?

Are you happy?

First stop, a pharmacy in Marrakech. A medicine man, a seer, the canniest businessman Dragons Den has never known. In the next five minutes we develop every affliction known to the western world, and a few we’ve never heard of. We agree that the secret to a long and peaceful life can be dried, bagged and infused once a day; for the right price. We relinquish piles of crisp currency for pounds of tea. The shop owner is serious as he presses a pot of red lip pigment into my hand, ‘Make your face beautiful and your heart will follow.'

Drunk on scent and giggling we fall into the medina. Five pharmacies later, each proffering cheaper wares, it’s clear we've been fleeced. I'm put in charge of team haggling. The American’s are too open, too charming, though the effect of British sarcasm is yet to be seen. The Moroccans are, in all cases, silly, teasing, flirtatious. No one is serious at any one point. We give up trying to get to find straight prices or straight answers, and relax into flow of the maze around us.

Despite the insistent creep of 'Made in China', and 'Avocado on Sourdough', an Arabic world still wheels past in Marrakech. The cells of the Madrasa lock their silence in with intricate carvings. Lanterns float above our heads like burnished jellyfish, or blessings. The call to prayer catches again and again like a half-remembered song in our throats, and we stop, and watch as druid-hooded men flow from the tunnelled streets into the grace of the Mosque.

We see few women. One cleans the immaculate mosaic floor of an inner garden. I catch her Jelba sleeve and she turns henna patterned palms up in surprise. We stutter, smile, mime. Briefly, she allows Krystle a photograph, before wrapping her lyrical, flowering hands around her broom handle, and sweeping away.

We drive out of the city. Outside the medina, the ancient is loosely cable-tied to the new. Chickens, young men, and radiators stack above small motorbikes. We are heading for Tafroute; trad-climbing above Jean Venn’s iconic blue rocks. Six hours later we halt in a red moonscape and the Americans bounce around, feeling quite at home. I unfurl cautiously. The crags could be a series of giant sandcastles, half washed away. Charming, but choss central. It’s nearly dark, we scud about for firewood and huddle briefly, before sardining into our tents as the rain begins.

Dawn, and haze rises from the painted boulders down the hill. We poke about. It’s not quite beautiful. It’s definitely eerie. The giant Arabic words could be prayers, threats, or just Graffiti. We daren’t climb the damp rock, and shortly pack up. Something else.

On the road again, the desert spreads out either side of the car. I start to feel like I'm drowning, and shake myself. We will arrive, though we still haven’t decided where. Krystle spins the compass and we gun for the Todra Gorge. Sport climbing. Solid rock. Another six hours, maybe nine. Storms bury us occasionally. As we near, cloud shafts light up the citadel. Small boys dot the view points. One presses a palm leaf camel into my hand. He is 12, a Somalian refugee. I'm ill-prepared for this. As we drive away I castigate myself for writing about climbing and travel. My navel gazing does nothing for him, he remains in the rear view mirror, getting smaller and smaller.

The gorge is huge and bolts glitter above the river. Sarah and I groan about our interwoven, withering limbs. We drive past the guest houses and hike up the first trail we find; where-to-sleep can wait. Rain filters the view and with exactly the right composition a rainbow arches across the valley. Click. Golden threads of coincidence seem to flicker all around. We stumble down as the shack owners lock up their carpets. 'Abdul’ thrusts a battered guidebook towards Matt and Sarah, and they begin an unguarded conversation. ‘Where are you staying?’ he asks immediately, I interrupt. ’It’s Ok, We're sorted…,’ but Matt's already flipped to a folded page. 'Oh rad, that’s your house! Totally awesome!’.

Abdul squeezes into the car and directs us off the road and up a river bed for twenty minutes. We turn up a fork that could also be a landslide, and park on top of a boulder that's been cemented into place. He grins. 'Welcome to my house.’ He’s 19, and used to guide the multi-pitch until a rock fall smashed a hotel roof in the gorge, and the tourists dried up. He makes us describe our favourite crags worldwide, ‘I need your eyes, Moroccan climbers can rarely leave Morocco, It’s hard to get the visa, you have to prove to you will return.’. In the next excited breath he describes a Bedouin cave camp we must have grazed past on our hike. ‘We are still a free roaming people in Todra, the tribes move across the seasons.’ The next day he joins us at the crag, and gymnastically rope-guns a route for us in battered shoes. We give him a lift into the local town so he can use the internet, and add us all on Facebook. While he flicks through our photos we promise to send him bags, a gri gri, more climbers to stay in his guest house and, we joke, polish his rocks. He smiles, 'I am not a shooting rock star, but I am rock-rich.’.

Next for something completely different. Not difficult in Morocco. Krystle has booked a three night camel Sahara tour. I’m nervous of a pantomime. Budget airlines brought Moroccan visitor numbers from 5.5 million in 2005 to 10.5 million in 2013 and much of that economy has so far fallen into corruption. No one's working to rebuild the hotel in Todra, the tourists crowd the most convenient elsewhere. But Krystle is assiduous about her traveling ethics. The government has launched ‘Vision 20/20', aiming to sustainably make Morocco one of the top twenty worldwide tourist destinations. She winks at me; ‘Trust’. I shut my cynicism back in its box, owning the role of a tourist is a clear way to contribute. ‘Salim' greets us wearing the traditional ‘ alasho' the Tuareg turquoise dress. He is extremely beautiful, with eyelashes to put his camels to shame. Awkwardly, we shunt ourselves onto the camel's humps. Salim flows barefooted in front of his new, ungainly caravan, answering us with laconic one-liners. Sarah dares to request the camel's names. 'This is Bob' he says, grinning slyly. 'Bob Marley. And this is Jimi Hendrix.' When we arrive at the camp a sleepy support team stretch out and pour concerning amounts of paraffin over some logs and encourage us to sit around the fire. They produce a tende drum, an Odili flute, and begin to accompany their music with shrill, passionate voices. ‘Africa, Africa unite! Unite for the benefit of your children’. They remove us from our seats and force us into a reeling, eight-strong hug in the desert.

Waking early for the light we race up the dunes and watch them flame around our feet. Krystle tries to capture the spumes with her camera. The action of the sand is so surprising. It could be a fifth element; only just earth, so like water, so like fire, disappearing into air. Gingerly, we run the thin, dissolving ridge lines, the bowls between are bottomless. The Sarahra is a landscape that's texture and depth has to be felt to be understood. Sometimes I think I’ve been so saturated with images of a place that the reality would just run off my shoulders, but the desert sinks in, as vivid as a trip, if a trip could touch. We each wander off to stand on high points, connected across the space like the constellations Salim pointed out the previous night. Alone but navigating by each other.

We shed the sand from our skin and pile into the car. Our last Morrocan contrast; the coast. Essauria is a small, walled city facing the Atlantic. In Berber it’s called Tassort, meaning small fortress, and since the 60’s has become a hideout for hipsters, bohemians and surfers who enjoy its permissive vibe. We head to a roof top bar. It’s a relief to see women working in the restaurant, and odd to realise we’ve got used to their absence. A local Gnawa group are playing to a swaying audience, and we pick out the rhythms of our Sahara troupe. We are back in the Moroccan melting pot. Swedes, Algerians, French, Dutch, Sommalians, Egyptians shout across each other between the sets. We join in, bolstered by the last few weeks. I’d found situations like this hard recently. I’d lost the energy to patch a conversation with strangers in another language. But Moroccan playfulness is inescapable, and in this bar at least everyone is a ‘comrade’. The next morning we walk around the medina buying souvenirs. Krystle dips into a jeweller, where a turbaned young man polishes a talisman. We sit down as he begins to speak;

"‘Just as humans are travellers, the wind and the sand travels. Nothing stays still'. He laughs, 'although when I came here the sea was bigger than anything I had ever seen, and when I tried to swim with the waves I stayed still, I sank. But I am a surfer now. You can always learn to move in a different way'.

This is the Berber cross, there are many stories but the first is that the caravans would travel from Mali, Nigeria, Algeria, Córdoba, Casablanca to Marrakesh and then through the Sahara to trade at Timbuktu. They would sleep in the day and travel at night to stay hidden. The Berber do not need a physical compass, they have built such an intuition of the way the wind, the sand and the stars move, but they do need a reminder of their shared nomadic sense, so this is a spiritual compass for those always on the move. Krystle buys the piece and leaves thrilled.

We drive toward Casablanca from the coast, calm in each other's company. A dog sleeps in the middle of the highway. Six men, hanging from a horse and cart, sacrifice their balance to wave to us as we pass. The mile signs light up like the future at the end of the tunnel, and we are ready to move on."

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