Trekking the High Atlas, Taking the Pain
Travel Stories: A fall in Morocco's rugged mountains left Jeffrey Tayler writhing in agony -- and wondering whether to abandon his journey
11.30.09 | 11:01 AM ET
The August sun slowly crested the iron, claw-shaped crags above, scorching Kousser, a plateau of pale spatulated lava swells dotted with clumps of dead grass deep in the semi-desert fastnesses of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. My guide Driss and muleteer Khalid helped me load our two mules for the day’s hike. I was researching a story on the Berbers for National Geographic Magazine. We were 11 days into a two-month, 400-mile trek from near the town of Midelt west to the Atlantic, along the spine of North Africa’s greatest cordillera. We wished goodbye to Fatima, the old Berber woman who had put us up in her stone hut at the edge of Masku, an isolated hamlet close to the 11,000-foot high summit of Mount Astif. By mid-afternoon we hoped to reach the village of Zawiat Ahansal, somewhere to the southwest.
As we set out, sweat beaded on my forehead. It was oddly, nauseatingly humid for the High Atlas, and I felt queasy from the heat. I was in any case unsettled. Driss and Khalid had bickered endlessly over trivial matters; gritty desert winds had pushed the temperature at times to more than 100 degrees; Berber tribals had taken us for insurgents and threatened us; and a flash flood—the summer bane, often lethal, of the High Atlas—had trapped us for a night on a mountain ledge. To make matters worse, my back ached from a jarring fall from my mule a few days earlier. All in all, I had not adjusted to our expedition’s rigors; I had not yet fallen into the rhythms of the trek.
As we rounded the trail’s first bend, I looked back at Masku and saw Fatima watching us, slowly drawing her veil over her mouth, as if aghast at some horror unseen by us. She waved feebly. Surely I was projecting my own nervous state onto her gesture. But then, she had told us the previous evening of how a girl, only days before, had died tumbling from her mule. Panicked by his falling charge’s screams, the mule had broken into a gallop and dragged the hapless girl over the jagged rocks by her foot, which was caught in the saddle cinch. Masku was without a hospital, roadless, phoneless, accessible only by the trail we were now picking up. The girl had no chance.
Masku was soon lost behind the boulders. We were descending a path too steep to ride mules, so I waited until we reached the bottom to climb aboard. Once seated among the gear and supplies strapped to the mule’s back (saddles were not customary in these parts), I sensed that relief from nausea would be at hand. I relaxed. The mule took 10 steps and ... the sun bounced, junipers whirled, my feet flew skyward, I somersaulted over his rump. His rear hooves had slipped out from under him on a slick apron of rock. I landed on my left shoulder, striking the back of my head on a sharp stone.
I slowly opened my eyes: iron-shoed hooves, motionless, stood six inches from my face. An urgent hubbub of voices arose, then the sound of sneakers slipping on gravel. Driss and Khalid pulled me to my feet, away from the potentially lethal hooves. I staggered, stunned, not understanding what had happened.
Driss shouted in Arabic, “Glis, aa sahbi! Glis!” Sit down, my friend, sit down!
An instant later, my neck was soaking in warm liquid. My legs gave way as Driss and Khalid seized my arms, guiding me down onto a rock.
“Look up! Look up!” Driss shouted to me. “Don’t look down!”
But I did look down. Blood was flowing from the back of my head over my shirt. I gazed dumbfounded at it. I raised my head and my eyes met the punishing glare of the sun, so I looked down again, hot and woozy and shocked. Driss grabbed his canteen and showered the back of my head with water. From his backpack he pulled out a pack of gauze, quickly unspooled 10 feet of bandage, applied a disinfectant-drenched hunk of cotton to what turned out to be a 1-½-inch-long gash, and began wrapping my head.
He finished and grabbed me by the shoulders. “Look at me! Look at me!” he shouted. “What time did we leave this morning?”
“What? Well, at ... at seven o’clock,” I replied. He was checking to see if I suffered the amnesia that could signal a concussion.
I shook my head slowly, trying to recover my senses, feeling no pain, still disoriented by the fall. Soon the gauze was dripping red, and I regarded the blood with detached curiosity, too dazed to feel fear. After a few minutes, I began struggling to my feet. Halfway, I caught my breath, freezing up in pain, grimacing, almost paralyzed by a new sprain to my already damaged back.
Driss and Khalid discussed strapping me to the mule, but after my second fall, I would have none of it. And besides, I could walk, if only with help. I would, I then decided, walk out to the dirt road Driss said was a six-hour hike south. I retain few memories of this trek, save for the astonished, even frightened, glances of Berber villagers, who recoiled on seeing my bloody bandaged head.
Early that afternoon, at the bottom of a scrub-choked ravine, somewhere near Zawiat Ahansal, we found the track. We stood—I could not sit without painful contortions—and waited. One vehicle eventually passed that day: an ambulance. It took us four hours to reach Azilal, the nearest town, where the next day at a clinic I had my head and spine x-rayed. The doctors told me that I had escaped broken bones, concussions and contusions. By bandaging my wound, Driss had stanched the bleeding and, most likely, saved my life.
I passed four days resting in bed in a local inn. My head wound was healing, but my injured back still caused me severe pain. What would we do now? Should I quit? Certainly my editors at National Geographic would understand. But this was my first story for them; I did not want to let them down. Moreover, what of my “mission,” my plans to explore a part of North Africa rarely seen by outsiders? All along the way we had met, talked to, and enjoyed the hospitality of Berbers who had spoken to me in the hope that I would tell the world about their need of roads, hospitals and schools. Falling from pack animals was no rare event in their parts. Living with the resulting pain and even disability was also common. Quitting now would mean letting down the people I had come to Morocco to write about.
So, I took stock of my condition. I could manage to roll myself, if wincing, out of bed and stagger down to the hotel restaurant. I was able, if in halting steps, to climb the stairs back to my room, catching my breath at the pain that shot up my spine whenever I leaned right, left, or forward. But I could walk. So why should I not be able walk the trails of the High Atlas? Here or there, a step was a step. We had some 330 miles left to cover, but what was one mile walked, if not a succession of steps? Two years earlier, for my third book, “Glory in a Camel’s Eye,” I had already trekked, in the company of Bedouin guides, down the Draa Valley in the Moroccan Sahara, often sick from the heat, barely able to put one foot ahead of the other. Some of the worst, most hopeless moments came when we still had 300 miles left to go—a distance that, with the sun blazing and nausea rising in my throat, seemed impossibly vast. One of my guides, Mbari, suffered from the heat nearly as much as I did, yet never was there a question of his quitting—mainly because we all had no choice but to walk out, and roasting alive on the torrid sands would have obviously been worse than keeping on. I followed Mbari’s lead, and hiked through the nausea and dizziness. We finally, and unexpectedly, left the heat behind and ascended into the cool argan-tree groves of the Anti-Atlas Mountains. Some weeks later we reached our terminus, the mouth of the Draa, at the Atlantic’s windy coast.
So I decided we had to proceed now. Driss arranged for a jeep to take us back to the trailhead. We found Khalid and our mules waiting for us at Zawiat Ahansal.
Only as we set out the next morning, when I found I could barely arise from my sleeping bag (spread over sun-heated rocks, as it would usually be), did I realize what torturous sweaty toil continuing our expedition would involve. Getting up in the morning meant rolling from my back to one side, leaning on one elbow, pushing against the ground with my other arm, assuming a kneeling position, and then crawling crab-like to my tent’s door. From a kneeling stance, standing up entailed placing both palms on the earth and pushing off, then straightening my legs, or better yet, gripping nearby boulders to erect myself in stages. At each stage, though, pain would shoot through my back and force me to halt; the contortions my face displayed prompted Driss and Khalid to gasp and protest that we should quit now. Rather than suffer the distress sitting down caused, I ate my meals standing. Once settled in for the night, I rarely moved till dawn, which always found me stiff and sore from having remained motionless.
My pain worsened as the physical challenges of our expedition increased and our isolation intensified. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the High Atlas, where Tamazight (the Berber tongue) was the sole language spoken, and peaks bore bizarre, utterly un-Arabic names like Wawgoulzat, Tarkaddiyt and Igoudamen. Turbanned Berbers trotted by on donkeys, heading to remote marabout shrines; shrouded women laboring in terraced fields of barley looked up to regard us strangers with alarm; and the sun died early, leaving winds to wail all night through forlorn chasms. This was a Morocco I had never encountered during my years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Marrakesh, an Arabic-language city on the plain of Al Haouz. A sense of alienation was setting in and seemed to be augmenting the pain.