Morocco expert Alan Palmer recalls a chance encounter with a lone goatherd in the wild Atlas which proved the renowned warmth and generosity of Berber hospitality, and left a lasting impression.
As we stood on the crest of a barren hillside, so barren that only stones could be cultivated there, and stared into the darkening gloom now enveloping the mountains which form the fossilised backbone of Maroc, our fading hopes of a resting place for the night were draining from us, absorbed by the sterile wasteland below our feet.
It was then that he moved. He must have heard us for a mile or so before he saw us, for no other life stirred that night, but only now, with the sun sinking fast, did he move, as a goatherd with no goats.
So unlikely was life amongst those fields of dust that at first I believed my eyes were being fooled, that I was the victim of my own fantasies, like a Saharan nomad who sees water on the horizon when the full sun is at its height.
Not a word was spoken between us but, even as the breeze quickened, we immediately felt his warmth and he our need. Without a question, without a sideways glance, without a moment’s hesitation, he led and we followed into the darkening void of the night.
Only the sense of the ground falling beneath our feet and the occasional ink blue glimmer of Bou Wgemmaz below told us that we were descending. We did not know, and could not have known, that majestic M’goun, Ighil M’goun herself, from beyond the shoulders of lesser mountains, was silently watching over us.
We continued to place our trust in the hands of a complete stranger who we already felt we had known since the beginning of time, above all because his emergence, however then expected, now felt inevitable.
We followed him along ever-reducing pathways – rather like following the boughs, then branches, then twigs of the indigenous argan tree – into the valley below until, quite without warning, he turned into the courtyard which for him, and now for us, was home.
Only moments before there had been no houses, none visible to mortal eyes. Yet, just at that point when we had begun to wonder whether fortune had deserted us, houses now emerged, not one or two but a whole village of sun-baked bricks, from the blackness of the night.
The glow of a paraffin lamp within drew us like moths to an almost bare room. Boots flicked to one side at the threshold, we were seated cross-legged on the floor around a silver teapot and a copper kettle which, through their very simplicity, assumed magical proportions. Water is cleanliness, water is life, and never before had these truisms felt so true.
In that moment, as we cupped our hands to receive the blessing of our host, our gaze fixed upon the arc of water which sprang from the spout of the kettle, glinting as it cascaded over our upturned palms and fingers and splashed into the dish below. The towel offered, we knew, though encrusted with the dirt of a thousand days’ toil, could never harm us now.
Muffled tones of female voices could be heard from somewhere along unlit passages leading to further recesses within the house; voices which sometimes unexpectedly rose into animated exchanges.
Yet still we waited, uncertain as to what would unfold, whether we would be permitted to see them, even in the half-light of the burner. They were active, and we sensed that our arrival had stirred that activity. But though we sometimes glimpsed shadows and silhouetted female forms, no woman came to our room.
When our door finally re-opened, a young man, green in years, entered bearing unripe walnuts and fresh mint tea. They were spread before us across the geometric patterns of deep red, hand-knotted rugs. Only when our host was assured that we were satisfied did he withdraw to leave us to our privacy in this, the prime room of his house, which now, without thought for his family or himself, he gave over to us.
That night, lying at opposite sides of the room, we looked into each other’s eyes and smiled, each mirroring peace and happiness to the other. We had forgotten all about the darkness which had by now engulfed the barren hillside outside, wrapping itself wraith-like around the very house in which we rested. And, though cocooned in our sleeping bags, we felt as though we were flying.
Alan Palmer is the author of Moroccan Atlas, the Trekking Guide (Trailblazer Publications). His passion for the Atlas Mountains led him to set up his own company, Trek in Morocco, in 2012, recently re-launched as Yak Travel, which offers bespoke experiences throughout Morocco for individuals and small groups, including treks in the Toubkal, Mgoun and Western High Atlas regions, as well as in Jebel Sirwa and Jebel Sahro.