In search of a lost Moroccan oasis
We breast the pass and descend into the Ameln Valley. “These argans are 950 years old,” Hammou says, as proudly as if he had planted them himself. We follow irrigation channels out of the valley floor, up towards the mountain. In the palm groves below the village of Tamalokt is a cistern, a place of utter peace, where scarlet dragonflies skid above the water and the tops of olive trees sway against cerulean sky. A frog, possibly a prince, winks and disappears. We lunch on tinned sardines, digest and set off.
The first ascent is a hot scramble as we cut upwards across screes of rock, aiming for the track which goes up to Tagoudiche, our destination, a village at 3,000 feet. When we reach the piste, the valley falls away below us, receding towards the west. In the heat and the haze, the view could be another earth, African-ochre, vast as God’s hands cupped. As we go higher, we pass terraces baized with fine green. Now there are pallid swifts sowing the air with their soaring, and two falcons – and higher still we startle a covey of partridge. A horizon of vast, hunched mountains south of Tafraoute is visible now, while ahead are rock strata bent like tusks, whorled like ears, bared like teeth. Here the phrase “as still as stone” makes no sense: the mountains are as alive as stone, as fluid and as mighty as geological force and time.
At sunset we arrive at Tagoudiche, a village in the crook of the mountain’s arm, with one street, one shop, seven women gossiping, one black cat, a mosque and a feeling of eternity somewhere above its rooftops. Our hostess is Fatima Monhi, a tiny woman, delicate as a kestrel, who has been providing bed and breakfast to hikers for 20 years. Her house is a natural stop-over for the climb up to Jebel L’Kest, 3,000 feet above us. For her, Fatima says, walking is pilgrimage.
“Yes, I go up Jebel L’Kest sometimes,” she nods. I can scarcely believe it. Her legs are not much longer than my arms, and my legs are aching. “Oh yes. A marabout – a holy man – is buried there. I go to consult his spirit. Lots of women do,” she says. “I ask for rain, for good business, for peace. Five days ago I went up and asked for food and health. And look...” She spreads her hands at the steaming chicken tagine. “It is granted.” After supper, I stand on the rooftop terrace of Fatima’s house and take in the silence of the mountain night under a downpour of starlight. As constellations within constellations of stars blink and glitter, it seems as though the holy man of Jebel L’Kest has granted me something that I had not yet thought to ask for. My walks in the Anti Atlas have led me to something celestial and eternal, infinitely peaceful, so distant and yet – just there.