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March 4, 2017

Our breakfast included eggs and bread with lots of spreads including jams, butter, and honey.  Oh, I almost forgot, also tea (and coffee).  I’ve decided it would be very hard to be gluten free here.  Bread is served with every meal.  While I’m not gluten free, bread is not included in my food elimination diet, but with a long day ahead of us, both of us needed to eat more than a few eggs, so we dug into the basket.

Next, we rearranged our luggage and only packed what we thought we would need for the next two days and left the rest behind so the mule wouldn’t be too loaded down.  Omar came over with Mohammed, the muleteer, who cinched our items onto the mule’s back as we prepared to head out.

Today, the sky was clear and we geared up for a long, hard trek.  We walked down the road and through town where we made a left and passed by the date stand as we ascended another road toward the trailhead.  Once again, Omar turned off to the left at the unmarked trail that I wouldn’t have found on my own.  It’s worth having a guide in these mountains.

We began a slow ascent, though the grade wasn’t too steep and rather gradual.  As we climbed, we enjoyed the view of the village below along with an old mosque.  Then we passed a rubbish pile and an incinerator made of rocks and mud to burn the trash.  We passed through a few small pine trees home to several giant cocoons.  I couldn’t believe how big they were especially for one caterpillar, but later found out several caterpillars spun one cocoon together.  It seemed odd to me until Omar showed me a video of caterpillars crawling head to toe in a line so they looked like a snake to keep from getting eaten by birds!  I didn’t know they did this…so cool!  While the caterpillars have to worry about predators, other animals do not as there aren’t any dangerous predators in the High Atlas Mountains.

Soon we reached the first false summit where we stopped for a snack before we prepared for the steep part of the trail ahead.  First we traveled across a level section and enjoyed the views of shelter for farm animals.  On the upslope, however, I tended to get somewhat far ahead of Suman, so upon reaching the large scree, Omar told me to follow the trail to the summit and to look for Mohammed while he hung back with Suman to take their time climbing the steep grade.

I made good time for a while, but became fascinated with the noisy goats trotting up the mountain.  For the life of me, I couldn’t spot a shepherd, but I knew one had to be somewhere.  The goats stopped to graze, sometimes eating leaves from the trees, but anytime I approached they nervously eyed me and encouraged their babies to stay away from the stranger.  The goats came in all shapes and sizes, though I particularly liked the ones with the long beards.

Eventually, I carried on to the summit of Tizi Mzik which stood at 2,484 m.  It took me a little while to find Mohammed as he had joined up with another guide and hiker who was already enjoying her picnic lunch.  I was surprised to see a handful of people at the summit as only one couple passed us.  I was also surprised to see a small orange juice stand!  Anyway, I wandered around enjoying the sun and the views until the cool breeze overpowered the warm sun which sent me to my pack for more layers while I awaited Suman’s arrival.

Mohammed prepared a large medley of salad which included rice, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn and more, and then presented to us a hot tajine.  Suman was too worn out to want to eat much.  I on the other hand had worked up an appetite!  I dug into lunch and even had room for the traditional Berber dessert…oranges. The once shy goats suddenly wanted to join us for this tasty meal.

After lunch, we descended the other side of the summit into Azzaden Valley.  Suman started out at a break neck pace as she was ready to be done, though it didn’t last.  Personally, I find the downhill to be harder as the descent hurts my knees, and I tend to slide on the scree, so I was glad she slowed down.  Omar has the ears for hearing some slide.  With each of our missteps, he turned to make sure we were ok.

We passed through a forest of juniper trees and followed the trail through a patch of snow.  There were several unmarked and somewhat unnoticeable trail intersections.  Most the time we tended to take the trail less traveled, so I was thankful Omar knew where he was going!  The view of the colorful hills in the distance was like a rainbow on land.  The reds contrasted with the greens, blues, and greys providing a picturesque landscape.

As we descended closer to the village, views of the women working the green terraces, kids playing soccer games, farm animals and shelters on the hillside were quite welcome.  The daily life of the Berbers and the villages are just amazing to me.  With the village tucked beneath snow-capped mountains, the image made me think of what it might look like in Nepal.

Eventually we made it to the road where we followed it past orchards to Ait Aissa, the village in which we were staying where most villagers earned their living through agriculture.  Kids sporting clogs and sandals played soccer with a plastic bottle where we turned the corner to find our riad, Dar Ameloin.  This house could accommodate several hikers.  When we arrived, only Nicki our lunch mate, had reached the riad sooner and had seeked out her bedroom.  Fortunately, hiking in the early season led to our choice of rooms as no one else turned up.  We picked one of three rooms with bed mattress rather than the rooms with sleeping pads that were just a few inches thick.  Testing out the mattresses, however, gave us second thoughts.  They were like bricks!  Omar suggested we pile a few sleeping pads on top of them, so that is what we did.  I’m glad the sleeping quarters were not full!

In the large dining room, Omar and fellow guides burned branches of juniper in the wood burning stove in an attempt to warm the room.  Most of the time, it just smoked the room, but if we huddled close enough we felt the heat.  While a shower would have been nice, leaving the only heat source for a communal bathroom with cold water was not an option for us.  Instead, we just hung out with Nicki as we were served soup, a tajine, and dessert for dinner.  Nicki was a teacher and artist from Australia.  She was in Morocco for a six-week art program that was starting shortly after her hiking jaunt.

Shortly after our meal, we retired to our rooms.  We slept in all of our clothes with a pile of blankets atop us.  Once again, the blankets proved to be warm and we awoke in the middle of the night to strip off layers.  Fortunately, this time we were tired enough to fall back asleep, and we didn’t wake up until breakfast was ready when Omar knocked on our door!  What a great day…I felt like we got the true Berber experience.  ETB

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