Hike #16 of 52
3/6 -3/11 2018: 40 miles, Saghro Plateau, and Merzouga Dunes, Morocco, day temp varying from 69F – 89F, average elevation gain: 500 – 1500 feet
“To be situated in place is to be engaged in a reciprocity where survival, both physical and spiritual, depends on our understanding of gestures.”
from “The Hour of Land,” by Terry Tempest Williams
I went for a hike in the Moroccan desert. I’m a tourist. Tourism is one of Morocco’s main contributors to the economy (18.6% of GDP, compared to 2.7% in USA, 7.6% in France). People visiting Morocco means post-colonial progress as the people coming from elsewhere now pay for being in the country. The tourist industry can be seen as a get-back for past colonial plunder and suppression. I understand and don’t take offense when a taxi driver charges me double rate on a rainy evening ride from the airport. I’m paying the ancestral debt, small price for privilege.
To get away from the tourist scene in the big cities I have booked an 8-day guided hike on the Saghro plateau and in the Sahara dunes. The Saghro plateau in Morocco has a biblical feel, a landscape I envisioned when I was a child in Sunday school and heard about the Israelites roaming the desert with Moses as a leader: a barren, dry, difficult, exposed land; qualities of such a land represent my aging skin and body. It seems fitting to explore the desert at this stage of my life.
For five days we hike like nomads, driving beasts, carrying loads and sleeping in tents. Five days let me feel, smell and breathe the place; let me see the rocky, craggy landscape. I see occasional small stone dwellings, built from rocks and dirt in the landscape, that blend with the sandy, beige environment. Small plots of wheat and an almond tree orchard here and there add temporary brightness of color while sucking up what little water there is near a spring or small creek. When the temperatures on the Saghro plateau soar to122F in summer, the heat will dry up the water and force the people to move north to the Atlas mountains with their goat herds.
I see young girls and boys tending the herds, roaming alone all day, greeting an occasional passer-by. I watch a girl climb the spires to rescue a goat stuck on an outcropping, risking a 300 feet fall into the canyon below. There is no-one to rescue her if that happens.Our days are regulated by the sun and moon, and by a prayer routine our guide and muleteers share with the non-nomadic Moroccans. After their evening prayer, the muleteers joke when they serve our meal using their arabic tongue to pronounce the guttural sounds of my native Dutch. We laugh and learn a few arabic words in return. They wait until we are done eating before they have their meal; honoring us as guests, or a remnant of servitude?
I think about my status as tourist-nomad. When I hike here, do I become an invader? I may not take over the land, but by hiking in this nomad land I change life for the people that live here. My money allows for incremental changes in their life style. The local handicrafts go home with me, the carpets will cover the floors in my home. I ask my guide why he chose to become a trekking guide. When he gives me his answer, I find that we share a love for walking and roaming in nature, a love for getting to know people of other cultures. Our sameness erases the guilt I have felt about entering his world with my money.
The first humans were nomads. Nomad existence is in our DNA. The extremes of the desert bring me face to face with my reason for existing, teach me how small I am against the largesse of nature. The towering Pleistocene rock formations offer shade, a place for my animal body to hide from the burning sun. A brilliant star-lit sky on a wide open stretch of undulating sand dunes tells me that I’m just a speck of sand. These extremes enhance my aliveness, my appreciation of my surroundings. A hike in the desert fills me with wonder.
I’m home again sitting in a comfortable chair, with running water to make my cup of tea, with a small garden plot that gives me greens for my supper, and a hearth to warm me when the temperatures dip low. As the season changes, I’ll answer the call of my nomadic DNA to roam and find what feeds my aliveness: the emptiness of a place, the sameness of a people.