Despite the fact we were more than worried about how we were going to get back safely to England, it was impossible not to be swept along by the enthusiasm of our driver Omar, the cheerful chap responsible for our safe passage over the High Atlas on the Tizi n’Test road that reaches over two thousand metres into the immense sky.
Everything had seemed so normal at breakfast, except for the fact there was a dead policeman concealed in the building; we ate a little and said our goodbyes to the owner, who wished us a lovely trip through the mountains to Marrakech. I couldn’t lose the image of the bottle crashing down on the copper’s skull, but surely anybody else would have done the same if their beloved was being attacked ? It was also highly likely that this man had murdered the Aussie girl, which meant we had actually saved the Moroccan justice system some time and money.
At first it was hard to appreciate the increasingly dramatic scenery and the extraordinary views back over the Souss plain towards Taroudannt. Omar told us that the French colonialists had constructed the road through the mountains, an amazing feat of engineering in itself.
‘I’m starting to feel sick’ said Jess.
‘It’s not surprising with all these twists and turns; I’ll ask him to stop.’
Omar was happy to pull over and light a cigarette, while we gazed back to the indistinct shape of Taroudannt, which brought a small sense of encouragement as it disappeared more and more in the distance. All being well his body would not be found until we’d been home for at least a few days; yet there was always the worry somebody might look into the shaft out of curiosity, or perhaps the annual maintenance inspection was due ? No, Morocco wasn’t the kind of country where they had regular inspections, except for the police road blocks of course.
‘Shall we get going ?’
‘I’m fine now’ said Jess weakly.
‘It’ll be exciting to see Marrakech’ I said, without really believing the optimistic sound of my voice.
There was very little other traffic about as most people wanting to travel between Taroudannt and Marrakech would use the main road, not a never-ending coil of pot-holed tarmac with terrifying drops at the side. Omar kept pointing out features of interest, and told us about growing-up in the foothills of the High Atlas.
We stopped again at La Belle Vue Hotel for some coffee, situated at two thousand one hundred metres above sea level; it seemed a very long time since we had been by the sea in Essaouira, and it felt like our travels had all been some kind of bizarre dream, fast turning into a nightmare. Jess wandered into the decaying red van abandoned at the roadside, covered in many stickers and signs associated with Moroccan car rallies. She appeared completely out of it, in another world, as if she would have been happy for the van to suddenly break free and crash over the cliff edge.
‘We’d better get on’ I said.
She didn’t reply, but eventually started walking back to the white Mercedes taxi.
As our journey continued beyond the highest point we heard thunder in the distance and Omar confirmed there might be a storm coming up the valley. The landscape became more reminiscent of the Himalayan foothills I’d seen on TV, and occasionally we passed small villages that were comprised of a few ramshackle ‘bungalows’ clinging to the green mountainside. After all the dryness of the plains I hadn’t expected this sudden change to the heavy rain that was now battering our vehicle, and wondered just how severe the weather must be in winter.
Though I was keen to reach Marrakech as soon as possible, Omar insisted on a small diversion to the spectacular mosque at Tin Mal, which is quite rare in being open to non-Muslims. There was a remarkable tranquillity in the empty, roofless interior, and Omar pointed-out some owls hiding in the crumbling stonework high above us. Many of the archways were in very good repair for a building constructed in the twelfth century, and some still beautifully decorated, despite being open to the elements.
‘Are you OK, Jess ?’
‘I feel very tired.’
‘It won’t be too long till we get to our hotel; Omar has recommended a riad not far from the main square, which should be more private than the Ibis we’d booked. I think it’s a good idea to stay somewhere not on our planned itinerary.’
We were soon back on the road to Marrakech, with Omar happily humming a tune to himself as we drove through the splendid scenery.
‘My wife is Fati’ he told us suddenly.
‘You still love her though ?!’
I felt Jess’s elbow in my ribs, which was usually an indication I’d said the wrong thing.
‘How many children have you got ?’ I asked, trying to move the conversation on.
‘Two, a girl and boy.’
After a few more miles we came to an unexpected traffic jam, which we soon realised had been caused by the storm and subsequent landslide, leaving the narrow road completely blocked.
‘This is the last thing we need’ muttered Jess.
‘Only thirty minutes to wait, this always happen’ Omar said cheerfully.
I got out and walked along the wet and muddy road in the direction of the collapse, where a snow plough was already working to restore a flat and safe surface. All the excitement made me forget about any worries as I marvelled at the power of nature unleashed, which was particularly striking as the only fresh water we’d seen before in Morocco had been at the oasis.
The thirty minutes promised by Omar was actually two hours before we got beyond the obstruction and resumed our drive to Marrakech; we were soon passing a large reservoir, then heading past enormous snow peaks.
‘Richard Branson Virgin have hotel up there’ Omar informed us.
‘He seems to have property everywhere’ I replied.
‘Very nice hotel’ added Omar.
The road from the mountains into Marrakech was far pleasanter than the one we’d taken to Essaouira on our arrival, which had been almost like driving through a rubbish dump. This approach to the city was a much more orderly one of wide tree-lined avenues, though it was not without a number of construction projects, mostly featuring some kind of golf resort.
‘I take you right into medina, very near hotel.’
‘Thank you Omar, we’re exhausted.’
‘Mountains are beautiful, yes ?’