There comes a time when we all have to realise age is creeping up on us. Mine was when I was faced with a steep walk up the mountainside from Imlil in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains to my hotel high above.
I’ve been out all day. The weather has been grey and heavily overcast and I’m looking forward to a hot bath. I’m staying up the side of the hill above the Kasbah du Toubkal, where a new road has been cut in to access the small villages. The walk is steep and uneven, an uncomfortable enough experience on the way down for someone who isn’t much of a walker. I’m hoping my driver, Brahim, will drop me at the door of Village Kasbah, where I’m spending a few nights.
We return to Imlil and I go for a coffee while Brahim checks in at the Kasbah du Toubkal village office. The weather has closed in, heavy dripping clouds are rolling down from Jbel Toubkal and I comfort myself with the thought that I’ll soon be deeply immersed in hot water, easing my aching bones. But the best laid plans…
When I get back from my, warming coffee Brahim tells me that he has another job on and they have arranged a mule to take me up to the Village. Hmmm…. I’ve always thought it looks rather embarrassing to see a grown man who isn’t a local going about his business sitting on the back of a mule, especially as it will be led by a muleteer. An adult version of the seaside donkey, I’ve always felt. But it seems my only other option is shank’s pony, a knee-punishing scramble up the hillside, and as I walked down it six hours earlier I still have it clearly in my mind and it doesn’t appeal. I suggest that I’ll walk up the road through Imlil, supposedly to stretch my legs after sitting in a car all day. I fool no-one, but they accede to my request and the mule, Mohammed his owner, and I start the slow walk up the village street.
I’m not tall, and Mohammed barely reaches to my shoulder, but twenty years as a muleteer covering the sometimes punishing terrain of the High Atlas Mountains has given him leg muscles like whipcord and he’s soon setting a pace, probably gentle for him, that has me thinking that in this case pride doesn’t so much come before a fall as a before a wheezing stagger up a modest incline. I keep my pace, though, but as we turn off the main road onto a rough track after about one kilometre’s walk I concede defeat, climb onto a wall and, with Mohammed’s help, sling my leg over the mule’s back. I see no stirrups and imagine the discomfort of trying to grip the animal’s side with my knees, an uncomfortable experience, as I discovered when I rode a camel, but my trusty guide slips my feet into folds in the saddle blanket to give me a modicum of belief that I’m secure.
We set off up a dirt path through a cluster of houses on the outskirts of Imlil, a narrow aquaduct gurgling alongside, past a couple of young boys playing with (or perhaps supposedly carrying) a blue plastic sack full of hay, an elderly gentleman who passes the time of day with Muhammed, and a mule with fully loaded panniers coming in the opposite direction. My gentlemanly guide steps to the side to allow it to pass and I avoid looking to my right where the path drops sharply away. It’s not what you would call a sheer drop of any consideration, but I’m not good with heights and even the metre-and-a-half high I am on the mule’s back gives me minor concern, assuaged by the fact that my only other option is a breathless walk that my aging knees wouldn’t thank me for.
Soon we are in open country and Muhammed and his mule plod along peacefully. I’ve walked this attractive route many times between Imlil and the Kasbah but never before have I taken the rock strewn deviation from the well-worn path I’m used to. It was steep and rough coming down and I quickly discover that trying to hold my camera with one hand while attempting to video the walk, and holding on grimly to the narrow strap attached to the saddle with the other as the mule clambers over the rocks, is probably not the best idea I’ve ever had. There’s no doubt he is sure-footed, but it’s my lack of practice at being sure-seated that I worry about. But on we go.
As the ride wears on I begin to lose my nervousness, settling into the gently rocking rhythm as we climb the hill, with Mohammed warning me to duck my head with a gentle, ‘Sorry’, as we pass under low-hanging branches. The weather is settling in to a damp and gloomy evening and fog begins to descend as we climb higher, changing the rocky terrain to more well marked paths no more than a mules-width.
Before I know it I see the steps leading up to the door of Village Kasbah, a final twist in the steep path, a short stroll alongside the steps fitter humans than I would take, and we are on the patio, with Mohammed slipping my feet out of the folds in the blanket and helping me to gingerly dismount. I’m surprised to find that I really enjoyed the ride, and my mind flashes back to the smiles I saw on childrens’ faces as they rode along the beach at Blackpool when I took a stroll with my grandchildren three weeks earlier. I thank Mohammed and pat the mule before drifting off to my room for the long-awaited deep, hot bath. Meanwhile, my guide nips into the kitchen for a well-earned cup of mint tea before his trek back down to Imlil.