Taghia is tough. Getting to Taghia sets the tone. I met Juan, Alvaro, Carlos and Heraldo at the Marrakech airport at 7:45, just after the northern African sun had set and the night began to cool. My four companions had arrived together and were waiting for both me and the hired car to arrive. We took the car Juan had arranged with our gear haphazardly strapped to the roof for the next eight hours.
The trip was not too far but the car was old. All night, oncoming cars flicked their high beams at us. Where the lights aimed was the least of the things to worry about in this old Mercedes but apparently not everyone on the road could see that. The speedometer ticked off a marvelously low 0 kph though I am certain we did about 90 kph (56 mph) at times. Fortunately the mileage gauge stuck at 527,000 km so we didn’t have to worry about how far we went (for when we had to walk back). The young driver made two roadside stops after using his cell phone light to check the engine temperature gauge. During the stops he popped the hood and refilled the radiator while we four burst from the back seat to have a stretch and a piss while Juan laughed from the front. I wouldn’t say we were uncomfortable but with four men in the back seat two had to lean forward nearly the entire ride for space reasons. By one in the morning this was not a problem as we figured out we could place one of our bags on our laps and lay forward on it to sleep between potholes.
As we neared Zaouia (after a two-hour detour to buy necessities) the road became less and less “finished.” At some point a lug nut detached itself from inside the right rear wheel. Luckily the hub cap kept it from escaping to the road and it only clanged along with us into the mountains rhythmically. In one of the very small towns we had come to, the boy pulled to a stop next to a large house that was under construction. From behind a cement wall lumbered a large Moroccan man, greeting the boy and then us. Juan valiantly tried to communicate to find out where we were and what was going on but gave up with a shrug of his shoulders as he told us he was pretty sure we had further to go and that the man would drive us now.
Less than an hour further along the four of us in the back seat jumped from our dazed state as the bottom of the car bottomed out on a large rock. The man stopped after scraping the overloaded car backwards off of its perch. We got out and helped him move a large boulder that seemed to have intentionally been placed in the middle of the dirt road. A hundred meters on and we stopped again. Another large boulder. Beyond it two more lying together. We moved them all and walked along beside the car to keep some weight off the low rider. When we found a spool of high tension power line we stopped and conferred. The car wasn’t going on… the road was clearly blocked for a reason. Without much debate, and hoping Juan knew where we were from his previous trip, we grabbed our bags and started marching.
By four in the morning the silhouettes of a few small structures appeared out of the dark night. We had made it to Zaouia, our pick-up point for the donkeys the next morning.
After an early start and a hearty breakfast under a portrait of King Mohammed VI, we set out with two fully loaded donkeys. We walked along a fast-moving stream among terraced farm fields. The land was harsh and the stream bed soon became the bottom of a twisting gorge.Small orchards lined the way between naught rows of weak looking corn. Ingenious mini-canals cut away from the stream and ran along the trails and then into small shacks that dumped the water back into its current. Inside the shacks water wheels turned car alternators to push electricity along the black cords hanging along our path.
After passing between the steep sides of Isfoula (2553m) and Tilemsine (2615m) we were able to see the cliff faces of Oujdad (2685m) and Ifrig towering above the yet seen village that hid in this remote mountain landscape.
Our Berber donkey boss was a young man. The eldest son of Said Messaoudi, the owner of Gite Tawajdat, black lines tattooed beneath his eyes. Permanent mascara to help with the bright son, it made his eyes look sharper. He bummed smokes from Juan and gave the donkeys a whack every now and again when they decided to take a break. They knew the way and where all the good spots to stop and eat were.
Taghia blended with its terrain. The rocks that made up the walls of its homes were the same grey and purple hues of the scree that lay in every direction. Steeply growing up the mountain sides it occupied, we were in the middle of Taghia before we knew it. Between the flat stone structures ran children, chickens and sheep while a few dogs barked aggressively from the roofs of their owners houses. All around us were the mountains and cliff faces we had come to climb.
We had arrived in the Cirque de Taghia Zaouiat Ahansal and gone back in time 200 hundred years.