Close to the edge with Odette

Packed beside Berber villagers in an ageing open-top truck, Emma Kay set out on a nerve-racking trip around the hairpin bends and gorges of the High Atlas in Morocco
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THIS, if our guidebook was to be believed, was a journey fit only for the "strictly intrepid". We were heading towards the High Atlas mountains, travelling from north to south, cedar forest to desert, on the rough road used by goods lorries to supply the Berber village markets. Such lorries also serve as the local bus service, and our aim was to board one at Rich, the town at the foot of the mountains where the vehicles muster. Journey- ing by more orthodox transport - a proper bus - through the vast empty plains and hilly plateaux, leopard-spotted with flowering rosemary, gorse and red rocky earth, we were seduced by the Berber music, with its rhythms of flute and drum and high women's voices, that accompanies any journey on Moroccan public transport. Koranic inscriptions (not, as I had cynically supposed, advertisements) were laid out in white boulders on the flanks of the hills, larger than the White Horse of Kent.

Rich is a red-walled, crenellated garrison town with a grand esplanade, the architecture of the French colonists. For all its grand appearance, it has the feel of a toy fort. Dust whirled around us - for unlike the winding alleys of a traditional Moroccan town, the streets laid out on a grid form perfect wind tunnels - and we viewed our battered Mercedes open-topped lorry with misgivings. "Odette" (the name painted on the cab) looked seriously overloaded; our backpacks had been thrown up to teeter precariously on top of the sacks of flour, dates and boxes of washing powder in the back. Alongside them, however, there was space enough for the 20 or so of us who clambered aboard. And there was always room for more on the bumper and running boards.

Just as we had begun to get an idea of how rugged the ride would be and how high the track would wind, we were stopped by a puncture. Although the driver spoke not a word of French, we had made the acquaintance (necessarily, since we were practically sitting in his lap) of a merchant who did. Punctures are commonplace, and the wait gave the local children ample chance to ogle us and ask us for money, sweets and, most urgently, pens.

(A few stops later we realised that you could never carry enough pens, as every four-year-old has a 10-year-old pimp who "looks after" things and each gift precipitates a fight. On the other hand, photographs of our families, homes, the Queen and John Major would have come in handy.) Puncture mended, we pulled away to a hysterical chorus of "Donnez-moi un stylo" and began to climb through increasingly barren red-brown mountains, emerging on to a sucession of huge plains. The hills are ridged like the backs of clam shells where the molten rock has wrinkled round their contours as it cooled. Cuboid boulders litter the surface. The plains have a sparse covering of something too minimal to be called grass, interspersed with rosemary, euphorbia, broom and crawling, clump-forming plants. The snowy mountain peaks were suddenly much closer.

Our driver was extremely skilful, and we began to appreciate our rugged six-wheeled vehicle's advantages over the other option, the hired four- wheel drive. These high-altitude routes frequently cross river beds and negotiate terrain that seems to demand caterpillar tracks. Riding so high up in the open air meant we had astounding views of rivers and valleys, plains and passes.

Passing trucks were like a mirror ("so that's what we look like"), Berbers perched high on sacks of dates and wheat, the hoods of their cloaks edging the cargo like the points of a crown. It was cold, sunny and dusty. Another puncture, and bladder relief became essential. Hiding behind rocks or twigs, which provided the theory if not the fact of privacy, was something we had to get used to. The Berbers' long cloaks functioned as ready-made tents.

There is nothing quite like the villages of the High Atlas. Constructed of packed mud and straw (pis), the buildings often have trellis-work or incised decoration round the tops, the most ornate being reserved for the kasbah, or citadel. They are most beautiful at dusk or dawn when their ochre and burnt sienna walls turn to a rosy gold, juxtaposed with emerald green irrigated plots, bright with wheat, and walled gardens full of flowering trees. Outside the villages are graveyards; with just an upturned rock for each headstone, they are like fields sown with seeds of stone.

The beauty of the scenery increased with the altitude, but the daylight was fading. Every so often we stopped and let someone off into the apparent wilderness. At the designated times of day we stopped for prayer. Night fell, and passing through a string of villages, we saw their inhabitants gathered round bonfires, the men mysterious in thick white wool burnouses, the women in spangled transparent overdresses and a formidable weight of jewellery.

It was so late when we reached a village called Outerbate that the truck made an unscheduled night stop rather than going on to Imilchil, our destination. Since there was no electricity except the odd generator we could barely make out the caf "with rooms" promised by the guidebook. We had no opportunity to experience its dubious comforts, however, as a young man called Said offered us a bed for the night. We followed him, stumbling through the blackness. If the sparkling dresses we had seen by the roadside earlier had astonished us, Said's mother, Fatima, and her two daughters were just as impressively ornamented. Sitting cross-legged in her spotless pis home, Fatima served us mint tea, sweetened so much that our teeth became encrusted. The sugar was scraped off a conical lump wrapped in blue paper. Warm water was poured into a bowl by the youngest daughter so that we could wash our hands between each cup. A baby granddaughter was ill, and Fatima's youngest son slumbered alongside us, invisible under a pile of blankets.

The three women wore star brooches like sheriff's badges, one on each breast, linked by a heavy silver chain. These fastened a white wool pinafore- cum-cape to the blue dress underneath. The two older women had complex head wrappings but were not veiled, and had indigo tattoed patterns down the centre of their chins.

The 15-year-old girl, who did all the housework, had a mass of long, loose hair. She was not yet married, and in order to attract suitors wore the chunkiest jewellery: with big earrings and a sequinned waist tassel.

Cross-legged round the low table, we ate a meal of egg and tomato from a communal dish, using bread as a scoop. We weren't very adept at getting the food into our mouths, but the family were scrupulous about eating only from their part of the dish, so we had time to catch up. Our room was thick with blankets, but sleep evaded us. A toy aeroplane constructed from tin cans was entwined with a stuffed lizard hanging from the ceiling, and a shaft of moonlight pierced the tiny window, giving on to a silvery view of the village. We watched the dawn arrive. In front of the house was the family orchard, with apple and walnut trees, roosters crowing, and mountains towering.

Leaving money and Nurofen, worrying about the mother's ulcer and the sick baby and promising to visit Said's hammam (steam bath) in the next big town, we boarded Odette at seven. We were now part of a caravan of lorries, each with its spiky-hooded cargo. The higher and colder it got the further the men retreated into their heavy white burnouses. Women and children ranged the hills as we passed, piling their mules with towers of brushwood for fuel.

Imilchil is exceptionally beautiful. Built on an apron of flat land at about 3,000 metres, it is shadowed by the snowcaps of the High Atlas and cut off for a month or two in winter. The village is centred on a spectacular kasbah and a large and very busy walled market square. Two unappealing basic hotels do not encourage a long stay, but the place's beauty, bustle, and the clearest air are ample compensation. On the terrace of one hotel, we breakfasted on doughnuts and mint tea in the brilliant dry early morning light and watched the produce and livestock market, the scene coloured by a frugal palette of the white of snow, fleece and burnous, golden pis, sharp with shadows, and the green of the traders' turbans. Such a fine view, with the mountains as backdrop, had our fingers twitching over our cameras, although the ground was littered with turds, mule shoes, sheep's legs and hooves. Out by the threshing floors - beautiful circular jigsaws of stone with central poles to which mules are tethered for pulling millstones - we watched an inter-village football match on the dry mud pitch.

Moving on from Imilchil we had a choice. Travelling north-west by lorry we could reach the lakes, gorges, waterfalls and cedar forests of the Middle Atlas, home of the wild Barbary ape. But to the south lay the Algerian border and the Saharan dunes, reached through the dramatic Todra gorge. This leg of the journey takes 10 hours along an even more difficult path; boulder-strewn dry riverbeds, and precipitous descents where the road has all but fallen away are a few of the hazards. No contest, we decided; the gorge it must be.

Once outside Imilchil we began the descent, going with rather than against the river's flow. The peaks were more jagged and redder, the slopes progressively denuded. A squawking chicken got aboard, destined for a cooking pot a few miles on. A little shepherd boy ran along by the lorry playing plastic pan pipes, and sheep were loaded and unloaded every hour or so. We crossed a vast and inhospitable prehistoric landscape from which only the dinosaurs were missing. Nothing but minute vegetation grows here, although short- lived flowers lurk awaiting the spring meltwater. As we approached the end of the plain the previously somnolent passengers began to make "hairpin bend" gestures, and everyone became more animated. Passing trucks left wakes of dust, which got into every orifice. With our mouths covered we were all just silent eyes.

Just as it looked as if we were about to drive over the edge of a cliff, we made the sharpest hairpin bend imaginable, and all too suddenly there below us was a vast canyon, utterly barren, stretching for miles. While we tried to take in the scene, the Berbers began to sing softly - a prayer for safety on this difficult part of the route. Our own prayer was that the brakes had been checked. The lorry bounced and swayed as it had done all through the journey but suddenly we were aware of how top-heavy it was. Every bounce seemed potentially fatal, and there were times when we couldn't bear to look. White knuckles under the dust.

Over the next few hours the vast valley became more barren and began to narrow, the gorge closing in on us. Even the Berbers watched the scenery here, quietly excited by its drama. The towering red walls were almost too tall, the gorge too narrow, the path too precariously hewn into the base of the cliffs. Several times it became so narrow it seemed to have been swallowed up by the rocks, but the road wound on, fording the river bends, everyone at the edge of the truck, watching heads and elbows on the overhang. The narrowest point is just wide enough for two trucks and so high you can't see the top.

The first palm tree was a quite a sight: growing alone in the mountains, foretelling the desert below. Clusters heralded the mouth of the gorge, but our arrival was inevitably an anti-climax. There are hotels tucked into the base of the cliff, and a restaurant with a palm tree growing through the roof. Sunset was magical, and as the coach tours departed, we were left alone to watch the shadows render distance and texture uncertain. Nightfall brought an eerie silence and a sliver of starry sky.

We caught another lorry going the last few miles down to Tinerhir, the town at the foot of the mountains. A last hairpin bend in the gorge revealed the oasis. My mental date-packet picture vanished before those solid acres of green palms, with the sienna walls of the town like an island in the middle. As soon as we set foot in dust-blown Tinerhir the memory of the gorge and the mountains began to fade. Cocooned in scarves, hats and sunglasses, lulled by the 10 hours of bump and lurch in the truck and numbed by the wind, I felt, despite the dust that was scouring my eyeballs, as if I'd just been pulled from the sea.

! The pictures illustrating this article are taken from `Morocco Seen from the Air' by Yann and Anne Arthus-Bertrand ( Michael Joseph, £35)