In the cold, hard heart of the Sarho: After trekking for days through the chilly beauty of the remote Jbel Sarho mountains, Jane Taylor finally gets a hot bath in Marrakesh

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The Independent Travel
Morocco has an image problem. I did not know it at the time, but on returning home, half a dozen identical conversations put me right.

Them: 'Good holiday? So, where'd you go?'

Me: 'Great. Morocco.'

Them: 'Oh dear.'

Western women are supposed to have a hard time in Muslim north Africa, what with the stares, leers, general harassment - and, I hear, worse. So, although the idea of having my bottom pinched seems more quaint than threatening, I suppose it was just as well that for most of my two-week trip I was with 15 other people and far from human habitation.

We were on a 10-day trek in Morocco's Jbel Sarho mountains. Lying south-east of the Atlas Mountains, this range is the last feature before the great nothingness of the Sahara. It is an area still unused to tourism, and you can see why.

Temperatures are extreme, the terrain rough, water scarce and the scattered Berber settlements basic. Do not expect facilities. Do not bother to take your Amex. In fact, don't even think of setting foot in the region during the summer months, unless you thrive in 40C plus on no water. It is as a winter and spring alternative to the Atlas range, when the high trails are snowbound, that the Jbel Sarho comes into its own because, as the adventure holiday companies have realised, it offers some great walking.

Great was not the initial promise, however. The sky was filthy, the road out of Marrakesh a wallow of red clay and our coach was offering an erratic sprinkler system instead of air conditioning. As we snaked through the Tizi-n- Tichka pass over the High Atlas, sheeting rain gave way to a soft curtain of snow.

At Ait Youl, the village on the edge of the Sarho which was our starting point, the clouds hung low for another day. But the rain held off, except for a vindictive icy burst in the middle of our first attempt at tent-pitching. The party of 16, plus trek leader and local guide, swelled to 36 with the arrival of eight muleteers and 11 mules. It is the mules that are hired, the trek leader explained twice; the muleteers come free. Meaning: do not treat the men like servants.

Our trekking days followed a rough routine. Breakfast, pack tents and bags, then start walking at about 9am, reaching our destination by early to mid-afternoon. Lunch would be followed by an optional short afternoon hike up a mountain or, as time went on, honing such mountain-avoidance techniques as hairwashing or wound-tending.

When the light faded, between 5.30 and 6pm, we would pile on warm layers and huddle around a wood fire until we had exhausted the local crackly desert brush that burnt like fireworks and lasted about 30 seconds per bush. Nepal veterans and the alcoholically fortified would last a couple of hours after supper before taking refuge in a sleeping bag. My sleeping bag was distressingly inadequate for the deep chill of the long desert nights. Sleep was the one essential I failed to pack.

On our fourth trekking day, the austere black volcanic mountain valleys and gorges gave way to an enormous yellow-brown plain, punctuated by dramatic sandstone ridges and plugs. I would not have blinked if a posse of cowboys had galloped across the plateau, kicking up the dust. .

But there were no cowboys - only giggling children from a solitary settlement, emaciated goats, and wild dogs who warned us off their high domains with their reverberating cacophony, and stole down to the camp at night to chance their luck with our provisions. This wind-whipped desolation was the heart of the Sarho.

Why were we tramping earnestly each day from nowhere to nowhere? The usual mix of reasons: losing ourselves, finding ourselves, finding someone else, escaping, or simply regaining perspective - reminding ourselves how different life can look from a grimly beautiful high place whose view, at some considerable effort, you have borrowed for an instant.

The landscape did not disappoint any of my fellow strugglers - nor, for all our huffing and puffing, did it overwhelm physically. This was in large part due to our tour leader, whose sensitive route-planning and democratic pacing allowed the four over-60s as much pleasure as it did the lithe lads in their 20s. He also took more than a formal interest in ensuring that we ate well: this was a man who could coax a comforting apple crumble from a large saucepan, with the help of a single gas burner.

We were, the trek leader explained several times, very lucky with the weather. Crisp blue skies were streaked with milky high cirrus, every day was sunny, and in our second week daytime temperatures ran well into the 20s. Despite the brochures' enticements, such weather is not guaranteed: the previous group had suffered some miserable rain- and cloud-filled days.

If the lack of paths made the going tough, the rocks and stones teased us with the possibility of hitting - or stumbling upon - a geological jackpot. Pooling our schoolgirl knowledge we came up with quartz, haematite, malachite, cobalt and marble, but there was lots more shimmer, sparkle and colour that we failed to identify.

We passed through some of the most weirdly eroded rock formations I have ever seen - like an anarchic adventure playground for giants. The strange quality of morning and evening light painted peaks and plains briefly in surreal colours. And by night, a fat old moon would heave itself up into a comfortable position and fix us in its waxy glow.

Because the terrain is genuinely remote, this was not a trip on which to make contact with local people. The Berbers, like mountain people everywhere, inspire awe simply through their ability to survive in such hostile conditions. I found the diffidence of some of those we encountered encouraging: better that they should keep their distance and their dignity than resort to begging - the increasingly common basis of relationships between tourists and remote peoples.

After 10 days we had come full circle, and had sustained no serious casualties, medical or social. Toughened by so much peak-conquering, we felt equal to our final challenge: to raid the famous souks in Marrakesh for souvenirs.

Marrakesh has an awful lot of something for everyone: carpets, woodwork, silver, pottery, leather, textiles, spices and teeth (you can buy heavy-duty molars by the kilo from stalls in the enormous Djemaa el Fna square). Unless you have a limitless amount of cash, however, you will need to bargain. I knew I was getting somewhere when, after a long negotiation over glasses of sweet green mint tea, the trader exclaimed in mock disgust: 'You're a Berber woman] You offer Berber price]'

Amid the frenetic buzz of activity in the souks, we found a perfect antidote in a hammam, the communal steam baths. These are sex-segregated and, to judge by the way we women were smuggled in and out, strictly for the locals. But we were given VIP treatment, and our presence provided great entertainment for the scores of women and children sweating it out noisily in the warren of stone chambers all around us. Our masseuse kept up a vivid commentary for a delighted audience on the amount of dirt she was scraping from our pulverised bodies.

Marrakesh, with its steaming water and bubbling human industry, was a world away from the Sarho. Yet even as we drove to the airport for our flight home, the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas twinkled seductively.

'Don't forget,' they seemed to say, 'that life looks different from over here.' Not just life, but Morocco, too.

Jane Taylor travelled with Explore (0252 319448), which runs Jbel Sarho trips to May; cost pounds 485, including air fares.

(Photographs omitted)

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