Minarets, mint tea and musical nights

Berbers are Mike Gerrard's lifeline on his trek through mountain and desert

Genuine antique," the shopkeeper in the Marrakesh souk reassures us. We examine the two-inch metal statuette of a circus strongman, standing on a podium holding a set of weights over his head. "Genuine Berber," we are told by this Moroccan Del Boy Trotter. My friend turns it upside down to reveal a pencil sharpener.

A day in Marrakesh was merely a bonus, as we had gone out to explore Morocco on two feet, four feet, two wheels and four wheels, from the snowline of the Atlas Mountains to a sandstorm in the Sahara. Our guide, Abdelhak, a genuine Berber, sighs with relief as we leave the noise of Marrakesh behind and head for the mountains. "I am from a village in the Rif Mountains in the north," he says, "and prefer to be out in the mountains, not in the city."

Soon we can see the jagged white tops of the Atlas Mountains as we drive up along a fertile valley, past orchards of cherry and walnut trees, and through the village of Asni. The Lonely Planet guide describes Asni with the kind of phrase you might expect to see in a century-old Baedeker guide: "a minor den of iniquity". I rather fancy staying in a minor den of iniquity but soon we are in the next major village, Imlil, where we leave the minibus, stuff our bags into the back of a Peugeot about the size of a large bread- bin, and set off on foot for the 45-minute climb to Aremd, our Berber village home for the next two days.

We are welcomed by the owner of the Chez Omar Id Mansour guesthouse, perched at the top of the village with magnificent views over the valley, though our first few minutes there are spent staring at the ground and panting. Revival comes in the form of wild-mint tea and a plate of walnuts - an appetiser before our lunch. This is the first of many huge and unbelievably delicious tajines, the Moroccan stew steamed in a ceramic dish with a conical lid. We scoop it down with round yellow Berber bread, each piece the size of a hub-cap.

As we finish we hear the sound of the imam calling from the mosque at the far side of Aremd, his voice filling the valley. The sounds mingle with those of the choughs, which zoom through the deep blue sky with their peculiar bombing flight, where they tuck in their wings and drop like a falcon. Through binoculars I can just make out the shapes of goats on the far side of the valley. "At about five or six o'clock," Abdelhak says, "you might see foxes coming down from the hills, looking for chickens or lambs."

A walk through the village with Abdelhak makes stuttering progress. We rush to keep up as he leaps down the steep, rough streets, stopping every few minutes to greet villagers, all of whom seem to be old friends. This is partly because Abdelhak works for Tizi-Randonnes, a Moroccan tour company which helps to fund charitable projects in this and other Berber villages. "We also helped to refurbish the school," he says, "because the walls had fallen down." A torrential summer flood poured down this valley in August 1995, hurling huge rocks with it, washing away whole buildings and killing several hundred people.

We call in to see the village bull, which has also been bought to help the Aremd finances. It cost 20,000 dirham (pounds 1,350), and is hired out to other villages and farmers in the area. "They had another bull before," Abdelhak says, "but it died from overwork."

I nearly died myself through trying to keep up with Abdelhak's pace as he led us along the valley towards the snow line and Sidi Chamarouch, an igloo-like whitewashed shrine to a holy man. We pass weird apparitions on the way: extra-terrestrial beings clumping down the track in full skiing gear; boots like lumps of moon rock and outfits in colours not normally seen outside a sweetshop window. They are stubble-faced German and Italian macho men coming down from Mount Toubkal, at 4,167m (13,500ft) the highest point in North Africa. Skiers be warned, there are no lifts.

Before we move on from Aremd we enjoy a magical, memorable night of home- made music. A group of villagers turn up at our guesthouse clutching animal-skin drums, like large tambourines, which they warm by the fire till the pitch is just right. Four girls sit along one wall and endless rounds of call-and-reply songs fill the tiny dining room, the girls occasionally trilling in that ululating African fashion. When they dance they shake their shoulders rapidly, and have the good grace not to laugh when we fail to emulate them. A skinny man with a roguish grin leads the singing, introducing each song with a little narration in Berber, which no one will translate for us but which has the girls covering their faces and giggling. Eventually we relax with a verbena tea, while the roguish singer laughs as he leaves, tapping his chest and uttering his first English words of the night: "Bob Marley!"

Our next adventure is on two wheels, after we drive through the Col du Tichka, the main route from Marrakesh to Ourzazate, and pick up mountain bikes for an afternoon that we're promised is "downhill almost all the way". Which it is, almost. We race by orchards and donkeys carrying haystacks and wave to the Berber children who, we assume, are yelling cheery greetings rather than the Berber word for "Wally!"

"Yalla!" is one of the few Arabic words I know, and I'm pleased to find that Moroccan camels understand it just as well as Egyptian camels: "Let's go!" At Zagora we set off on three camels, walking first through the town's suburbs, overtaken at one point by a man carrying two sheep on his moped. Live ones, that is, but not for long. We're a few days away from the Islamic feast of Aid El Kebir celebrating Abraham's willingness to obey God and sacrifice his son, Isaac. The sheep get to play Isaac's role, though God won't step in to stop it at the last minute.

Eventually we reach Zagora, on the edge of the Sahara. The dunes ought to have Omar Sharif riding over them in a heat haze. We sip tea and tuck into a minty salad in the shade of some palm trees, and in the afternoon head further into the heat, with the aim of spending the night in a Berber tent. But as we cross some dunes and emerge on to a vast flat plain, with a cluster of black tents visible in the far distance, the wind blows up.

We pull the headscarves over our faces, to avoid adding a sandblast effect to our burning noses. We can scarcely see Abdelhak walking hunched over a few feet in front of the camels, which seem unperturbed. It takes us an hour to reach the tents, which are billowing in the wind, their floors covered with a series of mini-dunes. We try to wash sand from our mouths, our ears, our eyes, and wonder how the Berbers manage without a ready source of wet-wipes. We are not Lawrence of Arabia after all, and when the van turns up with our luggage, we wimp out and head back to Zagora. A hot shower never felt so good.

A famous sign in Zagora points towards the desert with the information that Timbuktu is 52 days thataway. We head in the opposite direction, as Marrakesh is one day thisaway, and we have a meeting to look forward to with Mohammed Trotter and his genuine Berber pencil sharpener - all the more remarkable when you remember that Berber is an oral language. I wish I'd bought it now.

MOROCCO

GETTING THERE

The author travelled to Marrakesh with Tribes Travel (tel: 01728 685971). The operator offers a 15-day Moroccan summer trip, taking in Marrakesh, Atlas hiking and mountain-biking, for pounds 990 excluding return flights. Departures are available on 14 August, 11 September, 23 October. Royal Air Maroc (tel: 0171-439 4361) flies to Marrakesh via Casablanca daily from pounds 393 return, plus pounds 26 tax.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Moroccan Tourist Office (tel: 0171-437 0073).

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