Our vehicle wound ever higher up the earthen road cutting through Morocco’s High Atlas mountains. Below me, the red soil spilled like wine between green dots of forest and sheets of white snow. I lost myself in the dizzying beauty of North Africa’s tallest peaks, and as I nervously peered out of the window, I saw there was no guardrail separating us from the sharp ledge and distant valley below.
Our journey had started an hour earlier at the base of the mountain along an ancient caravan trail that connects Marrakech and the Sahara. Centuries ago, this trans-Saharan trade route had brought gold, ivory and cloth from places like Timbuktu, Sudan and Ghana to the North African coast. Today, the once-proud villages sprinkled along this winding road are little more than shantytowns, where weary travellers can buy grilled meat outside open shacks and cafes.
I had stopped at one of these villages, Taddert, that morning, clutching a faded copy of Berber Village: The Story of the Oxford University Expedition to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Published in 1959 and written by expedition member Bryan Clarke, the book is an account of a remarkable 17-day expedition undertaken by five students in 1955 from Oxford to a remote village called Idihr. The youths travelled in an ex-army truck in hopes of studying the geography, wildlife and customs of this far-flung corner of the Arab world’s tallest mountain range.
Their journey took place during times of civil unrest. Morocco had been a French protectorate since 1912, but following the exile of Sultan Mohammed V in 1953, violence had erupted and colonial authorities were ruthlessly cracking down on Moroccan nationalists. By the time the students crossed from England to San Sebastián, Spain, and prepared to venture through Gibraltar into Morocco in the summer of 1955, French occupation was on its last legs and the country’s future was uncertain.
When the students arrived in North Africa, they sought help from Morocco’s ruler, T’hami el-Glaoui, to find a suitably remote village for their research and protection as they travelled. Before becoming the Pasha of Marrakesh in 1912, el-Glaoui had been dubbed the ‘Lord of the Atlas’ and ruled over the caravan route cutting through the mountains in southern Morocco. His palace had been the fabled Kasbah in Telouet in central Morocco, and at the time of his death in 1956 he was one of the richest men in the world.
After ferrying and driving to the High Atlas mountains from Oxford, the students spent the night at the el-Glaoui’s kasbah. This was the end of the road, so a local sheikh arranged for a caravan of mules to carry their luggage while the students walked some 35km from Telouet to Idihr.
Like the students, I had come to Morocco for an adventure of my own. After living in the US for a decade, I travelled to the country in hopes of writing a novel. One day while rummaging through a library in Casablanca, I discovered a copy of Berber Village. As I read, I became enthralled by the trials and tribulations these five young adventurers faced – among them a Moroccan interpreter and an aspiring zoologist, ethnologist, geographer and botanist.
During their 17-day journey, according to the book, the students slept on a British official’s veranda, met legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger and were nearly held captive by bandits in Marrakech. After eventually reaching Idihr, they camped for seven weeks as they researched. Their main funding came from Oxford University’s Exploration Club, which allowed them to buy the truck, and a £100 advance payment from National Geographic for a future article.
In the weeks before setting off, the students had stockpiled huge numbers of ready-made meals, penicillin and toilet paper in their boarding rooms. Clarke was eventually waved off by the elderly landlady he was staying with, who gave him a sack of homemade sandwiches for his trip.
The students had chosen Idihr because of its remote location high in the folds of the Atlas mountain range. They wanted to find somewhere untouched by modernity to study the beliefs and agricultural practices of a remote Maghreb society. The students pitched their tents by a stream that flowed near a large walnut tree below the village.
As the weeks passed, Clarke writes, a gradual friendship formed between the two disparate groups. The students invited the djellaba-robed villagers into their tents for tea, and the villagers hosted them in their simple brick houses, where they offered the university students slow-cooked tagines. The villagers soon revealed a communal belief in animism and genies and began to see the students, who shared their penicillin, as magic healers.
The more I read of Clarke’s account, the more curious I became to find out what had happened to Idihr. Did it still exist? I looked on Google Maps and asked locals in Marrakech in Arabic, but no-one could find any trace of it. I even contacted Clarke’s widow and asked if any of the team had ever gone back. Clarke had not and she wasn’t sure about the others, or if they were still alive.
The tiny dot of a village seemed to have disappeared from modern maps, and the only evidence of its former location was a hand-sketched outline in Clarke’s book, which placed it roughly 16km from the town of Zerkten and between the villages of Taddert and Telouet in the Al Haouz province. I wasn’t sure if it had changed names or vanished altogether, but I was determined to find out if it still existed.
Taddert appeared to be the closest village on modern maps to where Clarke had placed Idihr, so I drove three hours to the settlement from Marrakech with a driver who served as my interpreter to ask about Idihr’s fate.
A group of men gathered around us and stared at Clarke’s book, as my driver and I repeated the village’s name. They studied the hand-sketched map and, finally, someone pointed to the mountains in the distance. Then, a kind-hearted car mechanic, Karim, who had been hovering nearby, came to my rescue. Idihr existed, and he was going to get me there.
I waited in a roadside cafe in Taddert with Clarke’s book open on the table while Karim made a call to a friend. Our impromptu expedition was to consist of myself, my driver, Karim and his friend, who had the biggest car around: a 4×4 capable of climbing up the mountains.
But an hour into our treacherous ascent, as we climbed higher and higher and the wheels of the car turned too close the mountain’s ledge, I couldn’t take it any longer. Too scared to continue, I begged the driver to stop, slammed the door shut and began marching back down the mountain in a trail of dust before the car turned around to pick me up.
I was disappointed with myself, but I had discovered that Idihr existed. Now, I just needed to find a different way to get there. Karim, my driver and I drove back from Taddert towards Marrakech that evening. Karim assured me he would try to find a less dangerous route to the village and insisted I owed him nothing in return.
A few days later, I received a call from him. He had decided we would take the 4×4 but try a different road. As much as I would have liked to recreate the students’ 35km trek from Telouet, it was too treacherous, so I put myself in Karim’s hands to find another way there.
We set off seven days later. As Karim, myself and our driver left Marrakesh behind and travelled along mountain roads, the old caravan route paved our way towards the snow-capped mountains. Women washed clothing in ditches, carpets blew in the wind at roadside stalls and donkeys trotted freely by half-built houses.
After three hours, we turned off the caravan route and approached Taddert from the opposite side of the mountains as we had on our previous trip. Although Idihr was less than 20km away, the ride took several hours, as we clambered up switchbacks and crossed rivers at a snail’s pace. We were alone on a dirt track as the peaks of the High Atlas rose and fell around us. Finally, the tiny village came into view: a cluster of simple brick homes nestled just up the bank from a mountain-fed stream.
Karim greeted the locals in both Arabic and an Amazigh (also known as Berber) dialect. Djellaba-robed men emerged from their homes, and women in bright skirts and headscarves hid from me. It seemed they were not used to foreign visitors. I stumbled through gardens and past goats. A trail of children followed me to the stream below the village as I found the walnut tree Clarke described.
The village was made up of short, sandy-coloured houses arranged around a square. A row of these brick homes was still perched on a ledge above the stream and looked identical to the students’ images from the book.
The villagers brought out black-and-white photographs from a foreigner who had stopped here years earlier. I asked to photograph the women and they stared at the images on my iPad’s screen in wonder; there were no mobile phones or cameras here. I showed them a copy of Berber Village and asked if anyone remembered the students, but no-one had ever seen the book before. A few residents recognised pictures of deceased villagers inside.
Nothing much seemed to have changed in Idihr from the book’s account, except that now a van sporadically drove villagers to Taddert. People worked the land, just as they had always done. They still feasted on slow-cooked meat and vegetable dishes in tagine pots. One was laid out for me that afternoon. There was one unplugged old TV in a communal space, and aside from a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs, the villagers didn’t seem to have much. And according to Karim and the driver, they still bought goods from wandering taleb ‘magic men’ in hopes that they would bring them good fortune.
I spent an afternoon in the village, leaving before dusk fell. Idihr was not en route to anywhere – it was so hard to reach and so small that unless you got lost looking for the now-crumbling Kasbah of Telouet, you’d never find it. But now that I had, I dreamed of one day returning to the village to camp, just as the students had done.
I didn’t have the funding of a university or a magazine, but I had proven that a traveller with a healthy dose of determination could still be an explorer in today’s world. I might not have been the first to discover Idihr, but thanks to the kindness of strangers, I felt as if I had rediscovered a tiny secret (Idihr) hidden from sight and frozen by the slow march of time in the mountains.