Having left the craggy heights of the Rif mountains, we now headed toward the ancient city of Fes, home to one of the most intact medieval medinas in the world. Our route took us through undulating farmland and scattered villages, underlining the value of agriculture here. At the beginning of the modern era, the Roman city of Volubilis had been the centre of the Imperial bread basket in North Africa and still fulfilled much of that role today, as the landscape became more alive with tractors and people. Large, clanking trailers were crammed with farm workers being ferried to and from local markets with produce and livestock jammed in underneath or between scarf-wrapped, dust-blown families.
One year a bunch of us, family and friends, decided that a proper overwinter expedition to the sun was just what we needed. On a previous trip to Morocco some of us had spent a few weeks in France with friends in Lot-et-Garonne, picking plums off the ground for the funds to last us over the coming months. A day’s work on the minimum wage, we calculated, could last each of us almost a week in Morocco. So plums it was, that time, bringing us plenty of stings from wasps burrowed into the fallen fruit and an agonising period at the day’s end when we tried to straighten our backs. The plums were destined to become gastronomic treats as the famed ‘Pruneaux d’Agen’ but we never wanted to see a plum again !
Boots were never destined to be the darlings of the catwalk, except perhaps for the sometimes frivolous, rarely practical iterations seen on leggy models. But they do reflect a wide range of uses, some highly specific to certain activities, some merely clumpy, common or garden varieties, and some strongly associated with authority or social rank. Whatever your needs, you should always consider acquiring footwear that is appropriate to the job, each variation gives an important level of protection. In particular, remember that boots you buy for walking will cover a lot of ground, and make a big difference to your ability and comfort on the trail.
Dry grasses rustled as we carefully skirted the gorge of Ethiopia’s biggest river, the rumbling, crashing sound of the water far below rising as we neared the edge, where a dirt track led several hundred metres down to flatter ground adjacent to the river itself. The light was already very low and fading quickly, as we were only 9 degrees north of the equator. Unseen animals lurked in the thorny scrub alongside our trail. . . .
That phrase seems to recur surprisingly quickly around this time, and not just for birthdays. For example, it’s only a few weeks since the swallows came back here – over a month late compared to earlier years. They are one of the reasons that I’m here now, as their forbears were twittering on the roof ridge when I came with my younger sister to take a look at the house.
As the uncle who disappeared for lengthy periods, usually in winter time to India, I was curious about what my very young nephew thought I might be finding in such a place. It may have been his exposure to the enigmatic Scottish poet Ivor Cutler, but he only had to think for a second or two and announced that there were probably egg trees.
In the slightly rising gloom outside I could hear a muffled coughing and grumbling, and the background clatter of hooves on the road nearby. As I had so many times before, I dragged myself out of bed in the dark and tried to wake myself to appear as if I knew what I was doing. What followed was quite an eye-opener.
The first book I remember reading that involved travel to far flung locations was one written by an old colonial hand, Fred G Merfield, with the alluring title ‘Gorillas were my Neighbours’. Looking back, I now see it as the memoirs of a casual racist, (amazingly quite acceptable at the time), with caricatures of tribal rituals, cannibalism and bush meat in Equatorial Africa. However, it was a considerable eye-opener for an eleven year old boy and certain phrases from it still loiter in my mind.
Join the dots and make a picture, win a major prize !
As the caption always read in the children’s comics puzzle page I used to love, I’m a great one for connections. Searching a page of scattered pinheads for patterns drove me crazy but the lure of the (never-won) prize was of less importance than the discovery of hidden forms. It’s hardly surprising that his has spilled over into a lifetime of travel, and I wonder how widely this affliction or condition is felt. Perhaps it’s a form of synaesthesia, where a person can hear a word that overwhelms them with colour, or may be able to see the wind passing.
Having spent so many years working in travel, I’ve lost count many years ago of the number of times I’ve left the front door not knowing if I’d ever see, or be seen again by those I care for. Of course, in reality, we all do this, every day, accidents happen, symptoms strike haphazardly and in a certain frame of mind even the most bizarre unlikelihood seems as possible as any other.