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I'm Sittin' on Top of the World!

The shady walnut groves of Imlil, Morocco were behind us as we followed the path into the rocky High Atlas Mountains. "Is this just a mountain?" I wondered to myself, "or the Greek god Atlas, turned to stone by Perseus with the snake-haired head of Medusa?" I distracted myself from the strenuous uphill hike by trying to remember Ms. Baginski's Greek mythology class in high school. I thought it was so useless at the time, but now I wish I'd paid more attention! Sorry Ms. B!

Vocabulary Box

laden: loaded down; to trudge: to walk wearily

mortal: human and therefore not able to live forever like the Gods

appreciable: considerable

"You know," I said to Kavitha between breaths, "millions of people are sitting in front of their TV's right now." She looked back at me and smiled. "Yeah, or stuck in a traffic jam!"

We "high-fived" our good fortune and then returned to trudging uphill, laden with camping gear and food for two days. The path was busy with people walking between Imlil and the further Berber villages, and with other hikers and pack mules, hauling gear and supplies to the villages and the base camp for Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in Northern Africa. Would that be the top of Atlas's head, or the bottom of his feet...or maybe a shoulder?

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A typical berber village in the high atlas.
We had arrived in Imlil the previous day, and spent our time preparing for our hike to the top. Imlil is a village, probably around Atlas's belly button, with one dirt road running through it and a handful of shops and restaurants for the backpackers starting and ending their journeys. It seemed like there were more backpackers than residents in this tiny Berber village. But the pace was slow and calm, and everyone seemed laid back and happy.

After settling in the backpackers' lodge, we got the scoop about the hike from Ibrahim and Mohammed, two brothers who run the place. Finding the gear we needed didn't involve trudging around from place to place--it involved sitting on the porch and having tea with Mohammed. Drinking Moroccan tea is the most common past time of all Moroccan men, I think. Soon, we were joined by his friend Hussein, who smiled, raised his glass and said, "Berber whiskey!" Since Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol, this is the acceptable form of male bonding! After a few glasses of the sugary mint tea, Hussein, Kavitha, and I had made a deal!

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We weren't alone up there.  The basecamp was full of other hikers and groups on mule treks with huge tents!
Drinking "Berber whisky" seems to be the only nightlife in Imlil, so we got a good sleep to prepare for our hike. The path wound up and up, along a river, through a few small villages. It is harvest season for walnuts, and everyone is out, young and old, harvesting from the trees. Atlas was the king of Arcadia, which is thought to have been Northern Africa. Instead of the walnut groves, he had trees with golden leaves, golden branches, and golden fruits. I wonder how Greek mythology coincides with history? Which dynasty would that be?

After a difficult stretch of the hike, we sat down for a snack break. A team of pack mules came by, headed towards the basecamp. "Fatigué?" the man smiled, asking us in French if we were tired. "Un peu." I admitted, 'a little.'

He told us that it was very steep for the next four hours, and that he was headed to the basecamp. For 30 Moroccan Dirhams a piece, about $3, he offered to take our bags. I'm proud, but I'm not stupid. I put a water bottle and some lunch into a daypack, and we sent our backpacks along on the mules!

Africa isn't known for its mountains. Most of sub-Saharan Africa is a flat plateau, with only Mt. Kilamanjaro in Tanzania and Mt. Kenya in Kenya, which are old volcanoes, reaching any appreciable height. Still, Morocco boasts three mountain ranges-the Riff mountains in the North, then the Middle Atlas, then the High Atlas, which ends in the Sahara Desert. Jebel Toubkal, at 4165 meters (13,664 feet), is the highest peak in Northern Africa. It is short in comparison to peaks in the Andes, the Rockies, and the Himalayas, but, for the ancient Greeks and other Mediterranean explorers, it seemed like the top of the world! It didn't seem very short to us, either.

Atlas made the grave mistake of leading the Titans in their war against the Olympians. It was a mistake he would eternally regret. His punishment was one that would last throughout the ages to bear the weight of the sky on his back. Zeus left it to Atlas to forever keep the heavens apart from the earth. The Greeks believed that the Atlas Mountains were so high that they touched the heavens, and that no human could climb them.

After hours of walking, one step after another, Kavitha and I finally reached basecamp by late afternoon...only half way up the mountain! Who were we, mere mortals, trying to reach the heavens? I could tell that Atlas was not going to make it easy.

We set up camp as best as we could. I built up the rock wall around our tent to block the cold wind while Kavitha cooked dinner. All night, the wind whipped mercilessly through the mountain pass…Was it just the wind, or was that the moan of Atlas I heard? The sky must be heavy indeed!

Expand Your Mind!

Interested in learning more about Greek mythologies? Check out this site!

Do you know which is the tallest mountain in the world? Check out this site to see if you are right.

By morning the sun had warmed things back up. Soon, groups of hikers could be seen on the trail to Jebel Toubkal. French, Spaniards, Slovenians, Moroccans, times it looked like a line of ants in the distance, the mortals daring to brave the mighty Atlas. Kavitha and I sipped our tea and watched the parade head out of sight. "Maybe it's just me," I said, "but I didn't really come to the mountain to 'get away from it all' with one hundred other people. " Kavitha nodded in agreement. I pulled out the topographical map, looking to see what else was around. "How about here?" I pointed to a nearby peak. "Look, it's 4,085 meters. Only 80 meters less than Toubkal, and in the other direction. It must be Atlas's left shoulder! It's not the 'highest' peak in Northern Africa, but we'll have it to ourselves!"

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Kavitha rests at the pass leading to South, where the mountains become desert.
With our backs to the stream of hikers, we headed due south, towards the foreboding Sahara desert. Up and up the windy path, over boulders and sliding through loose rock called scree. By mid-morning, we reached the high pass in front of us, with peaks to either side. The view was stupendous! To the south, barren hills rolled on as far as the eye could see…the gateway to the Sahara. This was the other end of the Trans-Saharan trade route that Kevin and Jasmine wrote about from Timbuktu! Back to the North, we looked down to a fertile valley far below.

Kavitha sat, content, munching on dates and almonds. "This is good enough for me!" She proclaimed. "I'll see you back at camp in a few hours."

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Here at the top, the ground is actually flat...but the rock I set the camera on for the automatic timer was tilted...really!
I debated the sanity of defying the Gods all alone. Figuring it would be a great story for the webpage if I got killed in a landslide of scree, I continued up, alone, to where the sky rested. I slipped a few times, but made it to the top safe and jubilant. Everyone knows, though, that going down the scree is the most dangerous part.

Atlas didn't seem to notice the extra weight as I sat, staring out across the endless expanse. I felt so small, yet very strong there, on top of that mountain. Looking back towards Mali, thinking forward towards Egypt. The distance between the heavens and the earth is small indeed.


Jasmine - The Real Land of Oz
Kavitha - A Marrakech Fairy Tale: Snake Charmers and Princesses
Team - Moroccan Women...Caught Between Two Worlds
Abeja gets M.A.D. -- She's Making a Difference

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