Adventure Travel

A Death-Defying Trip Up the Atlas Mountains

I had been left alone at the side of the road near just north of Oulad Berhil in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains just about 60 km from Taroudant.  I was actually enjoying the peace and solemnity for perhaps an hour or so.  It was nearing mid-day when a slow-moving truck slowed down and stopped. There were two men and a pile of stuff in the cab.  The driver smiled and waved me welcomingly onto the back deck of the truck. I wasn’t quite prepared for what I encountered back there.

It was a sheep-transport truck, carrying sheep to the market in Marrakesh.  I climbed up the back, took off my pack and stood it up and leaned against it in the right rear corner of the truck bed. I was wedged in somewhat tightly.

The rectangular truck bed was about 20 feet long, 10 feet wide, and was packed solid with dozens of sheep, plus two rough looking men, one in the front wedged into the area to the right side of cab, the other on the left. We just kind of stared at each other as the truck gradually picked up speed and moved down the road heading slowly up into the foothills.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what these two men were doing there, perhaps catching a ride like I was but they didn’t look like students or travellers. An hour or so later, the irregular rocking and shifting of the truck carried us to where the scenery completely changed.

The road had narrowed to 1 ½ to 2-lanes as it wound up into the mountains.  The truck would continually sway back and forth as the road curved left and then right, weaving through the curves of the mountains. Its springs groaned and squealed as we went. The sheep were also swaying and pushing into each other with no room to move, bleating and baaing in protest.

We were soon riding along the edge of a sheer drop of several hundred meters. Both men and sheep in the back of the truck were all densely packed, wedged in by the crush of the sheep which were bleating mournfully with each turn or bump. 

Then suddenly I noticed the man on the left work his way toward the center of the sheep.  He reached down and picked up a limp sheep that had been crushed or suffocated (or perhaps died of a heart attack from the strain). 

He smiled broadly as he showed the glazed, dead eyes of the animal to me and then to the other man, who smiled and nodded his agreement. Then the man with the dead sheep worked his way to the extreme right edge of the truck, took a deep breath, lifted the limp corpse over his head and vigorously tossed the sheep out of the truck. It sailed over the nearby edge of the narrow road, down, down into the steep ravine. We didn’t hear it land hundreds of meters below as the truck rumbled on. He gave me an ominous glance and smiled. I was shocked to see how easily he could dispose of the dead body, though I remained expressionless.

Over the next hour or so, with the truck lurching side-to-side, this process was repeated several times. I wondered why there was no value to the dead sheep’s body for meat or wool and how these men seemed to have so little regard for the value of life. I was enjoying this ride less and less and feeling less secure about travelling alone.

Then the older and swarthier man took a few steps towards me and said to me, “I want your watch.  Give me your watch.” – Je veux votre montre.  Donnez moi votre montre. 

I looked at him seriously and straight in the eye. “Je ne peux pas vous donnez mon montre. Cette un cadeaux de mon pere.”  I stood straight up, looked straight at him and repeated, more forcefully, “CETTE un CADEUX de mon PERE, monsieur. Je ne peux pas vous donnez.”  (This watch is a gift from my father.) 

I reared myself up a bit, instinctively clenched both fists (I had taken Karate in High School) and looked threateningly at one man and then the other. The second appeared concerned and stepped back. Then they both stepped back. Our confrontation remained tense, then gradually dissipated after about 30 minutes or so. A fit young man was more of a match than a small dead sheep.

As this happened, they were both distracted when they had each found another dead sheep that had to be disposed of over the side of the truck and down the banks of the mountain. In the late afternoon, the truck slowed down and stopped. 

I took this as a welcome opportunity to get off. We were in the middle of the High Atlas mountains on a rough road, probably 5 or 6 thousand feet above sea level.  We had been climbing the entire ride.

I felt safer on the side of the road than in the back of a truck of dying sheep with two seemingly cold-blooded Berber ruffians interested in stealing my watch.

The driver of the truck, who was apparently in charge, came around the back to inspect his load. He was friendly to me. He then spoke demandingly to the two men in the back and ordered them to rearrange the remaining crush of sheep. Perhaps he had noted the loss of too many at the hands of his crew. I thanked him and said goodbye.

The truck, the sheep and the four men were soon on their way lumbering away in the dust like a bad dream. I waited for a ride in the silence of the spectacular high mountains. As luck would have it, a car with an empty back seat stopped and picked me up. The driver was going to Marrakesh, albeit with a stop planned for Tizi n’Test. I was hoping I didn’t stink of lanolin and thankful there were no sheep in the car. When you need a ride, sometimes you compromise.

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