In the West, we live in a bubble. A safety bubble. And even though we kinda like that bubble, every now and then we have to get out. So we travel. To Japan, Thailand, Argentina. In miles, Morocco is considerably closer. But in terms of safety it’s probably further away. This much is certain: if you’re going to fly to Marrakesh, drive to the Atlas Mountains and paddle an inflatable raft down a freezing river full of rapids & rocks you will, inevitably, reach a point where you leave the bubble.
When we did, we almost ran into God.
We were somewhere outside Marrakesh on the edge of the desert when a convoy of trucks appeared in the opposing lane. A large passenger coach caught behind them kept swerving impatiently over the faded centerline. There’s no doubt that the driver saw us, but apparently our 4×4 did not impress. A lot later than TOO LATE he turned his wheel and came heading towards us at a disgusting speed. I froze. This was insanity: a collision would be certain. Death would be certain. What the hell was he doing?
I hadn’t yet realized that outside the bubble, God survives. He remains alive in the minds of men who still have a need for him. And by guiding their every action, He becomes their self-fulfilling prophecy: a reality to consider, even for filthy heathens like us.
We finally came to a halt in the red gravel beside the road. A cloud of dust blew past us, billowing high to the desert air. I wanted, no, I demanded an explanation and since that bus and its driver were already half a mile behind us I demanded it from the guy who had just saved all of our lives.
But Yann seemed unimpressed. He simply shrugged, said “Welcome to Africa” and explained:
“Imagine you live here, man. Very few things are certain. So what do you do? You turn to God. You trust Him. These people, they believe in Insha’Allah. In the Will of God. That bus driver, he probably believes that Allah made sure he’d make it.”
“That’s f*cking insane”
“I know. Except, of course, that he did make it.”
As we drove off, I wondered if God was gonna take care of us too. We had joined the try-out Yann had organized before the start of Berber Rafting Adventures’ operation in the coming spring. But Wiboud and I had never so much as seen a raft, our kayaker was only here for legal reasons, our cameraman Richard had never filmed a rafting trip, and our guide, or I should really say our tour operator had never organized one either. It couldn’t be long until we’d need some Insha’Allah of our own.
We were supposed to arrive at Mustafa’s Kasbah at six P.M but the starting had been slow. The night before we’d been drinking beer in the bar across from our Riad and duty free whiskey in our room. The effect of our hangover was worsened by … circumstances: By shops boxing in our 4×4 with their stalls. By only half of Yann’s inventory actually fitting in the car. By insane bus drivers, trying to kill us.
Still, it wasn’t all God’s fault. In hindsight we probably shouldn’t have taken that three-hour detour to witness the miracle of a desert valley in full bloom: rock to wood to leaf to flower at the touch of a drop. But we did, and arrived at the unpaved mountain roads well after sunset. In the dark, we got lost almost immediately.
A slight panic rose. Like lost people everywhere we all offered our own contradictory advice to no one in particular. Talking at once, we missed three of Mustafa’s calls and the battery was nearly dead when we finally caught number four. After failing to determine on which one of the many potholed oxen-tracks we actually were, Mustafa directed us to a village we’d passed hours ago and told us to wait there. About twenty anxious minutes later, a skinny local appeared from the darkness. He turned out to be Mustafa’s cousin and would show us the way.
We finally arrived at midnight. Mustafa welcomed us at the door of his large square Kasbah. You could tell he was the guy in charge: he had an impressive moustache and the cousin kissed him first, before greeting the rest of the family. Everyone was still awake, because they had to prepare diner and mint tea for their guests. We felt deeply ashamed for arriving six hours late. But every time Yann tried to apologize, Mustafa would simply offer more of the glorious, glorious chicken & couscous, pour out some more delicious mint tea and say:
“Insha’Allah Yann. It’s not your fault.”
I watched him closely every time. And saw he meant every word.
And your first time on the wild water ride.
The rocks and boulders and cactuses. The cowboy-signs and the tall wooden mining tower.
The drop, the splash, the wet shirt. Your boat bouncing over water at treacherous speed, the waves stationary to your position but the shores racing past.
At five years old, it is a magical adventure. But as you grow older, the rocks turn to polyester, the cactuses to plastic and the tower to steel. The magic goes away.
Well, go to the Atlas. Enjoy a night of unrivaled hospitality in a Kasbah and next morning, drive to the river. Put on a wetsuit, inflate a raft and have your guide explain the basic commands. Then get on, cast off and follow the kayak. I promise, the magic will return. Only this time the adventure is real. Even if there’s still a grownup there shouting at you.
“I said STOP, GIJS!”
“OKAY, YANN! Jezus Christ!”
Wieb and I were in the front off the boat, sitting on the edge, keeping our balance with one foot wedged under the rubber side. Yann needed us to paddle in perfect synchrony so he could steer us down the rapids. To do that, we had to look at each other and match our strokes. It turned out to be harder than it sounds, with so many things to see.
As the current carried us along the A’Hanzel River, everything looked and felt exactly the way that wild water ride had promised so long ago. Rocks and boulders protruded from the water. Pebbles and logs littered the shores and the swift blue river had cut through red hills full of gnarly trees. The sky above was blue & cloudless and our black wetsuits were warmed by the sun.
Still, Yann had good reason to be strict with us. We were all alone out here with just our raft, paddles and supplies. Losing these would mean disaster: swimming to shore in ice-cold water, scrambling up the steep hills, walking across rugged terrain, hoping to find a lone Kashba in the wilderness. If things went wrong now we didn’t have a prayer.
And for me, they almost did. About four hours in, we came upon a class-four rapid. Or maybe three, I dunno, white water‘n sh*t, dangerdanger, you get the idea. There was confusion about the paddling again and we ended up floating down the rapid sideways. About halfway we hit a rock and I lost my balance. It’s funny what happens when you do. Even before the body goes overboard, the mind accepts the idea and starts calculating the next move: After hitting the water, turn to your back and face downstream. Avoid rocks. Pray for an eddy. Prepare for cold. I don’t know why I didn’t end up overboard. I am pretty sure I had long since passed my center of gravity when a mysterious force pulled me back in. Maybe Yann saved me with his quick steering. Maybe we’d hit a rock on the other side. Or perhaps Allah was looking out for us after all.
We spent that night camping on a few large polished rocks next to an impassable waterfall. We made a huge campfire, ate, and drank what was left of the duty free Johnny Walker before going to sleep under more stars than I had seen in my life. I’d never done that, and it was absolutely magical.
The next day, the magic deepened. We took off early and rafted for hours, going from rapid to rapid. I was glad our paddling technique had improved dramatically because the rapids became larger and larger as we progressed. The landscape started changing too. The hilly shores gradually gave way to huge red cliffs rising from the water. They started leaning over us, like angry teachers demanding an explanation. I had none. God? Geology? Up close and personal with so many eons of cause and effect, both notions seemed pretty ridiculous.
At around two in the afternoon we reached a part of the river where the cliffs leaned in so much that both shores nearly touched high above. Paddling though the tunnel I felt like some ancient Greek hero trying to enter the underworld. The vast tunnel looked at once man-made and completely natural. I touched the wall a couple of times to feel if it was real. I guess the old memory of the wild water ride was still messing with my head.
As we came out of the canyon, the river slowed down, winding itself lazily through an enormous field of pebbles, some the size of digits, some of a fist. Here was all that stone the river had cut, left behind now by a lack of speed. And here too my luck finally ran out. We had to stop to see if we could find a signal and call the boat that would pick us up downstream. We edged towards the shore and I tried to pull us closer by ramming a paddle into the pebbles, but I messed up and fell out of the boat. The two inches of water did little to break my fall. Yann laughed till his eyes tearded up, and I threw rocks at him while he made the call.
Then came the most excruciating part of the trip: paddling across the flats. Our reserves were now very low, so Wieb and I frequently lost our synch. Yann, also tired, would then shout at us, and I would drown his orders with a terrible curse. Then there would be a small silence, which Wieb would use to get us back on track. And then, after four or five strokes, this cycle would repeat.
We paddled like this for another four, five miles until we ran into the rest of the river’s excrements. Some strange force had accumulated all the wood, trash and lost laundry at one random place, forming about half a mile of heavy brown sludge floating on the blue water like an oil spill. There was no way around it and any propeller plowing through would immediately be ruined, so our ride was waiting for us on the other side.
We had to paddle hard to reach him, as if we were breaking through a barrier between the magic behind us and the mundane in front. The sludge pushed back against every stroke and the river seemed reluctant to let us go. What plans it still had for us I could only guess but ultimately, on our very last reserves, we broke through. We’d made it. And were all completely okay.
I almost couldn’t believe it.
Every few miles we’d overtake one or two, or sometimes even four or five of them. Suddenly, they’d be pulled from the dark by our headlights, walking next to the desert road. Men in Djellaba’s. Women in penguin suits. Children in Adidas sweatshirts. Most of them would stop and turn, trying to flag us down. I’d seen them before, on the way over but driving back to Marrakesh, they looked different somehow. Almost familiar.
“Yann, what’s up with them again?”
“Oh you know, they’re just walking to the village. Not everyone can afford a car here. Or a bike.”
“So they just walk? We’re in the middle of the desert. At night. Ten miles to the nearest village minimum, and it doesn’t even have a bar!”
“Haha I know but, well, they walk and hope they get picked up by a passing car. Insha’Allah, you know?”
I did know. And I immediately understood what had to be done.
“Let’s pick one up.”
“What? Are you crazy? Why? Where are we gonna put him?”
“We’ll figure something out. We have to pick one up. We owe it.”
“Owe it? Owe it to whom?”
“We do. Just… believe me. There’s one now. Stop!”