Update 21st December 2006

The previous days riding had been across large stretches of plains, and after Meknes the way gradually rose to Azrou in the Atlas foothills. The next stage of the journey was up over the 2100m Jbel Hebri pass. Not having prepared or consulted with anyone before heading off, the sudden change in altitude and terrain came as a bit of a surprise, not to mention being a bit uncomfortable with my inadequate clothing. I did not come equipped to deal with close to zero degrees riding conditions! The smell of the cedar forests struck me before the road wound through them, climbing still. As the landscape levelled, snow drifts lay by the roadside, the snowbound Middle Atlas mountains framing the high plateau. I excitedly stopped to take a picture of the snow patches, as proof. The road continued to climb into the mountains to where the snow coated the countryside. A slight feeling of anxiety began to gnaw at me, as I passed two snow ploughs. I certainly hadn’t considered this. Four wheels on icy roads is one thing, two quite another! It was with some relief I reached the pass, and began to enjoy the beautiful snow covered forest scenery. Progress was quite slow on the descent, taking care on the snowmelt wet surface.

Midelt is high in the Atlas foothills. I had read there was a small monastery of Fransiscan nuns a few miles from here, who had a tapestry weaving workshop and who it was said do good work in the area travelling off into the countryside with mules and a dispensary tent. “While the covert funding by USA churches of Protestant missionary activity has attracted critiscism in the Moroccan press, the Fransiscans’ efforts are much appreciated by the locals,” according to the Footprint guidebook. My request for directions outside of the town did indeed seem to elicit an immediate and helpful response, a car demanding I follow it to the gates.

A small community of Trappist, or Cistercian, monks was also said to have a presence here and it was these I was hoping to encounter. My aunt in Holy Cross Abbey in Wales had told me the story of the seven Cistercian monks murdered by fundamentalist Islamic terrorists at their foundation in Algeria ten years previously in 1996. They had chosen to ignore the threats to all foreigners still in the country after a set deadline, wishing not to abandon their monastery and to remain as witness, accepting the probability of martyrdom. In this day and age I hadn’t realised this still happened! One of the monks, Fr de Cherge, had written a moving testimony on why they had decided to remain, a letter to be opened by his family in the event of his murder. What strikes the reader is the humility, bravery, respect for Islam and love for Algeria, and above all I suppose the acceptance of his fate with generosity, without rancour. On an appointed night, the assassins came to do their deed. Their information was that seven monks lived there. They didn’t know two others were visiting. Seven were killed, two escaped. Those two now live in Notre Dame de l’Atlas monastery near Midelt, along with Fr J-Pierre the Abbot and a fourth monk who make up the tiny community there.

Fr Jean-Baptiste, one of the survivors, opened the wrought iron gate for me and bid me bring my bike in with a welcoming smile. He was in his late sixties and had such a gentle manner. Inside the gates, a tree lined, swept dirt track led up to a simple adobe church and monastery building. When I explained my interest, and the fact my aunt was also a Cistercian and had told me the story of the murders in Algeria, he brought me to a small outside room, a shrine to the seven slain. Written on the door was ‘Tibhirine’, Arabic for ‘garden’, the name of the monastery in Algeria. Inside were seven portraits of the monks, and little else apart from a small tribute, a few copies of Fr de Cherge’s letter, and some flowers. It was quite a poignant moment to see this, shown to me by one of the survivors. Fr Jean-Baptiste and I stood in respectful silence, me trying to grasp the weight of the situation, he I imagine dealing with direct experience and memory. From riding a bike solo for hours addressing all that that involves, to suddenly find myself in this affecting situation brought me right down to earth. The phrase came to mind “never travel faster than your soul can keep up”.

I stayed the night in the monastery, feeling privileged to eat with the four monks. As I expected there was no conversation, as Fr Samece read from “The Life of Martha Robin”, a woman revered in France as a latter day saint. The other survivor, he was such a jolly monk, quite elderly and very stooped, couldn’t do enough to help. The food, cooked by a Berber woman who also cleaned, was local, simple and tasty, involving cous cous, vegetables, a form of cumin and lentil broth, and yoghurt for dessert. As a treat, there was also a local delicacy I forget the name - dates, almonds and other dried fruit pounded into a dry paste. After compline, the four monks chanting their verses in that evocative manner conjuring up centuries of tradition, it was time to retire to bed early. Their offices start at 3.30am, guests not required to attend!

The following morning, after a cold night (would I ever warm up in Morocco?) – I had to scrape the ice off my saddle – daily mass was attended by some of the Fransiscan nuns. They told me, with obvious respect, of Sister Mary Donlon, Irish though the French nuns were hard pressed to know from where, who was a nurse and stayed fifteeen kilometres away up the mountains with the nomads, summer and winter, sleeping in their tents. She was a nurse and also helped with the childrens’ nutrition. I was very disappointed to hear the track was impassable, even for a 4X4 vehicle, so wouldn’t get to meet her. Also saying mass with the monks was the local parish priest, a Frenchman too. Surprised at this, I was told there had been quite an ex pat community previously when the mines were operating, though now this had reduced right down. In answer to my query about the potential of the local parish, I learned it is actually forbidden for a Muslim to convert to Christianity. It seems they are there for not much longer.

Fr J-Pierre the abbot was younger, a lovely man – the word gentle also came to mind – and expressed great interest in my journey, asking me various questions as I prepared the bike for departure. He was from Marseilles. Largely ignorant of recent French colonial history, I imagine there is a huge legacy of children of ex pats who know little of living in their mother country, possibly more at home in the Magreb - that name given to the stretch of Arabic north Africa across to Egypt. Anyway, he sent me on my way, refusing my offer of a contribution towards my keep, maintaining as my aunt was in the order we were all family weren’t we. What a rewarding visit.

Though tempted to have stayed another day in the monastery, I was keen to get down to the desert and for what I hoped was some warmth to get the chill out of my bones. A truly magnificent scenic ride took me the couple of hours down to El Rachidia, through spectacular gorges carved out by the Ziz river, or oued, a green “forest of palm trees” snaking along its course, contrasting vividly with the barren sandstone landscape. Stopping for fuel and my now customary ‘tagine’ – a usually very tasty meatball stew served with Moroccan flat bread to mop up the juice - outside the town, I was invited to join two respectably presented middle aged gentleman at their table for coffee. Basking in the warm sunshine, we chatted for a while and they presumed I was on my way to the festival that night, an hour and half away. I had heard about the UNESCO sponsored outdoor concert in the renowned dunes at Merzouga, given by the international musician Jean-Michel Jarre with its theme ‘Water for Life’. However for a few reasons - it was a diversion off my route, the area was supposedly very touristy and hassly, and being overexposed to his hit ‘Oxygene’ in the early ‘80’s Jean Michel Jarre wasn’t a huge draw for me – I had decided to continue south. At the gentlemens’ urging I reconsidered. It really was quite coincidental I was passing at that time, I had a tent and cooking gear if the need arose, and it was only a day off my journey. Taking a left at the crossroads I headed off into the desert!

A few More Pictures