The Birds Below by James Agombar

Atlas Mountains, Morocco. 2015

The sweat-box of Marrakesh seemed like another world when we had reached a few days into the trek. Suddenly it was cool, refreshing, and at this point I had to put my rainproof jacket on for the first time since entering the country. It was a bright, cloudless day and we were escorted by a guide and several mules that carried our gear as we ventured into the Atlas mountains of the South Sahara in August 2015. My cousin and I, both experienced trekkers, had considered ourselves crazy for picking this intense time of year to travel this region, but to our delight, we found that four more crazy individuals, whom we got along with like a desert on fire, had decided to take the challenge on too.

Previously we had hiked for a few days across hills and sporadic scrubland to acclimatise to the altitude. We stopped to camp on a grassy ridge by a river that had been reduced to a trickle at this time of year. We laughed about who would succumb to the dreaded altitude sickness the day after as we were climbing our first of three mountains. The draw was down to myself, an asthmatic, or one of the other guys who smoked. It wasn’t essential that we all made it to the peak of the mountain, but it was vital that we made it to the pass so we could all continue.

As I say, when it came, the wind began to chill us a little. My waterproofs went on and my Ipod went off. My cousin and I lagged behind the others a little as we trekked in single file and gradually the foot of the mountain turned to loose rock and scree. Once we had scrambled over that we were forced into a two feet wide multiple hairpin footpath up to the pass. It was here that my cousin, a healthy non-smoker, had started to sway and stagger. She knelt down in places and drew breath. She didn’t want to admit it but she felt light headed, and to my total surprise, my rickety lungs had coped with altitude sickness much better than she had. The others had walked a little too far ahead to ask for help. I could have shouted, but she wouldn’t let me. So, I placed my hands on her shoulders and walked her up the path. A few more stops were needed, and nearly fifteen minutes later, the rest of the team were out of sight except for the guide who had come back down the path to us, realising what was happening.

By the time we reached the pass she was staggering like she’d had a few shots of Tequila. Plenty of times in the past she had patched me up as I was the one who got injured; I was the one with fear of heights; I was also the one with haphazard lungs at the best of times. Suddenly she was lying down with her hand over her face. It seemed futile for her reach the peak, but luckily, making it this far meant we could all continue. The trick is not to fall asleep when you’re up that high, but the relaxing atmosphere was a totally surprising escape from humanity. The mules and their herders were already up and over the pass ahead of us, eager to set up camp for the night down in the valley, but one of the herders stayed with her as the rest of us turned to hike the peak. A brief guilt for leaving her gnawed at me, but I concluded that she was in the most experienced hands. The rest of us hiked up ahead of me and for a moment I stopped before a rocky mound that blocked out my view of everyone. Down the mountain in the distance I could see the mountain goats balancing on tiny protrusions of cliff edges where vegetation had reached, but where I was nothing crawled, nothing grew, and nothing flew; a point beyond sustainable life. The shadows from the clouds moved quickly and faded in and out over the rocks as I realised we were just below the them. Some of the mountains in the distance pierced the clouds, including Mt. Toubkal, the giant of North Africa we were to take on five days later. Even on the smaller zenith where I stood I closed my eyes and didn’t need to imagine a place with no noise at all, no traffic; no animal growls or chirps; no voices, just silence and a faint wind. There were no phone lines to be seen and the birds could only be found flying distantly in circles below us. It was the first time I had not been able to imagine society, as if the moment had erased all memory of the bustling cities with their buildings, smoky traffic and dusty pavements. It was all gone for a few special moments.

As I staggered to the top I joined the rest of the group who waited peacefully with the achievement of conquering the first mountainous step of this unforgettable journey.

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Eventually we returned to the pass where my cousin seemed to be having the best sleep of her life until we woke her. She increasingly regained her senses as we reunited, gathered our packs, and trekked back down the other side into the valleys below where the lizards crawled, the vegetation grew, and the birds flew.

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BIO: James Agombar is an author of ghost/crime/supernatural short stories. He lives in Essex, UK, but many of his works have been inspired by travelling. So, as a break from dark and nasty stuff, he writes about his light-hearted travels around the world, because every wander has a tale, no matter how far.


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