Taroudant: the great camel question - Have this woman washed and brought to my tent - CycleBlaze

Taroudant: the great camel question

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I LEARNED many things at school which turned out not the slightest use. Algebra, logarithms and Boyle's Law were among them. But nothing about life's more pressing problems. Like why you never see a baby pigeon. All pigeons are the same size. But why?

Of course, if you worry about things like that then you go on to other subjects. Like camels. Do you ever see a baby camel? I suppose you must, although not much here in the Fifth Republic, but if there's one thing that's difficult to imagine then it's two camels having a bit of jambes-en-air. Yet there must be baby camels.

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I tried to pass this thought to a man in a black cloak and rolled up brown trousers who was shepherding a field of camels along our route today. We've seen camels before but they've all been for tourists, complete with a saddle and a prominently displayed price. These were camels for their own sake. As it turned out, the smiling guardian was happy to answer any question but on the reasonable condition that I pose it in a language he understood. I could mime, of course, but where does a man start when he intends to demonstrate two camels casting their cares to the wind?

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I also wanted to know why he had so many camels. A whole field of them, there were. The best I could do was ask in the sticky-bun shop half an hour along the road. The baker looked puzzled and then, with needless relish, drew his finger across his throat with a gurgling sound. Well, that would have been enough had I not been foolish enough to pursue the matter. When I repeated the story later, it was met by astonishment tingled with disbelief.

"But camels are the Rolls-Royce of the desert. They cost..."

The man named a price. There are 10 dirhams to the euro but, even divided by 10, it was clear a camel wasn't something you raised - and with some care to judge by their sleek condition - to have them end up in a packet of sausages.

Did I get the answer for you? No. Sorry. I used to take money for being an inquisitive journalist but sometimes I think I did it fraudulently.

The camels were beside the road on the ride we promised ourselves today. The sun shone for the first time. We left our bags behind, pulled shorts up unaccustomed legs and set off through town, past still more impressive city walls of thick orange stone, and then out into the flat countryside. A couple of hours away, I'd heard, there was a kasbah beside an oasis. In an ideal world the camels would have been there as well but this is a universe of joy and sorrow mixed.

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The ride, other than a briskly flowing ford created by the week's rain, was hot and uneventful. We turned off a busy road and on to the long, straight and empty road which led, with one more turn, to Tioute. There, after a bumpy road, we reached a village of white or orange houses set wherever the owners cared, each house shaded at the door by a heavy curtain from which children grinned and shouted Bonjour!. In a white building on the left, half house and

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half workshop, women sat on carpets in half-light and cracked nuts on the side of a large bowl. It was our first contact with an industry, making oil for food and cosmetics, which has been dedicated for women. Villages, with the encouragement of the king, have organised themselves into co-operatives, owned and run by women to improve their independence in rural areas.

"They were sitting there smiling, working away," Steph said after she peered inside. "They gestured me to join them." She went inside and talked and laughed but they were, she said, shy - too shy, probably - to wish me to join them, still less take their picture.

The road through the village turned to a track, rose and then dropped to pass beneath

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the crumbling walls of the kasbah, the original defensive position and, in reality, the town. The oasis and its thick, flourishing palm trees were lower, to our right. Without camels but with half-seen figures going about something agricultural we couldn't work out.

The track petered out and began to drop. We turned, returned to

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the edge of the village and took another path, wider this time, that led to the peak. And there - we knew it would be - the other side of the old building had been turned into an expensive hotel and restaurant. I suppose that's better than having the building crumble and, in a modern sense, it's little different from what the kasbah was built for in the first place. But it's always a shame.

What was far from a shame was the view over the valley to the snow-topped Atlas mountains. We stood and we gazed and we marvelled that this was no painting, no theatrical background, but billions of tons of rock thrown high into thin air by an ancient eruption. It must have been well worth watching when it happened.

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