The next day we set off from Marrakech for southern Morocco in our pristine little Fiat Uno, which, with only 15,000km on the clock, appeared to be exactly what we'd been promised the day before. Filling up with petrol in the centre of town – where the attendant refused to accept a credit card, much to my surprise – we stopped only to change some travellers cheques before heading east out of town. On the horizon the misty shapes of huge mountains loomed, barely visible through the dusty haze, and it wasn't long before the houses petered out and we were rolling along the right-hand side of the P31, the main road to the mountains of the High Atlas.
The drive wasn't particularly eventful until we started climbing into the foothills, when things started taking a slightly surreal turn. The landscape was by now utterly desolate with little sign of greenery (at least when compared to the smattering of palm trees that gave Marrakech a vaguely green appeal), and the heat that beat down on the rocky hills was practically visible. This wasn't surprising, as we were heading south towards the desert, but what caught me by surprise was the amazing number of nutters on the road, and I'm not talking about the drivers.
On the way up into the High Atlas, the local money-spinner (or otherwise) is rock, and there's plenty of it around. Of course, I'm not talking about just any rocks, but pretty minerals you might like to adorn your front room with, and you'd think from the roadside sellers that everyone in the world wants a piece of amethyst next to the fireplace. Drive round a corner at a respectable speed, and suddenly you're slamming on the brakes and veering left as a total fruitcake in a white jellaba cape leaps out in front of you, urgently waving for you to stop.
But is he hurt? Or has his car broken down? Or maybe his house is on fire? Nope – actually, he just wants you to stop and buy some rocks off him, and there they are, piled up on a wooden table with a hand-scrawled sign saying 'minerales', proudly proclaiming that he's yet another rock salesman.
I say 'yet another' because by the time you've gone round the fifth bend, you won't be bothering to slow down, or even to swerve, or you'll never get anywhere. The rock men are savvy enough to know that in a contest between them and a hurtling car it won't be the car that suffers broken bones, so they're nimble enough to get out of the way, but it's an amazing sight nonetheless, seeing grown men almost throwing themselves under cars for the sake of selling a simple rock or two. But when you live in a country that has 40 per cent unemployment and one in seven people living below the poverty line, survival calls for desperate measures.