I was walking alongside Addi, one of my Amazigh guides, ahead of our caravan of six camels. Brahim and Ali, the other two members of the Atlas Expedition, were about 300 metres behind us, chatting away in Tashlaheet, one of the three Berber languages of Morocco.
In the distance we could see a couple of men on mules trotting towards us, the only other people we had seen that day. I had gone into that slightly meditative state you enter when you cover long distances in an unvarying landscape – we had been walking an average of 20 kilometres a day across these desert plains for more than a month.
We had started at Nador on Morocco's Mediterranean coast and our aim was to walk 1,400km across the Atlas Mountains to Ouarzazate at the mouth of the Sahara.
Suddenly, Addi leapt into the air and yelled: "Danger. Look out. Go back, go back."
He crouched by the side of the road pointing behind the scrub with his wooden staff. I heard a loud hissing noise and as my eyes adjusted, I saw a two-metre-long lizard trying to hide itself under the bushes by the road. It had puffed itself up and was making a sound like an overheated car radiator when you take the cap off. Clearly, it was as wary of us as we were of it.
We led the camels in a 20-metre loop around it. I moved in tentatively to try to take some pictures, but when this provoked another cacophony of hissing, moved right back again. The muleteers had drawn up to us by now and we exchanged the usual pleasantries and greetings, while admiring the lizard from afar. "Well, that's your dinosaur, Zahra," said Brahim, using my Arabic name. Addi and Ali roared with laughter.
The Atlas Expedition was the last leg in a trio of expeditions on which we'd walk the whole length of Morocco, from the Mediterranean to Guerguerat on the Mauritanian border. Brahim, Addi and I had already spent five months together, following the length of the Draa river and then crossing the sands of the Sahara. Each stage had a different aim, and the aim of this final one was to find dinosaurs.
Morocco is a rich hunting ground and has attracted dinosaur hunters from all over the world. A couple of years previously, Susannah Maidment of the Natural History Museum in London had discovered the remains of one dating back 168 million years, but we had been searching for a month and hadn't found anything. The men teased me relentlessly. "Look Zahra," Addi would say, holding up an old chicken bone. "Do you think it is a dinosaur’s toe?’
In truth, I was so happy to be out and free after Morocco's 14 weeks of Covid-19-related restrictions on movement, that I could laugh along easily. It had taken my expedition leader, Jean-Pierre Datcharry of Désert et Montagne Maroc, many hours of sitting in government offices to persuade the authorities to let the team go.
I’d taken a test and we were well stocked with masks. Our route took us through wild, remote regions of the country and in all of our 68 days, we did not encounter a single community that had been touched by the virus.
Everyone was feeling the economic effects, however, even subsistence farmers and herdsmen. The market price for livestock had plummeted to a fifth of its value as the tourist trade had imploded. Restaurants and hotels were no longer buying the sheep and goats that these rural communities sell in order to buy staples such as flour, tea and sugar. Some herdsmen had resorted to taking animals to local shops and begging them to accept a goat or sheep in return for the basics.
The closure of mosques and local markets was also being keenly felt. "Who has the right to close the house of God, Zahra?" Brahim asked me sadly. For the women, their day-to-day routines were heavily disrupted by having both their menfolk and their children at home all the time. They still had all their household duties to complete, without the normal respite of school for the children and work for the men. Education is highly valued in even the smallest communities in Morocco and the women I met were all worried about their children’s hard-won learning being compromised as the pandemic wore on.
In spite of the virus, we were welcomed almost everywhere. It was the camels that did it: "You are like something from a legend," people would tell us as we walked through their village with our camel train and Sahrawi robes.
The coronavirus was not going to destroy my desire for dinosaurs, though, and I kept hunting, plaguing my companions with fuzzy pictures of bones and footprints I’d found on the internet.
The weeks passed and we were in the final 10 days of our expedition when Jean-Pierre emerged from the mists one morning as we were approaching the village of Aguerzka. He had found a map and GPS points from a Moroccan dinosaur hunter, Hassan Yamami, in a village close to where we were.
We parked the camels and got ourselves kitted out in climbing gear, as one set of prints was halfway up a cliff. We were all buzzing: no more teasing and chicken bones from the men, I noticed as they put on their helmets and harnesses. After a half hour walk up a gully, we were faced with a striated wall. There above us, clearly etched, were the huge imprints of a giant's feet – a whole string of dinosaur prints.
Ali went first, tying himself into a juniper tree growing out of a crack. The surface was crumbly and we wanted to be safe, but also to ensure we did no damage. I flinched as the loose stones on the ledge bounced echoingly down into the abyss below, but my rope was held tight by the team as I inched my way up the rock face.
What a thrill to put my hand where a Sauropod had trodden millions of years ago. I measured and photographed the prints, which must originally have been made in soft clay and then hardened, and pushed up vertically by geological shifts in the mountains.
That night back at camp, we bought some meat from the village to celebrate, and swapped photos and tales and laughter as we tucked into our goat tagine, all of us excited to have finally found what we had been searching for.
But the nature of exploration is to find as much as you can, and so in the next days we went on scouring the wadis and cliffs around Aguerzka and beyond. Now that we really knew what we were looking for, we found several new sets both near Aguerzka and further down towards Ouarzazate. We charted each discovery with photos and videos, and marked them as accurately as we could with GPS points.
Once the world can travel freely again, I hope to go back in the company of a paleontologist to share our discoveries and learn more about these fascinating creatures from our far past.
Alice Morrison’s latest book 'Adventures in Morocco' is out now. Dinosaur hunting trips in the country can be booked at www.desert-montagne.ma