Fear and Loathing in the Atlas

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

We were somewhere near Tighremt Ait Ahmed on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to kick in.

Though less than 60 miles north of the Sahara, the heat was not oppressive and, at about 3,000 metres up in Morocco’s High Atlas, there was little reason to expect any problems with the altitude. I was only lightly loaded with the standard photographic paraphernalia and was aware with frustration that I should easily have been able to handle this trek without recourse to pharmaceuticals.

This was nothing more than ‘a walk in the park’ for my Berber guide Brahim ‘Iron-man’ Zin and Saïd and Ibrahim, driving our ‘support vehicles’ (two mules), had also handled the morning’s climb well. We’d started out from the waving barley fields of Ait Bougmez valley at a good pace but by the time we reached Tizi n’Ait Imi pass the ‘Berber foxtrot’ seemed to have led me in a zigzag dash between every juniper bush on the mountain.

At one point I was close to collapse and, as I lay shivering and retching under one particularly venerable old tree, I finally made up my mind to pop some tablets as an antidote to the nest of sidewinders that were conducting an orgy in my intestines.

No worries, no hurries, no chicken curries

“No worries, no hurries, no chicken curries,” Brahim sang out as we watched the mules head down the immense sweep of Ouzighimt Valley. The landscape was like the backdrop for some ambitiously epic spaghetti-western but, whereas the average stagehand artist would have taken advantage of the natural haze of distance to allow him to skip on detail, the dry Moroccan air kept everything in crystal-clear F22 even to the furthest peaks.

To the southwest lay the craggy pinnacle of Djebel M’Goun, at 4,071 metres the country’s second highest mountain. I had been advised that the traditionally popular trekking destinations around Djebel Toubkal (the highest peak by 100 metres) were becoming increasingly crowded and I was looking forward to spending a week in more remote valleys, where the ever-encroaching ribbons of tarmac were yet to reach. A six-day expedition over Tizi n’Ait Imi pass and down the dramatic M’Goun Gorge had seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.

“I’ll be okay in a few minutes,” I promised.

“…Inshallah,” he added automatically.

Growing up in one of Morocco’s highest villages had given Brahim a natural head-start as a mountain-guide and from the age of twelve he began working as a porter and learning the languages that would help in this career. As a contestant of such tough wilderness challenges as the ‘Maraton des Sables’ desert race, he’s since become one of the most respected guides in the industry and, after almost three decades leading tourists through most parts of the Moroccan wilderness, nothing much can surprise him.

The culture shock is greatest when you step off the ferry in Tangier

Separated from Europe by little more than a thread of water, Morocco holds a special place for many sun-starved northerners as a first taste of ‘exotic travel.’ The culture-shock is greatest when you step off the ferry in Tangier; the language, the noise, the bustle, the dust, even the air is different. You sniff air that is scented with spices, olives and mint tea and try to savour the delicious fact that you are in AFRICA. But Morocco is as far removed from the Africa of our imaginations as it is from Europe…or from less vibrant parts of the Middle East.

Morocco is almost twice the size of the UK, but boasts a whole spectrum of terrain that would be hard to find even in a far larger country. It was an illustration of this diversity that from where we sat, watching the mules as they disappeared into the desiccated expanse of Ouzighimt Valley, we could also see patches of snow on Djebel M’Goun, still glinting in the late-June sunshine. It seemed a long way from the cedar forests and marijuana terraces of northern Morocco’s Rif Mountains. Or from the dunes and camel herds of the Saharan nomads, over the hills to the south.

As I lunched tentatively on a few handfuls of Brahim’s typically Moroccan ‘trail-mix’ (nuts, almonds, dates, dried apricots and figs) a small boy directed a chirping whistle at his flock of goats, until now unnoticed in the immensity of the opposite wall of the valley.

“They used to make that whistle to call the goats when there were wolves around,” said Brahim, “but there are very few here now.”

Wolf packs are still occasionally seen in the remotest areas and until relatively recently this was also the domain of Atlas lions and leopards. The last lion was apparently shot back in the ‘60s but leopard skins (of questionable origin and antiquity) are still displayed by the purveyors of traditional remedies in Marrakech’s souks.

…they have never forsaken their ancestral spirits

To the French colonials who once battled to tame this region it was the Berber warriors, the Lords of the Atlas, who were the most feared denizens of the mountains. The Berbers were the first inhabitants of North Africa though where they came from originally is still a source of dispute for anthropologists. Neither Romans nor Arabs, nor the French colons ever succeeded in diluting either their culture or their language and, although they embraced Islam, they have never forsaken their ancestral spirits.

The area that we would be travelling through is still the homelands of the Berber clan of Ait Haddidu, though this high up the valley there were no villages and, at this time of the year, not even any nomad camps. The goatherd may have walked many miles that morning following his herd and he would not begin to drive them back homeward until encroaching darkness began to remind him of the malevolent djinns (spirits) that fill the Moroccan night. Many Berbers believe that good and bad djinns are in constant battle over the right to control everything from family and health to land and animals.

As we descended the valley and the drugs began to kick in I started to feel reassured that I was getting the better of the protective spirit that was trying to prevent another invading Nazrani from entering this sacred domain. (Perhaps the pharmaceuticals had acted as a ‘tonic for my djinn.’) Or maybe my problems had just been provoked by an over-indulgence in the delicious tajine stew that we had eaten the night before – made here with the wonderful ‘pre-seasoned’ meat of goats that had grazed almost exclusively on thyme.

After six hours of walking down a rocky riverbed that would have tested the water-divining abilities of even the most experienced nomad we turned the corner to be greeted by an unexpected sight.

A single field of barley, its emerald lushness emphasised by the palette of dry sandy colours that made up the surrounding panorama, swayed in a light breeze and a stream gurgled under the shadow of a crumbling kasbah. This mud-walled fortress was Tighremt Ait Ahmed and it was easy to appreciate its strategic importance as a fortified granary of the sort that is still to be found all over southern Morocco.

…a steady supply of water can still mean the difference between life and death

The few families who live in mud-walled houses around Tighremt Ait Ahmed today are thankfully safe from marauding bandits but their precious store of grain and animals, coupled with a relatively steady supply of water, can still mean the difference between life and death.

Nothing gets in or out of these valleys except by mule and it was good to see that our ‘support team’ had already relieved our pack animals of their cargo and had pitched our little nomadic camp a little way upstream from the village. Saïd (another Berber ‘Iron-man’ who once bagged 4th place in the Tangier marathon) interrupted the preparations of a wonderful lamb couscous to pour mint tea from a ceremonial silver teapot – a typical Moroccan gesture of welcome that cannot be foregone under any circumstances. Mint tea is the national drink of Morocco and a visitor can be forgiven for thinking that it is the fuel upon which the entire country operates. Yet it originally arrived from a very unexpected direction; at the end of the last century, an English ship cruised into Tangier with a cargo of green tea, which had been diverted from the Crimea by the war there. With few exceptions, the Moroccans considered the infusion weak and tasteless…until somebody dropped a handful of mint into his glass and ‘Whisky Marocain’ was born.

Anxious for as much fresh air as possible – and certain that ‘internal affairs’ would be likely to get me up once or twice during the night – I went to sleep under an impressive canopy of stars that had nothing of consequence to interfere with them before the ‘bright lights’ of Marrakech, a hundred miles away.

By the time the Saharan sun had brought its heat into the valley the next morning we were already trekking through a chain of sparsely distributed mud-walled hamlets, well beyond the reach of even the roughest roads. The people here are totally isolated for much of the winter and, throughout the easy months (if such a thing can exist in this harsh terrain), they are careful to send out the regular mule-trains that are needed to build up their stores.

These villages, and the little patchwork of barley fields that surrounds them, have not changed substantially in hundreds of years. Mules still pull the ploughs and the crops are still nourished by the same cunning irrigation systems that were built at the time of the Moorish conquest of Spain. Each village has its own little communal waterwheel where the women come to grind flour for the soft, round loaves that were sometimes served with mint tea on the frequent occasions that we were invited inside.

Our pace was slow and we paused often to talk to villagers or to watch teams of mules as they trotted in circles around a carefully flattened paddock on which the crop was spread, separating the grain from the chaff. Mules (‘Berber four-by-four’ Brahim called them) are the life-blood of these mountain villages and a good one can cost as much as US$800. The boys who chased the ‘eight-horsepower threshing-machines’ and the men who pitchforked the crop under the hooves (this was clearly a male task) wore western-style trousers and shirts more frequently than the ankle-length Moroccan djellabas and shesh scarves.

Sometimes we met mules and women on the trail; both were often so heavily loaded with sheaves of barley that they staggered. Even while working in the fields, the women were never seen without their traditional dresses, tzif headdresses decorated with old coins and a full compliment of heavy jewellery. Blue eyes and sun-bleached – sometimes startlingly copper-coloured – hair often replace the dark hair and Arabic eyes of people from other parts of the country. Little pale-skinned girls (often much more reminiscent of their counterparts in Central Europe than North Africa) only wear the tzif occasionally to protect their hair from the dust but married women must never allow the sun to touch their hair.

Near the top of M’Goun Gorge we passed a field where a group of women were working and singing – songs that Brahim translated as being ‘about lovers and mules’ – and they greeted us with a confidence and openness which I knew would have been unthinkable in other regions where I had not travelled with a local guide. Some of them ululated happily when I snapped their photos and the trilling – as Laurens van der Post said ‘as near to the ringing of silver bells as the human voice can get’ – tinkled down the gorge as we moved on.

…at sunset the boys would point their prayer mats towards Mecca

We camped on the edge of these hamlets as we trekked for three more days between the steep walls of the Gorge. Saïd invariably went out of his way to prepare various Moroccan rich dishes and, at sunset, the boys would point their prayer-mats towards Mecca while I fulfilled my own obligations by catching up with the day’s notes and cleaning the talcum-powder dust out of my cameras.

The gorge got narrower and the stream that we had followed from the ruined granary of Tighremt Ait Ahmed began to run faster. This river, still cold and crystal-clear here, would eventually flow past the ancient kasbahs and mighty palm-groves of the Draa Valley to be soaked up in the immense saltpans on the edge of the Sahara. Only a few times in a century does the Draa River ever reach its official Atlantic outlet, over 400 miles away along the Algerian border but flash floods are not unusual in M’Goun Gorge. In August 1995 the torrent caused by a mere half-hour storm farther up in the mountains was enough to kill eighty people and destroy several villages in this area. In the steepest sections of the gorge wooden trails were bracketed along the sheer cliffs, in impressive examples of Berber engineering that could save the lives of anyone caught by the run-off from unseen highland storms.

In the narrowest sections, where the golden walls seemed almost to be arching over us, we splashed along in the water with the mules until the gorge opened out unexpectedly to allow us to walk on sunlit beaches that bloomed with magnificent powder-pink oleander.

Aside from guiding a decrepit journalist through these valleys, Brahim was also embarked on a good deed that, judging by the size of the package that he had carried over the mountains to deliver to an isolated M’Goun community, was sure to improve his baraka (karma) no-end. The package was for a Berber lady who poured us mint tea as she listened to Brahim’s reports of her son’s work as a city-guide in Marrakech. As usual, the silver teapot and tray held pride of place in a front room that was otherwise bare apart from a colourful carpet and a few cushions.

The Berbers are fanatically proud of their heritage but their culture is facing a threat more creeping and insidious than anything even the most cunning of their long chain of enemies could ever have devised, as the young are steadily leaving the highland villages for a life in the cities. Parents try to get their offspring settled into marriage as early as possible and many forbid their children from setting their eyes on what they consider to be the corrupting influence of the bustle and clamour of Marrakech.

The Berber lady didn’t open the package while we were there but cradled it in her arms and wept.

“They believe that he who lays his eyes on the city will never return to the mountains,” Brahim explained.

But he had escaped the trap and I knew for sure that I’d also be back one day.

…Inshallah.

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