The crossing of the Atlas mountains has been an arduous journey undertaken countless times by nomadic tribes travelling by camel caravan along the route between the Caravansarai of Marrakesh south to Timbuktu and back in a 104 day loop and in groups of nearly 1000 camel mounted people. I can hardly complain about my trip then, speeding along belted into the bucket seat of a 15 passenger van. It was still a little arduous – although in a different way. I doubt those early travellers had to battle carsickness as they crossed the mountain passes but several people in our van were very near to nausea before we crested the top of the pass and turned down again. I kept my eyes on the horizon (or furthest ridge tops) and did alright with it. The view had much to hold my attention and I tried to take pictures from the van windows (a few came out) and also snapped like crazy at each of our numerous “photo stops,” most of which were conincident with some small restaurant or souviner shop that seemed friendly with our van driver.
I compromised my solo travel standard in order to get myself off the public transit routes (sans rental car or camel caravan) and into the edge of the Sahara. The trip wouldn’t be found on any website – its not nearly so official – but seems to be cooked up between a bunch of the lowest budget hostels in Marrakesh and local guides in a bunch of the small villages visited on the three day trip “to the desert” as it is always referred to by travellers and guides. In fact, the desert makes up only a small portion of the trip but it was entirely spectacular and well worth putting my self into groupthink for a few days. My fellow travellers were a likeable bunch, two college students from my hostel were from Canada and Columbia, a pair of women in their 40s’ from the western US in Morocco for two weeks, a couple who had quit their jobs in the states to travel for a year, two French girls, two Quebec natives, a pair of guys from Venezuela and a couple each from Japan and Eastern Europe. Our driver, Hassan, who pointed hisB erber village as we thundered past it on day three was friendly if not particularly forthcoming and loaded us on and off the van at about 10 stops a day, often disappearing when we stopped on his own errands or even stopping the van outside a business and honking then exchanging news with the owner when they ran out to say hi.
Our first real destination was Ait Benhaddou, a Berber fortified village on the Saharan side of the mountain pass. The old village is still occupied by eight hold out families, although most of the residents have moved to the road side of the river bed and live in more modernity though they still make their livng off the tourist trade associated with the old camp. It is picturesque in the extreme, as has been well documented in movies including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and the latest season of Game of Thrones. 30 minutes down the road is a large movie studio with sound stages and set space which is occupied when “Hollywood” comes to town. Much is made of this fame but I found the ancient history more interesting. Our local guide, Ali, claimed the village had been a stop on the caravan route for a 1000 years and UNESCO documentation acknowledges at least 16th century buildings (its hard to tell without appropriate records.) The Berbers who live there are the stationary type, who eked out a living from the small valley, irrigating their fields with water from the seasonal river which flows with a decidedly salty liquid courtesy of the salt mines at the rivers source. The river’s name in arabic means Salt River and when I filled my water bottle in the bathrooms sink, it was distinctly brackish. As Ali said, salt water isn’t the best for farming but its better than nothing. The town tumbles down hill from the highest and most protected point, the lookout and grain storage house. That hard-won grain was a resource not to be given away to any raider or Tuarek trader who might come passing through on the caravan route which exchanged salt from the north with gold, ivory and slaves from the south. The importance of the village was greatly diminished when the French installed a highway through the Ticha pass and now makes most of its living off tourism rather than trade.
We continued along the Dades river valley a small strip of green (both wild and cultivated) set between the imposing Atlas range on one side and the Djebel Saharo, smaller volcanic and limestone rock formations, on the other. The sense of desert oasis is strong in the start divide between cultivated area In the foreground and stark red rock and sand in the background of nearly every view. We drove through the so called Vallee des Roses which was lined at intervals with kids holding out garlands of flowers to attract passing cars. The van pulled over and got a couple to hang over the rear-view mirror, after which our trip was faintly perfumed. We side tracked up a gorge to find our hotel as the sun went down behind the high cliff tops and gathered for a group dinner of soup (eaten with carved Berber wooden spoon) and bread vegetables, chicken and couscous (eaten with metal silverware that is clearly a tourist concession).
In the morning we piled back into the van and headed back along the Dades river valley to visit a larger agricultural area – crisscrossed by irrigation channels and populated by laboring women. We walked through along the raised pathways following our local guide Abdul who taught us the Berber words for Thank you, Saha, and for OK, waka waka. He explained the way the land was broken up into fields according to family: counter intuitively big fields mean a small family and small ones a large family as the property is divided up between brothers. He took us into the Kasbah, a cluster of three story buildings mud brick buildings all connected together by winding passages. Traditionally the lowest floor would be for animals, the middle for storage and the top for family living. Many of these spaces would be occupied only seasonally as families who depend on animals rather than farming take their herds up into the mountains for half the year.
We “had tea with a Berber family” which meant with the patriarch and friendly but silent grandmother of a carpet making clan who showed us their wares and told us a little about the process and symbology, then invited us to purchase. I was fascinated by the colors and patterns and the intensive artistic process – some rugs are triple worked, first woven, then embroidered, then hand knotted to achieve patterned tufts. A couple of transactions were bargained out and then we moved on, back in the van, to visit the source of the local river in the Dades gorge
The dramatic cleft between cliffs is one of the most poplar areas for rock climbing in Morocco and we did indeed see a pair of insane people slowly ascending the cliff face like spiders. I filled my water bottle from the purer of the two spring fed sources and we strolled around watching a nomadic Berber family water their goats and donkeys in the wider river then got back underway, this time headed for the open desert. Tune in tomorrow for the exiting conclusion to our tale!