We stared at each other for what seemed like eternity: Eye to eye, alone, neither of us making a sound. Neither blinked or raised an eyebrow. His dull and lifeless stare manifested an existence of toil and servitude. There I was, face-to-face with this resolute adversary, in a no-win stare-down that, while I knew I couldn't win, I also I knew would probably be the only one to walk away alive.
Though it felt like hours, it was probably less than 30 seconds before a woman entered from a dark hallway at the end of the room. I looked back at my foe, blinked, and my focus was gone. This contest of will was lost. The woman carried a large metal tray bearing a teapot, cups and solid brick of sugar. A roasted goat's head rested on a large plate in the middle of the room, its stare unwavering in a scene, it was becoming more like a drug-induced Tom Petty video with each twist of Hunter S. Thompson. I was expecting a pink, 6-foot rabbit to arrive at any time. Though I lost the stare-down, the goat, whose execution I had witnessed a few days earlier, would be given last rites before we proceeded to pick its head clean. Bon appetit.
Six days earlier I was bouncing down a dirt road from the Mediterranean port city of Nador. We were heading south through the arid deserts of the Western Sahara and I was there to cover a seven-day off-road rally, the Moroccan Outback Challenge. Somewhere in the dark of night, the media car I was riding in lost control and rolled ass-over-teakettle down the road. The culprit: a broken steering arm. The car, a Nissan Patrol, was to have been my wheels for a 12-day, post-event trek through the backroads of Morocco. It now resembled an oversized accordion with a Nissan emblem attached to one side. My options were (a) rent a Land Cruiser for US $200 a day, or (b) hook up with Mohammed, a local who had helped with the rally, and pay him for the use of his Cruiser. I've found that an important part of traveling, especially overseas, is to be able to analyze a situation and quickly put it in the proper perspective. Though I was reeling from a shoulder injury, numerous lacerations on my left leg, and a nasty case of diarrhea, I was here to experience Morocco, and bailing out was not an option. Mohammed said we could travel together, and that sounded a hell of a lot better than heading home.
The Ancients, Ice Ages, And Great Savanas
Mohammed, a local from the eastern Moroccan village of Mhamid, is a 50th-generation Saharan Muslim with close family ties to all things Moroccan. And I, a snowflake-white Yankee with limited knowledge of French and even less of Arabic, knew I'd have a really difficult time blending in. This might make a good partnership. With a firm handshake, we sat down at a street-side caf, ordered a plate of Tagine (a traditional Moroccan dish: veggies, spice, and of course, goat meat), and pulled out my map. We penciled in a route that would take us east to the celebrated Kasbahs of Ait-Benhaddou, below the sheer cliff walls of the Todra and Dades Gorges, along the Draa River and across the carroty sands of the Western Sahara Desert. We would ultimately ascend the precipitous reaches of the Berber lands of the High Atlas and the Asarrakh plateau. All told, it would be a 12-day trek in the land of a thousand Kasbahs and over the Crossroads Of The Ancients.
Human habitation in Morocco dates back to 100,000 BC, beyond the Bronze Age to a time when stone tools were state of the art. It was a place of dense semi-tropical forest which provided foliage for an abundance of game, a time when subsistence hunter-gatherers roamed the land, and year-round rivers flowed heavy from the Atlas. Situated on the northwestern tip of Africa and a mere 13 kilometers from its European counterpart, its strategic location condemned the region to be the focal point for three dozen centuries of commerce and conflict. As the pecuniary crossroads of the pre-modern world, Morocco's economic topography is a tangled web of trade and military routes stretching from the Atlantic to the Nile Valley and north to the Mediterranean. They alone hold the unwritten secrets of three millennia.
In the wake of the last Ice Age, vast grasslands and savannas emerged into what is now the Sahara Desert, and caught the eye of eastern cultures. It was during this period that Morocco found itself in the crosshairs of the then-modern world. It is believed that between 4,000 and 2,000 BC, the Berbers ventured west from the Nile region towards the great mountain range of the High Atlas. Known unto themselves as Imazighen, or "free men," the Berber conquered the traditional oasis dwellers of the eastern steppe. Crafting their own dialects and religions, they established new trade routes and fortified their authority as the people of the Maghreb, the name given to primordial North Africa. A few centuries later, they were followed by a lengthy procession of invading armies, merchants and colonists from around the Mediterranean: The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals (eastern Germany), Byzantines, Arags, Ottomans, French and Spanish, and the list goes on. Each would leave their cultural, architectural and economic signatures on a land that would become West Africa's financial crossroads for centuries to come.
Medinas, Marrakech, And The Gorges De Todra
Our trek began in the bustling city of Marrakech, one of the most colorful and celebrated cities of the Maghreb. If you venture past the street hustlers and American fast-food joints to the souqs of the medina, Marrakech, which was officially founded in 1070, will reward you with the sights and smells of old Morocco. Snake shows and exotic dancers, street musicians and human acrobatic demonstrations, geode and fossil dealers, and vendors of the ancient spice trade create an ambiance of another world--of a time before cellphones, digital cameras and iPods. The narrow and dimly lit corridors hidden deep in the Medina are a must see for any trip to the region.
Heading east towards the High Atlas, we wound our way through the villages of Tazouguete, Taferiate and Igherm n'Ougal, while Mohammed shared accounts of his family's past. His was a family of merchants of the salt and spice trade, and held near-royalty status in the region of his home in Mhamid. Mohammed's father was a camel trader and caravaner, as were his big father and big-big father (grandfather and great grandfather), and is credited with organizing the last great camel caravan to Timbuktu in 1952 (300 camels). Between the arid deserts and verdant palmeraias, they created trade, raised families and fought to protect their land. When his big father was shot and killed in the Berber War prior to the French colonization, the harsh realities of life in the Maghreb surfaced again. The oldest son of his father's third wife, Mohammed had assumed the position of carrying on the family business: camels and agriculture, then tourism, and eventually international meteorite dealer. In the lee of the High Atlas, this night would find us in the town of Ouarzazate, sitting cross-legged on wool rugs and dipping from the community Tagine pot with his mother and big mother (grandmother).
A lone shepherd ushered his herd of goats along a well-trodden terraced path in the Gorges du Dades. The morning sun cast contrasting shadows across the ocher canyon walls, which had choked down to about 10 meters, our one-lane track occupying a third of it. From the canyon floor, we ascended a dozen switchbacks, climbing high above the valley palmeraias and to the 2,600-meter summit of Tizi n' Uguent Zagsaoun. It is the only mountain route between Valley du Dades and Todhra Gorge, and reveals its own cultural microcosm. Though perennial in nature, the Todhra River flowed modestly past the few scattered traditional stone buildings. Hand-laid stone walls held back thin layers of precious topsoil on which local villagers sowed their annual crops. In the villages, men sat in the shade, smoking and drinking tea, while the women toiled in the fields. This was a cultural oddity that I would see repeatedly in the next week. Another oddity is the water. In higher elevations, it takes on a different pallet--as clear as the glacial waters of Greenland but with a color cast of emerald over a scarlet canvass.
Descending into the Valley du Todra, a few modest tourist hotels clung to the river's edge like Anasazi cliff dwellings of the desert southwest. Stopping for tea, a Moroccan custom we would partake in at least four times each day, was a must. Heavy rains of the previous winter had washed the road away, leaving only a thread of the original track for vehicle travel. Passing the neck of the Todhra, which also narrows to about 10 meters, I could only imagine the torrent described by a local during the winter flood. In my broken Arabic and his scattered English, I deciphered a depth of 7 meters.
These were beautiful examples of Moroccan sites, but I wanted to get off the beaten track, to the backcountry and the road less traveled. We laid a map out on the hood of the Land Cruiser; I pointed to a thin gray line heading south from the village of Tinerhir. "Have you ever been here?" I queried. Mohammed, who seemed to have been everywhere, responded "uh . . . no, I do not know this way." "Then we will go this way," was my retort. It was decided! We headed south.
Tizi-n-Tazazert, Nomads, And Pottery
It appeared to be only 80 kilometers through the Djebel Sarhro Mountains to the village of Nekob to the south. But as the adjoining valleys expanded and contracted to east and west, and billowing cumulus clouds danced through the mountain peaks above, a feeling swept my consciousness that we had been cast back a thousand years, to a world that the 21st century had forgotten. There is an interesting phenomenon in the nomadic regions of Morocco. Without defined property boundaries, deeded land and barbed wire fences, it seems that people live everywhere. From dark and narrow openings of half-walled stone enclosures, wool blankets stretched across as shelter from the elements, the weathered faces of herdsmen, their wives and children appeared in the broken sunlight. Many greeted us with a friendly wave and broad smiles. Others, though, seemed that their souls had been shackled by the heavy burden of life and their physical beings begged release.
In the village of Ikniounn, we were diverted from the track by a makeshift roadblock. As we slowly crept past a doorless stone dwelling, Mohammed charged, "Stop here." Several children sat quietly in the dirt near the entrance, a dozen dusty clay pots to either side. Passing over the threshold to the dark and musty edifice was like stepping through a portal in time. My eyes adjusted to reveal a weathered old man sitting in front of a foot-powered pottery wheel. Intently focused on the project at hand, he briefly glanced past a mound of wet clay to the intruders. Light streamed through the door behind us, bouncing off the red mud walls and casting a warm glow over the room. A shallow nod, a motion to enter and a few kicks at the wheel below his feet, and he returned his focus to the soon-to-be work of art. Removing his creation from the wheel, he stepped outside with the large cistern, placed it carefully on the ground, and returned to do business. After the normally extended exchange of polite formalities, Mohammed negotiated a price for a new Tagine cooker for his mother and a small clay pot for his sister.
It was then that I learned bit more about Islamic culture. Upon greeting a friend, guest or stranger, it is tradition to partake in a two-sided exchange of niceties. It sound something like this: " Hello, my friend. How are you? Is your family well? I hope you have good health, and your camels are well, good . . . Insha'allah (it is God's will)." Farewells receive the same, and Insha'allah can be used any time: for things unexplained, moments of repose, when you don't know what to say. After the parting greetings and a couple of Insha'allahs, we found our way back to the main road.
A crisp breeze swept up the mountain and across our brow as we crested the summit of Tizi-n-Tazazert. A small stone caf, which sat at the edge of the gorge, was an inviting place to take our second tea of the day. A few minutes after sitting down on a pair of rickety benches, a local rattled his way up the road on an old and rickety motorcycle. Joining us for tea, we shared with him some military rations left over from the previous week's rally.
It was mid-day when we encountered our first Moroccan traffic jam, a lone oncoming truck on a remote dirt road. But unlike most local trucks, this one was fairly new, shiny and mostly clean. At the apex of the turn, we stopped to exchange greetings. To our surprise, the guy behind the wheel was none other than Chris Scott, the author of Sahara Overland, the current travel bible for the Sahara Desert. And to a greater surprise, we actually knew of each other (but had never met) through my work with Overland Journal magazine. Our resolve... Insha'allah.
My Garmin GPS clicked down from 2,300 meters as we followed the gravel switchbacks cut to-and-fro down the lee side of the mountain. Stretched southward into the distance, a broad valley appeared from the haze. This route would take us to the Draa River Valley, known as The Valley of 1000 Kasbahs.
Next month: The journey continues.