Crossroads Of The Ancients, Part 2
In our August issue, author Chris Collard embarked upon a backcountry journey by Toyota Land Cruiser into the mountainous interior of Morocco. This month, the journey concludes.
Rockin' the Kasbah, Zagora, and Mhamid
Since the early days of MTV and the The Clash's 1982 release of Rock the Casbah, the word Kasbah had intrigued me. I'd always wanted to walk through the narrow mud-brick corridors, duck my head to enter poorly lit rooms of the interior, and examine a world mostly unknown to the West. The Valley of 1000 Kasbahs was my chance. While most of our track through the Draa was a two-lane tar road, each mile revealed the ochre hues of a dozen mud-brick kasbahs cast against verdant palmeraias. Donning robes and turbans (foqia and chach in Arabic), locals walked slowly through century-old villages. The sun was low on the western horizon, and a brilliant array of spectral highlights stretched across the valley. It was a sight I would not soon forget.
When the Saadians launched an attack on Timbuktu in 1591, it was Zagora from which they staged their assault. To this day, there is a sign on the road south of town that states, "Tombouctou, 52 jours," or 52 days. According to Mohammed, it was much longer by camel. His family's caravans could only make two round-trips per year. Zagora, a modern city by local standards, was not much to write home about. But if you are in the meteorite business in Morocco, this is the place to be. In the course of 24 hours, we ventured into half-dozen hidden shops, inspecting dozens of burlap sacks of the precious extraterrestrial rocks. It's kind of a secret business, so my guide Mohammed presented me as "an important dealer from America." Since my Arabic was as shoddy as their English, they were oblivious to the fact that I wouldn't know a meteorite from petrified camel dung. Mohammed translated my mumblings. The night would find me camping (a blanket laid out on a concrete slab) on the third-floor roof of a concrete tenement with four of Mohammed's friends, all camel traders. Temperatures during the day were stifling, and nights found little relief. With a community plate of Tagine from a local restaurant, we passed around a traditional pipe, sipped Russian vodka and talked of camels, politics, and commerce until the wee hours.
Mhamid, Djebel Bani, and The End Of The Road
With a population of just a thousand souls, and resting on the arid east plains of the Djebel Bani desert, Mhamid plays an important role in the region. In centuries past it was due to trading, but today it is tourism. And then there is the military base and the long-disputed lands along the Algerian border a mere 20 kilometers away. But the border conflict is long quiet, and camels, kids, donkey carts, and the occasional truck are the only traffic through Mhamid's dusty streets. It is also the home of Mohammed's family. Prior to 1983, the town's only electricity was from a central generator that ran a set number of hours each day. And water was drawn from the Draa River and local hand-dug wells. Fortunately, piped-in water and on-the-grid power hasn't tarnished Mhamid. It is as rustic as ever, and provides an in-depth look at the desert life in the Sahara.
Navigating through several kilometers of shallow dunes, we turned the wheels west towards the vast gravel plains of Djebel Bani. People are tough in the part of the world they live in, and accept conditions and events that would make most of us crumble. A few kilometers from town we found three boys on foot. They were heading home to a small hut twenty kilometers west. The temperature was hovering at 45 Centigrade, and they had but half a bottle of water. Mohammed, who likes to think of himself as an overseer to the village, thought their ambitions were dangerous (the heat, dust storms, the distance). We gave them a lift.
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Somewhere between Mhamid and the distant foothills of the Atlas, a small spec appeared on the horizon. As we approached, it revealed itself to be a small grove of palm trees. Odd? I was witnessing my first true Moroccan oasis. It was the L'oasis Sacre' (Sacred Oasis), and held great importance in the region. It was the only source of water for a great distance and was said to be protected by the gods. For centuries, nomads, merchants, and travelers could safely leave supplies here, knowing great evil would fall upon an offending thief. Alma, a slight but sturdy German-Italian woman, now operates a rustic eco-tourism camp in the shade of this sanctified palmeraie.
Our camp this night would be at one of Mohammed's tent bivouacs, deep in the dunes of Erg el M'hazil. As the afternoon sun cut across the sands of Erg el M'hazil, the entire desert came alight with a thousand hues of crimson, orange, and gold. It is truly a must-see if you find yourself in eastern Morocco. After a deliciously prepared meal of, yes, Tagine again, three British travelers and I laid out on wool blankets, drinking tea and starring in awe at the celestial light show above.
The Berber, High Atlas, and Asarrakh Plains
We'd exhausted ten of our 12 days by the time we fueled up in the village of Tissinnt at the base of the High Atlas. Rising to more than 4,000 meters, the Atlas hold the mythological lore of heroes, villains and deities. For two dozen centuries, the Berber people of the Atlas have enjoyed a reputation as a tough and venerable breed. But it came with a price. Amidst the Christian, Muslim, and military subjugations of all the peoples of Maghreb, included other Berbers tribes, the peoples of the mountain remained Imazighen, or "free men." As we ascended a narrow track up one of the most precipitous canyons west of Tissinnt, we very quickly realized why: Sheer canyon walls, stone homes clinging to each side, cliffside terraces just wide enough for a few rows of crops, and inhabitants as resilient a time itself. I could only speculate that invading armies found easier conquests to be had in the lower elevations, and left the mountain people to themselves.
Midway up the canyon, we passed a natural spring gurgling out of the canyon wall and stopped to fill our water bottles. We were joined by two Berber women, the younger of which, who seemed to be of Arab descent, was very intrigued by our presence. With her brightly colored dress and proud but friendly smile, hers was a face one should see in National Geographic. We exchanged smiles and she walked off with the older more reserved woman, both carrying their tin water jugs on their heads.
The view from the summit was truly spectacular. The route we had just traversed dodged in and out of view as it followed the outline of the mountain. A small stream plummeted over a sheer crevasse, carrying the last final winter runoff to the villages below, and the people working the terraces appeared smaller than mites in a swimming pool. Looking ahead, the road faded into vast and sweeping alpine savanna, extending into the distance and terminating at yet another mountain range. And so it is called the High Atlas.
It was this track that would lead us north to the tar road, and that road back to Ouarzazate. Mohammed took the wheel while I sat back, contemplating life in the ancient Maghreb. How did the daily routine of the mountain Berber differ from the people I'd just met? And the mountain craftsmen and the camel traders I'd crossed paths with in Tizi n' Tikkit and Djebel Bani, will the tourist trade give them enough to survive in the modern world? Or will they be economically drafted to the big cities? What about the sacred spring - will the gods maintain their vigilant guard over the oasis, protecting travelers and their positions from foe and evil? I'd spent almost two weeks with a 50th-generation nomad, but it was time for me to head home. Though I'd only scratched the surface, I knew I would return some day to continue my trek through Morocco, the Crossroads of the Ancients.