As you plod through the tiny Berber village you can hear hypnotic north African rhythms floating over the arid, rocky mountainside. The insistent hand drumming pulses over the thumping base that you can feel. The catchy Arabic lyrics trade call and reply with a soaring string refrain and form an addictive repetitive hook. A flute completes the sound and your imagination drifts to a smokey nomadic tent surrounded by a vast desert.
Today I would like to take you to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. If you like places that feel ‘far away’ this is your kind of place.
By the way, this morning I made a quick scan of the origins of some of the people who visited this blog last week. I can only determine the city and country of the web host, but it is still interesting. They were from various places in the USA and from Russia, Sweden, Germany, Mexico, Australia, The Netherlands, England, Japan, Pakistan, and Ireland. I hope that you enjoy these brief travel escapes and I appreciate your interest!!
Now let’s walk along together through a tiny village at the base of a long mountain slope. The trail enters the village from below. It is only wide enough for mules to pass. Stone houses and their porches crowd against the trail from both sides. A few villagers sit on their steps as you pass. They do not want to be photographed, so you have to store these images in your head. Can you hear the north African rhythms in the background?
The ancient homes were built mostly with local materials. Stones pried from the exposed bedrock are held together by clay-rich mud. Recently, imported building blocks, mortar, and stucco have been added to some of the homes. Even though the area has only had electricity for 10 years many homes already have satellite dishes.
Narrow trails switchback up steep slopes leading away from the village. Drivable roads are new to some villages, but are still rare. Most travel is by foot. Mules and donkeys are used to carry supplies and transport walnuts, livestock, and other products to market villages.
In places the trails are only scratchings on steeply tilted rock peppered with loose gravel. A careless step would lead to a shredding slide down the rocky slopes. And these are the easy lower trails between villages that are well-traveled.
When you leave a village behind the mountain is quiet and the views are expansive. The trail aims for a low gap on the distant ridge. In English a pass like this is referred to as a saddle, but in Berber they are called a tizi. You can see the tizi in the distance and it looks like a short walk. For hours it looks like a short walk. Distances and elevation are deceptive. Slowly you gain altitude and near the tizi. In sheltered pockets there are a few straggly low trees. At the tizi you take a well-deserved rest. It is time to drink and have lunch. The dry air has taken lots of water from you. The views are even more spectacular, but the valley villages where you started from still look like a short walk away.
On the long descent on the other side you pass roaming goats and herdsmen. A few stone corrals and huts are the only signs of human habitation. After many switchbacks you spot another little stone village near the base of the mountain. You are getting tired and it is a welcome sight, especially since it looks like it is just a short walk away…but again it is a long time before you reach the gîte d’etape where you will eat and sleep.
These Berber villages are interesting and unique. Mountain tourism is a significant economic factor for some of them. Other villages ‘turn away’ as you walk through the edge of the village through their scattered walnut trees. It is hard to describe how an entire village can ‘turn away’, but that is the feeling that you get in a few places. Sometimes in remote villages you only get glimpses of the stone houses through the walnut trees. If you pass someone on the trail they are not rude, but you get the feeling that their day would have been better if you had stayed home. Their culture and traditions have been tested for generations. This is true of most rural people in other countries too. They have their tried-and-true ways of doing things and they are content to be left alone. In other villages people are friendly, even jovial. Traveling with a local Berber guide helps a great deal. Wherever you walk though, if you are respectful you are treated with respect in return.
My walks in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco were short easy strolls in the foothills. I barely entered the real mountain terrain. I also saw only the periphery of the culture in an area that has become easily accessible from Marrakech. But my brief exposure still felt like I was visiting distant cultures. And I met many friendly and helpful people. I still smile when I think about some of the unexpected humor that villagers showed. A good practical joke knows no cultural boundaries. At times the joke was at my expense, but that is OK. We all laughed.
If you are able to visit Morocco, the High Atlas Mountains are well worth a week or more. There are many local guides and muleteers available. In Imlil, Morocco I recommend the super guide Imrhan Omar. He works through Kasbah du Toubkal. Omar was raised in an adjacent village and seems to know everyone in the villages you walk through. He is a native Berber speaker and his sense of humor makes every situation non-threatening and comfortable.
I hope that you enjoyed these few moments in the mountains of southern Morocco. You can view more photographs from Morocco by following the Photography link above.