A day trip over the High Atlas Mountains, Morocco
It was misty in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. There was little to see, and I was disappointed. I need not have been. The mist cleared as the sun came up, in time for carpets of red poppies to become visible, along with blue iris and bursts of pretty yellow flowers. The landscape was full of contrasts from volcanic wilderness, fat black rocks looking like huge mud pies, snow capped mountains to flourishing valleys, stone and mud brick fortresses – Kasbahs – winding rivers, red and orange coloured cliffs, gorges and Bedouin villages tucked into the hillsides, as if they were part of the natural landscape.
As we wound our way up to Tizin Tichka pass, the highest mountain pass in North Africa (2260 metres), I became aware that the car was weaving somewhat, to the point of rounding a hairpin bed on the wrong side of the road. The driver was using his mobile phone to photograph the dramatic scenery.
Coming down from the pass, we turned off the main road to visit Telouet, a village which was on the route of the old salt caravans, and which is the site of a crumbling Kasbah. The Kasbah was home to the Glaoui tribe, who supported the French occupation. After independence, the Kasbah was abandoned.
If you are a vertically challenged person, you may be interested to know that there are 2 door handles at different heights on the huge wooden doors adjacent to the entry. The higher handle was for men and the lower handle for women. I would have had trouble reaching the higher handle, and so I suspect would some men. Maybe something was lost in the translation.
Entering the Kasbah was an eerie experience. It was quite derelict and the wind was whistling through the passageways and corridors – very atmospheric. All of a sudden the derelict gave way to the splendour of Andulusian style mosaics, and stunning intricate carvings, like honeycomb. I could understand why Winston Churchill enjoyed visiting during the 1930’s, when the Kasbah was owned by the Pasha Glaoui, who entertained lavishly.
Continuing along the little used back road through the Ounila valley, to Ait Ben Haddou, we passed by old salt mines, through red and orange coloured cliffs and gorges, with the occasional green oasis adding to the diversity of the landscape.
Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO world heritage site, and is on the route traders followed on their journey from Timbuktu to Marrakech. A sign stating “Tombouctou – 52 days” illustrated by a line of camels and traders gave an idea of the length of the trip by camel. Having lunch at an establishment overlooking the Kasbah, I thought about the slaves who were transported in these caravans, on the way to the slave market in Marrakech. Where had they come from? What was their fate?
I set off to explore. Most residents now live in the modern town, across the river, but there are a handful still living at the heritage site, or at least pretending to.
Crossing the river, and entering the site, the experience was not so much one of awe, but of resignation at the line of stalls laden with jewellery, clothing, pottery, leather goods, rugs and the odd sprinkling of fossils and crystals. Once past this area though, the groups of earthen buildings unfold up the hill and I was able to appreciate the architecture and the variety of dwellings, from very modest to those which were large with towers decorated with clay brick motifs.
I saw little sign of habitation, although I was invited into a home. The entry passageway was a tunnel through the hill. A loom was set up in the passage – grandma did the weaving, although there was no sign of grandma. A large room off the passageway, where the family apparently slept was quite bare. There was no bedding. There were no cupboards where bedding could be stored. The next room was the kitchen. It did have pots and pans, and a traditional fireplace for cooking. It also contained a more modern small oven. There was little sign of food. At the end of the passage, goats and chickens could be seen in a small courtyard. Upstairs were 3 or 4 rooms. Each of the rooms were empty. I suspect that the family lived in the modern town, and used the house as a money making venture. It was of interest anyway, to see how the people had lived in the days when Ait Ben Haddou was a place where the caravans from Timbuktoo to Marrakech stopped over.
On the drive back to Marrakech, along with convoys of 4WD’s returning from the desert, trucks of varying sizes and every vehicle in between, we came upon a skate boarder. Quite oblivious of the number of vehicles building up behind, he was sailing down the mountain, assisted by a huge sail. My driver appeared to be very happy when the skate boarder came to grief on a hairpin bend. His comment, as we drove past the unfortunate person on the ground, minus the skate board was “silly man” in a most scornful tone.
I arrived back in Marrakech, determined to learn more of the history of Morocco and to return to explore further.