Thursday, 12 March 2015

Through the Atlas Mountains

Trekking on the Mgoun Massif in Morocco 

Originally published in Venture Magazine


The path spooled away behind me across stony slopes.  I paused on the sharp elbow of a switchback and leant against my trekking pole, struggling for breath in the thin air.  Looking back the way I had come I could just make out the green levels of the Ait Bougmez Valley between iron-grey ridges, but its wheat fields and orchards seemed impossibly distant now. I was 3000 meters above sea level, inching my way towards the Tizi-n-Tarkeddit Pass, high in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and every upwards step was taking its toll. 
When eventually I reached the top, a lost world opened ahead.  Across a cold void the huge hulk of the Mgoun Massif rose; beneath it was my destination for the night – the Tessaout Plateau, walled in by sky-scraping ridges.  Thin trickles of smoke rose from rough campsites; great flocks of sheep picked their way across the stony soil, and as I dropped from the pass and ambled towards a likely campsite a little caravan passed me – four thin camels laden with dusty bundles and three men in long brown robes, heading east into the evening.
           
             ***

            The Atlas Mountains form the spine of Morocco, stretching some 500 kilometers across the country, and walling off the Sahara from the fertile Atlantic coast.  These mountains are the heartland of the Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa who have endured the invasions of Romans, Vandals, Arabs and Europeans, and have somehow always come out on top. 
            The Berbers have deep roots in this top corner of Africa. The Romans called them “Maures”; later Arab invaders gave them the derogatory moniker “Berber”, drawing on an older Greek term, “Barbarian”.  But they call themselves the Imazighen, the “Free Men” – and that is what they have always been.  Their own name for the Atlas, meanwhile, is Idraren Draren, “the Mountains of Mountains”. 
            Throughout their long experience of outside incursions, the Berbers have often managed to turn foreign rule deftly on its head.  The greatest of Morocco’s dynasties – the Almoravids and the Almohads – have sprung from the Berber tribes rather than from the immigrant Arab elite, and violent resistance to later French rule saw the colonialists leave the tribes to function under their own customary laws.
            But in the 21st century a new kind of outside influence is threading its way into the mountains, a double-header of tarmac and tourism that may, finally, bring the people of the High Atlas into the fold.
           
***

            From the old imperial city of Marrakech I had traveled east to the Ait Bougmez Valley, a locked world, deep in the mountains.  Closer to Marrakech adventure tourism has long form, and snaking lines of trekkers traverse the passes around Jebel Toubkal, Morocco’s highest peak.  But Ait Bougmez, 200 kilometers to the east, lies further from the beaten track.  Until the surfaced road arrived in 2001 the place could be cut off for months by the winter snows.
I found myself a place to stay in the village of Agouti, then set out to explore the patchwork of wheat fields and apple orchards.  Frogs croaked in the irrigation ditches, and a soft breeze ran through the leaves of the poplars. 

***

            That evening I sat out on the roof terrace, sipping mint tea and chatting to Mustapha Ben Ali, one of the dynasty of experienced trekking guides who owned the guesthouse.  He told me that tourism had increased markedly in Ait Bougmez since the arrival of the surfaced road.  Guidebooks now dub the place “the Happy Valley”, and in the soft summer sunlight it was easy to see why. But the whole place lies 2000 meters above sea level, and in the winter, once the last trekkers have gone, life is still hard.
            “But things are much easier than they used to be,” Mustapha said.
            The Moroccan government has been steadily pushing roads deeper and deeper into the mountains in recent decades, bringing essential services to remote communities, but also finally binding the Berbers into the Moroccan state – and that, some cynics suggest, is the point.  And there is already a tension developing between the road projects and the demands of tourism.  In the Toubkal region some one-time trekking paths have turned into roads, robbing village guesthouses of passing trade in trekkers.
            This is an issue in mountain regions across the world.  Foreign trekkers bring a cash economy to remote communities, while roads bring easy access to markets, schools and hospitals.  The two things are not always compatible.  In Ait Bougmez, however, Mustapha was unconcerned.
            “We can always make a new route if they build a road on an old one,” he said, and poring over the map he helped me to plot one for myself, across the Tizi-n-Tarkeddit to Tessaout, and then east to journey’s end in the village of El Mrabakine.
            On the map El Mrabakine appeared to be many days’ walk from the nearest town.  But Mustapha smiled and shook his head.  “There’s a road now,” he said; “they built it last year…”

***

            The driving wind seemed to slice through every layer of clothing.  I had camped out amongst the herds on the Tessaout Plateau, then set out at first light for the summit of Jebel Mgoun, the 4068-metre hulk that is the Atlas’ second highest mountain.  It had been a hard slog up a stony cwm, but now the effort all seemed worthwhile.
Far away to the west I could pick out the distant snow peaks of the Toubkal National Park.  To the south the land poured away in a chaos of interlocking ridges towards the last bastion of the mountains, the Jebel Sarhro; beyond that lay the sands of the Sahara.  It was an epic prospect, and though Mgoun does attract a steady trickle of trekkers, today I had it all to myself.
When the cold wind got too much, I headed back down to my campsite with aching limbs.  Along the way I passed the Berber camps that were slotted into every sheltered corner of the plateau.  These temporary dwellings – usually just a stone wall and a roof of branches and tarpaulins – are known as azibs.  Many families from the lower villages still spend the summers in the high pastures with their livestock.  It was these herders who originally broke the trails now traversed by trekkers.

***

I heard their voices before I saw them – bursts of laughter and foreign accents.  From the plateau I had headed east, crossing the Tizi-n-Agoumar Pass and descending a long valley. I had camped beside a stream, and now, picking my way along a gorge in the heat of the morning, I had run into a large French trekking party, all reflective eyeshades and bare limbs.  They were a very different vision from the camel caravan I had passed three days earlier, but they greeted me cheerily, and their guide – a Berber from Ait Bougmez – told me that they were on a circuit of Mgoun.
This kind of organized, high-spend tourism is a strange presence in these remote mountains, but the Berbers have been guiding wealthy outsiders along their trails for centuries.  Once they were traders and pilgrims; today they come with gortex and guidebooks, but the net result is the same – a flow of cash and opportunity to poor villages.
I walked on.  There were tangles of willows beside the stream, and soon I saw the first buildings – not the bleak azibs of the high pastures these, but more substantial mud-walled dwellings, lived in year-round. 
I was hot and tired by the time I shambled into the village of Tighremt-n-Ait Ahmed, and I was glad when a man in a stripy jalabiya called me into his house for tea.  His name was Omar, and he had a guestroom for passing trekkers.  But I would not be staying the night.  In a mind-bending mix of French, English and Arabic Omar explained that the only bus for the week would be leaving the valley on the new road that night. 
Once I had rested through the heat of the afternoon Omar sent me on my way down the valley to El Mrabakine.  The bus – a spectacularly battered shell on bald tires – left at nightfall.  The drivers were local men who had seen an opportunity when the government bulldozers finally broke the road the previous year.  Now they made the journey a couple of times a week, carrying out produce from the villages and bringing back orders of manufactured goods from the town of El Kelaat Mgouna, south of the mountains.
Tonight I was the only passenger, squeezed in amongst the grain sacks.  The road was a raw scar driven along the line of an old goat trail; tarmac was still several years away, and snow would still block the way in winter.  But the people of this remote valley were now just eight hours from the towns – closer than they had ever been to urban modernity.
We thundered through the night in low gear.  I lolled in and out of sleep until the driver shook me awake with a grin and pointed.  We were at the summit of the Tizi-n-Ait Ahmed Pass and far, far below El Kelaat Mgouna was glittering in a clot of lights…

***


I am sitting at a little table in a street-side café in the town, waiting for the bus to Marrakech.  A waiter in a shabby black waistcoat has just brought me a croissant and a café-au-lait.  It is warm in the morning sunshine and I can smell fresh bread from the bakery across the way.  To the north, out across the stony foothills, I can pick out a great bank of mountains: the Idraren Draren, the Atlas.  It all looks impossibly distant, though I now know that this wild range is not quite as isolated as it once was…

© Tim Hannigan 2015

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