The High Atlas moutains, Morocco (simonsimages)
Article Words : Paul Morrison | 01 August

Winds of change in Morocco

Travel can change people's lives for the better – and not just travellers, as Paul Morrison found out in the mountains and deserts of Morocco

Abdu’s brother and his wife had been unlucky in a way it was hard to imagine.

“Their first five children died,” he told me with a shrug. “They just got sick.”

Their latest baby had made it, so far at least, though problems in labour had meant his four brothers had had to carry his sister-in-law on a blanket for three hours to reach the road that led into town and medical help.

I had started by asking Abdu why he had left his village in the northern Rif mountains, and ended by wondering why anyone would stay. But he was the only one in his village to go to school, and it was this education that was his passport to life in the city and a job in tourism.

“I am intelligent!” he declared with a grin, and he was. But he was also smart enough to know how lucky he was. And especially here in the High Atlas Mountains, to the south of his new home in Marrakech, he could appreciate what a difference a lucky break can make.

I was travelling in a party of three, along with Abdu, as guide and interpreter, and Rhazi, the visionary director of a unique Moroccan tour company – Tizi-Randonnees. It was their work, as much as Morocco itself, that we had come to see.

Amanda runs a tour operation in the UK, and was sizing up the operation for inclusion in her programme. Mike and myself were the journalists chosen to accompany her and see for ourselves what Morocco, and Tizi, have to offer. What makes Tizi-Randonnees so different is its concern to regenerate remote communities such as the one where Abdu grew up. They still offer their clients the kind of outdoor and cultural experiences that Morocco has in abundance, but behind the scenes the philosophy is refreshingly different.

“I wanted to ensure that the funds that visitors spent went to the local community,” Rhazi explained as we stood on the roof terrace of the guest house overlooking the village of Aroumd. The view before us was simply stunning. The clouds had parted to reveal the mountains, dusted in snow, towering over a fertile valley where village women stood in the river beating colourful clothes against the dark volcanic boulders. 

Morocco may be a stone’s throw from southern Europe, but for many of its rural people the 20th century, let alone the 21st, is a world away. And at first glance this apparently timeless scene could be an indication of another rural community caught in the past. It’s the satellite dishes that give it away.

Aroumd was like many of the villages in the Atlas

Trekkers would sometimes pass through on their circuits, or parties of seasoned skiers heading to the slopes of Toubkal further up the valley. But this was not enough to keep the youngsters leaving for the city – like Abdu – as soon as they got a chance.

What turned it around in Aroumd was a project initiated by Tizi, but with local people in control, that sought to breathe life back into the village. With a promise of materials secured from a development association in Rabat, it was then up to the villagers to raise the balance of funds needed to start the work.

All 200 households were asked to contribute, and they gave what they could from what tourism-generated cash they had accumulated. In 1997 it all came together when electricity was brought to every home, and shortly afterwards seven fresh water fountains were installed around the village, fed by a small reservoir built above the village. It may sound like small changes, but it’s made a world of difference to the people of Aroumd.

“Before we had big problems for water,” Mohammed explained. “When it snowed we would heat snow, but when there was no snow the women would go with a donkey to collect water from the river down in the valley, or from a spring much higher up the hillside.”

Mohammed was born in the village, where he lives with his wife and five children, and makes a living as a local guide. A true Atlas man, he speaks only Berber, a distinct tongue of which Arabic Moroccans like Abdu have little knowledge. So Rhazi (who spoke French, but no English) bridged the gap, and between the four of us we were able to have a slow but revealing conversation.

“People are now very happy and feel healthier as the water is purified – we already have fewer problems of sickness for children.”

I thought of Abdu’s brother’s family and looked again at Mohammed, who grinned at us from beneath his black woollen hat with Chicago emblazoned on the front. This symbol of the outside world somehow complemented his brown striped djellaba (the traditional robe) and, like the satellite dishes on the mud-walled homes, hinted at the changes that were happening in the village.

“My wife likes action films,” declared Mohammed. At first my amusement was tinged with sadness as I pictured a Berber family captivated by the antics of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. But TV was not killing the art of conversation in Aroumd, for the simple reason that there were no programmes in Berber, so no-one could understand what was being said. Instead it offered a glimpse, however unreal, of an outside world.

“I recently spoke with an 80-year-old man in the village,” said Rhazi, “who had never been beyond the mountains. ‘Before I was blind, but now I’ve seen things!’ he told me.”

The impact of the modern world on rural communities is not always so benign, but the project in Aroumd speaks for itself. Mohammed told us he believed his children would now stay in the village, whereas in the next valley most of the village teenagers leave for the city as soon as they can. Tourism, even on a small scale, is playing a part in keeping Aroumd alive.

The project is still ongoing – they have rebuilt the school, reworked irrigation channels, and even bought their own bull (the previous two, being shared with other villages, died from overwork!). And it was also heartening to learn that a similar project is underway in the north, in Abdu’s village.

You can't sell travel experiences

For all the worthiness of the work, Rhazi realises that he couldn’t sell travel experiences to foreign visitors just on the strength of the projects. People come to Morocco for a good time, and in the High Atlas this comes in the form of an opportunity to walk through magnificent scenery. So after lunch we took off along a pilgrims’ trail to a holy shrine in the mountains.

The path twisted upwards towards the distant peak of Toubkal, and the sun managed to burn our faces through the cloud cover. On the way we passed straggles of bizarrely-clad skiers picking their way between the rocks with their poles as they returned from the high-country lodge. In their bright skiwear and clompy boots they looked like spacemen who’d missed their landing site.

Their sport is not the only hazard in the mountains – in the summer of 1995 a flash flood swept hundreds to their deaths in this valley, but the atmosphere was peaceful on that warm March afternoon. The scenery was stark and magnificent, with a feel of the Himalayan foothills. As we strolled back into the village at the end of the day it was hard to comprehend how close we were to Europe.

For all the changes in Aroumd, the facilities for travellers are still fairly simple, and not for someone who insists on a hot shower in an en-suite bathroom. But the scenery and insight to local life more than compensated. Our gÎte was comfortable enough, and the local food was excellent. Lunch and dinner centred upon the tagine – a stew of vegetables, herbs, spices and meat cooked in the traditional clay vessel of the same name. And despite warnings in the guidebooks to the contrary, my vegetarian equivalent was easily obtained and equally delicious.

All meals were followed by ‘Moroccan whiskey’ – a teeth-tormenting sweet tea made from a stew of Chinese tea-leaves and fresh mint, supplemented by a fistful of sugar. It’s a taste I found myself getting to like after a few days, though noticing the brown stains on the teeth of many Moroccans, I was pleased that the habit was shortlived.

Meeting the locals and sampling village life

Being a local house converted to take guests, we only had to walk outside to sample village life. Like all the mountain settlements I saw on the drive up there, Aroumd was made from the earth and stone around it, giving each one the impression of having been hewn out of the rock. From the air they must be virtually invisible, blending into the landscape in perfect camouflage. Where the rock was red with iron, so were the houses, but Aroumd was made of a dull grey-brown volcanic stone, which would have made the village seem sombre were it not for its spectacular setting.

One morning I awoke early and walked along its narrow paths across to the eastern side, where the morning sun was driving the chill from the air and wafts of rising smoke caught the dawn light. Here I witnessed the decoration of the village in a flash of colours guaranteed to wake up the senses.

Although most villagers in the High Atlas are devout Muslims, theirs is not a faith that requires a dressing down and covering up. Berber culture predates the Arab invasion 13 centuries ago, and is strongest still in the mountains of Morocco. Here, the women wear bright dresses and scarves, with their faces usually uncovered, revealing a rosy flush to the cheeks that seems to typify mountain people the world over.

This sense of colour clearly extends to the home – as I walked out that morning onto the sunkissed side of the village I was greeted by the scene of women spreading out rugs and bedcovers on their rooftops and hanging them from windows. The patchworks of reds and greens and pinks and blues gave the village a festival air, and so I walked down to the orchards beneath the houses so that I could look back and enjoy the scene in full. A flock of red-beaked choughs was doing aerial displays above the rooftops, the birds cawing to each other as they circled upwards on the morning thermals.

On our final evening in Aroumd Abdu announced that we would have visitors after dinner. I was still recovering from a foolhardy attempt to finish off an enormous portion of lentil tagine when the tables were dragged to the walls and the chairs rearranged in the space in the centre. Moments later figures appeared in the doorway and soon the small room was alive with chatter as half a dozen local men assembled around the fire to warm the skins of their tambourine-shaped drums and argue about nothing in particular.

The atmosphere of the room was instantly transformed into a lively bar, but there was no alcohol fueling the spirits, just sweet tea. Mohammed served the guests, as four young girls filed in and took their seats against the wall. The teenagers sported brightly coloured cardigans, and chattered away quietly, turning to smile at us at intervals with their eyes turned down, whilst the guys puffed their chests out and assembled on the other side of the room.

One fellow, Barim, was clearly the joker in the pack, being able to send his companions into convulsions of laughter with a single phrase, yet as it turned out he was also the nearest the small musical group had to a leader. Holding his drum in front of his mouth he started to sing an improvised rant, that led to a chanting refrain by the men, followed by a response from the girls.

The pattern of the music was set

A sort of vocal tennis match, as each side threw choruses back and forth. The girls’ high voices and harmonies made them sound almost oriental. The men played their drums in a variety of rhythms with their fingers and palms, and Mohammed sat behind and joined in by banging a saucepan with a pair of spoons.

The sound soon attracted more faces at the doorway, and with the audience in place Barim decided that it was time to take to the floor. He enticed a reluctant girl to join him, and before I had a chance to resist I was there as well, partnered by young Mina from the house next door, who was trying to contain her laughter as she tutored me in the steps.

It looked easy enough, just a shuffle back and forth, but then she shook her shoulders in manner and speed that I could only comically imitate. My lentil-stuffed stomach was ready to burst as my body tried to stay in time.

At ten o’clock the music ended, the girls disappeared without a word, and the room returned to normality. I went to bed, my stomach still stuffed, and the echoes of that enchanting music in my head.

As we drove out of the mountains the next morning I reflected on life in Aroumd, and was satisfied that our incursion into this remote community was bringing benefits that travel does not always bestow. It wasn’t just the project that was making a difference, but also the policy of Rhazi’s company, which meant, for instance, that everyone involved gets a fair wage.

Tourism can be a fiercely competitive game, and in the drive to cut costs it is often those on the ground who feel the squeeze. But Tizi pays everyone, from porters to guides, at the top end of the local going rate for the job. These would also be the ground rules at our next destination – one which was a stark constrast to the cool valleys of the Atlas mountains.

“We’ve been lucky with the wind!” exclaimed Amanda. If you ignored the flatulence of the camels, she was right.

The day before, as our journey from the mountains to the desert came to an end, the blue sky had turned to milky-brown haze that threatened to block out the sun for days. I had watched the camel riders at Tinfou dunes waiting in vain for tourists, and wondered what it must be like to be out there, perched on a camel in an unforgiving sandstorm. I was to find out soon enough, for Amanda had been tempting fate, which duly raised its head and looked across in our direction.

Our camel trek out of Zagora started well, though it took a few hours to get used to the discomfort of what can loosely be described as a saddle. We paused for lunch and sweet tea at a small oasis, and then plodded on towards a gentle ridge of hills and the campsite beyond.

The winds of change

As we descended onto the plain on the far side the wind hit us. I had bought a scarf the day before, which our camel guide, Ibrahim, had taught me how to tie. But with the first gust it was fluttering like a flag; I caught the end, pulled it up across my eyes and tucked it in tightly, as Mike’s hat took to the air. And so the three of us plodded on, with Abdu and Ibrahim walking ahead, their heads similarly swaddled in cloth.

Looking out through the mesh of the scarf the swaying scene before me seemed like a scratched silent movie. The only sound was the wind, that blew in stronger and stronger gusts, causing even the camels to turn their heads. Mike yelled something about them having the advantages of an extra set of eyelids and nostrils that can close; I just had my scarf and was very grateful for its fine mesh.

Even then I rode on with my eyes shut for minutes at a time, trusting Ibrahim and the camels to find their way through the blanket of sand that obscured the view across the plain. The tented camp had disappeared from view a long time ago.

And yet for all the difficulty I was enjoying the sandstorm. It was warm and tingly on my hands; I was cocooned in my Tuareg scarf, and the rocking of the camel was almost soporific. Placing total trust in my bearer and guide, I slipped off to dream of life in the Sahara, imagining myself to be a trader from centuries ago, whose skin would be dusted in sand from the hour I was born.

Once there were long caravans of camels, laden with goods from the east and south, following these routes across the desert. They paused at the oases strung out along the fertile valleys that wind up to the Atlas mountains and the markets of Marrakesh beyond. This trade brought riches to the region, and the tribes that controlled the routes built ambitious castles and settlements in the desert.

These ksours and kasbahs of the region (the former are fortified villages, the latter private dwellings of a single family) were fashioned from the mud of the valley, and quickly yield to the elements with neglect.

Many stand like sand castles waiting for the tide

At one such site – the ambitious Kasbah at Telouet, we stood atop its crumbling battlements, where storks now nest, and looked out across the fertile valley that the Glaoui clan once controlled. This tribe forged an allegiance with the French colonists in their bid to keep control of one of the main passes and the lucrative trading route. But when Morocco gained its independence in 1956 their little empire fell, and they abandoned their stronghold to the elements.

Independence, and the closure of the border with Algeria, brought an end to the traditional trading routes that had been the lifeblood of many of the oasis settlements in the valleys of this part of Morocco. But there have been new sources of income in more recent years, most notably from the movie-making world.

The dramatic backdrops coupled with the mud-walled forts made ideal film sets for Lawrence of Arabia and The Sheltering Sky. We passed the film studios near Ouarzazate on our drive to Zagora, and shortly afterwards a castle came into view a short distance from the roadside – we were puzzling over its origins until it revealed itself as a two dimensional model as we drove past.

We came across another remnant of this recent production at our next stop. The kasbahs of Aït-Benhaddou are famed for their beautiful setting on the banks of a river lined with almond trees and fields of lucerne and barley. This splendid site was partly restored when Jesus of Nazareth was filmed there, and ten families still live in the red-walled homes. But the Roman arena was something of a surprise, with no reference to it at all in the guidebooks.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger,” explained a local fellow, and on closer inspection the arena was another film set, like the castle, a leftover from the recently completed shooting of Gladiator, Arnie’s latest blockbuster. Perhaps Mohammed will be able to see it soon on his television in Aroumd.

The other new source of income for the desert communities comes from tourism. Italians, French and Spaniards cross the Straits of Gibraltar and drive around this part of the country on the ‘Kasbah Trail’. A long trail of tarmac follows the thin ribbon of green through the arid land. Patchworks of barley and henna, fed by the precious river water, cluster around the sub-Saharan settlements which, just like their high country counterparts, bear the same colour as the surrounding earth. From these villages, vendors tempt the visitors with enormous fossils, crude pottery and clusters of amethysts; children stand by the roadside and proffer baskets of dates to passing campervans.

This traffic seemed ill-suited to the twisting mountain roads and the narrow desert highways that follow, where trucks force oncoming lesser vehicles to drive with two wheels in the dirt. The desert, after all, is the province of a far more suitable and traditional form of transport.

“Uch! Uch! Uch!” cried Ibrahim to bring the camels

“Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” I responded as the young camel’s spine rammed into my crotch and I was thrown back and forth by the beast collapsing beneath me.

The endearing faces of the camels led me to forgive them their rather suspect personal habits, and the precarious way in which they stood up and sat down. “They are intelligent and never forget,” insisted Abdu when we paused for tea at a small oasis. I thought that was supposed to be elephants, but he went on. “One year I shouted at a camel because it would not sit down. When I came back the next year he chased me as soon as he saw me.”

I remembered his words a few hours later, as we plodded on through the sandstorm, trusting that my camel’s memory extended to the location of the camp that lay out there, somewhere.

When to go: Temperatures vary considerably around the country: the coast is moderate year round; the best time for the High Atlas Mountains is from April to October (winter is cold with snow); for the desert November to March (June-Aug is unbearably hot).

Health & safety: There are no vaccination requirements. The usual precautions apply to food and drink (hot, freshly cooked meals are best; bottled water and hot tea are safest). Altitude sickness is a concern if you are attempting the higher treks around Toubkal.