I like rock music, like Nickelback, Thirty Seconds to Mars, and the Backstreet Boys.’ For a few seconds, looking out the window and concentrating very hard on the mountainous desert landscape passing by is all I can do to stop myself from laughing out loud and insulting my new friend, Marouan. He got on the bus at a small town, about one third into the distance between Ouarzazate and Taroudannt, and is on his way to Agadir, where he studies English. When he deliberately sought me out to sit next to, I feared for a moment he’d try to sell me something, but he’s just very happy to have someone to practice his spoken English with. He may not be quite up to date with what is and isn’t rock music, but he does turn out to be an excellent tour guide, telling me all kinds of interesting things about the regions and towns we pass, and teaches me some words in Arab. ‘That’s a Dutch cow’ is apparently a way of saying a cow is particularly fat, and the oil-producing Argan tree that the Anti Atlas and the Souss valley are famous for, apparently also grows in Mexico but doesn’t produce fruits there. He also asks a lot about life in Europe.
At Taroudannt I say goodbye to Marouan, get off the bus, and get a hustler following me around. He is by far the friendliest, most cheerful hustler so far though, so my mood doesn’t suffer too badly.
Shortly after losing the hustler, I get lost myself. After a good bit of searching around, two women actively approach me to ask me if I’m lost, and one of them accompanies me to the hotel; something that never would’ve happened in Northern Morocco. By now I’m fully convinced it’s not just me being more approachable; the culture is simply more open in the South.
The next day, I go from Taroudannt, in the green Souss valley, to Tafraoute, in the semi-desert Anti Atlas mountains. It takes three grands taxis to get there; the third is a neuf-place Peugeot with no space left for me (I become the tenth occupant, jammed into the rear row of child seats with two other adults) or my backpack (which is tied to the roof of the car), and whose suspension probably stopped suspending anything around the time I was born. The mountain roads are too narrow for two cars to pass each other without one of the cars using the gravel on the side of the road. It seems there’s a remarkably logical system in place to decide who yields; the drivers evaluate each other’s vehicles as they approach each other, and the most offroad-worthy car moves over. A pickup truck or 4×4 makes way for a modern normal car, which in turn makes way for an older, more worn out car. Our grand taxi is so pitiful that all others dive into the gravel as soon as they see us…
In Tafraoutre (where I’m relieved to find my backpack still tied to the roof), I see a lot more tourists, and people in general, than I had expected for a town described as mostly undiscovered. As it turns out, today is the first day of the Almond Blossom Festival, which celebrates local culture and produce (mainly argan oil and honey). This also means every single hotel room in town is booked, by tourists and locals who came back from their jobs in the big cities. After visiting every affordable hotel in town, backpack in tow, I become desperate and check with the only four star hotel, only to be told ‘complet’ again. When I ask if there’s a campsite in town or if I can sleep on the roof, they pity me and offer me a staff room. It’s windowless, but other than that, it has everything I need (bed, toilet, shower, wifi), and all that at a very reasonable price! Many locals wear traditional clothes. For the men, this is much the same as in other parts of the country. Women here also wear similar clothes as elsewhere, but cover them with a black sari-like cloth, held together with a pin that’s typical of the Chleuh berbers of the South. Some have a colourful decorative band at the edge of the cloth, but the masses of black-clad women do remind me a bit of images of Saudi-Arabia. Thankfully the open attitude generally remains.
Looking for a guide, the agency most highly recommended by Lonely Planet appears to be closed. Someone on the street overhears me looking for them, and tells me there’s another guide across the square. This turns out to be a carpet shop with a tourist map hidden between the merchandise. I hear out their offer just to get an idea of the prices being charged, and then move on. The would-be guide and his friend who pointed me to him turn out to follow me around, presumably to intervene should I show any signs of wanting to use another guide! Whatever chance they had of me using their services has now disappeared, and I tell them so, much to their chagrin. I end up booking a five-day walking tour with the second agency recommended by Lonely Planet. Ahmed, the owner, promises I’ll have an experienced, English-spealing guide. In the evening, thanks to the Almond Blossom Festival, I get my first taste of Southern Berber music. To my ears it sounds a lot better than the chaotic styles that were prevalent on the other side of the Atlas. There’s more rhythm, and more focus on vocal harmonies. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but could it be the influence of (sub-)Saharan Africa? The most visually distinctive act is a group of women, their faces all covered by one large veil, singing, clapping and shuffling in unison while several men play traditional instruments. The music lasts deep into the night, and although I’m really trying to sleep in preparation for the walking tour, I also love hearing these sounds, so unfamiliar but yet weirdly recognizable.
The next day, the guide is late. So late in fact, that it’s decided I’ll do the first, relatively easy, day of walking with Jamal. He’s eighteen and speaks some English. He does know the route, but isn’t the best of guides (yet). Thankfully the landscape makes up for it; leaving Tafraoute, we cross some mountains made up of huge granite boulders, with goats climbing into the argan trees to snack on the fruits, and ground squirrels running away, probably fearful of landing up in a tagine (they’re a local delicacy). After crossing the mountains, we enter the Ameln valley, the star attraction of the region. Sadly the program doesn’t allow for much more than simply crossing it on our way to Tagdicht, on the other side of the valley. The palmeraie on the valley floor isn’t that interesting to be honest, and most of the villages on the valley floor are boring, modern affairs, but a couple of old villages clinging to the mountainsides look promising. My destination for today, Tagdicht, is the highest one of those villages, spread out over the flank of Jebel (mountain) L’Kest, the highest peak of the area. My host is Fatima, an elderly lady who lives alone in a house that’s some one hundred staircase steps above the nearest magasin (general supplies shop). She doesn’t speak any Arab, let alone French or English, just the local Berber language. This means our communication is limited to hands and feet, and a few easily understood words (I just about manage to explain my family situation, with the aid of a photo). Communication challenges nonwithstanding, she’s an excellent host, cooking up a great tagine and some of the nicest tea I’ve had so far in this tea-obsessed country. I borrow some needle and thread from her to repair my pants, which have seams coming undone in an unfortunate place…
After a very dark and quiet night I tackle Jebel L’Kest with Mohammed. Unlike Jamal he is an experienced guide, but unfortunately he doesn’t speak English, so we have to communicate in French. After a cool start, with some very steep walking along a difficult to find trail and some scrambling over huge boulders of quartz, the temperatures rise quickly. After some two hours, I notice I stopped sweating, and I’m getting a bit dizzy. Since this is a possible sign of a heatstroke, I immediately take a rest in the shade and drink plenty of water. Half an hour later, I feel much better (it’s clearly not a heatstroke then) and we continue.
Another two hours of steep climbing later we reach the top at 2359m. The views are awesome; the Ameln valley, Tafraoute and the last bits of mountain before the Sahara proper to the South, with vegetation becoming visibly sparser every few kilometers: Jebel Toubkal, North Africa’s tallest peak, 200 kilometers to the Northeast; and clouds in the Northwest indicating where the cold Atlantic meets the coast at Agadir. This peak is also a minor pilgrimage site because it’s the burial place of a marabout (a holy man who, in North / West African Islam, can give baraka (blessing or good luck) even after his death; similar to Catholic saints, the belief in marabouts isn’t part of orthodox Islam, but rather a remnant of pre-islamic beliefs). I personally feel that whoever dragged the marabout’s body up this mountain should really be a saint as well! During our two-hour break, Mohammed boils us some coffee and makes us sardine sandwiches. As we eat, a black-and-white eagle soars around the peak, so close that it almost fills the sky, before folding its wings and diving down towards some prey. Unfortunately it’s quickly hidden behind the mountain, so we can’t see if its attack is succesful, but it’s an awe-inspiring moment nonetheless.
After a three-hour descent along a more clearly defined but scree and rock covered trail that’s hell on my knees, we’re back at Tagdicht. We say goodbye to Fatima, and continue walking towards Oumesnate, in the Ameln Valley, while enjoying a stunning sunset. There, it turns out that the guide agency has driven my backpack (which I left at their office) there by car, somewhat making up for the guides not being as English-speaking or experienced as promised. The next day, Jamal is once again my guide. It’s back to the granite boulders, then for some reason a smelly tour past the local garbage dump (nothing formal, it’s just the piece of countryside where eveyone dumps their garbage bags). Thankfully we continue walking, towards a rock formation called Napoleon’s Hat, and a series of boulders (some the size of appartment buildings) painted blue, green and pink by a Belgian artist. It’s one of Tafraoute’s premier tourist draws; I was sceptical at first, but I like the surreal sight more than I expected, although I still prefer the natural shades of ochre, salmon and orange of the granite itself. I’m picked up by car for the second part of the walking tour. The first part, to be honest, has been somewhat of a disappointment (apart from the Jebel L’Kest climb), partially due to the guides not being what I expected and partially due to the inherent character of a guided tour; I’m starting to see that, if possible, I really prefer being able to wander around without any pressure to go in this direction or that. In a way I’m happy to discover – this hadn’t been clear to me before – that the second part of my five-day hike will happen without a guide since I won’t be able to get lost, or so they say…