Between rock and a dry place

4 – 6 march 2014
Ait Mansour gorge

The second, unguided part of the walking tour takes place some 30 kilometers South of Tafraoute, where the real desert begins. The guide agency drops me off at Aït Mansour, a village at the beginning of a narrow, winding gorge in the bone dry landscape that has an oasis running through it. The narrow line of green palm trees snaking through the red rocks is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen so far. The gorge is probably well over fifty meters deep in places, and the walls are nearly vertical. Along one of the walls runs an ancient pathway, with part of it missing; the only way to pass it is to place your feet on the few remaining stones, hold on to the ridge running at shoulder height, and not look down 😉
I’m sleeping at Mustapha’s auberge. He looks like a rough, tough character with his fisherman’s hat and mustache; photos on the wall show he used to be a security guard. Now, he’s fully devoted to making sure his guests’ stay is pleasurable, showing endless amounts of hospitality. My fellow guests include Lex and his daughter Lori. He’s a Dutchman working for a French foundation trying to preserve and cultivate heirloom seeds and biological farming practices, and tells me about his struggles against Monsanto (the seeds company), the French government (trying to enforce registration of all seeds), the supposed practice of using chemtrails to influence the weather, and several other issues. I’m not sure I agree with him on all points, but it does make for interesting conversation. He’s here to give his daughter some travel experience; his own travel stories from the 1970s are exciting and, apart from some accidental presence in conflict zones, pretty inspiring. Also at the auberge are Laura and Faro from Germany, who have been hitchhiking for six months now. In the evening, Mustapha invites some friends from the village for a display of local Berber music; it feels very special to be in a room with just four musicians and four other spectators.
The next morning, I walk into the gorge. The water from the oasis runs alongside the road, and bird and frog sounds accompany me along the way. All in all the gorge, a second one running more or less parallel to it, and the road connecting the two gorges, form a roughly 40 kilometer circuit. After several kilometers where the gorge is so narrow that it can support only a road and single plots of palm trees to the side, it widens a bit to allow for a network of irrigation channels, with similar locks
and levers as in Skoura, feeding fields of palms, dates, almonds and herbs. Walking along the irrigation channels, with the trees blocking the walls of the gorge from view, it’s easy to forget that I’m on the edge of the Sahara. After about five kilometers, the road climbs to roughly halfway up the flank of the gorge. The view over the green ribbon – or actually, at this point it’s more like a slowly meandering green river of trees – is beautiful, but the sun is brutal and there’s hardly any shade.
I don’t know the elderly gentleman’s name; he tells me that he was born and raised here, but he’s been working in Rabat for decades. Every once in a while he returns, to absorb the peace of the place. That’s how I find him, sitting underneath an argan tree, watching life go by, waiting until the heat becomes less intense. He invites me to sit next to him, and I happily oblige. We chat a little, to the extent that my broken French allows, and I offer him some delicious dried figs which I bought at a tiny “magasin” down the road. He politely declines, but does tell me a bit about life here. There’re some tourists nowadays, particularly during the winter, but other than that life here has remained pretty much the same. It appears to me that having time slow down to a crawl is the only way to go for a place where there is such limited potential for life and such vast expanses of nothing all around. I descend into the lush green on the valley floor again, passing by little houses and women, wearing the same black cloth as in Tafraoute, tending the fields.
After some fifteen kilometers, the gorge peters out into a landscape of barren hills. The road turns East towards the second gorge, but I can’t resist the urge to continue walking South a bit and climb one of the hills, to get a view of the desert ahead. The landscape is impossibly harsh; wave after wave of bone-dry, rounded-off hills, made of layers of rock in parallel curves, resembling tree rings on an abstract piece of wood carving. As far as the eye can see,
everything is bleached, silent, lifeless, and timeless under the midday sun. It’s so quiet here that an airplane – one of only a handful that crosses these skies per day – that’s flying so high that I can hardly even see it is still clearly audible. For the next hour and a half, I walk along the edge of this emptiness, alone, wishing for the thin line of green on the horizon – the oasis of Tiouadou, at the start of the second gorge – to grow larger more quickly than it does.
When I finally get there, it turns out that Ahmed from the guide agency waited until this morning to inform the people of Auberge Sahnoun that I (and three others) will be staying there, which is unfortunate as the auberge is already fully booked. Thankfully the wonderful Sahnoun family give us a place to sleep in their own home. The founder of the auberge was also a respected desert guide and painter, and did a lot of great work in the community (teaching at school, teaching divorced women ways to make a living, and campaigning against garbage in the streets), but he sadly died in a motorcycle accident about ten months ago. His son and his nephew now do most of the hosting, and turn out to be very interested in discussing a range of topics, from their
future plans to religion and the struggle of the berber people to maintain their culture. The previous king (Hassan II, who was not the most enlightened of despots) saw Morocco as an Arab nation and repressed the various berber cultures, but thankfully the current king (Mohammed VI) has been a lot more modern in many ways, including the treatment of berbers.* The three other hikers sleeping in the Sahnoun family home are Steve and Marine from France, and Ingrid from Austria. We get along immediately, and share a great meal and a very pleasant evening talking and listening to Ibrahim (the nephew) playing guitar while being warmed by the smoldering embers inside the auberge’s mini museum of traditional objects from the region.
[*updating this blog in 2020, things have unfortunately taken a strong turn for the worse in this regard]
Early the following morning, I climb the hill next to the auberge to watch the sun slowly light up the desert valley I crossed yesterday. After breakfast, Steve, Marine, Ingrid and I set off for the final leg of our hike together. The landscapes keep switching between oases and barren desert mountainscapes. At one such oasis, at the village of Tanrarte, we ask an elderly man working in the palmeraie for directions; instead of showing us the way, he invites us to have tea in his house. His name is Hamid. After having worked in the Parisian fashion industry in the 1970s he returned to his birth village and built this three-storey house for himself and his family. This was still before the introduction of modern building techniques to the area, so the house is made of rocks, palm wood and plaster, and it has a traditional animal pit dug in the ground – in a place with as little available ground as this gorge, space needs to be used efficiently. The ground level
is home to the usual assortment of cats, and unusually, a fluffy little lap dog. Once we’re settled on the low couches in the living room, it turns out that ‘tea’ really means “a filling lunch of baguette with olive oil, argan oil, honey and amlou, oh and a few cups of tea ofcourse’. Amlou, also known as “Moroccan Nutella”, is made of ground almonds with honey and argan oil. In reality, Nutella should be known as “the rest of the world’s Amlou”; this is so much better than the French stuff…
After our unexpected lunch, it isn’t far to the pick-up point. Ingrid and I say goodbye to Steve and Marine, who head deeper into the Moroccan desert, towards Tata, near the Algerian border. We turn back to Tafraoute, while the air slowly gets filled with dust until vision is reduced to less than a kilometer, uncharacteristically early in the year. The reason becomes apparent as we arrive in Tafraoute; during the past few days, temperatures have been around 34 degrees!
I manage to get the cheap room in the fancy hotel for an even lower price than before, now that the Almond Blossom Festival is over and Tafraoute is fairly quiet again. With my sisters’ birthday coming up, I head into town to buy them a present. My goal is a shop recommended by Lonely Planet, but the carpet salesman who pointed me to the would-be guide earlier in the week wants me to check out another shop nearby. I refuse initially, but remembering how I was perhaps a bit rude in declining their guiding offer, I give in after a while. Maison Tuareg is a large store with a fairly small jewelry section. The owner, dressed in a bright blue robe that in the Moroccan tourism sector is supposed to give its wearer Tuareg mistique (even though there’re hardly any actual Tuareg settled in Morocco and their traditional robes are indigo, not bright blue), shows me some nice looking silver jewelry. After some negotiating, I get the price for two pairs of earrings down from 900 to 350 Dirham. Pretty pleased with my negotiating skills, I walk out into the street, and decide to visit the shop I initially wanted to go to. The Artisanat du Coin is a sort of ensemble artisanal; a government-approved place where authentic jewelry and other objects are sold at fixed prices and with no hassle to pressure customers. The wrinkled old man and his pretty granddaughter are happy for me to browse through their messy little store and tell me about the materials, techniques and origin of each piece. When I ask them the price of a particular set of silver earrings, the old man tells me it’s 40 Dirhams. My jaw drops, and I realize I paid far too much at the Maison Tuareg. Curious to hear what they think of the earrings I bought, I’m hardly even shocked anymore to hear they’re not even real silver (yes, I’m clueless about jewelry). I go back to Maison Tuareg to demand a refund, but the owner refuses, so I go to the gendarmerie on the other side of town. The sole officer present at the station happens to have the number of the owners of Maison Tuareg, but they don’t pick up. Despite the late hour (around 21:30) he walks with me to personally arrange for me to get my money back – and then gives me his telephone number so that I can stay at his place next time I’m in Tafraoute! Very pleased with the way the evening is turning out, I buy three pieces of jewelry from the friendly owners of the Artisanat du Coin (one for each of my sisters and one for my mom), and then walk back to my hotel.
On my way, I run into Jamal the guide, who’s playing football in the street with his friends. He invites me to join them. For the first few minutes, I take it easy, and I will soon regret not doing this for longer; at my very first fancy move, I rip my newly-repaired pants. As pants rips go, this one is about as epic as they come; from my belt buckle in the front, between my legs, and all the way round to my belt at the rear. So much for my tailoring skills! Jamal and his friends are rolling over the floor from laughter, but I try to play it cool and (a few minutes later, when they have caught their breath) continue playing, ripped pants or not. The increased mobility and ventilation do very little to improve my game or my stamina though, and after twenty more minutes I’m glad the guys’ moms call an end to the game. By some minor miracle I manage to make my way to my room without anyone in the four-star hotel seeing my wardrobe malfunction, and I sleep like a rose after five very hot, dusty, physically and mentally exhausting but memorable days.

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