Mowgli and the monkeys

10 – 14 feb 2014
Rif mountains, east of Chefchaouen

On the first morning of my four-day trek in the Rif mountains, I meet up with my guide, Amin. He’s 40 years old and has been guiding tourists for the past 20 years (after deciding that smuggling cannabis to Spain was too risky). His father was a Berber from the mountains, while his mother is an Arab from Chefchaouen. He’s not married but, insha’Allah, he will be in a year’s time. Yesterday’s rain forces us to tackle the lower part of the trek first, instead of starting with the higher mountains. In Chefchaouen, 115mm of rain fell in 24 hours; in the mountains, this translated to half a meter of snow in some places. So, we start off walking through some sub-alpine looking fields with big boulders in them, as ravens fly overhead.
After an hour we reach the first village, Kalaa, which is a massive difference from Tanger or even Chefchaouen. Although there is a road, there aren’t any cars at the moment; goats and chickens are everywhere though, and we are greeted by a little boy riding a donkey. Between the houses are orchards with olive and almond trees; in one garden, we spot a donkey-powered olive press. In the middle of the village, the local stream has turned into a raging river. Since there is no bridge, we have to hop from rock to rock to cross it. Welcome to a century (or two, or three) ago! After Kalaa, we shortly follow a road which the government is building to get tourists to the region’s main tourist draw, a rock formation called God’s Bridge. The rain has transformed the surface into the most awful mud I ever encountered. It’s not that we sink in that deeply; maybe a centimeter or so per step. The problem is that this 1cm of mud then sticks to our shoes; just like the next centimeter, and the one after that, until within a couple of meters, both Amin and I have several kilos of mud hanging off each shoe. Shaking off the mud only provides relief for about 20 meters. As this is both physically and mentally exhausting, we quickly head off the road, only to find the fields covered in exactly the same mud; we’ll just have to get through it. As we walk through the remote olive orchards, which are very extensively cultivated due to the low fertility of the area, it becomes clear just how much work it must be to make a living growing, harvesting and selling produce here.
It takes us some two hours to reach the next village, and finally, solid earth. This is also where the mountains start. After a steep climb we’re greeted by beautiful views of the surrounding rocks and the village in the next valley. Here, we pass our first cannabis fields. Most are still barren as the plants haven’t begun growing yet, but in a sunny spot next to a centuries-old olive tree, the first few plants are coming up. A few meters further, some children, about 2 or 3 years old, are beating a wooden plank with sticks. I don’t think much of it, until Amin tells me they’re play-pretending to be grownups, and grownups here beat cannabis seeds into hashish with a plank and some sticks… Cannabis fields are usually much less well maintained than other fields, since the cannabis plants grow here with much less difficulty than other crops; the fields are often full of rocks and weeds. At this time of year, when the cannabis plants don’t cover the fields yet, it makes for some very dilapidated looking scenery. After this village it’s not much further to Akchour, our destination for the day. Akchour, or what I get to see of it, is not a pretty village. Its two businesses seem to be growing cannabis and catering to tourists visiting God’s Bridge. Since the plants arent’t growing yet and the tourists aren’t here yet, the men either use their earnings of the previous season to build characterless me-too houses all using the same hollowed-out orange bricks, or sit on their bums smoking kif in the local restaurants, which look more like garages than places for having a meal. Kif is, as I understand it, somewhere halfway in the production process between cannabis seeds and hashish. Mustapha, the caretaker of the gîte (mountain refuge) we’re staying in, falls into the building category, and is also the owner of the restaurant used by the smoking category – and by us, as there’s nowhere else to eat. I’m happy to have Amin with me, as I would feel very much out of place if I had been here alone. We’re both offered some hash, but I decline, and thankfully, so does Amin.

The next morning, we have breakfast at Mustaphas restaurant, and buy some sandwiches for lunch. We follow the Oued (river) Farda, which flows under God’s Bridge, but instead of taking the fairly easy trail to the bridge, Amin takes me up some steep, narrow and rocky goatherds’ paths until we’re some 300m above the river – only to take me down again, cross the river, and follow another steep path back up. This process repeats itself some two or three times. It’s hard work, but the views of the narrow green valley are very rewarding and Amin regularly points out animal tracks or medicinal herbs. At lunchtime, Mustapha turns out to have given us the most dreadfully bland sandwiches in the history of sandwichmaking, but I’m not about to scramble all the way back and ask for a refund… After several hours’ more, we get to a village where there are trees just above the waterline. The masses of colourful plastic bags that the river deposited on the branches in neat straight lines remind me of worn Tibetan prayer flags. It’s a weirdly pretty but sad sight. After turning away from the river, we gain another 600m or so of altitude, where we run into four girls sitting on the edge of a rock, above a ravine of several hundred meters, chatting and laughing while keeping an eye on the cows. I’ve noticed that taking care of the animals, and bringing them to their remote grazing grounds, is mostly women’s work. Men do the cannabis farming and construction work. Since the hashish-beating is done inside (we pass several houses where the hammer-like sound is clearly audible), I don’t know whose job that is. It’s also clearly a more conservative area than the larger cities or even Chefchaouen; girls of 2 or 3 years old are already wearing headscarves, women hardly ever return my ‘salam aleikum’, and young couples only dare to chat with each other at some distance from the village. Shortly before sunset we arrive at the next gîte, in the village of Azilane (which counts some 8 shabby houses).


Abdelkader, the incredibly kind owner, greets Amin as a long-lost son and me as an old friend. He has travelled the world in the 1970s, but returned to Azilane to settle down with his family, who live on the ground floor, underneath the gîte. Also present are Matthias and Janne, an alternatively-minded German couple trying to maintain their veganism in a country that doesn’t really seem to know the concept of animal welfare, and Ismael, a jellaba-wearing Heath Ledger lookalike with wild curly hair, a goatee beard and an Om-symbol tattood on his forehead. He’s from Ibiza, and tells us his chakra’s opened up when he took LSD on a trip to India. He combines his newfound Eastern sprirtuality with his Catholic upbringing by claiming Jesus was the first hippie, and he’s constantly reading the Bible to find evidence of this. I’m not entirely sure the Vatican would agree with his analysis though…


Ismael is in Morocco because cannabis activates his mind and allows him to be one with everything. His smoking equipment doubles as musical instruments; the metal mixing bowl also functions as a meditation gong, and with his pipe he does a convincing imitation of a steam train’s whistle. He agreed to work for Abdelkader in return for a free bed and some time to smoke, but this is the source of constant discussion; after maybe 30 minutes of working, Ismael feels it’s about time for some spirituality, while Abdelkader obviously wants him to work more. Even though the agreement clearly isn’t working, Abdelkader has allowed Ismael to stay for four days already because ‘the boy needs some direction’; he continually tries to teach Ismael some work ethic and to get him to smoke less. In the evening, after a delicious meal of couscous with products from the little garden, it’s again Ismael who dominates the scene. He gets into a drumming match with Amin (which, to my western ear, Ismael wins easily; Berber drumming sounds great in combination with other instruments and singing, but in isolation, it sounds rather chaotic); he gets into a philosophical discussion with Matthias and Janne about the nature of religion and what one can and cannot know (where he doesn’t seem interested in hearing their reasonable arguments, giving a lecture of his own world view instead), and to everyone’s surprise, he claims to be here to work. I just sit back and enjoy the show; partially because I’m the only one here who doesn’t speak Spanish at least reasonably well, and partially because it’s just too much fun observing all these unique characters interact.


The following morning, when it’s time to work, Ismael seems to have forgotten that that’s what he’s here for; now, he’s a tourist 🙂 For Amin and I, it’s time to head into the forest to search for Barbary macaques. These endangered animals are well adapted to both the cold and the very hot weather of the region (from subzero winter nights to over 40 degrees Celsius in summer). They survive only in the Rif and Atlas mountains and on the rock of Gibraltar, although many groups (including the one in Gibraltar) aren’t truly wild anymore, begging people for food. The ones in the forest above Azilane are still truly wild though, feeding mainly on insects, plants, and the bark of cedar trees, and they’re quite afraid of humans (and particularly their dogs). We spend several hours wandering the forest in the rain, just below the snow border, climbing rocks, trying and failing to avoid thorny bushes, finding only some monkey poop. Just as we’re about to give up, Amin spots a few of them on the other side of a clearing in the forest; by the time I see them (they’re really well camouflaged with their greenish gray fur), they’re already retreating into the trees. We circle around their position, and for about five minutes, we regularly see them climbing up and down the trees around us. As soon as we get too close, or point a camera in their direction, they fly off to the next tree. And just as suddenly as they appeared to us, they’re gone; we spend another half hour trying to find them again, but all we hear and see is rainy forest. After returning to the gîte, we warm up with Abdelkaders delicious lunch, containing among other things small potatoes from the garden, baked with skin and all in fresh goat butter, and (after peeling them) lightly sprinkled with salt and cumin. As a Dutchman I thought I knew all the best ways to prepare a potatoe, but this really is something else…


Upon hearing a loudly clucking chicken outside, Amin tells us that in the Rif, people feed their chickens cannabis seeds in the afternoon, so that they get high, forget they’ve already laid an egg that day, and then use all their strength to lay a second egg. If this method proves to be true, Holland has a unique opportunity to dominate the European egg production industry! But since Amin also once told me that Mexican donkeys were brought to Morocco on foot, I have a sneaking suspicion it might just be a tall tale… We spend the rest of the afternoon playing checkers (which I usually lose), eat a delicious tagine for dinner, and go to bed early in preparation for the long walk back to Chefchaouen.


On the morning of the fourth day, before breakfast time, I spot Abdelkader working in the garden. After a while he sees me watching him, and invites me to come down. With great pride he shows me the pear and apple trees, the potatoe plot, the saffron plants, the carrots and the onions. After that, he invites me inside the living quarters of his family. It’s much darker here, with hardly any furniture. One room is for sleeping, a second is for socializing; the two other rooms are for the goats and the donkey, and in the corner is the stone oven for the tagine. I meet his wife, daughter and son, as well as some of the animals living in here. This is the way most people live up here, and I feel privileged to get to see it. After breakfast it’s time to leave; Abdelkader’s goodbye is so warm and kind that I genuinely feel like a family member instead of a paying tourist.


Also leaving the gîte is Ismael; after five days, Abdelkader has given up hope of getting him to work (or to smoke less), so he wants him to start paying, but that’s not an option for Ismael; it would disturb his oneness with the universe. He asks us to take him with us in the mountains, but we fear he’ll be a danger to us as well as to himself, since he doesn’t really take anything serious other than cannabis and his spirituality. He’ll have to walk the normal piste (unpaved road). Amin and I climb the mountain above Azilane, through the cedar and oak forests. As we get near the snow border, we hear some macaques, but there’s no time to look for them. We continue climbing for another hour, which is made very tough by the snow; the top layer is almost strong enough to carry our weight, but not quite, so halfway through each step we break through that layer and sink into the snow, which is about 20cm deep at the moment. After reaching the saddle of the mountain at some 1840 meters altitude, we descend on the South side.


Immediately the oak and cedar forest disappears, as does the snow; this side is much warmer, and the vegetation consists mainly of thick mediterranean bushes. At lower altitudes, the bushes are replaced by endless cannabis fields and some depressing villages; a more attractive route is unfortunately still impassable due to the mud. For the next three hours, cannabis country is all we see. At one point a guy, maybe 16 years old, passes us while quickly walking – almost dancing – over the rocky trail in a way I’ll never be able to. As he sees me, he gives me a mischievous grin, pulls a ball of kif out of his pocket, and gestures it’s mine for the right price. I signal ‘no’, and he continues on his way, without interrupting his dance over the rocks once. Finally, as we get closer to Chefchaouen, the environment becomes greener again, with fruit trees, goats and wheat fields replacing the bleakness of cannabis fields.


Amin tells me that this is the result of the King visiting the area and declaring that the valley of Chefchaouen must be cannabis-free (it’s illegal everywhere in Morocco, but in much of the Rif the government allows it to prevent the independent-minded Riffians from revolting; government control has never been particularly strong here, and the Rif area is also where the infamous Barbary pirates originated from). The King’s decree has made this valley much more pleasing to look at than the cannabis fields, but it has plunged the people of the local villages back into the kind of poverty where they can grow just enough crops to feed themselves and to trade for some other basic goods, whereas cannabis cultivation offered them a yearly income of some €3500 and a chance of owning a brick house with a tv and a motorcycle.

After four days and some 57 kilometers of walking, 22km of which were on the last day, we reach Chefchaouen. It feels like an alien world; busy, with cars and motorcycles and salespeople, and young couples publicly chatting. Back at hotel Koutoubia, Biki the cat is feeling fine again. I don’t; every part of my body hurts (unfortunately this doesn’t make the hotel staff pamper me), so I decide to stay in Chefchaouen for one more day, just wandering around. Twice I run into Ismael; he tells me he’ll stay in Morocco for two more weeks, after which he’ll return to his hippie community on Ibiza, where apparently his name is Mowgli.

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