I continue my series of Top Tips when visiting Morocco and today head for the Atlas Mountains…
We drove on and the road started to follow the river now which wasn’t deep but it was wide and fast flowing. The silver water dashed between gullies like flashing blades and rushed over rocks like leaping salmon and further on the river dropped in between steep banks and the only way to cross was by using rope bridges with sun bleached wooden slats that didn’t look awfully permanent.
Hassan stopped the car again and our next stop on the itinerary was to visit a traditional Berber house. The Berbers are a unique ethnic group who live in North Africa, the oldest settlers in the region and quite different from the Arabs of Marrakech and the rest of Morocco.
It wasn’t a real house of course, it was a sort of living museum and women in traditional costume were preparing food in a small corner of a disorderly arrangement of ramshackle rooms that Hassan showed us through one-by-one and explained the traditional domestic arrangements as we went.
Opposite the house there was a small building where a women’s cooperative was producing Argan oil. Argan oil is valued for its nutritive, cosmetic and numerous medicinal properties but is one of the rarest oils in the world due the small and very specific growing areas because it is produced from the kernels of the Argan tree which are only found in Morocco.
In the past Berber women would extract the undigested pits of the Argan nut from goat excrement on the ground (probably without gloves) because the animals are very fond of the fruit and will even climb the trees to reach it but that isn’t terribly hygienic of course and I think they have stopped doing it that way now.
Mike was sceptical about whether this was authentic or simply a set-up for the tourists but inside the building women were sitting on the floor with rough rectangular stones between their knees cracking pits with rounded rocks and after a while it was clear that Mike was most probably correct and somewhere there would be a modern factory producing the oil in a much more efficient way.
Hassan drove on and still we were climbing and following the river on our left and the boundary of the Parc National de Toubkal to our right, which includes the highest mountain in Morocco, Jbel Toubkal. After a while he stopped the car and for no apparent reason invited us to take a walk across a precarious looking rope bridge to the other side of the river. We understood why when a toothless Berber man in a check kaftan and bright blue skull cap appeared from the side of the road and it seemed to be his self appointed job to usher people over to the other side, have his photograph taken with terrified tourists and charge a few dirham for the privilege.
I say terrified because to cross this swaying, rotting foot bridge required Indiana Jones type nerves of steel. Some of the planks of wood were missing and the steel cable that held it all together was rusty and corroded. With two or three people on it at the same time it rocked and lurched precariously from side to side and below us was a drop of about twenty metres to the fast flowing river strewn with sharp rocks and jagged boulders which, if it didn’t kill you outright, would have guaranteed an unpleasant landing and maybe a night or two in a hospital bed if the whole thing had come crashing down.
Crossing the river was an interesting experience but I think we were all glad to get back to the other side and continue the journey for the last few kilometres to the village of Setti-Fatma where the road into the mountains ended and the final stage was to be on foot. I imagine Setti-Fatma was once a desperate and inhospitable sort of place but the locals have turned it into a bit of a tourist trap with cafés and shops for the visitors who find themselves caught at this natural mountain valley terminus.
Hassan quickly found a guide for us for fifty dirham each was going to take us further up the valley to visit the waterfalls, which were promised as the highlight of the day. We crossed the river over one of the rickety apple-wood rope bridges and then began a gentle ascent at first as we set off for the top. We were at one thousand six hundred metres (that’s about half as high again as Mount Snowdon in Wales) and we were going to climb another two hundred to get to our destination.
At the beginning there was no real indication about how tough this was going to be and the path meandered gently through shops and cafés but after a while the track narrowed and started to get steeper and suddenly instead of just strolling to the top, as we imagined we were going to, actual climbing was required instead. What made it even more difficult was that people coming down had to use the same narrow track as those going up so there was quite a lot of congestion to cope with and a quicker group behind us was showing irritation with our slow progress as their pushy guide tried to find inappropriate short cuts so that they could get ahead of us.
It took about thirty minutes to get to the end of the walk and to the inevitable café at the top where we stopped for an expensive bottle of water next to the waterfall that was plunging through the rocks and vegetation.
Going down was if anything more difficult than going up and fairly soon our legs began to ache as we slipped and slithered down the uneven path. Gradually the path levelled out and we passed through the shops again. Shops which incidentally sold pottery and I cannot imagine for one minute why anyone would want to buy pottery while climbing up the side of a mountain. Back at the road we said goodbye to the guide and thanked him for getting us back in one piece and then he led us to a tagine restaurant by the side of the river which was probably owned by a member of his family.
In the garden of the restaurant we sat at a table by the water and had a simple lunch of meat skewers and local sausages all swilled down with a nice glass of beer and then I realised that I was hallucinating because it was just a nice glass of ordinary mineral water!