Darkness had fallen by the time we’d negotiated the rather tortuous passport control and picked up the hire car, which meant negotiating the chaotic streets of Agadir at night, with its heavy traffic, lightless mopeds, hand carts, donkeys, overloaded trucks and kamikaze pedestrians. Agadir is a resort, and as such is nothing like the real Morocco, but was the convenient launch pad for the trip. So we were away straight after a seafront stroll and breakfast, on the road south. Driving away from the beach, resort becomes city, city becomes sprawling suburbs, and suburbs give way to villages, as the genuine Morocco starts to appear. The land turns pink as it becomes scrub, then a deeper more red shade as we pass through quintessential Moroccan scenery; the terrain looks broken and crumbling. This is land strewn with rock, red dust rising in eddies in the crosswind, the foothills of the Anti-Atlas looming ahead, punctuated only by Argan trees and prickly pear – no palm trees here.
We reached our next destination Guelmim around lunchtime, and immediately stepped into a different world. Food beckoned , we took a seat in the sun at a scrubby cafe amongst the Jelleba clad locals and ordered the first tagine of the holiday. Fresh salad, bread, dips, olives, a bottle of water and two delicious tagines for a little less than £7.50, fantastic! Guelmim is a terrifically real Moroccan – Berber even – town. Packed with souk type shops and stalls, handcarts, food markets and mint tea cafes, bustling with activity and a vibrancy that washes over you from the moment you venture down its narrow back streets. We felt out of place, too conspicuous, western clothes felt odd amongst these people, we needed to blend in so bought Jellabas too. Checked into a great little hotel right in the centre of town, our room opposite the Mosque and as the sun went down the Muezzin began the call to prayer, that spine tingling sound, the stream of men leaving their shoes in the street and disappearing through the gate to the hidden sanctuary all adding to the mystery. As darkness fell, the town came even more alive, and with our new robes fending off the chill of the evening air, we wandered through the crowded streets, ladies noisily bartering, arms waving in the air, live chickens crammed into tiny cages, camels and goats heads hanging outside the butchers shops, sounds and smells so unlike home.
Guelmim sits in a bowl surrounded by the mountains, it’s warm but a stiff Saharan wind blows through the town, turning to a proper chill after sundown. We were glad of our Jellebas as we had our street food supper in another tiny cafe, no beer to warm us here in this alcohol free town. We look like Friar Tuck and Maid Marian! Well, our first full day has without doubt given us a truly rich taste of the real Morocco we came to experience, more even than we’d hoped for first day.
We are awakened by the call to prayer before dawn, dominated by the Mosque opposite but joined in chorus by the many Mosques across Guelmim, echoing, breaking the silence of the night, awakening this desert town. Compared to last night, morning is quiet in Guelmim as the town wakes slowly. Breakfast is oily fried eggs and more of this stunning caffeine rich Moroccan coffee, perfect for a coffee lover like Phil! Almost makes up for the lack of beer…
And so on we go, North East from Guelmim towards the Anti Atlas, through harsh dry country of red granite, past remote arid villages, now and then slowing down to pass ancient looking Berber shepherds driving their huge flocks of sheep and goats through the scrub, goats climbing the Argan trees. The landscape gradually became more rugged, mountains looming as we neared Tafraout, then suddenly a dramatic climb and we were in mountain country, dramatic sweeps and peaks with strangely smooth wind eroded rocks. And the road got narrower, and narrower, landscape now dotted with palms, until eventually the road opened back out and led up into the square at Tafraout. In an amazing setting, it is an interesting town completely surrounded by the mountains; no matter where you stand in the town, the mountains rise high above the rooftops.
It’s also a charming place, but with more travellers than Guelmim – this time we are not the only visitors and so much less conspicuous. Our search for our bed has to start at Hotel Salama, a beautiful building Riad style, right in the heart overlooking the small square. We are shown to a splendid room, furnished in traditional Berber style, balcony above the square, absolutely perfect. And it’s 300 dirhams per night – about £21. Unbelievable.
Lunch for Michaela is an unusual tagine, all the usual ingredients plus eggs thrown in, which have scrambled in the heat of the tagine – nice!!
We plan to be here till Friday, so the next task is to find walking maps, hiking routes etc. Chatting to villagers, it is clear that we need to meet Hussein, local climbing and trekking guru, who also owns Restaurant La Kasbah, which just happens to be one of the few places in town which serves beer. Guess we’ll just have to head there tonight then.
La Kasbah is adorned with deep coloured cushions, low seating and all the other accoutrements which go to make a typical Moroccan environment, but of course being licensed premises there are no locals inside. Instead, it is a meeting place for rock climbers- Tafraout is it seems a haven for rock climbing holidays and has learnt to cater for that market. As a consequence there is a very different vibe here from Guelmim – visitors are the norm and the town has adjusted accordingly. It’s clearly OK to wear shorts here – a complete no-no in Guelmim – and Berber artefact shops abound, but the town retains its heritage and has that unmistakable feel of a mountain location. It’s also clearly crucial to meet Hussein and his entourage – they are obviously the Tafraout cartel! The meal is wonderful- we each have a wildly tasty dish called kalia (44 spices apparently!), and it is nice to have a beer (in cans only) and a glass of Moroccan red. We get guidance for a trek on our own today, and then a longer all day trek with a guide tomorrow. We are all set.
We wake to watch the sunrise creep over the mountains- beautiful but boy is it cold. The daytime sun is warm but the temperature plummets at night and the morning air is positively crisp.
And so on Hussein’s instruction we head off towards Ait Mansour, after a great breakfast at a cafe in the sun, consisting of koobz (flat breads) with three dips, Argan oil, peach jam with caraway, and Amlou, an almond paste loved by the locals but very similar to peanut butter. And more of that incredible coffee!
We could not have guessed the wonderful day which was about to unfold. The 30km drive was spectacular, the mountains have hurled boulders the size of office blocks down into the prairie below, some of them still hanging precariously on the edge ready to fall further.
The narrow road climbed steadily through great open spaces of barren land with rugged mountains as a backdrop, then narrowed more as we entered the gorge, the view consistently spectacular, the road though was precarious, hairpin bends, a pile of rocks marking a segment of road which had fallen to the depths below down the sheer drop. Precipitous drops at the very edge of the asphalt. Proper mountain driving!!
At the start of the oasis we left the car and started the day’s trek.
Ait Mansour is reputedly one of Morocco’s most beautiful oases, but no reputation can prepare you for the reality of the dramatic views. A colossal gorge with impossibly high red rock sides, the bottom packed with date palms, argan and olive trees and other greenery, the dense green colours snaking along the twisting valley in a precise trail, the green band forming one thin line through the unyielding cliffs. A classic oasis, but breathtaking in its drama.
We spy many species of bird, and several barbary squirrels, like racoons. The river itself is virtually dry, just an occasional trickle or pool – we were to learn later that the winter this year has brought not one drop of rain to the region.
After nearly 2 hours walking we emerge from the far end of the gorge, where we stumble upon a group of people, travellers from around the world, living in a kind of commune, detached from our idea of society, helping local families and with little contact with the outside world. We spend an amazing half hour talking with them, and their host, Omar, who makes us some delicious herbal tea using mint, basil and sage.
We return through the gorge, picking up and eating dates from beneath the palms, so tasty yet not too sweet. By the time we reach the car we need proper sustenance , and so we follow a handwritten “auberge” sign up some steps to a ramshackle oasis building. We are greeted by Abdou, a whizzened old Berber shepherd, who cooks for us his speciality, a Berber omelette, essentially a veggie and herb stew with an egg topping. Again it is utterly delicious, all the better for the fact that the whole thing is made from what grows around him – all so fresh, so healthy, and so -well- organic!
We bump into Hussein in town, tell him about our day. He is delighted that we have had such a great day. And there’s more to come tomorrow, this time with Hussein’s guide and a longer trek to Valle des Armandes, the Valley Of Almonds.
Earlier start today to meet our guide Mahsouf. Walked from Tafraout to the next village for our first point of interest, a visit to what was his family home, a house which the family had owned for 500 years, they don’t live in the house now, in fact only 4 families still live in this ancient village, built high in the rocks overlooking the valley. Incredible that the house still stands as it is just made of mud and straw! They have made a museum of it and it gave us such an insight to the daily life of a Berber family, such a hard life for the women of the house!
The trek was full on, six hours across a variety of scrub, mountain, dry river bed, prairie, and tiny mountain villages. Argan trees, olive trees and the almond trees from which the valley takes its name, cacti of numerous types, nomad Berbers with their flocks of sheep and goats. At times the going was tough, the views always spectacular. Despite the name, Valle des Armandes is not fertile, the river is dry, the valley empty, the country arid and unforgiving. Life for these people is not exactly a bed of roses.
We were fairly drained by the end, but had learnt more from Mahsouf about Berber history and culture, particularly the mix of Berber, Arabic, Nomad, Tuareg and French, and the crossover of religion between them all.
When you eat out in these parts, your choice is eat with the locals, or have alcohol, as the two don’t mix. After a 6 hour hike, we deserve a beer tonight, so The Kasbah is our destination!
Chatting over dinner last night some of what we’ve observed falls into place. Each mountain village is headed by ancient mud and straw houses, most of them crumbling and abandoned; below these, one step down the mountain, are newer dwellings, but these too are often empty. It seems the area around Tafraout and the Ameln Valley has suffered large scale depopulation as generations leave the argan and almond farms to seek more lucrative careers in the larger cities such as Agadir and Marrakech. The ones who succeed build summer homes back in their home area, with the result that the traditional family homes crumble and derelict buildings cluster together above the valley, which itself is barren and now only partly harvested. It is too easy it seems to move on and take the tourist cash, which seems a shame but is we guess inevitable.
So we decide to spend our last day here visiting some of the 26 villages in the Ameln Valley – the vast majority of which start and end in “T”, apparently every single Berber place name does so. How did they not run out of options? Tafrout means “bowl”, very appropriate. These aren’t villages as we know them, there is no road, no centre, no shops – you ditch the car at the end of the track and climb through the dirt and stone alleyways through the silent buildings, past the mosque and up into those deserted dwellings. Now and again a voice says hello in Berber, or Arabic, or French, or a dog barks our welcome, but for the most part the only sound is the breeze. The views are simply stunning, particularly at the foot of Jebel L’Kest, the highest mountain above the valley.
We had started the day though by visiting Les Pierres Bleues, supposedly one of the area’s attractions. In 1984 a Belgian artist, Jean Verame, undertook a large scale project of painting various rocks and boulders in the foothills to create an enormous piece of work. Call us philistines but to us it was just large scale graffiti and in no way compares to the natural beauty all around. You have to see it though.
Tonight is our last night in Tafraout, on to the Atlantic coast tomorrow.
A different breakfast venue again, another interesting variation on the word omelette, and it’s time to load up, say our farewells and set off with water and a bag of fresh almonds from the valley. As always when we move on, it’s with a mixture of sadness and excitement. Our one stop en route to the coast is a fortified village on top of a mountain, Kasbah Tizgoune, now partly converted to a guest house, the rest a ruin dating from the 7th century. It is one of the many Agadirs of the Anti Atlas mountains, where people not only lived but stored grain and valuables away from attack from neighbouring villagers. Now the place is a haven of peace way above the valley below, and for a while, over yet another mint tea, we contemplate staying over, but it’s our last night and the pull of the Atlantic wins.
The mountains soon give way to plateaux, and the villages begin to look more like desert towns than mountain retreats, though argan remains the most prevalent tree. As we near Biougra, the land becomes an ugly mix of square buildings and rubbish tips; Biougra itself is as ugly a place as we’ve seen.
The arrival at the coast is odd, as if the desert simply reaches the sea as the last, and tallest, dunes simply drop into the Atlantic. From a distance, Tifnit looks like a quaint little seafront place, but the illusion soon fades as the reality hits us – this is no beach resort but a long deserted fishing village, virtually all buildings derelict. The Atlantic roars and crashes in on to rocks and golden sand, but the village stands in sad silence, a mirror image of the mountain villages deserted by those seeking a better life elsewhere. We walk amongst the beached fishing boats and along the beach in front of the village, deserted apart from an odd fisherman and a man loading a donkey with brieze blocks. A little further in and we hear people chatting and a small dilapidated building painted blue appears amidst the other collapsed buildings – “Restaurant Chez Maxims” – not really a restaurant, just a terrace with a handful of scrubby tables serving huge portions of freshly caught fish cooked on the rickety barbecue. Delicious and as fresh as could ever be possible, straight from the sea to the plate. We ask if there is a room for the night, only to be told there is no electricity or running water in the village, but then a local beckons us to follow him through a maze of tiny alleyways which arrive on a terrace at the waters edge. We are greeted by Nassir who offers us a room..It isn’t a room, it’s a kind of beachside lean-to.This is not so much rustic as semi derelict, a series of tumbledown places built into the rock. There is one light bulb, no hot water, and no proper windows, and nowhere to eat except what Nassir gives us. It is primitive to say the very least. But the Atlantic is crashing outside, the sun is warm on our faces – and you only live once. Despite every instinct telling us no, we say yes, wondering what in God’s name we’ve let ourselves in for.
Nasser makes us mint tea and introduces us to Anne & Frederic, two French who apparently wandered in here a week ago and haven’t moved on – and it seems they are to help Nasser look after us tonight. Anne shares our views on independent travel and we discuss the edifying feeling of travellers’ money going directly into the local economy. Our one flickering light bulb is powered by solar power, and, as we were told, no hot water. The five of us chat as the sun sets over the rolling Atlantic.
We are treated to a mini banquet, the freshly caught fish prepared on the terrace, the guts thrown to the seagulls swooping above, enormous crabs stripped of their claws and rammed into a pot, followed by a fish tagine, all fresh again of course, and accompanied by dates, olives in harissa, strange little nuts and the ever present koobz. We are offered a glass each of something which looks like muddy water. “It’s crab juice”, says Anne, “the juice of the crab”. God knows what that meant but we rejected the utterly disgusting stuff after one sip each!!
We drift off to sleep, the crashing waves just outside, and of course no alcohol to help us sleep, it’s now several days since our last beer. The darkness is total, the bed as hard as iron, but the Atlantic lulls us to sleep.
Just before dawn we are awoken by the sound of – what? Lorries? Diggers? Can’t be!? No, it’s a tractor pulling the boats to the water’s edge; it seems the fishing fleet is after all still active and dozens of tiny blue boats are heading out over the rollers.
After omelettes and mint tea (yes we know), our stroll along the beach doesn’t get too far before everyone we met yesterday- the guys from Maxim’s, their lady helper, a couple of others – stop us to chat, amused and delighted that we’re still here! “Sometimes French, never Anglais”, says the one who calls himself Bob. We are given coffee and giant strawberries and mid morning the temperature starts to really rise. We catch the return of the fishing fleet, a spectacle in itself as the tractor lifts each boat out of the water, not just the boat, but the catch and the fishermen too, who ride the swinging boat to the top of the beach.
This place is beautiful despite its desertion, great swathes of golden sand, colossal dunes, rock pools like Cornwall and the crashing white surf of the Atlantic with its constant roar. The sky and the sea are blue, it’s easily the highest temperature of the week. It is a beautiful little paradise all on its own. Our courage to take on the lack of comfort has been hugely rewarded and we wish, in fact, we could stay. But another great trip is over, and we bid long farewells to our new friends.
One last treat on the way to the airport as we find lunch in Ait Malloul, brochettes de foie, that’s liver kebabs, delicious!!