“Time in the wild reminds me how much of what I ordinarily do is mere dithering, how much of what I own is mere encumbrance. The opposite of simplicity, as I understand it, is not complexity but clutter.” – Scott Sander
Leaving Fes, we head out, swapping train for the inevitable tourist mini-bus that always makes a show on these group tours. As mini-bus standards go…this one is pretty good, comfortable, air conditioned and spacious enough to allow each person a window seat, on both the sunny and shaded side of the bus.
Off the railway and on to the roads – this is starting to bode well for my search for sand dunes… at least until we start heading across the Atlas mountains and hit the alpine ski resorts! Ski fields, pitched roof houses and yes…that was snow on the ground! Did I fall asleep and get put on a plane to the alps?
The small alpine town of Ifrane, in the Atlas Mountains is more like a village in Switzerland than one in North Africa. Tidy, ordered streets of neat red-roofed houses, lined with flower boxes and lake studded parks surrounding the town are a surreal sight in a country famous for its medinas, markets and sand -dunes.
This is the playgound of the trendy and affluent of Morocco, who come here to picnic in summer and ski in winter. Expensive cars, Audis, Mercedes can be found parked down the side streets in front of cafes and restaurants.
In the centre of town sits a stone statue of a Lion, carved by a german soldier in WWII, when Ifrane was briefly used a a POW camp. The statue commemorates the last white lion – shot in the 1920s not far from the town.
A pretty town… but no dunes….
Not far up the road we reach the cedar forests, with its famous Barbary Apes – which are actually Macaque monkeys. For 10 Durham you can buy a bag of peanuts to feed them. These ones are well fed and quickly become bored with the offerings. Compared with those in Bali's monkey forest they are well mannered, and don't grope you for food or steal your sunglasses.
The area has been home to a number of plant and animal species unique in Africa, often more like those of Europe; many of them are endangered and some have already gone extinct. Apart from the Barbary Macaque, there are many others – the Atlas Bear (Africa's only species of bear; now extinct), the Barbary Leopard, the Barbary stag, Barbary Sheep, the Barbary Lion (extinct in the wild), the Atlas Mountain Badger, the North African Elephant (extinct), the African Aurochs (extinct), Cuvier's Gazelle, the Northern Bald Ibis, Dippers, the Atlas mountain viper, the Atlas Cedar, the European Black Pine, and the Algerian Oak.
The Atlas mountains, consist of three main ranges – Middle Atlas, High Atlas and Anti Atlas and are primarily considered the territory of the Berbers. Berbers are the indigenous North Africans, having inhabited the north coast of Africa ranging from present day Morocco to Egypt, for at least 5,000 years. The Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th century forced Berbers to assimilate, or take refuge in the Atlas mountains. It is said that as much as 80% of the Moroccan population is racially Berber, however only half of those people live culturally Berber lifestyles.
Berbers have adopted Islam as their primary religion, but continue to speak dialectic Berber in their villages, and practice Berber music, spirituality, and art. The Atlas mountains are home to relatively pure Berber populations, who live in earthen adobe houses. Marrakech is the only Moroccan city with a recognizable Berber ambiance, being situated at the base of the southern Atlas mountains. The color of Marrakech is the color of the Berbers – reddish, ochre and earth tones.
A walk through a traditional Berber village gives us an insight into their lives. Visiting the village is like stepping into the past. Women carry water from the river, cook in traditional outdoor ovens, have stables for their donkeys and cows, and outdoor showers where hot water is carried from the fire. Modernisation is slowly coming to the villages though. Cement floors replace dirt, young villagers carry smart phones, and houses all have cable satellite dishes!
Traditionally, men take care of livestock. They migrate by following the natural cycle of grazing, and seeking water and shelter. This way they are assured an abundance of wool, cotton and plants used for dyeing. Women look after the family and handicrafts – first for their personal use, and secondly for sale in the souqs in their locality. Women often move from house to house, completing their crafts, providing a good opportunity to get together and catch up on the village gossip.
Berbers traditionally have a higher life expectancy than most, with a greater number of centenarians than most populations, fresh organic food, no chemicals in the environment, working for themselves…. All the things we are striving for. We look at them through a western perspective as a poor third world population. There is no complexity, no clutter.
I wonder… Who is really better off?