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High Atlas Facts

Jbel Toubkal is the highest mountain in Morocco at 13, 676 ft (4,167 meters) located 39 miles (63 Km) south of Marrakesh.

The Atlas Mountains

A Travelogue of Morocco:  The Atlas Mountains and Essaouira (Part I) 

 

Onward.  As we approach the foot of the mountains, I begin to grow concerned about driving through the pass.  Matthew, my travel partner, is less anxious and I use a little of his confidence to propel onward. The Tizi n'Tichka is a steep tortuous road that climbs up and then down the bottom bulge of the High Atlas range. Hugging jagged cliffs, it winds through sudden remote villages with populations of anywhere between fifty and five hundred. Flocks of children scamper through the street, stopping to gawk at us with expressions we cannot decipher-either resentment or curiosity. Towns with swishing Berber names like Agerssif and Taddert and Ouarzazate come and go clinging to the backs of small valleys and ravines; each one unique in backdrop and pace. Between the towns, more boys on bicycles and giggling gaggles of young girls hiking along the roadside in search of recreation. Many sterling native men can be found perched on the guardrails staring at their remarkable corner of the earth, likely never remiss to take the splendor for granted. Some are enterprising, waiting patiently at sharp curves with delightful ruby and emerald rock sediments, handmade ceramics, rugs; each one looks disappointed in the rear view mirror as we pass. The mountains themselves are dynamic. From frightful precipes we can see across fathomless gorges, which drop out of sight below. Climbing, climbing, daring ourselves on, the pass becomes more and more treacherous, and brazen local grand taxis as well as tour buses and freight trucks zoom through, tailgating, passing imprudently causing much alarm. The landscape changes complexion gradually but steadily, starting with standard beige rock forms, which slink into gulches that turn from dry riverbeds to lush groves of pine and oleander. Then, for about forty-five minutes through the middle of the peaks, the land becomes extremely fertile and complex. The rocks turn to hardened blood red sand slipping under stout palms and more pines. The colors have gone from cool and muted to lavish and dense—blacks, umbers, crimsons, olives, and I'm hoping Matthew is getting quality pictures because my focus has to stay with the road. As the n'Tichka descends and ceases to be so coiled, the land dries out once again, becoming gravelly and lifeless. Peril avoided, I'm able to concentrate a little more on the still staggering line of peaks and crags and wide wandering foothills. I speed through in absolute bewilderment; the car is silent; I'm thinking about God in various contexts. We stop for lunch at I Rocha, a sanctuary on a high hill in the Anti-Atlas town of Tisselday. The host greets us in the driveway and leads us in. He is a Moroccan-born geologist, married to a cautious but friendly French woman, and this is their home. It is a small palace with a magnificent pool and hidden rooms filled with fine Berber furniture. We are led out to a terrace overlooking four neighboring villages. The man explains a little about the area and advises us on what, where, and how for the journey onward. He is patient and affable and I can tell very intelligent. We talk about Ramadan and how it will be ending with the new moon. He tells us he does not observe because he's wary of religious practices endorsed by the masses. 'Anything a lot of people do, there has to be something wrong.' This reasoning pleases me greatly. The meal is delicious—saffron lemon chicken and vermicelli dashed with cinnamon. We leave with kind farewells and continue on down the road, which flattens out and becomes less compelling than the previous kilometers—a flinty expanse of little vegetation and few inhabitants—just road, road, road, and barren inert earth. We are beginning to encounter the first real Kasbahs—ancient Berber castles—relics—ruins of a civilization, which the aboriginals still venerate today. Also, there is the new obstacle of audacious modern nomads, young, in purple cloaks and sandy turbans staging automobile breakdowns to get a ride up the road. A few run into our lane, forcing me to stop. They explain their case but each time my suspicions are too strong so I accelerate and swerve around them. Before the final stretch there is one more mountain pass, unmentioned in our guidebooks, barely discernable on the map, but as we ascend, it turns out to be a more harrowing drive than the n'Tichka. The curves and degrees are sharper and the mountains are harder and less verdant—the landscape is a perilous alien planet; I cannot relate at all. Almost five hours of driving by this point, every joint in every limb aches from all the clutching and shifting and steering. The pass is longer than it appears on the map and every ounce of my anticipation is now on the appearance of Agdz, the next town and final stop—the lip of the Draa Valley. I start to spot coppices of palm trees, which continue to grow in frequency as we descend, approaching town. Then, in a dale below sprouts Agdz. The town hosts two points of interest—some of the oldest, most important Kasbahs in the region and vast grassy palmeraies, tall and luxuriant, compacted between the hills. We find a hotel near one of both with plans to explore and stay the night and it goes as planned. Before touring the Kasbah, we go back into town to buy batteries for the camera and perhaps to tarry. I drag us into one dim, dusty carpet shop and the Berber gentlemen is a charming salesman who ends up pushing a little too much for our purchases in the end. Matthew comes out with a fine silver necklace as a gift for his boss.  
 
The room at the hotel is affordable and the Kasbah is a mystifying fortress on a high mound of silt and shale. A guide takes us through the crumbled quarters, explaining the history of each apartment and salon. He is vacant and disingenuous and I don't pay him much attention. Instead I snap pictures of the old stone angles and imagine when it was all unspoiled and opulent—a space for great lords and their concubines. I take bits of information from the guide. For a long time the area was comprised of three primary groups of people—the Berbers, the Jews, and a population of Blacks, transient from the south. It was a Berber domain and the remaining village and abandoned Kasbah was theirs. Information is wonderful but I'm, as always, concerned with the light of the place. A grey dusk settles in, broken in places with the glow of the red setting sun. We are atop a hill about hundred feet off the ground, overlooking the largest area of the palmeraie; the green from the leaves radiates against the shadowy evening sky. With nothing to contradict, I feel like a 16th century poet, peering out over the face of the land, swilling thoughts and theories on the movement of the universe and trajectory of the species. The day is ending because the sun tells it. Through the clouds. Regardless of clouds, the sun will always tell it. Time is a svelte bride walking ponderously through the hall. So on and so forth. More pictures. I start to feel somewhat exploitive so I direct us back to the hotel where we have a moonlit meal of various tajines, red wine, fresh bread and traditional Harira—a bean soup served on the day following the conclusion of every Ramadan. After dinner we climb to the roof, smoke a spliff and gaze upward at the magnificent starlit firmament—lights visible from trillions more miles away than back home.

The Atlas Mountains and Essaouira Part II >>

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