Nomads in the Sky

We leave our hotel in the Todra Gorge early, trying to start our climb before the heat of the day is at its worst. We started climbing immediately along a rough dirt track. The walls of the gorge looked like those of the grand canyon, polished red rock veined with dry washes. The trail and the washes are filled with fist-sized cobbles, which make walking tricky. When the rains come, the sound of the water rolling rocks down the canyon and the sound of falling stones echoing off of the canyon calls must be deafening.

We climb, and climb. The trail is obviously used, and has been used recently. We pass fresh dung as well as broken green shoots of some bush on the trail. The shoots have fallen off of a mule’s load, while the dung is the nule itself.

We climb a side gorge into the sun. Todra is supposed to be a cool place, chilly to lowland Moroccans. It sits at about 4,000 feet, with the canyon walls ascending vertically for another 3,000 feet. But once we hike out of the shade and into the sun the heat immediately becomes intense. My hat develops a ring of sweat, and Dan and I lag behind the group. We are not highly active people, and we are feeling it.

joshua / atlas mountains, morocco

As we climb a dog joins us. It is yellow, with red marks of blood on its muzzle. It follows us closely, finding a shady spot to lay down whenever we pause in our climb.

Across the gorge, a goat bleats. As we watch an entire herd comes around a corner and drops down the wash, heading to lower ground. We don’t see a goatherd, but Mark assures us that one is following and tending the herd.

We continue climbing, and a second dog joins the first. They are both fairly ragged, and stay a few feet behind us. After a while we pause, and the dogs start looking for shade. Apparently there is not enough. The dogs leap at one another snarling, their teeth bared. They fight, not 3 feet from where we stant in shock. Then I grabbed a rock and throw it, hitting one of the dogs on its foot, and scaring both of them. With a yelp, then both run down the trail. The original one continues to follow us, but more warily… from about 100′ back.

stopping to rest, with dogs / todra gorge, morocco

Two hours later we reach a peak, and are looking down over the Todra valley. Along the river is a deep green strip a quarter mile wide. Irrigation allows for crops, and palm trees provide shade to allow the moisture to last longer. Outside this strip everything is brown scrub as far as I can see, and I can see a long way.

We drop back down to a pass, and Mark mentions that the mule droppings continue along the trail up and over a different peak, which probably means that nomads are camping up there. We are game, so we head back up again, climbing up and over the rounded mountain to a fairly flat area on the other side. As we drop down into this shallow high-altitude valley, we can see a single large tent and a half dozen stone shelters, most with no roof.

amazight burro / above todra gorge, morocco

Coming towards us is a burro, followed by a man in traditional amazigh dress. He greets Mark in arabic, then invites us to visit his camp and have some tea. We thank him. He continues down the mountain, and we walk through the rocks and scrub to the camp.

In camp are four women… all of the men have gone down the mountain that morning. (I think there are three men… the one who invited us to camp, the goatherd, and another man we passed on the trail.)  Their main shelter is a dark brown tent woven from goat hair. The goat hair acts like goretex… it breathes in warm weather, but when the hair gets wet, it swells and closes the gaps to keep rain out. Beneath this tent are rugs for sleeping.

amazigh tent / atlas mountains, morocco

On one side of the tent a fire is burning, and a young girl is boiling water. She asks us if we will have some tea, and we thank her. She washes the glasses by pouring hot water into them, then swishing it around the inside and outside of the glasses by hand. She does this glass-by-glass.

Meanwhile our group sits down on rocks on the other side of the tent. There, an older woman (Grandma) and a middle-aged woman (Mother) are weaving more cloth for the tent. Each of them mans a stake in the ground about 30′ apart while a younger woman (Daughter-in-law) runs back and forth with a large ball of goat yarn, making loop after loop on the stakes. Daughter-in-law is obviously the low woman on the totem pole… not only does she have the most active job, but she does it with a baby strapped to her back. Two other children peek shyly out from the tent.

amazigh / atlas mountains, morocco

The young daughter (probably 16 years of age) brings us tea. Sweetened tea is universal in Morocco, and comes in two main varieties. There is green tea with sugar, and then there is green tea with sugar and mint. They are both very refreshing in the Morrocan heat. The tea is served to us near-boiling, and as sweet as the young girl’s smile when she serves a glass to Joshua. We sip the tea while watching the women loop the wool. The young girl makes goo-goo eyes at Joshua, who was oblivious to her affections. We joke about Joshua taking a wife. Joshua squirms.

brewing tea for guests / atlas mountains, morocco

imazighen family / atlas mountains, morocco

Nearby a small herd of goats grazed in the scrub. Joshua goes over with the goal of catching one, but the goats are wary. The Mother shouts instructions in arabic, which Mark translates. “Move steady towards them!” “Go for the old ones, they are very slow!” (Grandma shoots Mother a dirty look.) “You almost got that one!” Joshua doesn’t catch a goat, though he does manage to touch one.

We pay the women a few dirham for the tea, and for allowing us to take a few photos, then we head down the mountain. Each of us is wondering what it would be like to be born a nomad. To get water, they walk down 3,000 feet vertically and along 4 miles of trail, then up again with the water. They do this daily. And periodically, they pick up everything they own and moved to a different place. I’m not sure what the others are feeling, but I’m feeling very lucky to have been born in the U.S., and to have had the opportunities for education that my family and my country gave me.

What do you think?