Tales of a scorched earth in Tafraoute


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Africa » Morocco » Souss » Tafraoute
April 23rd 2019
Published: November 24th 2019
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A stone from the hand of a friend is an apple ~ Moroccan Proverb



HE SAID...
Today we were travelling northeast from Sidi Ifni to Tafraoute.

We woke early, prepared our packs and headed down to Hotel Safa’s bleak dining area for breakfast, where we were served mint tea, orange juice, boiled eggs, baguettes, croissants and honey. It was a fairly basic affair, but enough to energise us for a travel day.

We left Sidi Ifni (a remote coastal outpost in southern Morocco) around 9am and drove northwards up the Atlantic coast. We were heading into the Anti-Atlas mountains, but we were stopping first at Tiznit to pick up some supplies for a picnic lunch. After a quick nous nous (a local café latte) in a local café, we picked up some laughing cow cheese, chocolate digestives and cold drinks from a local supermarket, along with a fresh (still warm) baguette and cakes from a local bakery.

This was our second visit to Tiznit. We’d stopped here a few days earlier on our southward journey to Sidi Ifni. As I wandered the ville nouvelle (new city), I felt compelled to make an observation, but an old adage kept recurring in my head – you should always refrain from saying anything if you have nothing positive to say. However, there are times when it’s hard to hold back on an observation, and this was one of them. So I didn’t. Tiznit is not a place of beauty. It can only be described as a place of pragmatic convenience. A place you pass through on your way to somewhere else. I should point out that I didn’t visit Tiznit’s medina, so my observation was restricted to the modern development that surrounds the old walled city. Maybe I should have heeded the old adage…

Anyway, we left Tiznit and started travelling east. We were heading to Tafraoute, a secluded village high in the Anti-Atlas, and the road started to get very windy. I always use my laptop when I travel, and I’m rarely troubled by motion in buses, trains and planes. In fact, I get the vast majority of my writing done on the road and in the air. However, this day was different. As we wound our way up into the mountains I started feeling the tell-tale signs of motion sickness, so I stopped typing – and immediately felt better. I think it was karma for my comments about Tiznit. 😊

Unable to write, I gazed out the minibus window and marvelled at the surrounding scenery, which in turn lulled me to sleep. When I woke we were driving through a heavy mist, and the mountains were hidden from view. The road was steep and narrow (and still very windy), so I didn’t bother powering up the laptop. When we stopped on the roadside for a picnic lunch in the early afternoon, we were in the middle of nowhere. Literally. Occasionally a car would drive past, and we would wave optimistically, hoping to be acknowledged in return. Some waved back, others didn’t. Passing cars were the only signs of life in this barren landscape, so their momentary presence was noteworthy.

The baguette we’d picked up from Tiznit was incredibly fresh. It was still warm when we bought it, and it was perfect with the laughing cow cheese. I loved this picnic stop. It may have been cold and isolated, but it was also unique. Very much so. We were sitting on the side of the road in a remote part of the Anti-Atlas, and we were alone. There was no one but us and the odd passing car. I often crave silence and mountain air, and both were in abundance here.

However, it was quite brisk! A cold wind was squalling through the mountains and chilling our bones, so it was time to go. We piled back into the minibus and continued our journey, arriving in Tafraoute in the mid-afternoon. Shadowed on all sides by red granite mountains, this remote and sleepy village sits in the floor of the Ameln Valley, and it was a sight to behold as we navigated the narrow roads to Chez Amaliya, our Dutch-inspired accommodation for the night.

With little time to spare, we dropped our packs in our small but comfortable room, jumped back into the minibus and headed to a desolate location just outside the village to visit the famous (or should I say infamous) painted rocks project. This place beggared belief. As I stared in disbelief at the reckless and bizarre vista that confronted me, the old adage returned – always refrain from saying anything if you have nothing positive to say. However, I was unable to hold my thoughts on this absurd piece of land art...

In 1984, Belgian artist Jean Verame coated a bunch of rocks with paint in this desolate valley. Rather than paint the landscape on canvas, Verame decided to paint the landscape itself, and he had tonnes of paint for the job. Why? I’ve no idea, but I’m assuming he was a rampant exhibitionist who needed to stand out from the crowd. But why Morocco? Why not a location in Belgium (his own country), or neighbouring France, Germany or the Netherlands? Maybe environmental regulations were loose in Morocco in the 80s, and he didn’t have to justify the environmental impact of synthetic paint on the valley’s flora and fauna. Maybe he didn’t have to justify how his brash project would be sympathetic to the surrounding earthen terrain. The painted rocks before me reflected the arrogant simplicity of an untalented artist.

To make matters a hell of a lot worse, a Moroccan paint company has decided to resuscitate Verame’s fading monstrosity, and the result is garish to the extreme. Verame’s original work was objectionable, but the painted rocks have now reached unimaginable heights of environmental vandalism. But I’ve said too much. The project attracts tourists (including me), and this has had a positive impact on the local economy. As a result, locals support its perpetuation. If Verame’s vision has put Tafraoute on the map, then this type of land art has a place after all.

And I have to confess… I climbed all over the rocks like a little kid, which I wouldn’t have done if they weren’t lurid blue and red, so I found myself brandishing an awkward double standard. Heed the old adage! Anyway, it was time to go. We jumped into the minibus and drove back to the main township of Tafraoute, passing a number of empty houses and encountering some very dodgy sections of road along the way.

Tafraoute is a sleepy village in a remote section of the Anti-Atlas, and this made it very appealing. We wandered its empty streets and explored its central market (which was by no means crowded), and I was surprised by the number of stalls making and selling Berber shoes. I initially assumed each stall was making shoes with a distinguishing point of difference from every other shoemaker, but no – they were all making similar shoes with similar patterns. How on earth were they all surviving, and how on earth were customers choosing between all the shoes? Maybe I was trying to make sense of the market from a capitalist perspective? I’m not sure, but the stallholders were all very friendly, and there was no underlying rivalry or competitiveness.

On emerging from the market, we jumped into the minibus and drove to the outskirts of the village to visit a traditional Berber house. Built from stone, clay and wood from argan trees, the house was set in steep scree at the base of a red granite mountain. It melded into the mountainside to such an extent that it almost disappeared from view as we approached it by foot along the valley floor. This wasn’t a trick of the light – it was as if the place had become a living part of the surrounding terrain.

We were met at the door by Mustapha. This was his father’s house, but it was no longer inhabited. The place hadn’t been lived in for forty years. As Mustapha guided us through the rooms and levels of this old earthen dwelling, I couldn’t help but notice a degree of curation at play, but I didn’t mind in the least. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I listened to Mustapha describe the life of his parents, and their subsistence here had been tough. Really tough.

Split across three levels, the kitchen and sleeping areas were in the middle of the house, livestock occupied the ground level and a guest room was located on the top level –which was never used by the family! The parents slept in a narrow hallway between rooms on the middle level. Why on earth would you sleep in a dark hallway when you have an empty (guest-ready) room with a view?

Mustapha invited us to join him and his elderly father in the upstairs guest room, where we were welcomed with a traditional Moroccan tea ceremony. As we sat on an assortment of colourful rugs and enjoyed mint tea and biscuits, the father (who is now blind) asked for a banjo. I didn’t know what to expect, because he seemed a little unfamiliar with the instrument at first, but after plucking a few familiar lines he relaxed and the music returned to his fingers. When Mustapha joined him on a djembe (Moroccan drum), they both started singing. The father would sing a line, then Mustapha would sing a line – always sequentially, and never at the same time. Each line seemed to be a direct response to the previous one, and it was a mesmerising listening experience – despite being in the Berber language. I usually groan silently in social settings when someone picks up an instrument and starts playing – it’s such a look at me, look at me thing to do. This, however, was very different. I felt privileged to be sitting in this old earthen house listening to a father and son playing traditional Berber music. I imagined Mustapha and the old man playing music together when they were much younger. I imagined the hardship of their life dissipating through music. This, for me, was an absolute highlight of our Moroccan travels to-date.

Shrouded in light rain and a mountain chill, we left Mustapha and his father and headed back to our hotel (Chez Amaliya) in the early evening. We settled at a long table in the hotel’s formal restaurant for dinner and enjoyed harira (Moroccan tomato soup), chicken and vegetables with stuffed zucchini, and a flan with peanut base and salted caramel sauce. It was a great meal, but not very Moroccan (apart from the harira). Our Dutch host was catering to the quintessential European tourist, and justifiably so, because they filled every other table in the restaurant. A particularly snarky French bloke scolded me for leaving the restaurant door open for too long when I entered the room. His table was close to the door, so I suppose there was a draft. But mate, just relax – you’re on holiday in the mountains. 😊

After an enjoyable meal, we retired to the cosy hotel bar for a few drinks. Well, I suppose you could call them drinks. I ordered a beer and looked in disbelief when the barman placed the tiniest bottle of Flag Spéciale (a Moroccan pilsner) in front of me – it literally disappeared in a single gulp!

Feeling exhausted and elated after a long day of travel, we retired early at 10:30pm. We’d fallen for the charm of this remote mountain village, and we would have loved to spend some more time here. However, we were leaving first thing in the morning. Our destination? A surf resort on the Atlantic coast…



SHE SAID...
Today we were travelling from Sidi Ifni to Tafraoute, via Tiznit, by minibus.

We woke at 6:30am, seconds before the alarm went off. Our bodies had very much adjusted to the Moroccan time zone. However, I still struggled with the lack of light in the mornings. For some unknown reason the Moroccan government has decided to keep the daylight savings clock all through winter… so the mornings were particularly dark, with sunrise well after 7am.

The hotel served the same simple breakfast as the day before – baguettes, a croissant, laughing cow cheese, butter, honey and a boiled egg. I had started getting my appetite back, and I was seriously missing the msemen (flaky Moroccan flatbread) breakfasts we’d enjoyed in the northern and central parts of the trip.

We left Sidi Ifni at 9am and faced a three hour drive to Tafraoute, but our journey was broken up with a stop in Tiznit to buy supplies for a roadside picnic later on. We bought drinks, laughing cow cheese, and chocolate digestive biscuits (a travel staple of mine) from a small supermarket we’d shopped at before; and then drove to the cutest little roadside bakery to get fresh, still-warm baguettes. I couldn’t resist a coconut covered cakey thing in the display cabinet that turned out to be a delicious fudgy semolina dessert.

We were again driving through the stark black Anti-Atlas Mountains, but this time we were crossing them to get to Tafraoute in the central Anti-Atlas Mountains. The road was particularly twisting and winding, and despite being securely seat-belted, I was jolted awake whenever the minibus negotiated a sharp bend in the road – which was quite often. So I gave up on the idea of napping and alternated between writing notes and playing ‘Who Am I’ and ‘Charades’-type guessing games with Tom, Ineke and Monica.

We eventually stopped on the side of the road for a picnic lunch under argan trees. However, what should have been a beautiful picnic in a picturesque setting was totally overshadowed by a cold and biting wind. I enjoyed our fresh baguette with cheese, but the cold wind ensured that we didn’t last long… and we scurried back onto the bus the very minute we finished eating.

We were heading inland to the town of Tafraoute in the Ameln Valley. The landscape was striking but monotonous. It consisted wholly of a series of gorges and hills covered in barren rock, with sporadic small trees and shrubs adding some greenery. It was the rockiest topography we’d seen on the whole trip. The only variation in scenery was the gradual change in colour of the rocks from black/dark grey to brown/dark red.

The Ameln Valley contains about 30 villages and we arrived in picturesque Tafraoute, the largest town, at around 5pm. The town was tightly guarded by red granite mountains in all directions. It could have been a scene from Mars.

The rocky mountains have vaguely identifiable ‘shapes’ and ‘faces’ that had been named by the locals. We stopped at signs along the road that had photos of the rocks with a red circle around the specific bits that formed the face or shape. The iconic Napoleon's Hat rock formation was quite obvious, but the Baby Monkey was harder to spot – and even when we did spot it, it looked more like Winston Churchill than a baby monkey to me. My favourite of them all was the Lion’s Face that morphed into a gorilla face if you changed your focus to a different set of shadows. 😊

We checked in and dropped our bags at our lovely looking hotel (Chez Amaliya) before driving through the Ameln Valley to check out an odd sounding tourist attraction in the area – the Painted Rocks. In 1984 Belgian artist Jean Verame painted giant granite boulders in the valley in many bright colours, apparently with the help of the Tafraoute Fire Brigade and 18 tonnes of paint.

Near the small village of Aguerd Oudad, our minibus dropped us off at the top of a ridge. We braved a strong cross-wind and rock-hopped down into a valley where we could see the crazy spectacle of brightly coloured boulders down below. On one side of the valley, I could see the original painted rocks that have now faded to baby blues and pinks. But these are being dramatically upstaged by a sea of gawdy rocks that were being painted as we watched – in bright blues, reds and yellow – it was truly hideous. It was a lesson in how to uglify a beautiful natural valley in one fell swoop. 😞

Andrew and Khalid (our tour leader) decided to climb up to the highest boulders, while we walked around at ground level and watched the painters using industrial equipment to spray paint the rocks. I was disappointed that we had been a few days too late to see the original work, because I honestly couldn’t see any artistic merit in the present project. I was dismayed by the whole thing.

As we drove out of the valley, we saw a gorgeous little Barbary ground squirrel, and we asked the driver to stop in order to try and photograph it. Sadly, Andrew spooked the little thing by opening a squeaky window and I couldn’t get the shot. In the next instant our driver had flung open his door and started chasing the squirrel over the boulders. We were rather bewildered by this behaviour and thought he was trying to catch the squirrel for a photo opportunity… but Khalid explained that it was because the squirrels make good eating! We cheered when the squirrel got away. 😊

We drove back to Tafraoute to explore the town. It’s a very traditional Berber settlement, and often referred to as ‘the Berber Heartland’. A large silver monument of a Berber fibula symbol (an inverted triangle) in the central square broadcasted this fact too. We walked through the small but interesting market. The locals pride themselves on traditional Berber craftsmanship in woodwork, tribal silver jewellery and leatherwork – mostly displayed in their eye catching and unique handmade babouche shoes. The different coloured leather distinguishes between shoes for men (bright yellow), and other colours for women. The various embroidered patterns and embellishments like pompoms further distinguish between married and unmarried women.

Tafraoute is also the largest producer of almonds in Morocco, and we watched a man making amlou with roasted almonds. Amlou is an oily spread made with ground almonds, argan oil and honey – a kind of almond nut butter. We were served this as a breakfast spread in Aroumd, and even though I had expected to love it, I wasn’t a fan of its consistency or the slightly sap-like aftertaste (I assume from the argan oil). I would choose peanut butter or pure honey over it.

As we walked around Tafraoute, it was clear this wasn’t a touristy destination. We were the only tourists around. It was also very clear that the locals were extremely friendly and very welcoming of us. It was such a pleasure walking through a market where the craftsman were happy and proud to show us their products. If my pack wasn’t already bulging at the seams, I may have bought a pair of brightly coloured shoes… although I’m weary of the fact that even though items of clothing may look good in situ, they can look wildly out of place at home.

We drove further through the Ameln Valley to the small village of d’oumesnat. It looked like all the other villages I’d seen in the valley – pinky red mudbrick buildings with white trim that hugged the rocky slopes. The minibus dropped us off at the end of the road and we walked into the village through garden plots separated by dry-stone retaining walls and houses that looked derelict.

It had been overcast all day and the heavens opened as we walked to La Maison Berbere Traditionnelle, an old family kasbah that has been converted into a Berber ‘museum’. We were greeted at the door by the very affable Mustapha. This had been his family home many years ago, but they had moved to more comfortable housing when he was a child. Instead of letting the old house crumble into dust as many old kasbahs have, Mustapha’s father wanted to preserve their cultural heritage.

Mustapha showed us around the old home – the bottom level was the stables that housed their livestock at night and in winter; the next level contained the family kitchen in the middle, and two small rooms to the side – one for the children and one for storage, while the parents slept on mats in the hallway! The kitchen was full of ancient traditional Berber implements and crockery. I was so engrossed in looking at the items in the room and that I nearly stepped in a large hole in the ground which I think was the compost chute down to the stables!

The third level contained the guest sitting room, and this was by far the most comfortable room in the house. It was painted a bright blue, and decorated with traditional Moroccan rugs, wall hangings and cultural ornaments. Mustapha’s elderly blind father was up here waiting for us. We sat on cushions on the carpet and were treated to a tea ceremony by Mustapha, using very antique looking appliances and utensils. While we waited for the tea to brew, Mustapha decided that he was going to dress Ness and Tom in Berber attire… in Berber wedding attire! It was hilarious! Ness and Tom were very good sports and embraced their new roles, and even performed a 'wedding dance’ for us.

After the mint tea was served with biscuits, Mustapha played a banjo, and with his dad accompanying on drums, they performed a few traditional songs for us. Mustapha and his dad truly demonstrated the warm Berber hospitality we’d heard about and sensed as we walked around Tafraoute. It had been a very informative and entertaining afternoon, and I enjoyed the experience very much.

After a day on the road and then exploring various parts of the Ameln Valley, we returned to Chez Amaliya to relax before dinner. It was a very comfortable hotel, with an airy reception area complete with a bar and restaurant at the front, while our rooms were set around a pool at the back. It was too cold and rainy for the pool, but the view was spectacular – we were in the direct gaze of the Lion’s Face rock formation. However, this hotel definitely wasn’t the type of place we normally stay in. Although the buildings looked and felt very Moroccan, it was owned by a Dutch expat, and the hotel seemed to have been set up to make foreigners feel at home rather than to ensure they knew they were in Morocco.

Dinner was included at the hotel, and I was grateful for this, as the hotel was a few kilometres from the town and we were all quite tired. We embraced the non-Moroccan-ness of our venue and ordered alcoholic drinks – Andrew had beers and I had rum with mixed fruit juice. We started with a harira (a minestrone-like hearty soup of tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and noodles), which was one of the more delicious ones we’d had. Main course was roast chicken with vegetables and a zucchini stuffed with rice. The dessert course was my favourite – a wobbly caramel flan with a peanut biscuit base and salted caramel sauce. It was absolutely delicious! Even though the food was decidedly un-local, we didn’t mind because it was all so tasty.

After dinner Andrew joined Tom in the bar for a few drinks, while I showered and joined them later to try my luck with the wifi – with no luck. When we eventually retired for the night, the bed was super comfortable and cosy, and I was happy to enjoy the best night’s sleep since I'd got sick. Due to this fabulous fact I forgave the rather small and poky room, and the wet bathroom.

I really loved our brief time in Tafraoute and the Ameln Valley. It was great to experience another tribe (or possibly sub-tribe) of the broad family that is the Berber people in Morocco.

Next we travel northwest to Taghazout, on Morocco’s surf coast.

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24th November 2019
d’oumesnat village

Those villages are so picturesque
Those sand coloured villages clinging on to the sides of dry mountain sides are so picturesque. I just love them. I saw plenty of those when I was in Jemen many years ago and some in Morocco and also in Tunisia they are abundant. /Ake
24th November 2019
d’oumesnat village

Re: Those villages are so picturesque
They certainly are Ake! :) I was fascinated by how these little villages blended into their surrounds, mostly because they were mudbrick buildings... but even the newer cement houses were painted the exact colour of the surrounding earth.
24th November 2019

Villages and markets
You have seen so much of Morocco. I'm jealous!
24th November 2019

Re: Villages and markets
Thank you for following our trip and commenting Josie :)

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