Being back onto the sealed road after this incredible track between Merzouga and Zagora is not so much fun and we decide to take a shortcut to get to the Atlas foothills, north of our current position.
A tea and maybe more…
We find ourselves onto a tricky path once again, carved through the rocky mountains and leading to the many berber villages of the area. At the turning of a bend, we spot men working on making the track accessing the village below better. We wave to say hello and soon reach the village, where the women welcome us displaying the bracelets, key rings and other berber coloured crafting they sell on markets and to tourists passing by.
Naïma, a young woman of a rare beauty, invites us nicely but very very firmly to have a cup of tea, and so we follow her, amused by her outspokenness (or rather her eccentricity, for we don’t really understand what she’s saying) and her spontaneity. She leads us trough the village to her house, and we have to help her feed and water her sheep before being invited to step in.
Once seated on cushions around the table, more women join us, sisters, aunts and cousins who instantly start babbling happily in amazigh, very probably about us judging by the funny looks they openly give us. They keep looking at me and end up wrapping scarfs made of multicoloured beads around my hair. I must look funny because they start laughing and tell Toni to take a picture of me, making it very clear that the picture must be of me, not of them. It is the same all around the country, women really don’t like pictures…
But their attention is soon diverted from me, when they understand that Toni and I are a couple and that Ebrahim… is single!! From then on, the conversation turns towards him, and Naïma sates that he is hers, for she saw him first. We’ve heard before that sometimes, berber women’s conversations could make even the most liberated westerner blush, and we can now testify of its veracity… This is not a legend, and I can tell you that in the space of a few hours, we did blush and more than once! Because they are just as much explicit with their bodies as they are with their words, that we therefore don’t need to understand to make out what’s being made very clear. And Naïma made very clear that she intended to marry Ebrahim…
At the end, it’s Ebi himself who’ begging us to leave, so uncomfortable is now… So we decide get on our way before things run out of control for real, Toni and I laughing while Ebi scowls us to stop. Which will work, just a few hours later…
The Valley of Roses
After this adventure we join the main road that leads to Kelaat M’Gouna, economical, commercial and social center of the area, and gate to the famous Valley of Roses. We’re in the Atlas foothills, at the altitude of 1500 metres, and it one the very few places sheltering the perfect conditions for the Damascus rose to thrive.
So we enter the valley, looking for a spot to spend the night. Not an easy thing in a place where crops cover every flat inch by the river. In the Ebi will save the night, spotting an empty space that looks flat enough to make camp on the Google map’s satellite view (very useful!). We try to get there, but the track is so narrow that we’re thinking about turning back, when a lady comes out and asks us if we’re the customers she’s waiting for. When we explain that we’re looking for a place to camp, she confirms that if we manage to get through, there is indeed a nice place by the river.
Next morning we learn that although late of two weeks, the roses harvest have just began throughout the whole valley, and so we venture on foot on the other side of the river to admire the fields… But we soon discover that instead of extensive fields (they do exist but further down, in the plain), here the roses are planted traditionally around the subsistance wheat and alfalfa crops, in protective hedges against the goats among other things.
It should be pointed out that because the people here don’t have the resources to buy expensive chemicals so treat their fields, they use instead ancestral methods of crop rotation and diversification. Therefore it is the diverse species growing that take care of each other, such as the alfalfa, which roots enriches the soil with the azote naturally present in the air… And it works, for on very little spaces they manage to produce wheat, alfalfa, figues, almonds, olives, peaches, apricots, apples, pomegranates, nuts, dattes, peas and of course the beautiful roses!
Historically used for its medicinal and cosmetic properties, the Damascus rose today provides an additional source of revenue, trough the fabrication and exportation of rose water. From the moment the firsts rays of sun activates the flower photosynthesis liberating its fragrance, the women get to work. During four hours, they will harvest the blooming flowers to be distilled, along with the buds about to open to be dried and used to craft perfumed sachets. They then go to the village, where the husband (or the brother) takes over to get the bags weighed and retrieve the money… Hum.
Anyway, these few hours wandering around the valley were nice, and we get back on the road after enjoying a nice berber omelette, of which I’ll soon share a personalised version of the recipe!
On the oued track
We leave the Valley of Roses et are now on our way the Dades gorges. We stop in front of a boulangerie so that Ebrahim can get some bread while Toni, always on the watch, checks the car and the tires… Obviously a great idea for there is an oil leak coming from the breaks! Knowing that the road will only get steeper, we decide to turn back to find a place and try to fix it. Meanwhile, Ebi gets back with a funny look on his face… A kid that was just leaving the boulangerie when he got there tried to sell him the baguettes he had just purchased for three times the normal price!! Oh but you’re right, always good to try 😉
Once settled, we take the hi lift out for the first time. We have no choice but to dismount the wheel to find the source of the leak. As a result, a loosen bolt… Not so bad, but a good reminder to always check the vehicle, specially when driving off road! The next day we’re back on the road with fixed breaks, and take a track that links to the Todra gorges, a little further on the east.
Instead of a proper track, we realise that we’re driving in the bed of a dried out oued, that furrows through the volcanic peaks for some twenty kilometres… Well let’s just hope that it doesn’t rain! But the place is really worth it (if you have a 4WD) because the surroundings are astonishing, for a change. We stop for lunch at the foot of an impressive lava flow (yes you read correctly) and take our time to observe the different geological layers exposed by the water through the ages. It out it’s fascinating, even when not knowing anything about it.
Further away, we leave the oued to follow the track up the hill, until arriving on a high plateau that dominates the plain for as far as the eye can see… The main road is just over there, and will now have to find a spot for the night. Not such an easy thing when entering a super touristy place! The gorges are beautiful and quite impressive, but there is only one road and nowhere to escape… So we end up in the only camping that still have space for us, and resign to pay for the night…
In the morning, Ebrahim (a photo reporter) tells us that he would like to go meet with people fighting against an aluminium extraction industry draining their wells. We know that it’s a sensitive matter in the country, as although the cause is just, it’s a bad idea for us to go there as French tourists… So we let him go on his own, wishing him good luck and hoping things go well… A few days later a meet him in Skoura. Everything was fine, even though he had to walk to several hours through the mountain not to get arrested at the police check point!
After this adventure, he announces us that it is time for him to go home. We have spent a month traveling together, and it was a pleasure to share these moments… We say our goodbyes until we meet again somewhere, someday, and then it’s back to the two of us!