Morocco’s Anti-Atlas region is under-developed for tourism and often ignored on the main circuits covering imperial cities, the desert and the coast. For nature lovers, walkers, climbers and those who love a beautiful view and a breath-taking sunset, however, it is worth a visit.
The Anti-Atlas region is inland from Agadir and therefore reasonably accessible from Agadir airport. Driving in Morocco is relatively straightforward for those used to driving on the right, but if the thought of a grand taxi packed with 6 passengers driving down the white lines towards you on a z-bend is not your cup of tea, let a driver take the strain! A driver with a 4×4 will know the roads and be able to access unpaved paths that a hire car cannot. In May 2014, I did a road trip with Fikra Travel in the Anti-Atlas and I was stunned by the scenery.
There are two roads from Taroudant to Tafraoute, one which passes by Igherm and the second (which is also the access road from Agadir to Tafraoute), which passes over Ait Baha. We drove the Ait Baha road in May, after the rains of the winter. Once we left the Souss plains, passing the hillsides scarred by the extraction of limestone for cement production, the road began to climb.
Not that it rains much in this area. The land is unforgiving: rocky with limited top soil and the principal vegetation – Barbary fig cactus, argan and thistles – is spiny. Without the snow melt of the higher High Atlas chain, Anti-Atlas Amazigh (Berbers) have traditionally eked out a living from agricultural terraces which still cover the hillsides in rows knitted between dry stone walls. But few people remain who know how to manage this ancient but effective technique and as the knowledge departs and the climate changes, the irrigation systems fall into disuse just when they are most needed. And so the vicious spiral tightens. Splashes of verdant green disclose the presence of subterranean water, although the dry, stony riverbeds would suggest otherwise. Water is such a scare commodity – even in the towns – and attempts to improve access via the flooding of valleys to create reservoirs can have unpredictable secondary consequences.
On many hilltops, we saw clear evidence of rural depopulation: abandoned stone-built villages whose inhabitants had either rebuilt in concrete in the valley, closer to amenities, or moved to find work in larger towns and cities. Their homes, communal granaries (‘agadir’) and mosques – beautiful examples of traditional architecture – are slowly being reclaimed by the prickly plants. Only the zawiyas – mausoleums dotted on the hillsides and promontories – are regularly renovated and painted. The practice of venerating the dead pre-dates the conversion to Islam of Berber tribes. Today such structures – which often house the remains of important Islamic teachers – are incorporated into Islamic worship.
On the top of one such hill, in a crumbling ruined village, apart from the chatter of birds, all we could hear were the sounds one hears everywhere in Morocco from the smallest village to the largest cities: the crow of the cockerel and the bray of the donkey. Neither, though, were visible and even in the other, obviously populated, villages there was no-one in sight.
On top of another hill, at Kasbah Tizourgane, one man – a returnee to the ‘bled’ (an Arabic word meaning the ancestral village and/or the countryside in general) from big city Casbalanca, is trying to preserve the 13th century Kasbah where his and two other families once sought refuge, stored their valuable grains, lived and worked. Using the traditional techniques and employing local people, he is restoring the communal buildings such as the mosque and has opened a guest house to help fund further heritage preservation works. The surrounding countryside is rich in opportunities for outdoor pursuits and exploring local flora, fauna and produce and the guest house has recently expanded to meet demand from walkers, climbers and nature lovers. The Kasbah is 50km north of Tafraoute.
As we neared Tafraoute and the end of our day’s driving, we saw round, flat areas in the valley villages for thrashing the wheat – a possible indication of a change in soil and agricultural type. Cereals, however, are increasingly unable to support rural households. Prices have fallen in recent years and large-scale production of wheat, although a staple in the Moroccan diet, is water-intensive and inefficient due to the limited size of arable land in mountainous areas. The Moroccan government, through its ‘Plan Maroc Vert’ (Green Morocco Programme) is promoting fruit and nut arboriculture supported by NGOs such as the High Atlas Foundation. In the area north of Tafraoute, however, there was little indication of this shift in focus, unlike the area further East around Tiznit, where we saw huge almond and olive orchards.
Drawing into Tafraoute, we easily found our accommodation for the night, Auberge Kasbah Chez Amaliya on the edge of town. Built in a mock-Kasbah style, it is nestled under the mountains of the Ammelne Valley, another top walking and climbing destination. Featuring 14 rooms around a pool plus a full bar/restaurant and a warm welcome from Dutch owner Liesbeth van Woerden, it was just what we needed after our long drive of discovery.
In the morning, we awoke to familiar sounds: birdsong, the crow of a cockerel and the bray of a donkey.