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Trekking with Morocco's Berbers

For the past 4,000 years, Morocco's Berber tribes have made an annual journey to graze their livestock in the Atlas Mountains, but the days of this tradition could be numbered. We joined them on the six-day trek to catch a glimpse of a vanishing way of life in some of the world's most majestic scenery

Featured July 12 Words by Hazel Southam
Trekking with Morocco's Berbers

I

t's cold. The sun has dropped behind the mountains and suddenly the temperature in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains has plummeted. Forty-six year-old Aisha Elyakoubi is huddling in the shelter of a small, stone corale, drinking mint tea.

Like anyone else at the end of a tough day's work, she's reflecting on how it's gone. "Today was difficult. It killed us!" she laughs. "It's such a long way; it was all uphill. The goats and sheep didn't want to stay in one place and eat."

Of course, by anyone's standards, this isn't your average day's work - and not only because she has a 230-strong flock to manage. Aisha has just spent the past 12 hours trekking across some of Africa's most daunting terrain. She and her family are part way through a journey that they make twice a year to ensure that their animals (generally goats, sheep and camels) get the best land for grazing. The High Atlas are often snowbound in winter, forcing the nation's nomadic tribes to come down to the lower slopes. Then, in the spring, they head for the higher ground, fresh pastures and cooler temperatures - as we're doing now.

Berber nomads like Aisha have been making this same migration for some 4,000 years, but she will be the last of her family, and possibly one of the last of her tribe, to do so.

The reason is simple: deforestation and climate change have altered the landscape here irrevocably. Once-lush mountains of vegetation, trees and water now produce only scarce sustenance for the animals. And so this formerly- bustling route now lies empty of the multitude of camel trains that once could be found on it. As recently as 1988, some 410 families and their livestock would make the annual six-day, 60km schlep from Ait Youl, 2½ hours east of Marrakech, to the plateau that lies before the village of Ait Ouham. Now only 15 carry out the gruelling trek.

The lack of pasture available, compared with 30 years ago, means there's a daily struggle to get to the areas of grass and water, when (and if) these can be found. This scarcity means that some of the families have now had to find other ways to feed themselves and their animals. Which is how our 10-strong group from Australia, the USA and the UK find ourselves here. We are staying with one of six families that use tourism as a back-up to their herding income. This is particularly pertinent after a cold winter like the one the Elyakoubi family has just experienced. Money can't replace grazing, but it helps the family to continue in this way of life just that little bit longer.

Aisha's family has been taking tourists on the migration in May and September for three years. It's an astonishing, one-of-a-kind chance to see a vanishing way of life in some of the world's most majestic scenery - and don't get me started on the stars at night. With no light pollution but our torches, the stars come right down to the mountains.

It's an experience open to any fit, determined person, but while our party vary in age from 18 to 70, there's no doubting that it's a trip for those who like a good walk. Indeed, on the day that Aisha and I are chatting, we have walked for 5½ hours uphill over boulders without stopping. At least, I don't remember stopping. Tough? I should say so. I was overtaken by the mules, the donkeys, the goats and the sheep, all on a mission to get to the next camping spot. By the end, even the dung beetles fancied their chances.

That's not to say that it doesn't have its moments. The scenery is utterly magnificent. We walk up dry river beds and along gorges with precipitous drops, as mountain range succeeds mountain range. On the highest peaks, there is still dazzling snow. In the midst of this, we are so tiny it's humbling. Even the camels are small: looking for them one evening in a particularly vast valley bottom is like searching for ants on the ground from atop a ladder.

Despite this, there's no denying the physical demands are hard. By the time we sit down for mint tea and a chat, I've been crying with pain. Aisha's day, however, has been substantially harder. Shod in ripped, plastic shoes, she's been running up and down the mountains herding the 230-strong flock to the best grazing. By the end of this trek, us tourists will have walked 60km, but her route is at least three times that. The Berbers and their animals also carry everything they own; we only carry our daypacks and are accompanied by a guide, a cook and three muleteers, who look after the five mules that carry our tents, water and food, which is shared with everyone.

"Today is the hardest day," Aisha says. "We dread it before we set off. It's sunny now, but if it rains or snows, as it sometimes can still do, that makes it much harder. So it's a worry. I've been throwing stones to guide the goats all day. My arm aches with throwing. You may like this way of life," she smiles, "but for us it's difficult." She leaves me with some chilling words: "Tomorrow's tough too." Oh, no.

Tomorrow is indeed tough: seven hours over the mountains, followed by seven hours the following day. But there comes a moment on the final stretch that makes it all worthwhile: when we walk over the highest pass near Adrar- n-Ouchane, it's like standing on the top of the world. There are mountains in every direction, tiny clouds make purple shadows on the green-grey mountainsides that are still partially covered in snow and.... Suddenly, I'm sobbing and I can't stand up. It's been a tough walk, but I'm elated.

The elation doesn't last, however. Five hours later we reach the end of the trek - but there is no Garden of Eden waiting for us. The site where Aisha and her family had intended to spend the summer grazing their goats, sheep, donkeys, mules and camels is a dust bowl.

A local shepherd says that, at this time of year, much of the plateau should be a shallow lake: certainly as far as the eye can see, but the lack of winter rain and snow means it isn't here. After six days' tough travel, with barely an hour's sleep per night, there is nowhere for Aisha to water her flock.

It feels ominous - and not just at this moment. There is a sense in the air that a noble civilisation is breathing its last. A recent World Bank report says that by 2050, rainfall in Morocco may be reduced by 20%, with a 40% drop possible by 2080. The Berber people are tough and resourceful, but there's not much you can do in the face of a lack of grass and water if you get your livelihood from herding.

Aisha knows that the game is up. "We are walking in a dry land," she had said to me when we spoke a few days earlier, smoke from the fire billowing round her. "In the past, there was lots of rain to help the grass grow. Now there is nothing. In the past, people were patient. Now, it's easy to give up. In the past, everyone was a nomad, but not now."

Talking to the younger members of the tribe is enlightening. One of Aisha's sons, Said (15), says he wants to become a farmer; her niece, Izza (25) longs to marry as a route out of nomadism. Only her eldest son, Mohamad  (32), says that he'll carry on until it isn't humanly possible to continue: "I love this life," he says. "I won't give up until I'm exhausted. When I finally settle in a village, it will be because it's no longer possible to live like this. When I stop, I'll know why I had to give up." For the moment though, the talk of giving up is put to the side. They may have already been travelling for six days, but Aisha and her family have to move on in search of better pasture.

The next day, we pass them and see, deep in the valley, a river and green mountainsides. Sheep and goats are already ambling down the mountainside, grazing gently. Soon, Aisha's flock will join them. For another year, this nomad has found somewhere to call home for the summer months. There is no doubt, however, that it will be one of the last. Hazel travelled with On the Go Tours (onthegotours.com). The next trip is in September and costs £799 per person, including most meals


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