Morocco – Atlas Scenery

DAY after day of changing light and moods, of painful fatigues and wonderful refreshing moments of rest, of fascinating glimpses of remote lives, and baffling, fleeting glances into wondering faces that greet us along our way, we journey on toward the blank white places at the bottom of the map labelled Souss. Day after day the marvellous scenery changes, and each day panorama seems more splendid than the last. We spend a morning climbing through rocky gorges, difficult and steep, where the mule’s hoofs clatter up a giant stairway of chunky cubes of grey basalt, irregular, sharp, and slippery. Here the vegetation is thin and dwarfed like the quaint green things grotesquely old that grow in miniature Chinese rock gardens. Soft, green, twisting junipers and clumps of little firs, for all the world the same as those my father lovingly plants in his lawn and waters with his tears, grow easily here where the thin earth is baked in the crevices and seems never to have known moisture, and the wind blows dry. And the strangely incongruous cabbage palms, dwarfed and shrivelled, grow in between the evergreens like weeds. Big argan trees, gnarled and spiny, loaded with green olive-like nuts, a harshly exotic tree which grows nowhere else in the world, cast a scrubby shade here and there over the rocky trail ; and Aziza, my lady mule, when seized with a temperamental mood, dives straight into the stiff, prickly, lower branches. And though I clutch her velvet neck and madly kick her flanks, my sun helmet is hopelessly entangled in the spines and I am left in the plight of the young man Absalom, while Kbira shouts with glee.

Then we reach some nameless barren height, and look back over the rugged tortuous way by which we have climbed, and the distance seems a poor accomplishment after so much effort. Five hours of winding and climbing and toiling have gained us scarce six straight miles toward our goal. These vast mountains piled in wild confusion and heaped like the wreckage of a shattered planet, mountains battered and barren, flooded with white tropic sunshine, grey, craggy steeps dotted with flecks of green, and distant blue ranges holding up the sky, drown all thought and subdue the mind to a real humility, a sense of one’s own pitiful insignificance beside this awful vastitude. And just at this wonderful moment old Si Lhassen, who has ridden silently on, all the morning, goes to the edge of a great flat rock which reaches out over an abyss; he thrusts himself into the gorgeous panorama, and, shuffling off his worn old slippers, and lifting his shrivelled old hands, he faces the horizon beyond which Mecca lies, and says the prayer that begins, “God is most great! God is most great! There is no god but God!”

We begin the descent into the next valley. The narrow rocky way winds along the verge of precipices almost sheer, where a falling stone will roll and leap and rebound and echo up from a cavernous dry stream bed far below. The sure-footed Aziza takes her own pace, twists her supple little body this way and that, as she picks the safest footing, now dodging a big boulder in the path, now bunching her fore feet for a leap or a drop, and now sliding half on her haunches down a loose pebbly slope, as the trail zigzags and climbs and descends and redoubles. Miles off ahead, where it makes a long turn to the left, we see the white cut across the side of some great grey mountain, and perhaps a flock of sheep, miniature in perspective, or a train of laden pack asses crawling with a painful pace.

Often in the narrow pass along the cliff’s edge we meet these caravans of mules or asses. Then follows such a shouting and scrambling and crowding for room to get by, for there are few places on these trails where two animals with bulging side panniers can squeeze comfortably past. Or on a sudden turn we run abruptly into the bulk of a solitary camel, who makes the hideous noises of his kind, as his driver pounds his stubborn head up against the rock to make him give us a few inches of space between himself and a sheer descent of four hundred feet.

For a large part of the way from Amizmiz, at the foot of the Atlas, to the great valley of Talat N’ Yaccoub, the Goundafi stronghold in the heart of the mountains, we followed up the course of the Oued Nfis. This flows out from the valley through a great cut in the surrounding wall of mountains, and winds on through a vast steep-sided canon which it has cut through past aeons of time. The Oued Nfis, in the spring, is a great turbulent flood of melted snows, that tears out new courses for itself, as it rushes along the rocky bottom of its wide valley, and gouges fresh scars in the face of the cañon wall with the loose stones it drags along in its impetuous, steep descent. In July and August, the Oued is a noisy shallow stream, easily fordable almost anywhere, except when swollen by a sudden rain, and so roiled with red clay that the mules are afraid to attempt it. Once on the return trip, when we forded one of its nameless tributary streams, just as we reached the opposite bank, a two-foot wave of roaring, red-brown water, the result of some distant cloudburst far away in the mountains, came tearing down the stream bed. Had we reached the spot three minutes later we should have had to camp for hours, waiting for the water to drop again to a fordable depth.

The trail to the Souss follows the Oued Nfis, sometimes along the top of the cliff, sometimes hanging midway on a precarious footing of flat stones built up on roots and sticks thrust into fissures, or on some natural ledge just wide enough for a single mule, and sometimes the trail goes far inland over a lofty peak, and we lose the river for hours. And then we go through narrow defiles, worn ten feet into the soft rock by the hoofs of centuries of mule caravans ; and down narrow brooks, under arched bowers of perfumed honeysuckle and festoons of white-blooming clematis, cloyingly sweet, mingled with blackberry brambles in chevaux defrises, that wickedly gouge and tear us. We emerge again at the brink of the cliff, where the cañon makes an elbow through scarred, red-brown shale, or through grey rock seamed with broad bands of milk-white chalk. We look down sheer to the river bed which almost encircles some toy mud village, with bright green irrigated cornfields and Noah’s ark cattle drinking knee deep in a green pool. Then the trail zigzags a cramped descent to the dry pebbly valley bottom, and crosses and re-crosses the river eight times of an afternoon. The banks are vividly green for miles, with waxy rose-laurels dotted with a profusion of delicate pink, poison blossoms, and everywhere are clumps of prickly cacti ten feet high, covered with mellow, over-ripe Barbary figs, tropical, sickly and unwholesome-looking. Sometimes as we pass through this breezeless valley, light showery clouds make the day comfortable, but again, for hours the sun sizzles from a clear hot sky with an intensity that is torrid and African.

Once for several hours, as we skirted the river along an easy trail, in the early morning before the sun had found the bottom of the valley, we rode with two Shelluh boys, who jogged along on little pack asses loaded with chunks of gypsum to make plaster to whiten the courtyard of some caïd’s harem. They sat perched on the bulky chowari bags, and kept up a rhythmical drumming with their bare heels on the asses’ necks, for this tapping rhythm makes the little animals keep up their pace. And across the Oued, three girls with loads of faggots on their backs were following a mountain path to their village. One of the boys begins a yodel, high pitched and strangely beautiful, in minor cadences that fall and catch themselves and fall again, like thin streams breaking down the face of a cliff. And when the yodel stops, the craggy mountain looming over us echoes back the last phrase, and faintly and far away another echo comes, and then one more that fades and dies like the amber light of dawn in the valley. The tune is so elusive that I can never quite remember it, but it haunts me like the memory of things that might have been and dreams that have not come true.

Then a girl from across the river calls back an answering melody, clear and delicate, full of wild sweetness and the frank longing of natural hearts. And the other boy, after a brief pause, in which he makes up another short stanza, sings it to the same yodel tune; and another girl in turn wafts back her little song, that echoes over the water and dies away. And here are the words of some of the izlans they are exchanging to while away the lovely morning :

A boy sings,

Love has stolen away my heart and destroyed it; It is as though my bones were brayed in a mortar with a heavy pestle.

And a girl sings,

Love is like a young she-goat; When you wish to conceal her then she bleats loudest.

A boy sings,

When the water shall run backward up the mountain slopes, When the jackal shall keep the shepherd’s flock, Then only shall I forget my best-beloved.

And a girl replies,

My love is like a bunch of grapes; I would fain eat him all to quench the fire which burns my heart.

And sometimes they become ironic,

The love of today, with what shall I compare it? It is like taking a stroll upon a house-top; Whoever walks there may take seven paces, But at the eighth there is no place for his foot.

To this a girl replies,

The love of today, with what shall I compare it? It is like a piece of bread in water, As soon as you try to grasp it in your hand, It dissolves in little bits.

And so they go on framing little poems to the lovely echoing call, for more than half an hour, while we are riding along beside them, and long after we have passed on up the valley we still hear the haunting, fading cadences that die into the distant murmur of a singing stream.

Such fascinating moments as this were the charm of the journey, and these are the moments that linger in memory, these fleeting human contacts. For background there was always the glory of the mountain peaks, or the quiet loveliness of hidden valleys, and the romance of wild gorges and rushing water courses. For unearthly romance there were the volcanic regions, wildly wonderful, incredibly strange.

One morning we toiled up the side of a great rugged mountain through a confusion of shapeless, jagged rocks banded with volcanic sulphurous streaks of pale yellow, and burnt-out, honeycombed slag, and here and there grotesque, animal-like lumps of stone, painfully distorted and squeezed by awful, unimaginable forces in some old past period of time. We reach the summit and descend the opposite slope into a landscape lurid with red and deep purple rocks dotted with bright specks of sparse evergreen shrubs. The winding pass zigzags down a vast red cone of soft volcanic tuff, where the track from above looks like the trace of a terrific serpent of another age. We skirt the edge of dry ravines, where spring freshets have made deep gullies in the soft earth and left, here and there, strange stalagmites crowned with precariously balanced boulders.

The scene is on a gigantic scale, uncanny as some landscape in the moon. The day is cloudy; rain and mist shroud the huge peaks that seem to loom near and towering. Through rifts in the clouds golden ladders of sunlight stream on the half-shadowed hills, and play with an amber, elfin sheen on the streaked and particoloured sides of ancient cones and landslides of purple tuff.

For one whole day on the journey back, we were led by a short-cut trail through an uncharted wilderness, so holy and enchanted that most natives fear to go that way, a region fitted for the abode of demons or for the ghastly magic rites of wizard sorceries. Twice we climb up the abrupt sides and down into the beds of vast, old burnt-out craters, where the innumerably piled volcanic rocks and heaped-up cones of sediment are covered for miles with a greenish blue dust, and spotted thinly with little evergreen argan trees. The panoramas from the heights were like magnified magic unrealities seen in some monstrous Easter-egg. As we pass over the crest into the next crater valley, the light grows strange, and distant thunder rolls; a rare mountain storm is approaching. Half way up the slope, surrounded by a rugged confusion of stone, is an enormous rough cube of porous slag, seamed with black streaks of shiny obsidian; and in the center is the door of a cave, the home of the d j inn of the mountain, who roars and growls from peak to peak. The Shelluh soldier who is our guide never for a moment takes his eye from the black doorway; in an awed whisper he tells us that a giant black man stands always within the cavern mouth, holding a great curved poignard in his hand. I catch a sideways glimpse of old Si Lhassen’s face, always impassive with the calm, patriarchal beauty of age; he looks straight ahead but his thin blue lips are muttering prayers.

A cool, strong wind blows in our faces, rain falls in big drenching drops, the resinous scent of wet juniper fills the air. Every now and then we pass cairns of stones piled by frightened travellers who have dared the way before, each stone in memory of a prayer against the power of the d j inn who haunts the strange valley. Most of the stones are small ones placed by trembling religious hands, but occasionally a cairn is topped by a heavy boulder, an amusing monument of human ostentation even before God and the Devil. The storm soon blew over and our drenched clothes dried in a few minutes in the clear washed air.

We spent a week of long hard days going through the mountains, with scenery and temperature ever varying as we passed from peaks to warm green valleys and from valleys to precipitous peaks. Our highest point was nearly nine thousand feet, on Tizi Ouicheddan, along whose eagle-baffling sides black, bare, pointed rocks stand out in clusters at sharp angles, like great calibred howitzers, and the path is so steep that if an animal should miss his footing, he and the rider might roll a hundred feet before some craggy ledge could stop them. In an afternon’s climb, we go from the laurels and cacti and cornfields of the suffocating valley, to heights covered with scraggy olive trees; then on to a region of starved, struggling evergreens; and finally reach the barren, desolate summit, where nothing lives but hard, mossy, yellow everlastings and the great white hawks that wheel above us, and veer and swoop through the wind that blows between the worlds,—a fitting place to stage “Prometheus Unbound.”

When we had descended the other slope of Tizi Ouicheddan the difficult part of the way was over; the rest was a long, gradual descent to the plain.

On the morning of the last day, from one of the last heights, we gain our first view of the great, mysterious Souss, miles and miles of a vast extended plain shrouded in a vague haze of heat, the unknown, rich country visited only by a few travellers, an ancient center of Berber life, the prize of old conquests and the pride of long dead sultans.