Walking with migrants

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This autumn, Morocco trekking expert Alan Palmer undertook a trek with a difference: walking with an Aït ‘Atta family on their annual transhumance migration trek from the Central High Atlas Mountains to the fringes of Jebel Sahro in the south

The initial omens were inauspicious. As we sheltered at the end of a long track leading up to the mountain pass of Tizi n’Waousremt, heavy hailstones cracked upon rocks all around us and visibility was so poor that even Jebel Ajourki, the tallest peak, was slowly washed from our view by sombre, sodden clouds hurrying in from the west.

Although brief afternoon summer storms can be expected here in Morocco’s Central High Atlas Mountains, this year’s weather was behaving quite extraordinarily. With the storm unrelenting, we were left with little choice but to fasten our zips tightly and descend as quickly as possible into the shelter of the vale below.

We were searching for Tamda, the summer pastures of the fiercely independent Aït Unir clan, the fourth of five branches of the legendary Berber Aït ‘Atta tribe.

Every year since before written records can testify, the Aït Unir have headed northwards to Tamda to escape the searing summer heat of the south. Every year, they have spent their entire summer here, living the simplest of traditional lives, with only their signature black goat-haired tents for a home, while encouraging their animals to graze freely across the expansive surrounding mountainside and to fatten themselves.

Now, as winter approached, we had arranged to join one Aït Unir family on their return migration trek, from Tamda back to Jebel Sahro in the south. Our plan was to accompany them as far as Boumalne du Dades, eight challenging days’ march away. With justifiable trepidation, we entered their camp.

The migration trek would be a monumental operation. Every morning, pre-dawn, our family would dismantle their camp, rebuilding it once again at the end of the day’s punishing march. In between, they would herd their whole animal stock, the embodiment of their entire worldly wealth – some 200 sheep, 200 goats, 13 uncooperative camels, several resilient mules, two braying donkeys, two barking dogs (one still just a puppy), a batch of clucking hens, one proudly crowing cockerel and too many small chicks to count – across the most barren of lonely mountain trails.

This route is used exclusively by the Aït Unir, yet only twice per year, once during the annual summer migration north and once more during the return winter migration south. So barren is this land, that they have no choice but to continue each day until they reach the next grazing grounds. There is simply nothing suitable to sustain their animals in between.

“This isn’t a normal tourist trek,” my friend, Lhoussain, himself of Aït Unir origin, advised me, but rather too late in the day to allow us to make any changes to the plan.

Of course, he was right. I have trekked regularly in Morocco for more than thirty years through some wild and wonderful landscapes, but this was to be something quite different. We would not see even a single permanent building for the first seven days and the only people we would meet along the way would be other Aït Unir families, all following the same historic transhumance migration path, desperate to reach their next grazing grounds.

Each day began early with a steep climb from the valley floor up to the next looming mountain pass. It was just these scenes that provided my most joyful memories of our adventure, that of long camel caravans zigzagging slowly upwards, the sharp early morning sunlight reflecting off their colourful loads at every turn in the track.

Finally, the elegant, dignified creatures strode over the mountain pass itself, suddenly and dramatically set against the infinite backdrop of the rugged High Atlas Mountains, the now azure sky above quite unblemished by even a single wisp of cloud.

Adding to the splendour, hardened Aït Unir warriors crossed alongside them, each sporting rich, traditional robes, their heads romantically swathed in yards of oriental turbans, embossed silver daggers hanging at their sides.

Meanwhile, gaudily clad women, already a little in the distance, moving less quickly but no less determinedly, shepherded the purest of snow-white sheep and darkest of jet-black goats, appearing as a swarm of hornets, over the approaching hillsides.

One day, so still that not even a faint breeze disturbed the calm, a sudden shrill cry, emitted by one of the family’s camels, shattered the silence. We sped over to a nearby azib and quickly found the sorry creature within, each of its limbs bent double and bound to itself so that it was forced to kneel on all fours. Three men plucked a succession of red-hot stones from a crackling fire, forcefully plunging each in turn directly onto the camel’s backbone, not dissimilar to an American cowboy branding a cattle’s rump.

“The camel isn’t eating enough,” explained Lhoussain, “and this will make sure that she eats properly again.”

I wondered how this torture could possibly bring about such a transformation and winced as the wretched animal cried out yet again, its distressed young daughter looking helplessly on. Yet, to my astonishment, two days later I was assured that the mother had indeed regained her appetite. Lhoussain did not sound even remotely surprised.

We had been warned that the most difficult stretch would be immediately beyond Tizi Woamzrouka. Even so, when we reached this pass, we looked in dismay at the thin onward trail that cut directly into the near-vertical rock face, rising and falling steeply around the intervening mountainside, before finally rising once more towards the next vertiginous pass, Tizi n’Tamgmart. Our failing confidence was not helped when we spied a solitary small shoe on the very cliff edge which we could only hope had fallen from the foot of a young child otherwise safely strapped to the back of a mule.

We ourselves were lucky: the next day, a fresh storm completely destroyed the path so that the following family, being quite unable to turn its camels around on such a thin ledge, had no option but to spend most of the day hacking away at the mountainside, using a combination of hand tools and bare hands, bidding to restore the viability of the route.

So, after eight days, we traversed one final pass and found ourselves at last looking down on the rapidly expanding modern suburbs of Boumalne du Dades, still the traditional point for all migrating Aït Unir families to bridge the Dades Valley. We felt mixed emotions – a sense of elation that we had completed our own part of the deal, yet a sense of sadness, too, that we would be parting company with our family the very next morning.

When the time came, each family member in turn solemnly shook hands with us, but without so much as a flicker of emotion on their face. I turned away, just a little disappointed that our time had seemingly meant so little to them. Then my thoughts turned to the historic independence of these people, which, I consoled myself, had surely affected deeply their social norms.

We packed our bags one last time and set off across the Dades floodplain, striking for the road where we hoped to flag down a passing vehicle to take us back into town. Suddenly Lahssen, the head of the family, reappeared. Out of sight of the rest of his family and beyond the influences of any group pressure, he at last allowed himself a half-smile and betrayed just a hint of a twinkle in his eye. He mumbled a few words in Tashelhit which I failed to understand, then extended his hand once more, this time not without a little warmth, and was gone again.

Alan Palmer is author of Moroccan Atlas the Trekking Guide (Trailblazer Publications). His passion for the Atlas Mountains led him to set up his own company Trek in Morocco, recently re-launched as Yak Travel, which offers bespoke experiences throughout Morocco for individuals and small groups, including the transhumance migration trek described in this article.

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