52 Days to Timbuktu……..

Above, in the center of the town of Zagora is a sign that reads…. 52 Days to Tumbuktu.  It was said that from that point it was a 52 day walk to the northern trading city, Timbuktu!

Above, one of the many picturesque Berber Villages I visited during my journey through the Atlas Mountains.

After a few enjoyable days in Marrakech, I decided to see a little more of Morocco and hired a car and driver to take me south east over the High Atlas Mountains to the gateway city to the Sahara, Zagora.  About 60 kilometers outside of Marrakech, we reached the foothills of the Atlas Mountain Range.  The Atlas run from Algeria in the north east all the way to the Moroccan City of Agadir in the south west, reaching the Atlantic Ocean.  Historically mountain ranges have played an important role in dividing peoples and ultimately nations, here in Morocco it’s no different.  The Atlas naturally separate Morocco and Algeria. The Mountains are home to the Berber people, the real indigenous people of Morocco.  I must admit I didn’t know too much about the Berbers before this visit, but I am intrigued by what little I have learned in a short two day visit to some of the Berber towns.  A rugged, diverse people, they have inhabited the Atlas Mountains for as long as history has been recorded.  It was interesting to see that some Berbers were black and others were almost Irish looking, fair skinned and red-headed!  Everyone I met was very friendly and tried their best to be helpful in answering my questions even with a language barrier.  Unfortunately my French is very limited, my Arabic even worse, and I don’t speak a word of the numerous Berber dialects.  Full of life, ever village we passed was a buzz with activities.  Donkey powered carts carried people and materials every which way.  Young boys, maybe no more than 5 years old, helped their mother’s load donkeys with containers of water and perhaps goods destined for sale at the local markets.  I was impressed by how independent many of the young children were, often walking alone, along busy roads, carrying heavy bags.  Many appeared to be on a chore for their parents, not just playing in the streets.  Another surprise to me was to see many people, even women in small groups, hitch-hiking.  They never seemed to wait long before someone would give them a ride to the next town.  Even on mopeds, it appeared that young people often gave rides to a friend, or perhaps a stranger in need.  There seemed to be a level of trust between the Berber people I met.  They helped one another without hesitation.  Perhaps the reason they have not only survived, but also thrived in difficult conditions is because they have worked together and helped one another.   The Atlas Mountains I visited, reminded me a lot of parts of central Arizona, rocky, sparsely vegetated and often red with iron.  The peaks were covered with snow and small rivers snaked their way down the steep hillsides, cutting deep gullies along the way.  The red clay brick homes of the Berbers popped up every dozen kilometers or so, clinging to the sides of the mountains.  On the eastern side of the High Atlas Mountains we crossed, we descended into beautiful green valleys, bursting with date palms.  Literally hundreds of small stands were set-up just feet from the road, selling handicrafts, rocks, fossils and of course dates.  In one small town, it was market day.  Hundreds of farmers were selling their boxes of dates to the middle men with large trucks, ready to deliver the them to Marrakech or other large cities.  My driver, Rachid, was from the fairly large city of Ourzazate, on the eastern side of the High Atlas Range.  Ourzazate is home to Africa’s version of Hollywood.  It’s a great location due to its proximity to both mountains and the beautiful sand dunes of the Saharan Desert.  I visited the Film Studio Museum and was surprised to see that parts of the movies Gladiator and the Mummy were filmed in Morocco.  Numerous stops along the way involved the mandatory mint-tea or coffee break.  My driver knew someone at every stop and looked genuinely happy to see them and would always visit for a short while.  During the 2 day excursion, I think I ate Tagine (the delicious clay-pot, oven cooked dish with meat and vegetables) at least 4 times.  Each time it was a different version, beef, chicken, meatballs or just vegetable.  After a full 7 hours of driving on the first day, filled with numerous stops, to see sights and drink tea, we arrived in Zagora, some 60 miles from the border with Algeria and the gateway city to the Moroccan Sahara.  We only had about an hour before sunset, so after checking into our hotel, we headed for a visit to the sand dunes.  They were not the huge rolling sand dunes one often sees in the Hollywood movies but rather smaller ones that were at the end of the line, the ones that give way to the mountains to the west.  They were pretty nonetheless and the star-filled sky, in pitch blackness of the desert it made the drive back to the hotel very enjoyable.  After a meal of tagine, of course, I headed for bed and a good nights rest.  The next morning, we started our journey at 8:00, we had a lot of driving ahead of us, and Rachid wanted me to see many sights along our return trip to Marrakech.  On the way out of Zagora, we stopped in the center of the city to see a sign that read, “Timbuktu 52 days.”  Evidently, the town is located 52 days walk to the Trading Center in Mali, know as Timbuktu.  West of Zagora we stopped at a number of wonderful Casbahs, or fortresses, dating back hundreds of years.  They were wonderfully picturesque with their red mud-brick walls in front of a backdrop of rocky mountains.   The Casbahs are no longer strategic to the defense of the cities but are still home to many people and often the center of the town’s activity.  We did not take the exact same route back to Marrakech, instead we went up another valley to see a slightly different landscape.  With more water in the valley, more vegetation came with it and more villages, more life…as we all know, water is life!  Darkness fell on our journey the second day and as were came out of the Atlas Mountains heading west, we could see the lights of Marrakech off in the distance, one last stop at a roadside cafe to drink some tea and then a short drive to my hotel in town.  I had a great first visit to the Atlas Mountains and the many Berber Villages along the drive.  This trip made me more interested in the people of the region and their culture, I will definitely come again, for a slower, more deliberate visit.  

Below, a few pictures from my visit to the Atlas Mountains and home to the Berber People.

Below, Rachid my Driver for two days, purchased some meat to take home.  He said the quality and price were much better in the country than in Marrakech.


Next ArticleThe Moroccan Hamam Experience.

I am an adventure-loving American man, with a severe case of wander-lust and a desire to experience as much of this wonderful world as humanly possible. Every place I have visited or lived has taught me something about life and helped me grow. For me, traveling opens my eyes to how similar the human race is, yet at the same time, how unique we all are. I hope this blog will motivate you to put down the TV remote, dust off your backpack and decide to take a chance on an adventure. It can be a walk in a new neighborhood 2 miles from home or a trip to a far off distant land. I have lived in or visited over 50 countries during my life and hope to see many more. I want to share my experiences. I hope you enjoy the blog. -WAND3R3R, Somewhere on the Globe, 2014.