Separated by only 62 kilometres in distance but several thousand years in time, we visited two contrasting sites of ‘rock art’ in the Anti Atlas region of Morocco.
Inhospitable landscapes globally have revealed carvings and paintings left by primal societies; Morocco has over 300 prehistoric rock art sites, some dating back over 5000 years. Unlike the cave art of France and Spain, Moroccan sites are mainly in the open air and clearly visible. Nestled amongst the boulders and fractured strata of the Anti-Atlas are carvings of species such as Gazelle, Ostrich and Giraffe.
The rock art near the partly deserted village of Eghir are so rarely visited that locating them can be challenging; even some of the locals are unaware they exist. We were lucky enough to bump into a (slightly intoxicated) local worker who knew roughly where they were and pointed out the outlines of the closest prehistoric picture. Requiring a climb and then a shuffle along a narrow ledge we were lead to a smooth rock face revealing some magnificent examples of ancient illustration. The carvings here fall into the ‘pecked cattle group’; a logical description for the chipped oxen figures. Running your fingers across the ancient chiseled drawings there’s a flash of connection to an individual who stood on the exact same spot yet infinitely worlds apart.
The images are open to interpretation, but rock art is widely considered to be a form of communication; possibly to share the whereabouts of food, water and predators or even mark territorial rights. Some markings may even commemorate events; depictions of life-sized human carrying weapons can be found in the High Atlas, possibly honoring battles.
In the rugged Mountains just 4km southwest of Tafraoute, in Aoumerkt, is a slightly more contemporary type of rock art; the infamous (and now slightly faded) blue rocks. In 1984, Belgian artist Jean Verame, assisted by a team of Moroccan firemen armed with 18 tonnes of paint, hosed an array of blue, violet and red paint over boulders and small hills of the Anti-Atlas. Fortunately, King Hassan II liked the resulting surreal addition to the landscape and so they sit oddly in the valley while the elements slowly weather them back to nature. Although they have lost their sharpness of colour, they have kept their mesmerising visual magnetism and remain a curious addition to the already stunning panorama. Two fusions of art and nature separated by the vastness of time yet each as relevant, aesthetically alluring and thought provoking as the other.
Morocco’s notorious Rif region, a mainly mountainous area in the north, stretching over 300km from Tangier in the west to the Melwiyya River in the east is a natural boarder between Europe and Africa. It is also an area synonymous with Marijuana production.
According to some sources, the country is home to approximately 220,000 acres of Marijuana fields and it is believed that Morocco produces nearly half the world’s hashish supplies.
Called “kif” by the locals, hashish takes on a new culture and power in the Rif Mountains; unfortunately this isn’t a positive thing. Despite the production, sale and use of Marijuana being illegal it is still a massive income for the country and one of its biggest exports. The areas reputation also attracts tourists only interested in getting stoned.
Unfortunately if you are travelling in this area the locals assume you are only interested in buying drugs. For us these vast limestone mountains with forests of towering oak and cedar should have offered up what the guidebook described as “One of Morocco’s most memorable journeys”.
With previous knowledge of the areas notoriety is was with no surprise that on arrival our vision was impaired by a thick dense cloud and seemingly the Rif was living up to its reputation. Upon opening Bee-bee’s windows and not being hit by a recognisable stench it become blatantly apparent that the dense cloud obscuring the road wasn’t a thick weed haze but a naturally occurring fog.
As with most criminal activity the drug business here is far from friendly, Ketama in particular is by all accounts a rough and dangerous place with plenty of scams involving tourists, drug dealers and the police. Driving through this busy town we didn’t see one woman.
The fog only exaggerated the seediness of the area as ghostly men desperate to make sales appeared through the haze at the side of the road and attempted to stop our car.
For most of our journey between Al Hoceima and the beautiful town of Chefchaouen visibility was at times down to about 15m. Driving on these narrow roads in such conditions, often with sheer cliff edges (we think) and impeding doom around every corner was not a pleasant experience.
Occasionally we’d make a futile attempt to wait for the fog to lift in small laybys. These were always hampered when our car was surrounded by groups of men who’d appear from the forest edge aggressively trying to make a sale. At times our car was tail-gated by gangs of menacing men in Mercedes and vans who overtook and attempted to stop our vehicle.
Sadly what should have been a spectacular drive through some of the countries most impressive scenery became quite a stressful 6-hour chore until we descended the 1500m high ridge and the fog cleared. Fortunately our final destination at the end of our perilous journey was the beautifully friendly town of Chefchaouen; restoring our faith in what is a wonderful country.
On the fringes of the Sahara in Southern Morocco a seasonal phenomenon occurs in wetter years. Rain collects in a shallow, temporary salt lake, offering a feeding and resting site for thousands of migratory birds on their arduous journeys from Africa to Northern lands. This ephemeral lagoon was our camp for the night.
By first light the Ornithological Orchestra is tuning up for its performance. As a lone audience member I took my seat at the waters edge, a crunchy white layer of salt giving way underfoot to a spongy, sticky brown mud underneath. First to sound are the numerous pairs of Ruddy Shelducks, a brash repertoire of high-pitched barking and donkey-like honking as they glide across the surface. Rusty, auburn plumage reveals a shiny green flash of feathers; a flapping fanfare as they fly past, trumpeting out of tune. A Black-Winged Stilt squeaks shrilly as it wades elegantly past. Its bright red legs, glistening wet in the sun, seem to bend backwards as it strides like the most precise, poised ballerina through the shallows. Its perfect reflection in the still, mirror-like water reaches up to merge with its probing, narrow, jet-black beak as it delves for food in the muddy margins. Floppy red feet are revealed during its exaggerated steps and a white-feathered rear flashes as it dives its head.
The rising sun turns the distant arid mountains a rusty red in the dawn light, while behind the towering, undulating dunes of Erg Chebbi loom surreally out of the horizon. Shrieking, squealing calls of approaching flocks of Terns, swooping acrobatically across the waters surface. Graceful, speckled Sandpipers bob across sandbanks, whistling rhythmically while Coots cruise past, heads nodding to the beat. Tiny Kentish Plovers tiptoe unassumingly through the grassy fringes, whistling hurried, nervous ‘pip-pips’ in a hushed percussion.
The highlight of the symphony comes from the harmonious assemblage of Flamingos, their startling white and rose-coloured plumage a vivid contrast to the black, basalt hamada hills beyond. Their pink, u-bend necks plunge beaks methodically into the brackish water, a melodic murmuring as they extend their wide crimson wingspans in full.
As the sun rises high, glaring dazzlingly on the lake surface, the intensifying heat transforms the distant bank to a distorted, watery heat haze. The avian concerto settles into a calmer harmony. This has been a truly unique spectacle; migratory musicians en-mass. Bird song in stereo surround sound.