The libraries of the desert route. Part III
Summer in Morocco can be hard or very hard. And I had an idea that made things worse. A bike. I had read about the attractions of the city of Ouarzazate and the possibilities of getting close to a multitude of impressive places in its surroundings, in Draa-Tafilalet region. Seen on a map, the distances were perfect for a mountain bike adventure. When I managed to get in Camping Ouarzazate I was attended by a nice guy, I liked him from the first moment. He seemed to understand everything I needed at once and spoke excellent English. A bike, “I said,” when he asked if I needed anything else, right after he explained to me where I could set up the tent. “A bike,” he repeated, as if wondering why the hell I was going to need something like that. He nodded a couple of times thoughtfully, opened a smile a bit later and finally said he could fix it.
He called a friend of a relative who also called a friend who might show up on the requested bike. I did not understand at first glance what the matter was about and I fell back on the damn question. “How much does it cost?” The guy raised his eyebrows first and shrugged later on when I insisted. He said that I should bargain myself the price with whoever brought the bike, that he just wanted to help. And so it was, a boy appeared with an almost new bike, perfect for the task, everything worked on it. I negotiated almost by compromise the reasonable price he asked me, I set up the store in a hurry, showered and went out into the street with a smile, ready for all.
On the terrace of a café I decided that I was going to AÏt Ben Haddou. Aït means family or tribe in the Berber language. Each tribe occupied a Qsar or Ksar, walled towns, built in clay where different Kasbahs, family homes, and common spaces such as barns, businesses of all kinds and mosques are located.
The Ksar of AÏt Ben Haddou is about thirty kilometers from Ouarzazate. It didn’t seem like much, but I underestimated the rigors of the Moroccan summer. I had arrived on a day that seemed cloudy and somewhat cool, heir to the mountain passes that I had crossed the night before with that strange cold that got into my bones. In the beginning, the road seemed sweet, the traffic decreased as the first kilometres passed. But the sun beat harder as noon approached and the haze soon became confusing on the asphalt, giving rise to an imprecise, dry, almost apocalyptic horizon.
Halfway, there are ruins of other ksars and Kasbahs, semi-ruined, plunged in an almost incomprehensible abandonment, also some camels belonging to an absent owner. There seemed to be no one anywhere. I could feel a kind of exhaustion mixed with the silent euphoria of a lonely passerby stupor in the middle of nowhere. And at the end of nowhere the Ksar, separated from the new town by the road.
The adobe houses require a continuous effort of maintenance and repair, which motivated the construction of new houses with modern materials to which the population has moved. However, the old town’s abandonment of yesteryear is being reversed due to tourism, which has replaced the agricultural benefits of Ounila River as a source of wealth. A few bars and restaurants in the same entrance welcome tourists next to the bus parking lots that foretell the tourist groups that the traveller is within the ancient walls. There is no lack of Asians taking pictures and colourful souvenir and craft shops.
That set of kasbahs, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1987, is one of the best preserved and oldest ksar in the country, probably dating from the 11th century. What was once one of the greatest strategic points on the route to the East that linked ancient Sudan with the imperial cities of Marrakech, Fez and Meknes, supplying caravans of merchants. That day was for me the almost perfect reward for the sweat of pedalling under the sun.
Next day, I wanted to change plans in order to understand what was before the Ksars, how these populations formed and how the inhabitants subsisted in such an arid, apparently hostile environment. On a map it was easy to see that the towns were strategically placed in the courses of the rivers and, as expected, near the few green areas around them. And then I remembered that magic word of the desert: Oasis. My Lonely Planet reviewed an oasis about eighteen kilometres from Ouarzazate heading south, the Fint Oasis.
Getting there was a bit complicated because I decided to skip the road to enter dirt tracks. The weather was just as benign as the day before and the haze, again a nightmare, added to the uncertainty of, at times due to lack of coverage, not having the slightest idea if I was moving to the right direction.
Not a soul to ask, no chance to get hold of water or ask for help. Only the arid landscape and the sense of orientation as guides. And in the end, a few more kilometres further than expected, I found it.
A half-collapsed village appeared at the end of a curve, wrapped in palm trees, shortly after meeting the main road again. Dark-skinned children greeted me when I reached their streets on the way to the palm grove. I read that the inhabitants of the oasis are originally from Mali, descendants of nomads who accompanied the caravans of merchants from Sahara Desert and also some sub-Saharan slaves who fled and found refuge there. Currently the population of the oasis is around a thousand inhabitants, spread over four small villages dedicated to agriculture. Their names are Wangarf, Taherbilte, Timoula and Belghizi.
Among the palm trees some locals were indifferent to my intrusion or my presence, the women washed clothes in a nearby stream, life was happening as if I was not there, but I had run out of water.
And to come back without drinking seemed too long to me. I pedalled a little more and at the end of a path I saw a large house that looked to have an upper terrace with umbrellas. Upon accessing it I saw some cosy tables under the porch preceded by a nice pool overlooking the palm trees. A girl came out to ask if I wanted to eat or drink something. The Oasis continued to fulfil its mission.