We drive on a desert road, the bustling alleyways of Marrakesh behind us and Morocco’s snow capped Atlas mountains looming ahead. We pass both donkeys and cars as we make our way toward the mountains. The donkeys, our guide informs us, have right of way. We are heading to the Birba villages three hours out of Morocco by car with a private guide. In these villages live the Birba people, neither Arab nor African but the original Moroccan race, a deep olive in skin tone and dark haired but with shocking green and blue eyes.
Our first pit stop is a roadside ceramic workshop where we are brought fresh mint tea in thin glasses. Here we watch the craftsmen mould tagines, plates and bowls by hand in a dirt floored workroom. The pathway to the outdoor kiln is littered with beautiful shattered fragments of painted goods which couldn’t handle the heat inside the fire. A graveyard of pottery whose destiny didn’t lead to the markets. The Birba people are known as Morocco’s craftsmen, not just in ceramics but also weaving and silver smithing. Every manipulative shopkeeper in Marrakesh would love to claim their goods were handmade in the Birba villages, but judging from the meagre population of the local workforce a very small percentage of goods legitimately trace their origins here.
The winding roads of the snow capped Atlas mountains are punctuated with bursts of colours as craftsmen further up the track hang their freshly dyed fabrics and rugs on the sides of cliffs, serving as both part of the production process and an advertisement to tourists. We reach a clearing on the side of a river where several mature camels and their calves are assembled and ready to ridden. I’m threatened by the intimidating denture- like teeth of a mother camel when I venture too close to her child. I’m pulled back just in time by one of the handlers (who I ignored as he yelled “non madam” at me several times on my approach).
Our next stop is the region’s largest apothecary gardens where hundreds of herbs and spices are believed to cure everything from a headache to diabetes. These are rarely bottled or extracted, instead they are cut fresh and eaten raw or brewed in tea. Along with their craftsmanship the Birba people are known for their au natural lifestyle, living off the land in every aspect of their lives. Traditional Birba people, even many of those who have relocated to the cities, do not use western medicine, visit doctors, or go to hospitals.
Just a little further up the mountain roads and we reach the first of the villages, a collection of four or five houses situated on the opposite side of the river we have been following. Perilous bridges connect the houses to the road, swinging a hundred meters above the gorge, they are assembled of plastic bags tied together and stray planks of wood with gaps up to half a metre wide between some rungs. On one occasion we see an abandoned real estate sign in place of wood , held together by a mud sealant.
At the end of the road we look up to the snow-capped peaks . There are fifteen or so more villages past this point, accessible only by foot or donkey and two days ride away. The uppermost villages have snow year round even on bright sunny days. The rivulets of melted ice streaming down the mountainsides in the summer months are used to make “Birba Refrigerators.”
Here a small number of tourist attractions have been assembled and we eat at one of the cliffside cafes connected by a web of death-trap bridges. We make our way across gingerly with the help of eager schoolboys. Locals saunter across followed by herds of goats, stepping over the gaps without a care in the world, the bridges swinging happily.
We’re advised not to head up the mountains to the nearby waterfalls alone for “our safety”. We assume this to refer to pickpockets but it soon becomes apparent that the “path” is more a collection of rocks and we are badly dressed for such a trek in our full length skirts and ballet flats. We find ourselves a sprightly, mono browed guide, luckily the mono browed one is as agile as a mountain goat, crossing fiords with ease and dragging us with him. The paths lead to a series of waterfalls, each more spectacular and harder to reach than the last. The rate for our guide is calculated per waterfall, a fact not mentioned until we are at a height that makes us completely reliant on his services.
The views below are spectacular, dotted villages, a winding river, a stretch of desert and in the distance, beckoning us back from our mountain excursion, the madness of Marrakesh.
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