Amar Grover takes a walk in Morocco’s Anti Atlas mountains.
Morocco’s mountain regions abound in great drives and some of the loveliest roads wriggle through the southern Anti-Atlas range near Tafraoute. The Gorge d’Ait Mansour is among the best known but two years ago I headed down another route, one of several which cut through a plateau and into winding canyons whose mouths meet the sub-Sahara.
Just after Izerbi village I spied the turn-off signed Igmir. A broad well-graded piste – clearly a proper road in the making – stretched away into a barren nothingness of rounded hills and vast sky. My two young boys relished its perceived resemblance to Mars. My announcement that we were now heading towards the Sahara (true in terms of direction rather than objective) was met with mounting excitement. Seventeen kilometres later we reached the lip of a deep canyon and the road plunged abruptly into a coil of tight hairpin bends.
This vista has graced the cover of a French 4WD handbook though recent improvements mean it’s much easier now even for a standard car. Soon the emerald-green heads of palms choking a gorge came into view far below. Two kilometres later we landed at the foot of little Igmir village which stood across the dry riverbed utterly dwarfed by soaring cliffs.
Omar, the local schoolteacher, helped us settle into the only accommodation – a simple inn – with tea and pastries and together we forged plans. An oasis of date palms stretched up and down the canyon, their nodding leaves twitching with little chirping birds. He suggested we might visit the nearby agadir, or fortified granary, all but invisible atop a sheer bluff.
We picked up the faint trail at the edge of the village, climbing steadily up an austere side valley. Thirty minutes later we gained the spur to reach the little fortress’ broken walls. Perched right on the edge of a precipice, we enjoyed wonderful vertiginous views of Igmir and its snaking oasis, marvelling too at the tenacity of medieval Berbers who had built and once maintained their eyrie-like granary.
Omar explained the new piste was part of a much bigger project to improve links in this isolated region. In time more palms would be felled to widen the road, and its regular blocking by boulders after seasonal rain would, hopefully, become history. “Everyone wants it”, he continued, “for better communications and opportunities”, though he acknowledged the sublime tranquillity of the place would probably fade.
Next morning we hiked up the beautiful, still canyon. A faint path wound through palm groves with clumps of oleander and dense shrubbery edging seasonal streams and ponds. We glimpsed a snake, heard raucous frogs and spun pebbles. Knee-deep water filled one short and narrow section. Wading across carrying each in turn, the boys upgraded me to hero.
Eventually we reached our curious objective: crude steps alongside the steep canyon wall climbed to a short, roughly-hewn tunnel. At its other end we emerged flush with the dry riverbed, just above which stood the tatty village of Oukrda. Centuries ago the locals had dammed the wadi at this elongated loop to make small plots for crops and vegetables. The tunnel was bored to divert occasional torrents of water which, thundering down the canyon, would have spurted briefly from the cliff like some bizarre blowhole. “It’s a bit like….Indiana Jones,” exclaimed my eight-year old and I nodded in complete agreement.