In the hills of South Morocco hippies dwell still…
Shuffling out of town along the coastal road, it occurred to me how easily the spell of civilization is broken, and how easily this void is filled. In Taghazoute a few yards walk suffice to carry you away, the hustle of a weekend market immediately fading to cactus strewn hills, the road dropping away to the ocean via a dusty path, and all traces of village life with it. Locals just about outnumber the tourists on the beach here, but since there are relatively few of either it’s a balance that shifts daily.
This part of the coast of Morocco has resisted ‘development’ up to this point in time, but no further. As I rounded the next corner, the shell of a massive construction emerged on the roadside, swaggering along the beach front for an inconsiderately long period of time. As natural resources go beauty is up there with most double-edged of swords, missing the top spots only because it can’t be used to power motor engines.
My destination that day would be several times removed from the artifice of concrete and glass, but it was proving to be elusive. Some said North on the road to Essaouira; others swore it was further South, somewhere towards Agadir. I hitched up and down the road, my friendly rides stabbing blindly at the coast in search of a road inland, but to no avail. Eventually a mother picked me up with her son, and as they argued between them about where I should be heading it occurred to me that I might never find this place. If the locals don’t know where it is perhaps it was a myth all along, bred through the preceding decades to ensnare gullible travellers like myself.
But her confidence in the next town buoyed me. In Imouzzer I conducted the directions litmus test, asking several groups of locals without offering my own ideas. They all pointed the same way so I pushed on, through a town of dust and chickens, multi-coloured buildings baking slowly in an oven that rarely passed midday unlit.
My next ride was some kind of event organizer, passing through on his way to a distant festival, but he remained silent for much of my journey. Perhaps he was equally awed by the scenery; it piled up on the retinas, each new turn bringing a fresh vista to vie for attention in a disorderly squabble of beauty. Granite grew progressively higher, palm trees closed in on both sides and a stream wound a path so convoluted that the road seemed to tire of following it. Every available rock was strewn with the happy detritus of groups picnicking, a coal fired tajine the focal point of each cluster. Perhaps this was not such an undiscovered path. By the time his plush 4×4 had deposited me by the roadside some 40km on I was mildly intoxicated from the scenery, my windscreen cinema inducing an involuntary smile that would draw strange looks elsewhere.
Names like this would diminish lesser locations, their beauty quaking under the weight of heightened expectation – but not here. From a tiny car park, the path wound around a hill and deposited me in front of a view with such confidence that I felt few would begrudge this place its epithet. Mountains wound along to my left and right enwrapping dense clusters of palm tree forest, small brick and mud houses nestling in the gaps. The stream I had followed along the road this far meandered further into the landscape before climbing into a canyon whose walls rose to dominate the landscape as far as my eyes could follow.
In the 1960’s, a German couple diagnosed with terminal illness came here to find some peace in their last days, but returned home after several months apparently free from symptoms. A small notoriety spread among groups of travelers and the valley gained a dedicated following among the hippy set of the time, but its relative isolation has kept bulldozers confined to the coast for now. In moments of wild optimism I can believe that no-one would ever be stupid enough to build a resort or gift shop here, but it can only be a matter of time before it gets a concrete path and ‘do not fall off this cliff’ safety notices, and the road is not pleasant thereon in.
From my vantage point on the ridge I could see a group of people sat outside a small house, and as I descended I introduced myself to a group of the Rainbow Tribe gatherers. Regularly exiting society for short periods to create their own (devoid of electricity and most trappings of the outside world), Rainbow people constitute some of the most genuine and open folks you can imagine. They are also some of the most infuriating hippies in existence.
I was welcomed into their circle to take tea, and our local host immediately laid out a spread of extravagant nature: mint laden green tea, weighed down with sugar as always; fresh honey with a side of incredible honeycomb; and a mix of crushed almonds and olive oil for the dipping of bread. Sitting with this group of gentle travelers, newly descended from a month living in the surrounding hills with nothing but each other and some sacks of rice, supping on the best that nature could provide, it was impossible not to feel a connection with the earth and its people. But then just as our tajine arrived – a slow cooked feast of vegetables and bread to be communally devoured – they began to chant.
I have a great deal of affection for genuine spirituality – its adherents, culture, communality and peace – but not its affectations. Show me a group of people holding hands to chant ‘thank you for the food’ before each meal and I cannot help but wince on the inside. Perhaps it’s the creeping feeling that in a thousand years time descendants of this group will be killing others for chanting ‘bless you for this meal’ instead, though perhaps this is an exaggeration too far. Rituals seem to leave me cold. I bade farewell after we decided our own bill, happy bellies inevitably erring on the generous side, and promised to say hello again after exploring the acres of green spread before me.
The trail veered and forked, losing itself in the thickets of palm trees, huts and bushes that crowded the valley. I took a path that seemed to lead into someone’s back garden, about-faced and headed across a stream, past farms with their borders staked out by thick fences made of thorny bushes that are common all along this coast. Climbing a hill, I came down upon the first of a zigzagging series of pools at the base of the canyon whose walls rose to block out most of the sky.
My path, which I suspected I was making up as I went along, brought me close to the groups of more adventurous Moroccans who had pushed on further into the woods before making camp. The sizable tajines were still present in spite of the distance from any motor vehicle, and thick rugs and hookah pipes often joined them. Picnicking in Morocco is a serious occupation. At each group I passed the young people offered me a share of their food, smells of lamb or chicken causing me to reassess the fullness of my stomach, but I moved on.
Scrambling through bushes and cacti on the high wall for my return journey, it became clear that I should have eenied when I meenied – for staring across at me from the opposite side was a clear path entirely free from flesh seeking cacti spines. But sat on the edge of a dry tributary, looking deep into the canyon below and hearing only the rustle of vegetation, it was hard to argue with my instincts. The sun picked its way through scattered clouds, occasionally dowsing me with warmth, and a pleasing lethargy spread across the scene.
I threaded my way past the picnickers, now packing their goods away in between leaping into pools where the stream eddied and gathered enough depth. Making my way across the canyon floor I came across a lone wooden figure stood upon a rock. I paused, assuming the hand that carved it must be somewhere nearby but unable to find any sign. Rounding another corner I found him; sat in the nook of a rock, his reflection cast into the still pool that lay between us, he carved with both hands on his tools with his subject firmly clasped between his feet, limbs working in perfect harmony. Something about the scene was so tranquil that it seemed blasphemous to disturb it, and I watched in silence before ascending the waiting hill.
As I turned my back on paradise, the first drops of a rainfall began to dampen my shirt. Given that the day had waited until this moment to refresh me, I couldn’t really begrudge the inconvenience now, but it did present certain problems for hitching; there is a fine line between sympathy and pity, and for the hitcher this occurs at the moment you look wet enough to dampen a car seat. The few vans that remained had a traveler feel to them, and sure enough a few of my new friends remained, busying themselves with adjusting to the new weather. They invited me into a hut belonging to their friend, a kind Frenchman whose collection of outbuildings (‘Chez Abdullah’) at the entrance to the valley formed a base camp of sorts to the hill dwellers. We huddled in a room too small for the generous collection of bodies that filled it, but no-one complained, each settling into some form of time-passing – knitting, playing with children, drumming softly on the ever-present djembas.
Eventually a group decided they would make a run to the nearest town for a trip to the local hammam, and I asked to be taken as far as they were going. But once in their van a problem presented itself; the windscreen wipers no longer functioned, and the rain continued to pour in a heavy drizzle sufficient to need clearing.
“Lets smoke a joint and see if it clears.”
This is another issue I might take with the hippy community, if such an entity exists and would allow itself to be homogenized for a moment – the smoking of weed at each available opportunity. In spite of my own fondness for good herb, it must be said that it engenders a sort of directionless apathy that – apologies to those leading active, motivated lives – tends to characterise many hippies already. We shared some bread, smoked and stared at the windscreen.
“Bless the rain.” said one.
“Mmm,” said another. “Thank you for the rain.”
There was a tension in the air, their instincts to be thankful for this blessing of nature butting against a growing disappointment that it would now stop them achieving their goal. It hung there, giving the silence that followed a slight melancholy, the droplets of water refusing to cease their steady beat on the roof above.
“I wish we could watch a DVD right now.”
And so my night would have ended, sat in the haze of a dusky car park, were it not for the introduction of an unlikely saviour. For against all expectations, the honey man arrived. Apparently visiting the gathering a number of times over the course of their stay in the valley, he sold honey and honey-based goods to whoever he could, his shop the back of a small van. After negotiations had taken place, I asked in my best French if he would mind taking me back along the road towards town. “Bien sur…”
Sat in the passenger seat, bumping along the road with a speed that I could only hope implied his familiarity with the terrain, I watched the dark creep to the edge of his headlights as they darted manically across the landscape. If the bulldozers ever do make it out here to pave Paradise (and yes, probably put up a parking lot), it will mean the loss of something secretly wonderful.
And to those who prefer their nature pre-packaged I say this: come chant awhile.