Hazel Southam: Nomadic trails
Remote. That’s a fair description of Ait Youl in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. We’ve traveled for 11 hours from Marrakech through the mountains and the light is fading badly.
We are due to meet the Elyakoubi family, nomadic herders who are making the spring migration from winter to summer pastures. Suddenly, sitting on a rock by the side of the road is Ahmed, a muleteer. He guides us another 20 minutes drive along a dry riverbed to where the family are camped and our adventure is about to begin.
Ait Youl is just a dry riverbed surrounded by mountains in every direction. We’re already at 1600m and by the end of the week will have topped 3250m on the highest pass. The family makes this trip twice a year to take their 200 goats, 30 sheep, 11 camels, three donkeys and a mule to the best possible grazing. Deforestation and less rainfall mean that this is becoming progressively harder. An ancient way of life is under threat.
Thirty-two year-old Mohamad Elyakoubi has seen the landscape change, and now has to buy in feed for his flock during the winter. ‘In the past there were lots of trees and lots of grass here,’ he says. ‘It was good. Everyone was happy. There were lots of people. There was no competition between them. Everyone could eat. Everyone could graze his animals.
‘This has been one of the worst years ever,’ Mohamed adds. ‘We’ve had to buy lots of feed for the animals to keep them going. And because of the dry, cold weather that’s been expensive.’
The migration is risky. Goats hate the rain and snow that is still possible at the highest levels in May. But we are lucky. For six days the sun shines on us and the goats, making moving everything and everyone so much easier.
The goats dictate the pace, so every day is different, as we head for camping spots used for millennia. The shortest day (just 3.5 hours) takes us to the river at Tizi-n-Toudat, where I sit on a rock midstream, watching the mules graze. There isn’t a sound, except for goats and sheep bleating and the chewy moan of the camels.
But the bliss of Tizi-n-Toudat makes me forget that rivers flow downstream and therefore we must walk up. We do, the next day, for five-and-a-half hours over boulders. By the end I have shin splints, and have been overtaken by everything: goats, sheep, mules, donkeys, camels, even the dung beetles fancied their chances of overtaking me.
Elation follows however. First, over the highest pass, where mountains are laid out before us to the horizon in every direction, and snow sparkles in the sunshine.
All along the path euphorbias, poppies, thyme and mint grow. In the valley, walnut, plum, cherry and apple orchards are fed by irrigation channels. Vividly green terraces are lush with vegetables and grain. Juniper trees offer shade. It’s a joy to arrive, but despite its verdancy, it holds no grazing land. Mohamad must press on beyond the village to survive another summer in a remote, tough, but dazzlingly beautiful environment.
Images by Clare Kendall.