Going the distance in the Atlas

Going the distance in the Atlas
To raise awareness of Berber culture, the Timnay Intercultural Tourist Complex organizes trips into mountain villages. "We take travelers to the villages to meet Berber families and live like Berber families. The traveler learns about the Berbers, and the Berbers benefit directly," founder Youssef Ait Lemkadem says. (Youssef Ait Lemkadem)
The rugged Eastern High Atlas region of Morocco is beautiful but heartbreakingly poor and miles from anywhere. The region is near the center of the country, lying in the no man's land between north and south. The nearest population center is Midelt, a dusty town of 35,000. As if to confirm the remoteness of his High Atlas village, one Berber observed, "Even [Moroccan King] Mohammed VI has never been here."

Reaching out to tourists

The Moroccan monarch has not been here, but a handful of travelers have, thanks to the Timnay Intercultural Tourist Complex. The center promotes tourism that provides a personal introduction to Berber culture and helps improve living conditions in these impoverished outposts.

The Berbers' history

Berbers were Morocco's first inhabitants and are still the majority. Mostly small farmers who reside in villages, they make up 60% of the nation's 32 million inhabitants. Politically, the Berbers' major grievances are over the dominance of the Arab culture and language.

Bringing the basics

The Timnay complex, founded by Youssef Ait Lemkadem, aims to help the Berbers. It finances small-scale, grass-roots development projects, such as a simple irrigation system in the village of Mendayour. The system directs water from its source, more than two miles out of the village, to a central, communal fountain. "Imagine these women," Youssef said, "walking 2 1/2 miles each way, morning and evening."

Visit to a village

With my guide Hafid and the muleteer Habib, I set out on a two-day journey to learn firsthand about the Berbers of the Eastern High Atlas. We trekked all morning to reach our first destination, the village of Sidi Amar. As it turned out, we were not the only visitors.

A bull market

Hundreds of people had descended on Sidi Amar — by donkey, mule and foot — for the region's weekly souk, or market. Women draped in bright fabrics carried babies on their backs; customers with heads wrapped in turbans haggled over prices. Sellers touted their wares — oranges, dates and olives, spices of every color, all piled onto woven carpets and pouring out of plastic bags — creating a sensory spectacle.

The truly rustic life

While Habib had the mule reshod, Hafid bought ingredients for lunch, which we shared at the home of a villager named Mamoud. When I asked Mamoud where I might use the bathroom, he answered, "C'est la toilette au sauvage." How, I wondered, does a "toilet in the wild" work in the middle of a village?

Health concerns

La toilette au sauvage, I later learned, is a serious concern. Contaminated water — causing diarrhea, typhoid and other health problems — results in high infant-mortality rates in many Berber villages. The other awkward problem I had faced, of course, was discretion. It is a concern that Youssef hopes Timnay can address. In a nearby village, Timnay had brought a French group of volunteers to build latrines at the school.

A snowy summit

We scrapped plans to climb to the 12,260-foot summit of Ichichi n'Boukhlib because of the 6 feet of snow that had accumulated at the peak. That did not diminish the thrill of gazing across the valley as we wound our way around the mountain's base. Ichichi n'Boukhlib is the highest of the five peaks that form the Cirque Jaffar, which includes a narrow, high-sided gorge. At its center, nestled in the valley, is the village of Jaffar, where we would spend the night with a local family.

Half barn, half home

Jaffar is home to 10 shepherding families. Our hosts' house consisted of two sides: The family of seven lived in one side, in two rooms with dirt floors and no furniture; the sheep and dogs occupied the other. At least the surrounding hills were green with trees and brush. (Finally, a decent "toilet in the wild.")

Flatbread and a pot

As the sun set and the temperature dropped, the focal point of activity became the stove, which served as the only source for warmth, cooking and the constant heating of water. The family crowded around, lounging on pillows and drinking bottomless cups of mint tea. The matriarch, Hada, prepared a hearty tahini, which we ate together in the Moroccan way, dipping pieces of flatbread into one big pot. After dinner, we retired to the adjoining room, now icy cold and pitch-black, where I crawled under a mile-high pile of blankets.

Heading back

The next morning, we began our return journey through the Gorge Jaffar, a deep ravine cutting through the mountain Jebel Ayachi. Our host was ahead of us, his dogs barking wildly around the herd of sheep. We followed until he climbed into the hills. We turned to cross the plain, leaving Jaffar to its isolation and returning to the comfort of the familiar.

Getting there

From the U.S., visitors usually fly into Casablanca or Fes. Restricted round-trip fares from LAX to Casablanca begin at $1,425. From either city, overnight buses run to Midelt. Ask the driver to drop you at Timnay, which is on the main road into town, or catch a taxi from Midelt. Treks run $35 to $45 per person per day, including food and lodging with local families, for groups of four or more.

For more information

The Timnay Intercultural Tourist Complex is the main source of information on the region and can help arrange tours into the mountains: 011-212-55-360-188; the website is down for overhaul, but for information, you can e-mail: