Monthly Archives: May 2014

Walking with nomads, last day: All change


Today we walked with Izza and Zahra and the goats. We counted them out of the enclosure, 210 goats and the little sheep, and then set up directly over the hill. Our aim was not to get to the next camp but to find enough food for the flock.
As we started up the hill, the air filled with scent as the goats trampled on the ubiquitous ormilus plant – which is a little bit like camomile. Izza led the way and Zahra was back stop, keeping an eye out for any stragglers and expertly throwing stones round the group to keep them together. She was also in charge of carrying the little sheep when he got tired. Zahra is 10.
She had been shy all week but out in her element, she was smiling and laughing and even got brave enough to tease me by calling me Nouri’s name for me which is Tamkhilawt – the mad one in Berber.
An hour into the walk, she popped over a hill crest and came skipping down. She reached into her pocket and brought out a beautiful white crystallized rock she had found on the trail as a present. She gave it to me with the biggest smile and my heart melted like a thornton’s in the microwave.
At lunch, we left Zahra and her Mum and went on to camp. Because it was our last full day with the family,we were having a feast with special dishes: Bread baked in hot stones, cous cous made by F atima and special kebabs made from offal. One of the goats was dispatched.
To make the bread, a fire is set on a pile of biggish, flatish stones. When these are really hot, the proven dough is set on top and small pebbles are poured on, another fire is set on top and it is left to cook for 40 minutes. When it came out, it was hot and fluffy and totally delicious.
In the meantime, the goat’s heart, kidneys and liver were being chopped up for the kebabs. Pieces of each were skewered on and then covered in fat to make them tasty and help them cook. These were cooked over the open fire beside the tent. The intestines were unravelled, squeezed out like tubes of toothpaste and cooked separately. As a Scot, I like my offal so enjoyed my kebabs immensely, but the intestines were a step too far.
We all sat down together to eat the cous cous and fresh water melon after and I got the chance to ask Zaid some wider questions. I wanted to understand the economics of it. He told me that he had built up his flock to 210 goats – the sheep having died in the drought. He has bucks and ewes so they breed naturally, a good goat can get £110 at market, a medium one makes around £65 and at Eid time, it can go up to £200. There are markets in the various towns they pass and he sells 3-5 goats at a good one. The money is then used for essentials like flour, tea, sugar, vegetables and anything else his family needs. He also needs money to buy transport animals and sometimes hire them in. Then there are school expenses for Maymoun, although Maymoun lodges with Zaid’s brother when he goes to school. His flock is his entire capital and also livelihood as he has no house, no car no possessions that can’t be carried on a donley or camel.
This way of life has existed for centuries and from my outside perspective it seems very hard but also good. What I wanted to know was what Zaid wanted for his children and this is what he said, “It is very hard to carry on as nomads. Electricity, television are coming and everything is changing. The government is building roads everywhere. I want my youngest children, Aisha and Hassan, to go to school. Maybe we will settle down with a small farm so they can do that. I have no choice. Change is here. ”

To meet Zaid and his family and share this journey:


Walking with Nomads Day 3: One for all and all for one.


This afternoon, there was a violent rainstorm. As it drew closer, the whole family, sprang into action, covering the tent with a big sheet of plastic, doing the same to all the piles of provisions, bringing in anything that might get ruined by the rain and making sure the firewood had somewhere dry to sit.

There we were, our motley crew of foreigners and Berbers, with no languages in common but masses of goodwill. So, we did what all good people do when stuck in a rainstorm, we played a game guessing how many stones there were in everyone’s hands. In the UK it is a drinking game, here we did it with just mint tea. Everyone loved it.

Rain and water is the big preoccupation for Zaid and his family. There has been a drought in the region for the last three years and it has affected him badly. This year he spent over €1000 on feed for some sheep he had in his flock, but he lost 35 of them through starvation. Goats eat anything, but sheep are fussier. I am holding the lone survivor up above. We could see the lack of water even in the little wells and springs that dotted the route. All were just puddles.

For Zaid and his family to survive, everyone works and does their share. From first thing in the morning, even the little ones are working. The tea goes on, the family sit together and eat bread and olive oil or butter, then they are packing up the tent and provisions and getting the animals ready. The chicken is strapped to the mule, Zahra, picks up the little sheep, Zaid and Izza count the goats out of the enclosure and everyone sets off.

Sharing is instinctual here. On the walk,  I had lent my poles to Maymoun to try out. He loved them, he was so proud, walking in front like our guide, checking back to make sure we were all following and joyously prodding every piece of dung on the route. But when I looked up 5 minutes later, he had made one of the poles shorter and given it to his little brother, Hassan, so they could both enjoy it.

It is a small illustration of the core value of this culture. It is completely communal, everyone sleeps in the same place, eats from the same bowl of food, takes their share of the work and sits together in rest time. It would be very hard to be lonely.

Tomorrow: Herding and endings
To do this walk:






Walking with Nomads Day 2:Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang!


210 goats, 1 sheep, 7 mules, 10 camels, 3 donkeys, 2 dogs, 22 people and one chicken. It was crowded in the early morning light as we kicked off the first proper day of the migration. Izza and Zahra left before us with the goats, the dogs and Shaun the Sheep. Their job was to take the slow route and find as much grazing as possible on the way. 

We set off in grand convoy, up to the first pass out of camp and down past the last road we would see for days. We were a motley bunch from Mohammed El Kabir, resplendent in robes, turban, and proper moustache to us with our fleeces, hats and walking poles. Mohammed El Kabir was very taken with my solar recharger and wanted to swap it for his enormous dagger (no, that is not a euphemism). After a spirited negotiation, he was even willing to throw in a donkey, but I wasn’t sure my landlord in Marrakech would go for that. 

Our route was undulating with some rocky, sharp passes. The rhythm was completely new to me as I have never walked with a big convoy of animals before. We were slowing down and speeding up with them. Sometimes, it was hard even to watch. One small donkey was very heavily laden. Twice she fell over a boulder as she was going uphill and had to be hauled up to standing again by Zaid and the muleteers. 

I was fascinated by the camels, especially by their feet. They walk very elegantly and precisely, and the soles of their feet puff up and down like little hover crafts. No obstacle seemed to phase them, and whenever they caught up to us, they would just stop and wait till we had gone a little way ahead, and then start again.

We got to camp by lunchtime. Then the rest of the work day started, the tents were put up, bread was baked, the chicken was taken off the mule and tethered in a little home made chicken hut and we all had tea and a siesta.

In the late afternoon, we walked up to a ridge and looked down onto a tiny farm which supported one family.  Everywhere there is water, there is life. There, we appointed our tribal leader for the week, Paul became Dada Atta and for the rest of the trip, he was to hold sway. It is amazing how a well-wrapped turban can bestow authority. 

We didn’t see Zahra and Izza with the goats till much later. around six, as they had spent all day foraging, Izza walking with Aisha slung round her back. By sundown and shortly after supper, we were all ready for bed.

 That night, it was cold so I was in the mess tent with the boys. I drifted off easily and in the middle of the night, felt warm breath on my cheek as someone moved in for a kiss. It felt lovely, a little peck and nibble – nibble??!!! I sat up with a yelp to find the little lone Shaun the sheep looking at me earnestly. He had come into the tent to try and get warm and clearly thought I was his best bet.

Tomorrow: prodding camel poo, spinning, and the economics of goats.

To do this walk:

Day 1 of Walking with Nomads: The Ambulance Mule


Every year the Ait Atta nomads, who live in the Saghro Massif in southern Morocco, trek for two weeks to the high pastures of the Atlas Mountains with their flocks. They stay there all summer, feeding up the goats, and then walk back in September. This year, I went with them on the first part of their journey courtesy of

We lived, walked, ate and slept with our host family and their animals to try and understand a little bit about their life – so far removed from our own. Our little band of adventurers had come from all over to be part of this – Australia, UK,  and America.

The first day was to be one of the longest of the whole trek as we had to get to our rendezvous with Zaid and his family in their camp in the mountains. Until lunch, we were walking along a dried river bed and then over gently rolling, stony hills. The gradient was relatively easy but it was rocky and uneven underfoot and the sun was beating down hard.  The last hour, especially, was tough, and there was mass relief when we came to the oasis where our picnic was laid out.

The oasis was typical of the area. A small amount of water  is fully exploited: date palms, fig and pomegranate trees, vegetables and barley were all planted out and that is enough to support three or four families.

The heat and rocks had taken their toll and after lunch, a couple of members of our group had to take advantage of the ambulance mule. We had 6 mules with us to carry our food, gear and water for the week, but one of them doubled up as transport for when the going just got too tough. In Morocco, there is always a solution…. Animals here are not really given names, but we decided to call him George after George Clooney as he was so handsome and shiny, with just a hint of grey round the muzzle.

The only disadvantage of the ambulance mule from my perspective, was that I had to try and keep up with him, and his four long legs, were definitely quicker than my two shorter ones, so the second half of my day was a panting trot up a perpendicular hill.

Zaid’s campsite was perched on a small, flat plateau, surrounded by huge outcrops of dark rock. Volcanic plugs that had been smoothed and weathered into sheer faces. There were three tents pitched: the family’s, the mess tent and the most crucial of all, the toilet tent, complete with a beautiful white toilet seat and a view of the far valley.

Zaid was waiting for us with  a very warm welcome. We were immediately brought down to the family tent, woven out of goat hair from their flock, and given the obligatory tea, made by Zaid’s mother, Aisha, the spiritual leader of his little tribe and the boss in many ways. There were nine family members to meet: Zaid and Aisha, Zaid’s wife, Izza and half sister, Fatimah, his three sons – Mohammed (14), Maymoun (8 and at school), and Hassan (3), his two daughters, Zahra (10) and Aisha (1). Over the next few days, we were to get to know, and fall a little bit in love with all of them.

Dinner was outside and as the dusk deepened a caravan of camels driven by a tall blue-clad figure straight from a cinema screen came up over the ridge, ready to join us the next day. I had imagined sleeping in the deep quiet under the majesty of the night sky, but the reality was rather different. The stars were indeed majestic but quiet was there none: goats are noisy, and so are shepherd dogs, especially when they spot rival shepherd dogs and get into a barking stand off, and that barking stand off is doubled through the amazing echoes of the rocks.  But my mattress was comfy, my sleeping bag was warm and my legs were tired, so it wasn’t long before I drifted off.

Tomorrow: A little donkey, a new tribal leader and my first nomadic kiss

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