Sunday, August 2, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 31. Over the Middle Atlas mountain chain.

So far we had been moving steadily east, from Rabat to Meknes to Fez. Today we changed directions, however, and turned south with the intention of crossing the Middle Atlas mountain chain. At some point the Atlas Mountains formed a continuum with the Appalachian Mountains of North America to the south, and the Caledonian Mountains of Great Britain-Greenland-Scandinavia to the north. This mountain chain formed as Laurasia and Gondwanaland sutured together to form the supercontinent of Pangea in the late Permian, only to be segmented during the Mesozoic, as the current continents started to split apart. This is one of the cornerstones of the plate tectonics theory, so I am particularly happy to be able to see the Atlas Mountains.

As we traversed the country I saw a few shops selling rocks and fossils, among which I recognized ammonites of good size. Unfortunately our guide had planned to stop at a rock shop tomorrow, so he didn’t call for a shopping stop for me.

As I said, we headed south from Fez, and within an hour we were climbing the foothills of the Atlas, driving into a cypress forest that was pleasantly cool compared with Fez. After a couple of hours we stopped in the most beautiful Alpine village imaginable, Ifrane, where we stopped to have a cup of coffee and to buy the makings of lunch. I took advantage of the break to walk a bit through the city, which was refreshing and beautiful. The houses look much like Swiss chalets, because the snowfall in winter requires steep roofs. I also saw quite a few storks nesting on the chalet roofs, which reinforced the similarity with European mountain villages. Once I got to the coffee shop I found a street vendor waiting for me; my buddies had told him I was in the market for fossils, and he had a nice little Bakelite box with a neat collection of Moroccan fossils, which included a trilobite, a couple of small ammonites, belemnites, sea urchins, and a fine collection of shark teeth. He wanted US $25 for it, but I didn’t want to carry so I kept saying “no thanks”. He kept dropping the price to convince me, and I finally gave in when he hit US $15. They are nice fossils, but how am I to get them home?

Continuing south we went over the Middle Atlas by a 1,000 m high pass, and dropped slightly into the high plateau that separates the Middle and High Atlas. The cedar forest is gone, replaced by grasslands where nomadic Berbers tend to big flocks of sheep. They live in typical Berber tents, and are continuously in the move from the highlands in summer, to the coastal lowlands during the winter.

At about 3:30 pm we pulled into our eco-friendly hostel, in the town of Midelt. It is a fabulous Moroccan castle surrounded by apple orchards, with one court after the other, nice arbors covered with grapevines, roof gardens, and even some decorative turrets. They do have a water tank for irrigation that has been adapted as a pool, so I started the disorder, changed into my swimsuit, and plunged in. Half an hour later half of the group was in the water enjoying a refreshing swim. Afterward we went for a walk that took us to a mini-Grand Canyon, carved through flat-lying Paleozoic limestones, just before the foothills of the High Atlas. We were all so happy to be out and about that our guide has promised that from now on we will have an afternoon hike. This is what I came to Morocco for! 

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