Sunday, August 2, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 33. The Anti Atlas

We all woke up around 5 am, intent on climbing a dune that must have been at least 150 m in height, with the ultimate purpose of seeing the sunrise over Algeria (yes, we are very close to the border). The climb was tough because the sand is loose and the air you breath is very dry, but the beautiful sunrise was worth the effort. Unfortunately our guides kept calling us down (Yalla, yalla!), so I had to make a dash for the top (I was the only one who made it), just to turn immediately around. The effort brought a series of coughing fits, which only abated once I had drank many little sips of water to moisten my throat.

Right away we got back on the camels, and made it back to our kasbah, for breakfast, just as the sun started beating miserably on us.

Back on the bus we went back to Erfoud, and from there took the road east along the Anti Atlas. We were heading for the town of Tinejdad, crossing the toughest dessert you can imagine, when we came to a landscape dotted with small mounds, about 2 m high and 5 m in diameter. There were hundreds of these mounds, aligned in rows. We stopped in a small store by the side of the road, and learned that these were khanats, a type of irrigation scheme practiced in Persia, north Africa, and Mexico. Imagine a plain that rises gently toward the mountains; the water table would be at a higher elevation near the mountains, so you start excavating a tunnel, maybe 10 m deep, throughout the plains and toward the mountains, with just enough slope that, if it had water, it would allow said water to flow toward the valley. Digging such a long tunnel 700 years ago was a mind-boggling feat of engineering, and since they didn’t have tunnel boring machines a vertical adit would be dug, by hand, every 20 meters, down to the target depth of 10 m. I always thought these tunnels would be barely large enough for a kneeling man to go through, but no, these tunnels were 3 m high and a couple of meters wide. Anyway, you keep going this way toward the mountains, until eventually you hit the elevated water table, after which groundwater seeps into the gallery excavated at such cost of manpower and time, and now you have a pipeline bringing water into the valley, and the adits then become wells from which water can be extracted with a camel skin bucket, a balanced pole with a pot at the end (shadouf), or with a camel-driven water wheel. What is even more mind boggling is that these khanats are several kilometers long, and to cover the valley they were built parallel to each other, maybe 50 m apart. If one is an impressive piece of ancient engineering, 20 of them must represent the labor of several generations of desert dwellers.

For lunch we made a stop in the most amazing village, El Khorbat. On first sight it appeared to be one kasbah after another, so the complex looked like a very complicated fortress. On close inspection, the kasbahs are joined to each other through a maze of covered corridors, so the people can move within the village without having to go into the blazing sun. The kasbahs are large buildings, four stories high plus the level of the watch towers, built with adobe. Each floor is very tall, maybe 4 m tall, so the hot air can rise and keep the room bearable. The walls are 50 cm thick, and are “poured” like concrete using portable forms, but instead of concrete what is poured is a mixture of mud and straw. Surprisingly the walls are very strong, so one floor can be added over the other. The ceilings are supported by beams cut from the date palms, which are apparently bug resistant and can stand for centuries.

El Khorbat has embraced tourism as a good industry, so everyone is friendly, there is a good hostel, and the locals have developed all sorts of options for eco-tourism, including guided bike rides and hikes into the canyons of the High Atlas. They also have a great little museum of Berber culture, with all sorts of artifacts, photos, and “this is how we live” displays, well documented by written explanations in Berber, English, German, Arabic, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. They are very simple computer-printed rectangles of paper, but they are very well written, and I found no fault with them in the languages I know (contrary to what you see in airports back home!).

We finally pushed farther west to the town of Tinghir (looks like a charming mountain town from the distance), but once we got there we turned into the Gorge of the Todra River, to reach our abode for the night. From the other side of the river it looks like a grandiose kasbah, but on close inspection it is all fake. Still, they have a swimming pool, and after frying for two days in the desert that is all we care for. So the afternoon today will be devoted to leisure and clothes washing, and tomorrow we will explore our surroundings.

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