We drove on and the road started to follow the river now which wasn’t deep but it was wide and quite fast flowing. The silver water dashed between gullies and rushed over rocks and every so often there were local women doing their weekly washing in the water and stretching it out over boulders to dry in the sun in the way that they have always done. Further on the river dropped in between steep banks and the only way to cross was by using rope bridges with wooden slats that didn’t look awfully permanent. There were cafés now on either side of the river with plastic tables and chairs out in the open air and close to the water so we assumed we were getting close to our destination.
Hassan stopped the car again and our next stop on the itinerary was to visit a traditional Berber house. The Berbers are a unique ethnic group who live in North Africa, the oldest settlers in the region and quite different from the Arabs of Marrakech and the rest of Morocco. Squeezed in between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Sahara Desert to the south the Berber communities have developed and thrived in the Atlas Mountains and now we were invited to take a look inside a real Berber house.
It wasn’t a real house of course, it was a sort of living museum and women in traditional costume were preparing food in a small corner of a ramshackle arrangement of higgledy-piggeldy rooms that Hassan showed us through and explained the traditional domestic arrangements as we went. Next to the house was a shop of course and outside were the hopeful peddlers of necklaces and bracelets who implored us to buy as we left.
Opposite the house there was a small building where a women’s cooperative was producing argan oil. Argan oil is valued for its nutritive, cosmetic and numerous medicinal properties but is one of the rarest oils in the world due the small and very specific growing areas because it is produced from the kernels of the argan tree which are only found in Morocco.
In the past Berber women would extract the undigested pits of the argan fruit from goat excrement on the ground because the animals are very fond of the fruit and will even climb the trees to reach it but that isn’t terribly hygienic of course and I think they have stopped doing it that way now. According to the sales pitch, all argan sold today is produced by the women’s cooperative that shares the profits among the local women and under the supervision of UNESCO has established an ecosystem reforestation project so that the supply of argan oil will not run out.
Mike was sceptical about whether this was authentic or simply a set-up for the tourists but inside the building women were sitting on the floor with rough rectangular stones between their knees cracking pits with rounded rocks. We learned that each smooth pit contains one to three kernels, which look like sliced almonds and are rich in oil. The kernels are then removed and gently roasted and this accounts for part of the distinctive, nutty flavour of the oil. It takes several days and about thirty kilograms of fruit, roughly one season’s produce from a single tree, to make only one litre of the precious liquid. The cosmetic oil, rich in vitamin E and essential fatty acids, is used for massage, facials and as a magic ingredient in anti-aging cream.
After a while it was clear that Mike was most probably correct and somewhere there would be a modern factory producing the oil in a more efficient way. Naturally there was a shop attached and after the lesson we were invited to look around and try some samples. Actually it really was rather good but also terribly expensive so once again we waited for a crowd of people to arrive and slipped out under cover and away from the hard sell routine. We were getting good at that.
Hassan drove on and still we were climbing and following the river on our left and the boundary of the Parc National de Toubkal to our right, which includes the highest mountain in Morocco, Jbel Toubkal. After a while he stopped the car and for no apparent reason invited us to take a walk across a precarious looking rope bridge to the other side of the river. We understood why when a toothless Berber man in a check kaftan and bright blue skull cap appeared from the side of the road and it seemed to be his self appointed job to usher people over to the other side, have his photograph taken with terrified tourists and charge a few dirham for the privilege.
I say terrified because to cross this swaying, rotting foot bridge required Indiana Jones type nerves of steel. Some of the planks of wood were missing and the steel rope that held it all together was rusty and corroded. With two or three people on it at the same time it rocked and lurched precariously from side to side and below us was a drop of about twenty metres to the fast flowing river strewn with sharp rocks and jagged boulders which, if it didn’t kill you outright, would have guaranteed an unpleasant landing and maybe a night or two in a hospital bed if the whole thing had come crashing down.