Long Read: My Week With the Berber Nomads

Imad and Itto

Earlier this year I undertook what is undoubtedly one of the best travel experiences I’ve had to date. After spending time travelling through Europe and America I wanted to experience something completely different. I wanted to immerse myself in a culture and place different to my own and see how others live their lives.

After looking around a number of operators I stumbled on Intrepid Travel’s Expedition Morocco – Walking with Berber Nomads tour. The opportunity to live and travel with a family of Berber nomads seemed exactly what I was after. I booked the trip and Morocco was my next destination.

Mountains Berber nomads

We began the tour at night by meeting our fellow travellers and guide, Abdul, in Marrakech. We packed into a bus in the early hours of the following morning and were on our way through the high Atlas Mountains. The further we got, the scarcer life became. Buildings gave way to small huts, sealed roads to dirt. The Moroccan hills rolled out beneath us as we climbed higher into the mountains, eventually arriving for lunch at Ouarzazate. After a brief stop at the Kasbah Taourirt, we were back on the road.

After hours in the van, we finally pulled up along a non-descript section of highway. We unloaded our bags. I took amount to do a complete 360-degree turn; we weren’t near any town or sign of civilisation other than the road and the cloud of dust left in the vans wake as it drove away.

Anticipation built as we mounted the crest of a hill and saw our lives for the next 4 days ahead of us; first the donkeys and camels, then the small tents and meager belongings and, finally, our nomadic family. In single file, they greeted one by one with a touch on the chest and a kiss on the hand.

Singing and Dancing Berber nomads

Salaam alaikum; peace be unto you.

Throughout the move, some of the family members will be stopping in nearby Berber towns to stay with other family members or friends. So to keep this introduction brief I will list only a couple who were with us the whole way. First, Fatima, the family matriarch. Tough and disciplined, it became clear early on that what Fatima says, goes. Mohammed, the father of the family, pleasant, welcoming and a wicked sense of humour. Little Fatima, or Itto as she was nicknamed, was just 7 but heavily involved in all aspects of the move. And Imad, the little 3-year-old, traveled with us the whole way. There are others, but I will touch on them as I write further.

Following introductions, we were taken to the dining cave, where we were to have dinner. I took the opportunity to grab my camera and take some pictures of the sunset over the mountains. Nestled in the valley at the foot of the mountain range, the orange and red colours were something to behold as the lowering light bounced off the sand and dirt. After a while, the family noticed I was out and gestured for me to come over. They were milking the goats and wanted me to join in and photograph them.

This was the first time they had really opened up and invited any of us to join in. The kids, shy at first, quickly became playful as they demanded to have their photo taken with their favourite goat. Due to the language barrier, I can’t be sure if the camera was what helped to familiarise themselves with us, but they enjoyed playing with it and seeing themselves in the pictures nonetheless.

Imad Berber nomads

It’s not a hard walk but busy none the less. Fatima impressively carries Imad the whole way.

The next day we wake early for the first day of walking. The men load up the donkeys, mules, and camels with all of the family’s possessions as well as our gear and we set off. The herders take the goats another route to graze. We put scarves over our heads to shield from the sun.

One of the striking things about this area of the Atlas Mountains is how barren it is. There is little other than rocks, dirt and small shrubs for miles around. This would become more pronounced as the days went on. Any sign of a tree or other greenery would almost be an oasis.

We reach our site in the early afternoon and settle into camp. A group climbs into the mountains to collect water from a nearby well while Fatima begins to make bread for dinner. A small hot plate over a fire is all it takes as Fatima kneads and flips the dough on the plate until completion. The burn scars on her hands suggest it has been a long, and sometimes painful, life of bread-making for Fatima.

Fatima bread making Berber nomads

Imad chases the baby goats, becoming particularly unstuck as one climbs a rocky rise and sits slightly out of reach.

A donkey escapes and can be seen at the top of a nearby mountain, maybe a half hour walk away. Itto is sent to collect it, an unthinkable job for a 7-year-old in Western culture, but a routine role for her in Berber society.

The following morning we set off towards the mountain range. With over 900 meters of steep elevation while carrying all of the equipment it was easily the hardest day of walking for the whole trek. Interestingly, halfway up we stopped at a trough to allow the animals to have a drink. The trough is a small concrete well that would be close to the only man-made thing for a few miles around. It was installed by the Moroccan government to assist the Berber nomads in their journey. In an era of modernisation, it was comforting to know that there are governments still willing to go out of their way and allow their traditional peoples to live in their centuries-old ways.

Morocco has seen a decline in the number of Berber’s identifying as nomadic. Recent years have seen a fall from around 65,000 in the mid-2000s to just 25,000 now. The decrease is due to better infrastructure and facilities being built in nearby towns. For some families, a lifetime or more of moving has ended as they become sedentary and settle in life with nearby shops and schools.

Mohammed Berber nomads

Some have made there own new homes next to the riverbed.

We were lucky enough to meet one of these sedentary families along the way. Dotted along the dry riverbed are small patches of green. These tiny oases surrounding a family home have been cleverly irrigated to provide a place to live for the former Berber nomads. We were welcomed with the customary Moroccan mint tea and our hosts chatted with our host family and crew before we continued moving along.

In addition to the houses of the former nomads, we also spot a number of caves along the way belong to other nomadic families. Each family ‘owns’ a cave in different areas and uses them depending on the time of year. If a cave is empty, a passer-by can use it for shelter for a night or two if they wish. However, around 10 days before the whole family moves, the father of the family will hike out to the next cave and place a mark at the front. This shows to anyone that the cave will be occupied by the owner shortly and is unavailable for them to stay. There is no official ownership system, but the Berber nomads show respect for each other and there is rarely a dispute over the occupation of a cave.

At our new camp, it is time to prepare dinner. The nomads live mostly on a vegetarian diet due to the high cost of meat. However, tonight we get a treat.

Making bread Berber nomads

There will be one less goat in the herd tomorrow morning.

That night, at dinner, we are joined by the family, the crew, and a neighbouring nomadic family from a nearby cave. While we are all gathered together our guide, Abdul, who also doubles as the only translator, asks the family and crew if they have any questions for us. All of the questions are relative to their lives. ‘Do you farm goats in Australia?’, ‘Do you have camels at your home?’ and ‘How far is away is the nearest town?’, are indicative of what they were interested in.

By now I am beginning to understand just how simple and harsh their life can be. Many Berber nomads are not formally educated and if they do go to school it is often for only a short number of years. They understand only their lives and have little knowledge of anything beyond their Berber lifestyle. Their days consist of walking, grazing the animals, and basic household chores, leaving a lot of downtime in the afternoon. To those of us living in a 9 to 5 rat race in Western culture, this might seem ideal, but it is incredibly limiting. For many, these are the only lives they know. Meeting us might be the only time they glimpse anything else.

One more day of walking and we arrive at our final camp. It’s time for a celebration. Everyone puts on their best clothes; for the Berbers, it is dress robes and makeup, for us, it’s whatever is the cleanest clothes we have left. M’bark, one of the crew members, brings out a tam tam. It’s kind of a cross between a tambourine and a drum.

Singing and Dancing Berber nomads

Let the singing and dancing commence.

As the night wears on and people begin to go to bed we start to quiet down. M’Bark, Mohammed, and the others tell stories, both of their own lives and old folk tales handed down to them. This is how they pass the time at night; we eat, we dance, we talk. It was the perfect way to end such a special and amazing experience. This family was so welcoming throughout the whole time we had been with them. For them to open their lives to us and let us experience something unlike anything else we had done was exceptionally gracious of them.

One of the key things I took away from the experience was the human connection we can always find with other people. Despite not having any common language we would communicate easily by the end of our time together. A mixture of hand gestures and a few English or Berber words that we taught each other was enough. If there is a will to communicate and get to know another person then we could always find a way.

Through talking to them I found how little difference there was. Their sense of humour was as wicked as anyone I’ve met before; some of them would be described as a larrikin in an Australian pub. It shows that despite any cultural differences people will always seek to form a community. Humans are social creatures so, despite some differences in customs, when a group is together it’s remarkably similar. I hope we managed to teach our family of Berber nomads a little about our lives. I’m glad I got to learn about theirs.

I spent time with the Berber nomads as part of Intrepid Travel’s Expedition Morocco – Walking with Berber Nomads tour. Check them out here to find the next departure date.