Friday, 21 September 2007

Mt. Toubkal National Park, Morocco

SPANA has been working with the Department Des Eaux et Forets (a sort of wildlife and forestry Ministry) in Morocco for many years. I think it would be fair to say it has not always been an easy relationship. Something like that between Ken Livingstone and the Conservative Party would sum it up nicely.
Because we have built environmental education exhibitions in some of our refuges, as well as producing booklets and posters on endangered birds and mammals, we are seen by them to be the experts.

Sometimes I wish we weren’t.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we eventually agreed to design and build an exhibition about the animals, people and natural environment of Toubkal National Park in the High Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco. This is to be in the currently empty building, titled ‘Eco Museum’, near Asni, a village on the hill road leading right into the heart of the mountains.
From there you can see mighty Mt Toubkal, 4,167 metres high, towering up into the piercing blue sky. The Berber hill people of the region call it Adrar N’dern, ‘Mountain of Mountains’ and retain a very healthy respect for the changeability and often violence of the weather - freezing snow-storms in winter, baking sun and desiccating winds in summer.
Anything living in the mountains has got to be tough; the plants, animals and of course the people. Which brings us to SPANA’s particular interest in the region. The villagers, depend absolutely on the toughness and resilience of that most wondrous creature – the mule.

Created by mating a donkey stallion to a horse mare, this remarkable creature has had more than its share of bad publicity, and a certain mythology has grown up around it. ‘Stubborn as a mule’, ’Mule headed’ – all denigrating a truly amazing animal.
Yet it was actually the mule that conquered the American West. It was mules, not horses, that pulled the prairie schooners. And it was mules that carried the forty-niners up into the Yukon and Alaska. The British Army had whole mountain brigades equipped with mules, complete with artillery specially designed to be packed on them. The Chindits in the Burmese jungle depended on them, and many a sick or wounded soldier owed their life to the hardiness and stamina of the good old army mule.

So SPANA has been only too pleased to provide veterinary care for the mules of the High Atlas – we’ve even built a little clinic in the village of Imlil (right at the foot of Mt. Toubkal) where every month the mobile vet team visit from Marrakech.

Every family depends on these mules for their very existence. Not only are they used in agriculture to plough and carry crops and water and firewood, many villagers are also mountain guides, and their mules carry supplies up to the mountain refuges, as well as tourists’ baggage, and more than occasionally, the odd tourist themselves.
So it seemed essential that mules should feature strongly in the exhibition, and last weekend we trekked into the heart of the mountains to get film and photos of the mules, their owners and the way of life in some of the remotest mountain villages.

It was absolutely stunning. Not only the spectacular landscapes – bleak, brown, barren summits soaring into the cobalt blue of the sky, with viridian valley bottoms crammed with fruit-trees and narrow terraces of maize and barley. The villages cling to the steep valley sides – any flat piece of earth is at a premium – so they seem a jumble of flat roofed layers, storey upon storey with little windows guarded by traditional wrought-iron grills.

The people who still struggle to wrest a living from this hard and hostile land are like their animals in many ways – tough and hardy, nimble and sure-footed, yet gentle and hospitable. It is a great joy and privilege to live amongst them for a little while, sharing their lives, their trials and tribulations, in fact stepping back into another, largely vanished world.

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