Finding dinosaurs in Morocco was the big ticket aim of the Atlas Expedition – here is what happened next.
We were walking up the gorge, Brahim and Addi and I, towards where Jean-Pierre and the rest of the team had established a little climbing base on our quest to find dinosaur prints in Morocco. The sun was hot and I could hear the birds in the bamboo below. Suddenly, Brahim grabbed my arm and pointed up, ‘Zahra, look, can you see them? That line? I think it’s dinosaur tracks.’ I looked up and there they were about 5 metres above us, a line of prints – 14 in all – crossing the red brick of the cliff. Dinosaur footprints and absolutely crystal clear.
That morning, I had woken up itching. We’d spent the night encamped in an old Amazigh shepherd’s enclosure which was flat and provided handy stones and terracing. Only one problem – fleas. Lots of them and my ankles, hip and stomach were covered in big red bites. While I was trying to control my desire to scratch them all till they bled, Jean-Pierre suddenly appeared over the hill. It was totally unexpected so I wondered what was up.
‘Alice, your dream is going to come true today,’ he said with a smile and a flourish and a whole raft of possibilities whizzed through my mind. ‘I have found a link to dinosaur footprints online and Ychou and I came yesterday to do a recce. They are really near here! Finally after 60 days of expedition you are going to find dinosaurs in Morocco!’
We packed up the bivouac double fast and set off down an excruciatingly narrow path towards the village of Aquerzka. ‘It is lucky we are going down, the camels would never be able to get up this path, loaded as they are,’ says Brahim. We got to the bottom and bivouacked the camels in a ruined kasbah on the opposite side of the oued from the village. The oued was really full and fast flowing and was surrounded by carefully tended fields of turnips, potatoes, carrots and hay with fig trees and bamboo groves flanking them. Immediately a horde of kids descended upon us. They were on a one week on one week off system for school during Corona and were taking full advantage. The boys clustered around Addi and he gave them small tasks to do for the camels which they carried out with immense pride.
Ychou, Ali and JP headed off as an advance party because they wanted to set up ropes so that we could climb the wall and get up really close to the footprints. The footprints were first discovered by Hassan Yamami who is a part of Jacques Gandini’s team. Gandini writes guide books (in French) for 4×4 travel across Morocco which are absolutely brilliant for off-the-beaten track information and he has a website specifically for pre-historic sites. It was here that JP had got the GPS area co-ords for the tracks. It had still taken he and Ychou six hours of searching to actually find the site. (site A)
After lunch, Addi, Brahim and I set off to join the others. We walked along the oued and then cut up towards the gorge. It was filled with oleander trees and thorn trees and I pressed hard into the oleanders to avoid getting ripped up. It was there that Brahim spotted his line of prints. (site B) Almost immediately after that, we saw JP, Ali and. Ychou ahead all helmeted and roped up and looking very professional.
The prints were gleaming out at us from behind them – one set a straight line heading up the face, the others to the right hand side, a sequence. The formation of the rock suggests that what happened was at one point in pre-history, the dinosaurs walked across the flat of the land and made the prints, sometimes you can see where they’ve slipped a bit in the mud. The prints hardened and were preservered and then, the mountains convulsed and pushed what had been flat land into vertical cliffs.
And it was one of those vertical cliffs that JP wanted me to go up. I gamely stuck on my purple riding helmet, ratcheted myself in the harness and was good to go. It didn’t look that bad from down below. Ali was already up there on a rope beside the first juniper tree. The plan was to get up to him, then to traverse across the cliff to a second tree and then go on to a third carabinier and hook myself in. The best prints were in between trees one and two. Ychou had hold of my rope end and was securely squeezed in to a crevasse on my left. ‘Shidd mizayn,’ Ychou – hold tight! Opposite was JP with his GoPro across the gorge. Brahim was roped up below me and Addi was on roving duty and desperate to get a rope of his own.
Off I set. The drop below was enough to kill you if you fell off the cliff but I had Ychou holding me onto the cliff. I climbed up to Ali who was nonchalantly hanging off his rope over the drop at the first tree. Then I looked down – BIG mistake. I put one foot and one hand out to start the traverse of the cliff and discovered that the rest of my body didn’t really want to follow. I brought them both back to the juniper tree and clung on to it like a baby koala clinging on to its mother. The men conferred and sent Brahim up to the second juniper tree, which he scampered up to on his rope with no fuss. With much coaxing, I edged along the cliff with a stomach full of dread towards him.
Magically still alive, I measured the dinosaurs footprints and forced myself to do a couple of pieces to camera. The excitement of putting my hand actually in to one of the prints, alleviated the terror momentarily. ‘I’ve got my hand in a footprint that was made by a giant sauropod millions of years ago,’ I thought to myself gleefully. Then I had to go back. This was the moment when my body took over and decided that that was the worst idea I had ever had and sent urgent messages to my brain telling me to stay exactly where I was. ‘Look at me, look at me,’ yelled JP trying to give me confidence from across the drop. The only issue was that when I looked at him, I also had to look at the gorge and that made me even more determined to stay exactly where I was with Brahim at juniper tree two. Even though I knew logically I was safe because Ychou had me on a rope so the most I could fall would be about 5 metres swinging out from the first juniper tree, I was frozen against the wall.
Ali looked at me from his perch, ‘Zahra, do you think we have looked after you and cared for you for 60 days to let you drop now? Come along, come to the tree.’ I edged back along the cliff face, grabbed the tree – or my salvation as I was now calling it – and climbed gingerly down, promising my self never to do that again.
Ychou was all grins, ‘You see, I held you tight, Zahra.’ And Addi was all giggles at my cowardice. ‘All right, Zahra?’ But he got his comeuppance quickly. It was his turn now and he climbed up, only to be held there dangling by Ychou and Ali who laughed like hyenas at his pleas to come down.
We were all on a massive high as we walked back to camp. JP had done a fantastic job finding the site and preparing everything and giving us the chance to actually get up really close to the prints and measure them (53 x 60 and 90 x 60). He’d brought meat for dinner too and Ycho whipped up a tasty casserole that we all ate together kneeling in a circle with our bread and tucking in.
We only had 10 days or so to go on the expedition but now our blood was up and we wanted to build on Hassan Yamami’s discovery and find our own prints. Brahim and I spent hours poring over the map of the three sites and decided that the best way was to go up over the hills to the back of site A and B and also to explore the oued further down as it cut through the mountains.
Cue a second day of dinosaur hunting. We were determined to find more dinosaur prints in Morocco and catalogue them to add to the sum of knowledge. Addi stayed at the bivouac while Ali, Brahim and I left early after a small breakfast to get onto the mountains. We only had half a day to spend so we split up. I headed up over the strata slowly and the two men disappeared quickly into the mountains.
The next few hours were amongst the happiest I have had. I clambered over ridges of different coloured rock, scanning for dinosaur prints, finding some that looked really strongly possible and others that were definitely only maybes. I slid down the scree, trying not to grab bold of thorn bushes, used my bottom like a third leg to scramble down the rocks and clutched onto crumbling outcrops as I zoomed in on different tracks.
After I had found four different spots with a number of potential prints, I headed down to the oued and walked right round the corner. Here I hit gold, finding a long line of probable dinosaur prints just a couple of meters above the water line. I spent ages poking around them, filming them and speculating about what they might be. I was still pottering when I heard Brahim calling – he was on top of the hill above me and scrambled down.
He had been successful too, finding two good sets – both along the oued. One went straight up vertically tucked inside a little corner cave and the others were in a line across a giant slab of stone, high up. We had run out of time now so headed back to collect Ali, who had not had any luck and get back on the road.
Knowing what to look for and having had that experience with JP at Hassan Yamami’s site had made all the difference. Not only that, we took it with us as we went, pinpointing a different potential site about 60km away as we left our night’s bivouac early one morning.
I’d called the Atlas Expedition ‘a quest for dinosaurs’ but that was as much in hope as expectation so the reality of actually finding dinosaurs – or rather dinosaur traces – in Morocco has been a massive highlight of the expedition.
When I get back home, I will put up a separate page with fuller details and GPS points but for now, do check out the short film on YouTube