Raiders of the Lost
A search for hidden treasure
Who among us hasn’t fanned the fading flame of childhood
adventure? Occasional thoughts of adventure travel in the realm of lost
cities, mysterious people, and hidden treasure are vital to our psyche.
Indeed, these momentary journeys may be the one thing that keeps us from
plunging our officemates into the paper shredder on Monday mornings.
I’m here to tell you that sometimes, despite ourselves, and in ways
we never imagined, these fantasies do come true.
Standing outside Tafraoute, a small town set deep in Morocco’s Anti-Atlas
Mountains, I pulled the sweat from my brow and shook my head in disbelief.
Patrick, an electrician from Dusseldorf whom I’d just met on the
night bus from the coast, held a crude pencil drawing. The colored glyphs
of cave drawings and mountains were clear and unambiguous, yet something
wasn’t quite right.
Our map, hastily scrawled by a hotel bellboy, indicated a simple circuit
of villages and hidden, but “easily located” natural art.
Twenty minutes later, off the paved road, we found ourselves lost in the
middle of a village that wasn’t on the map.
We lost a few moments fruitlessly questioning adults before two young
girls appeared. Rather than running away when we muttered our broken patchwork
of “blue rocks”, “colored stones”, and “which
way”, the girls led us through back alley kitchens, parlors, and
squat archways. Just as I became convinced they’d misunderstood
and were taking us home for lunch, we ducked through a low, dark, crawlspace
and then staggered out into piercing sunlight. The girls pointed off into
the desert and disappeared back down the tunnel.
We stood at the head of a rough dirt track leading into flat rocky desert.
The map, such as it was, seemed to lead onwards, and we followed. Dazed
by the heat, we pounded across hot dusty rocks for well over an hour.
At regular intervals the trail disappeared. With blind reliance on the
bellman’s map, we staggered on, through arid abandoned farmland.
Just as dogged persistence began to feel like moronic single-mindedness
we came upon three young Moroccan men – often cause for concern
in these isolated parts. Unwilling to look stupid in front of our contemporaries,
we held back on the dull-witted half-French/Moroccan inquiries. Unable
to find a common tongue they left us, stranded
My childhood fantasy overflows with images of, a small cave entrance nestled
high on a bluff, a perilous climb to reach said cave, and expressions
of awe and gratitude to a generous God as I squeeze through the tight
dusty entrance and wipe centuries of sand from the face of sublime ancient
artifacts. What my fantasy didn’t contain is exactly what we got.
We rounded a flat bend in the trail to find a desolate farmer’s
field giving way to a low, unimpressive valley. Yes, the valley did ring
with peals of awe and amazement. Said appellations included,
“WHY in the name of God?”
“That can’t be it.”
And the ever popular, “We sweated our ass off for THAT?”
That’s not to say that we weren’t impressed. Oh, we were.
When, deep in the heart of a high Moroccan desert you stumble upon a collection
of giant rocks painted a flat, milky, house paint blue, one can’t
help but be impressed by the shear, naked, absurdity of it all.
In 1984, Belgian artist Jean Veran found his way from Tafraoute to the
squat desolate valley that stood before us. It was here that he and his
assistants applied (rumor has it) as much as 15 tons of blue paint to
rocks indistinguishable from a thousand others on the horizon. Why these?
Why here? Why 1984? All of these questions remain unanswered. The artwork
itself gives no hint to motive or motif. Scant official records exist
of Veran, the blue rocks, or his other works of art. The spectacle of
blue rocks in the desert stands alone. Mere existence is the lone voice
in their defense.
We explored the valley, climbing high on some of the larger painted rocks.
Patrick and I hoped against all reason that the next cash of desert art
would yield more traditional artifacts.
According to the map, our sole tenuous link to civilization, the next
leg of the journey should have been a short hop on the trail to a village
not far away. An hour later, and no trail in sight, we had no idea where
We stopped frequently to drink from our dwindling water bottles, and to
confirm that neither of us was holding anything back. We continued safe
in the knowledge that we were both completely lost. Now, past noon, we
began to consider the heat less, and the onset of cold darkness a mounting
Reasoning that it must lead to a settlement of some sort, we followed
a set of abandoned, crumbling power poles. The way so far had been a series
of arid, long-abandoned farm plots, separated by crumbling low stone walls.
The abandoned farmland began to slope consistently into a canyon of sorts.
Believing that the slope must lead to water and the village, we continued
our march towards the gazelle, a small chalk sketch rumored to sit on
a rock not far from the village that ages ago seemed so close.
Continuing for perhaps another hour we came upon an intact earthen house,
housing a father and son. All smiles and warm greetings, they stepped
away from their ragged band of half a dozen stringy goats. Tired, and
long since disabused of our self-esteem, we asked after the location of
the chalk drawing and were rewarded with a wide-eyed stare, a chorus of
“la gazelle”, and a vague gesture in the direction we’d
Forward ho. The trudge continued.
Some long while later, we were back in dusty farm country, a craggy moonscape
of abandoned garden plots and overgrazed land. Clearly this had once been
a land of abundance, or at the very least the home of dogged optimists.
Later, canyons walls began to reappear, and then, suddenly, we turned
a corner into heaven, an oasis of palm trees, grass, and the tiniest of
Following the water, we soon found a village. In the mountains of Morocco
this consists of a store, a vague patchwork of garden plots, and a few
small homes. Was it “the village”? Who knew? Who cared? They
had cold drinks.
Alas, none of the locals would freely admit to the whereabouts of “la
gazelle”. On the edge of town, one old man grudgingly consented
to lead us to it, for a small fee. Exhausted, we conceded. With great
ceremony, and money in hand, he led us to a small corral holding the scrawniest
After several unsuccessful attempts to reckon our map with the land in
front of us we came upon an old woman who offered up the broadest of smiles.
Finally, and with nary a hint of ceremony or obligation, she led us through
palm fronds and dense grass, off trail and through the stream, to a non-descript
rock on a bluff about six feet above the village. Here, in a place uncharted
by bellboy, entrepreneurial farmer, and well beyond our route-finding
skills, sat two small chiseled gazelles.
Perhaps I was just tired, but on the short final walk back into Tafraoute
the ever-present assault of pleading rug merchants were muted and far
less abrasive than normal. My mind was elsewhere, still lost in the desert.
Later I gazed past the open window of my room at distant mountains and
felt immensely thankful for the people who helped me get this far. This
group, I realized, included angry rug merchants, and the chiseling old
man with one scrawny goat. Without their burdens the trip would have been
The things I remembered were not the painted rocks or “la gazelle”,
but the smile on an old woman’s face, the young girls’ complete
surprise at finding us on their doorstep, and not knowing what was coming
at us next.
The real treasure was the chance to get good and lost for a while.
Copyright Glenn D. Kaufmann,
2003. All Rights Reserved