Where do all the cowpats go?
This story is about the beauty of nature, happiness, and animal excrement; there is no conflict.
Before leaving Morocco, Jason and I made our first wild-camping trip South-West of Marrakesh to a remote promontory called Cap Sim. Leaving behind my dusty car and filling our backpacks with supplies for the days ahead, we began our hike west. The evening sun beckoned us, its generous warm rays giving life to the tiny purple flowers among the hard rocks.
After walking half an hour, a young shepherd, about our age, appeared on the path ahead, his mixed flock of sheep and goats nearby. As we approached, the little lambs scuttled quickly up the sand dunes to the side, keeping up with their parents, and the shiny, brown, longhaired goats stood and stared at us.
“ Salaam Alaikum”, Jason and I rhymed, greeting the smiling shepherd.
“Labas alik?” I asked, enquiring how he was in Dirija, the local Arabic. He was good, thanks be to God, he said in Dirija, flashing his straight yellow teeth, bright against his dark skin.
His smile was wide upon a thin face, his hair short, and deep black. A long brown woollen cape hung from his shoulders, the folds stiff, and a broad hood rested flat against his back. He held a tall wooden stick in his right hand connecting him to the land. As he looked us over with intrigue, he continued to smile; he was in no hurry to part ways. I asked him if he kept the goats to eat.
“ Oui Madame”, he replied, his eyes becoming brighter.
Since living in Morocco, we haven’t seen goat on the menu and with all these mountain goats running around, climbing trees, I wondered what they were used for-maybe cheese.
I had read in a magazine that the goats were kept to eat the Argan fruits from the trees, and then, after they have digested the fleshy part, the seeds are passed in their stool, collected, and ground to release the Argan oil. It sounded a bit like the coffee made from monkeys or Toddy cats in Indonesia, who eat the coffee fruit, then, excrete the undigested coffee bean in their excrement, resulting in a very expensive coffee!
My French was not good enough to get into a conversation on animal excrement.
We said goodbye in dirija, then continued on, past the first two surf points La Grotte and La Corona, where the lines of swell rolled in under the small cliffs. Small birds darted swift and low through the dry bushes across the dunes.
On almost every sandy dune we passed a solitary large black beetle, the size of a ten pence piece, leaving tiny, perfect, parallel tracks behind. We had seen these same tracks when we walked over the dunes of the Sahara desert and I had wondered which animal had made them.
As we climbed the last small hill, the sun grew brighter. The sea, then vast empty golden beaches, then large dunes revealed themselves on the horizon. The mild ocean breeze blew through our hair. It was low tide and the water had receded to expose dark black rock reef carpeted with glistening green seaweed. I felt and grateful to be alive.
After we took into consideration my wishes to avoid donkey excrement and prickly plants, and after we had surveyed the surrounding land for any possible dangers, we agreed on a pitch with a panoramic view of the ocean. While the sun was saying goodbye, we put up our tent, made a fire, and fried some eggs in water. Darkness brought silence, interrupted only by the crashing waves echoing in the caves below the small cliffs. There was a lot to watch. A crescent moon hung low like a fine saucer and the sea sparkled underneath. The divergent beams of a distant lighthouse shone low across the land, swinging rhythmically from north to south, like the boat rides in the fun fair that swing up, then halt, and then down.
Sitting out on the sandy grass under the stars, sipping some left over wine and enjoying the last of two squashed Belgian chocolates, we agreed there was no better place to be. A loud, high-pitched screech from the hill behind us, interrupted our thoughts --it sounded repeatedly to a slow, regular, beat; on the twelfth screech it ceased. We didn’t move. Looking at each other, we wondered what it could be. We listened for clues, but there were none. Earlier, when deciding on a suitable pitch, we had walked around on that same hillside, so perhaps it was a bird warning us not to approach its nest; I hoped that we were not too close.
Through the night, the wind carried the sound of drums, on an off, to our tent. It couldn’t be coming from the far-off village, I thought, so maybe there was someone else nearby? I was on red alert. After spending too many hours awake, listening and wondering if we would be safe, I finally fell asleep. A loud, scurrying movement outside woke me. Then, something brushed against the side of the tent and kicked sand toward us. It brought back memories of my night trying to sleep in a canvas tent in the Kenyan game park of Tsavo east where the Impala would run into the side of our tent, which, apparently, they couldn’t see in the dark.
Eventually, slumber overcame my worries.
We awoke the next morning, alive and well, to see small, brown fishing boats moving gently across the royal-blue waters, five in total, and a large brown cow wandering gently over the sand dunes below.
While in search of the perfect wilderness bathroom, Jason discovered a large seagull by the tree on the hillside where we had heard the screeching the night before--it was dead. We had listened to its last living cries. I wondered, hopelessly, if we could have done something to help it.
As we hiked back to the village that morning to pick up our surfboards, we met another black beetle, this time hard at work. He or she was rolling a perfectly rounded ball of animal excrement, the size of a lump of coal, up a sandy hill; I couldn’t believe it- the smooth rounded excrement was five times the size of this hardy beetle. And, to add to the entertainment, another insect was riding along on top, getting squashed every time the lump rolled over. Jason said it was a dung beetle, which was promptly confirmed when we passed a community of these very beetles resting in a large cowpat.
I have since learned that dung beetles clean up animal excrement, keeping our countryside tidy for people like us to walk through; how lucky are we? Extremely. Thank you nature!