I’ve posted some beautiful new specimens in this Morocco Update (click here). The pieces include azurite from Kerrochen and Bou Beker, vanadinite from Taouz, pyrite-coated fluorite from El Hammam, purple fluorite from Tounfit, twinned cerussite from Mibladen and quartz on siderite from Gourrama.
Azurite, Kerrouchen, Khenifra Province, Morocco
Crystal 3.1 cm
Azurite, Bou Beker, Touissit – Bou Beker District, Jerada Province, Morocco – 9.7 cm
Azurite with Malachite, Bou Beker, Touissit – Bou Beker District, Jerada Province, Morocco – 6.3 cm
Vanadinite, Taouz, Er Rachidia Province, Morocco – 5.2 cm
Fluorite coated with Pyrite, El Hammam Mine, Meknes, Meknes-Tafilalet Region, Morocco – 6.0 cm
Fluorite coated with Pyrite, El Hammam Mine, Meknes, Meknes-Tafilalet Region, Morocco – 4.2 cm
Cerussite with Barite, Les Dalles Mine, Mibladen Mining District, Midelt, Khenifra Province, Morocco
Field of view 2.0 cm
Fluorite, Tounfit, Boumia, Khenifra Province, Morocco
Field of view 4.0 cm
Fluorite, Tounfit, Boumia, Khenifra Province, Morocco
Field of view 3.5 cm
Fluorite, Tounfit, Boumia, Khenifra Province, Morocco
Field of view 2.0 cm
Fluorite, Tounfit, Boumia, Khenifra Province, Morocco
Field of view 3.0 cm
Quartz, Siderite, Gourrama, Er Rachidia, Morocco
Crystal 3.2 cm
Why is Morocco one of the world’s great countries for minerals? No glaciers! Many of the world’s most colourful minerals are found in deposits at the surface, formed over time by the interaction of water, air and rock. Glaciers remove all of that good stuff (as happened in Canada recently, geologically speaking) – and with no recent glaciation, Morocco hosts many fantastic occurrences of minerals unlike any in parts of the world stripped bare during the last Ice Age.
My collecting partner David Joyce and I jumped at the chance to go to Southern-Central Morocco. The trip was organized by Mindat.org and the Spirifer Geological Society, and included the Second Annual Mindat Mineral Conference in the city of Midelt.
Morocco is an amazing place. Hopefully this comes through in the photographs – it is a beautiful region with stunning landscapes, rich in history, harsh in climate. And… it hosts gorgeous minerals.
Founded almost a thousand years ago, Marrakech has historically been the imperial capital of Morocco – and in fact from Medieval times until the beginning of the twentieth century Morocco was known as the Kingdom of Marrakech. Today, Marrakech remains the major economic centre in this region, hosting at its centre the largest Berber market in the country. The market area is comprised of many individual markets (souks).
A merchant takes his wares to the souk, passing in front of the 12th century Minaret of the Khoutoubia Mosque
The market at night
Steam and smoke rise from the food stalls at the night market in Marrakech
Not far from Marrakech, miners work the basalt deposit at Sidi Rahal by hand to produce geodes containing agate and quartz (some of which is amethystine). The geodes from Sidi Rahal can include beautiful stalactitic growths, and rarely box epimorphs of quartz after fluorite. Groups of world-class goethite crystals have been found in geodes at Sidi Rahal – barite, calcite and aragonite have also been found.
Some of the excavations are quite deep – and fun to explore.
I clambered down into the tunnel on the left
Amethystine quartz geode in the wall underground
Climbing back out the tunnel to daylight
Small quartz/chalcedony geode (6cm) in basalt.
Many walls at Sidi Rahal are constructed of block comprised of mud and straw
Over the Atlas Mountains
To get to the great mineral localities of southern-central Morocco, the route leads over the Atlas Mountains. South of Marrakech, it is not long before the road is into the foothills.
Farms in the foothills
A small Atlas Mountain village on the road to Tizi-N-Tichka Pass – even here, there are satellite dishes…
Atlas Mountain Valley – at the bottom, green with lush vegetation
Up and over the Atlas Mountains
After crossing the mountains we arrived at the city of Ouarzazate, an important regional power for centuries. The regional governor reigned over the area from within the protected and fortified kasbah, which lies at the centre of what has now become the city.
View of part of the kasbah
Traditional Berber design on the kasbah walls
Night falls over the kasbah in Ouarzazate
Bou Azzer District
To make a pilgrimage to Bou Azzer – one of the world’s great mineral districts – there is no way around it, you are into some rather arid countryside. The trip into this region is spectacular.
The highway winds over and around rugged, parched hills…
… and clearly there is not enough vegetation to obscure the strata…
… although some hardy plants give a tinge of green to the landscape in places.
The highway eventually leads down out of the hills into an incredibly dry landscape that stretches on and on.
There are occasional signs of settlement attempts, where ultimately the climate has proved too harsh – sustenance in this land requires an oasis or valley.
Upon arrival at Bou Azzer, we stopped at Shaft #9, where the head frame and mining works stand up over the landscape.
The Bou Azzer district has produced 215 mineral species, including the world’s finest specimens of erythrite, roselite, wendwilsonite, roselite-beta, talmessite, skutterudite and gersdorffite. It was not possible to enter the working areas of the mines, and so collecting was quite limited but certainly enjoyable and it was great to see these famous mines!
We headed out to Aït Ahmane, which is renowned as the source of the world’s best gersdorffite crystals. This was quite a trip, as the road rattled our vehicle for about an hour each way, until it seemed like it simply might fall into pieces. Out there, you’re in the middle of true nowhere, so an intact vehicle is a plus! Ultimately our driver refused to drive the last stretch of road, so we hiked for a few km in the hot desert sun to get to the mine. (Who bothers to notice such things when on the verge of seeing a famous mine…)
At the mine, the small valley gathers enough water to sustain vegetation – the rest of the landscape is quite barren.
Hiking back by a different route – along a track near the valley – we could eventually see the village of Aït Ahmane ahead.
Although we found small interesting things (including lots of tiny picropharmacolite crystals), it was only later in the trip that I managed to procure a better gersdorffite.
Gersdorffite, 3.5 cm, Aït Ahmane
While still in the Bou Azzer District, we also visited the Agoudal Mine, which has recently produced very fine cobaltoan calcites.
Cobaltoan Calcite from the Agoudal Mine – 6cm
Dave found a nice vug containing sphaercobaltite crystals.
Sphaercobaltite, Agoudal Mine – Field of view 5mm. (D.K. Joyce specimen and photo)
During the course of the trip we were able to obtain other interesting minerals from this district, including excellent crystallized silver from the Bouismas Mine and beautiful roselite from the Aghbar Mine.
Silver crystals on calcite, Bouismas Mine – 5.2 cm
Roselite crystals, to 0.9 cm, Aghbar Mine
The Northern Sahara
Prior to this trip, I knew little – when I thought of the Sahara Desert, I thought mostly of the sand dunes from Lawrence of Arabia, with some hills, cliffs and valleys interspersed. (Interesting side note: much of the movie was filmed in Southern-Central Morocco.) I was really not expecting the desert to comprise of such massive open stretches of rocky terrain. There are of course sand dunes – the spectacular dune system at Erg Chebbi is one of many sand dune fields in the Sahara – but much of the landscape actually looks similar to the tumbling rocky landscapes NASA’s rovers photograph on Mars.
Rocks strewn all over the ground and stretching to the horizon
Escarpment in the distance breaks up the flat expanse of rockiness
Even signs of failed settlements are sparse
Nomadic Berber tent
The camels wander nearby the Berber camps
The Erg Chebbi dunes rise over the stony desert
Light and shadow shift subtly on the dunes
The sand flows in the wind, almost like water in slow motion
In places, the contrast between the sand dunes and the rock is striking – here, the transition zone included a few trees
This seasonal lake forms every two or three years at the base of the northern edge of the Erg Chebbi dunes – a true oasis
View out to the dunes from our lodgings at Erg Chebbi, the Yasmina Hotel
What adventure to the Sahara would be complete without camels… so Dave and I headed into the dunes…
Our guide led us on camels part way
Once we got to the base of the larger dunes, we dismounted and hiked to the top. Our guide instructed us to leave our hiking boots behind, as it would be easier in the sand – so we hiked it barefoot.
From the summit, a sea of dunes
Also from the summit – the seasonal lake beside the Yasmina Hotel
Dave and our Berber guide
Sunset in the Sahara
One of the most amazing things about the Sahara is how stark the difference can be, inside and outside of an oasis.
Inside an oasis, which is divided into plots and farmed by local families
Collecting grass (for the goats) and vegetables
Looking after camels, perhaps 50 feet outside of this same oasis (behind me it is lush vegetation (!))
The famous mineral locality in this part of Morocco is an old mine and series of workings near the town of Taouz. Over the years, the workings of Taouz have produced beautiful specimens of several minerals. Taouz is most noted for its vanadinite crystals (usually very distinctively on a black matrix of iron/manganese oxide mineralization), and also beautiful specimens of cerussite.
Taouz is the end of the road – heading south, this is the last settlement in Morocco before one reaches the closed border with Algeria. We were advised to stay away from the border, as we were told it has been laced with land mines in places.
View from Taouz workings, Algeria in the distance
Miner looks out over a basic hoist – this shaft (covered with corrugated sheet metal anchored with rocks, when not in use) is only about 3 feet wide
Collapsed tunnel underground at Taouz
Typical quartz crystal veining underground at Taouz
Typical specimen of manganese oxide mineralization at Taouz
Beautiful vanadinite crystals to 6mm on manganese oxides from Taouz
Blocky barite from Taouz – 4.5 cm
Iron-cross twin of pyrite, 1 cm, purchased from a miner at Taouz. He told me that this specimen was from an outcrop on a ridge beyond the main workings.
On to Midelt and Mibladen
On our last morning in the Sahara I was up before dawn…
Oasis sunrise in the Sahara
… and then we were on the road to Midelt and the amazing mines and minerals of Mibladen… Continued in Part 2
Midelt and Mibladen
Midelt and Mibladen are in a high plateau region, well north of the Sahara and in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains. Midelt is a regional capital with a population of approximately 45,000 people, and primarily it is an agricultural market centre.
Farmer on the way to morning market with a load of vegetables
Promenade with shops in central Midelt
However, there is an interesting fact about Midelt: it was estimated to me (by local government officials and also by local mineral dealers) that approximately 10% of Midelt’s annual GDP derives from sales of collector mineral specimens and mineral/fossil products, and related businesses. Whether or not this is exactly accurate, it is clear when you drive through Midelt and look at the storefronts that minerals are an important component of the local economy.
We attended the Second Annual Mindat Conference at the Taddart Hotel in Midelt and it was a super event, with speakers from all over the world. We also had the chance to buy specimens from mineral dealers at the museum/store attached to the hotel, and also generally, in and around Midelt.
However the true trip highlights in this region were out at Mibladen!
Mibladen was a mining centre where the French mined for lead in the first half of the 20th century, and the mines continued to produce until commercial operations ceased in the mid-1970s.
While the small village of Mibladen iteself is located about 18km east of Midelt, a large area about 10km in length comprises the “Mibladen” referred to by mineral collectors. This Mibladen mining district hosts mining workings that access two important and distinctly different mineral assemblages, and we spent time exploring both.
(1) Vanadinite and Barite: Coud’a and the ACF Mine
Mibladen is famous for its spectacular vanadinite crystals – the world’s best. They occur in all hues of red through brown, often associated with wonderful bladed barite, which occurs in beautiful specimens with and without vanadinite. This is the one mineral assemblage – where there are vanadinites, you will not find the famous Mibladen cerussites or wulfenites – these are in the second mineral assemblage, discussed in the next section below.
The two main vanadinite producing localities at Mibladen are the ACF Mine workings and the Coud’a workings. The vanadinite and barite crystals occur in mineralized zones that occur at various depths from the surface – some can be accessed by vertical shafts about 20-30 feet deep, and some are deeper. In the case of the ACF Mine, the vanadinite-bearing zones are accessed by workings that have been extended underground from the mine workings buy miners in search of specimens. In the case of the Coud’a workings, they are narrow shafts excavated by hand tools from the surface.
We were able to visit the Coud’a workings, and our guide Abdellah took us down two shafts where he had mined beautiful specimens of vanadinite and barite. A visit to these deposits is a bad idea for anyone who doesn’t like small closed spaces…
I followed him down…
Not a ton of room down there…
But enough room to work for vanadinite
The rock is solid and tough – tons of hard work goes into finding and extracting these specimens (D.K. Joyce photo)
The underground tunnels were pretty narrow, cut through solid rock using only hand tools (D.K. Joyce photo)
And this was the view ahead of me, a photo I took while lying where I was in the last photo, and looking further ahead into the tunnels. Red vanadinite/white barite mineralization was still visible in the ceilings and walls where specimens had been extracted during specimen mining.
Abdellah was up first, in case we needed help getting back out
Once any of the workings like these get too narrow or dangerous – or are simply collected out – Abdellah goes back to square one and starts again: he goes back to the surface and for the next 8 weeks he will sink a new shaft further along the deposit until he intersects the vanadinite-barite mineralization again. The condition under which the miners are allowed to work these deposits is that they may not use power tools or explosives, so all of the shafts and tunnels are cut by hand.
Beautiful specimens come from the vanadinite/barite workings at Mibladen.
Barite with Vanadinite, Coud’a workings – 5.2 cm
Barite with vanadinite, Coud’a workings – Field of view 5.5 cm
Vanadinite, ACF Mine – 7.7cm
(2) Cerussite, Wulfenite and Barite – Les Dalles Mine and Les O Mine
The second assemblage has produced world-class specimens of cerussite, along with barite and orange wulfenite (beautiful but uncommon at the locality). These minerals are found in the old large-scale lead mining workings, principally Les Dalles Mine and Les O Mine. These are large room-and-pillar mines – nothing like the narrow winding subterranean vanadinite tunnels carved by artisan miners.
Les O Mine
Pillars in Les O Mine
So here’s the thing about room and pillar mining like this. The pillars are left there for a reason. There’s a lotta rock overhead. However, the pillars of course are the one remaining source of the mineralization from the layer that was mined out… and so when specimen miners want specimens…
…say goodbye to your pillar… sometimes not a lot of pillar is left!
(Apparently there have never been any collapses due to robbing of the pillars)
Galena-barite-cerussite veining in a pillar
Series of barite crystal pockets in the ceiling at Les O Mine
Cerussite, 2.3 cm, on barite, Les Dalles Mine
Cerussite, Les Dalles Mine – 5 cm
Cerussite, 1.3 cm, on barite, Les Dalles Mine
Cerussite, Les Dalles Mine – 4.5 cm
As there have been many other write-ups online about the conference, I have been light on that topic, but I would be remiss if I did not at least include a mention of the “Surprise Dinner” as the conference Grande Finale. We were simply told to change into decent clothes and that we would be driven to dinner. It was after dark as we set out and it was hard to figure out where we might be headed. The conference shuttles pulled up into an area lit with temporary spotlights and we could see that we were in fact at one of the entrances of the Les Dalles Mine. A section of the room and pillar structure was converted – specifically for this night of this conference – into an underground dining area, large enough to host dinner for the whole conference, plus formally attired servers and a group of local musicians. We were served a multi-course meal on fine china, and I think most mineral collectors in the group were completely blown away by the vision behind the idea – and then the experience itself. It was an audacious concept and it was spectacular. (And after all, most of the time when we eat something at a world famous mineral locality, it is something from a packed lunch we’ve just pulled out of our backpacks…)
Aouli – Sidi Ayed
We made one final mineral locality pilgrimage on this trip – we went out to see Aouli and Sidi Ayed. Many mineral specimens are labelled “Aouli” (often yellow fluorites) but in fact Aouli has not produced minerals for decades and even in its producing days it was not a big specimen producer. We learned that the specimens labelled Aouli usually come from an area of workings around Sidi Ayed, which is perhaps half an hour or more beyond Aouli, over very rough winding roads.
This final adventure was all rough when it came to the roads. The roads themselves were strewn with rocks and had minor gaps where rivers had taken their toll during storms. We were driven in a car that looked like it might disintegrate at any minute. You probably think I’m exaggerating, but it was a train wreck. Here’s what we saw on the inside of the door when we got into this thing:
Actually it was not a day for rolling down the window anyway – it started out blustery with high winds, then came the blasting sand and finally by afternoon we had blowing sleet and hard rain. The latter of which of course came in down my neck through the hole in the car roof, but I digress. The car held together and the roads did not get washed out by the afternoon storm as our guides feared they might.
As collecting days go, there wasn’t much in the way of fine minerals out there, but it was an interesting trip through canyons and hills.
The road to Aouli
This bridge looked only slightly better than the car we were in, but it was solid and supported all kinds of traffic
River bridge and large adit at Aouli
Deep surface workings in the Sidi Ayed area – malachite, azurite and fluorite were all abundant
Sandstorm in the Sidi Ayed area – this settlement is abandoned, with all roofs gone from the buildings
Snow Closures – in Africa
You know, if you want to have snow closures and cancellations anywhere – even in Africa – just bring a few Canadians along. The stuff follows us wherever we go.
The end of our trip was a bit colourful, as a snowstorm hit the Atlas Mountains and surrounding areas. Highways were closed in all directions for about a day, and our route through the mountains back to catch our flight in Casablanca was in doubt. However, the morning of our departure the roads were reopened and although we passed accident scenes, our own travels were safe and smooth driving all the way to Casablanca.
The guardrail saved this one – it was a steep slope over the edge
On the open road, beginning our journey home
Minerals from Morocco
Some of the minerals described in this post are for sale on here our website. Some even come from the same holes and tunnels. If you are interested in minerals from Morocco, click here.
Back to Part 1: If you have landed here directly without seeing the first half of this adventure, it’s here at Part 1.
Special thanks to Tomasz Praszkier of Spirifer Minerals and Jolyon Ralph of mindat for their amazing efforts as the lead organizers of this trip and the conference – thank you both! The planning, logistics and the trip itself were all superb and I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of it. I’m afraid I will miss mentioning someone – thanks to Agatha, Ida and Abdellah, and to all of the organizers on the ground in Morocco, hosts, guides and drivers, for this unforgettable experience. And thanks of course to all the friends who took part in the journey!
I have refrained from delving into a lot of technical information on the localities, geology or mineralogy because there are super references already available, if you are interested.
For excellent references on Bou Azzer and Mibladen:
Favreau, G, Dietrich, J.E., Meisser, N., Brugger, J, Haddouch, L.A. and Maacha, L. (2007) Bou Azzer, Morocco. The Mineralogical Record. September-October, 2007, vol. 38, no. 5.
Praszkier, T. “Mibladen, Morocco.” (2013) The Mineralogical Record. May-June, 2013. vol. 44, no. 3.
A great German language book on Morocco (not available in English):
Jahn, S., Bode, R., Lyckberg, P., Medenbach, O., and Lierl H.J. (2003). Marokko: Land der Schöenen Mineralien und Fossilien. Bode, R., ed.
And a new book on the minerals of Morocco (anticipated to be two volumes) is anticipated soon from Tomasz Praszkier – can’t wait!