"Why Morocco?" was the question that friends and family asked when we announced that we were going there to chase the Painted Lady butterfly. What a good question! One that I'll try to answer in the first post of this blog.
The Painted Lady butterfly is the most widespread butterfly in the world and one of the most common butterflies in the British Isles in the summertime. In 2009 it was one of the most abundant butterflies recorded by both the Irish and UK butterfly monitoring schemes.
It is a migratory species that has no hibernating stage. This is quite unusual amongst Irish and British butterflies who have many different strategies for surviving our winters. For example, the Small Tortoiseshell overwinters as an adult butterfly hiding in holes, crevices, attics - basically anywhere that it won't be disturbed. The Marsh Fritillary overwinters as a caterpillar huddling in groups to keep warm deep in the vegetation. While other butterflies such as the Brown Hairstreak overwinter as eggs. In contrast the Painted Lady cannot hibernate and instead has to travel from country to country like a nomad in search of suitable weather and a good food source. The butterflies that arrive in Ireland and Britain each summer have potentially migrated thousands of kilometers over a route that includes mountains of Morocco, the Mediteranean, and France.
Until recently the source of this migration was a mystery. Scientists knew that they came from North Africa but from which part? Recently a Spanish lepidopterist, Constanti Stefanescu, published a ground-breaking paper in which he back-traced the Catalan populations of Painted Lady butterflies to Morocco (in particular the valleys of the Rivers Souss and Massa between the High Atlas and and the Anti-Atlas).
And so we find ourselves in the middle of the chaotic, bustling, crazy city of Marrakesh. A stark contrast with our sleepy, cold, wet Irish village. The streets are full of motorbikes, people, bicycles, camels, taxis, mules, SUVs, and donkeys. Our taxi driver weaves nonchalantly through the crowded streets occasionally passing within an inch of wobbling, heavily-laden cyclists, pedestrians looking the other direction, pushchairs, applecarts....All this while babbling in several languages in turn on his mobile phone. And then we stop. All out, bags on our backs, and down we go into the tiny streets of old Marrakech - the medina. It feels like we have stepped back in time. To a town straight out of the bible. We find our Riad (a traditional Moroccan house - many of which are now small guesthouses). Yay! We have made it.
The next challenge is to find dinner... Derb Dabachi on a Sunday evening is at a standstill - it is a narrow thoroughfare just off the main city square - the Jamma el Fna. There is a traffic jam. A camel is refusing to go through a low archway. He is causing chaos (organised chaos appears to be the norm for Marrakech but this camel is causing unusually chaotic chaos!) He has already upturned a table of cow offal and is about to impact on more stalls. At last his handler persuads it to pass through the arch. The crowd converges and business resumes. Bicycles, people, scooters, mules, and carts are on the move again. Emerging onto the Jemaa el Fna - we are dumbfound. Which way to go? How will we remember our way back? Okay, hold tight to the children and dive right in. Appears to be the only sensible thing to do - the only other option being sheer panic! We come across stalls packed tight with Moroccan slippers (babouches), others full of leather goods, and more with Moroccan rugs. Everybody vying to attract our custom. Next we find metal carts packed high with oranges (almost gravity-defying!) selling freshly-squeezed orange juice. And then the food stalls - we sit on a bench alongside Moroccans and tourists and order the most delicious meal we have ever tasted. Spiced kefta (Moroccan meatballs) and mint tea (the staple Moroccan drink). We feel triumphant. Now all we have to do is find a hire car company, drive through this chaos, and find our way over the Atlas mountains.