Monday, 24 June 2013

The hashish trail

21-06-2013 - 22-06-2013

Cannabis sativa
The Ultra, Jebel Tidirhine N34.84044 W4.51654 2428m P1901 rises in the Rif mountains above the outlaw town of Ketama. On one side of the main road out of the town is the Gendarmarie Royale office, on the other several hectares of young hashish plants.
I had known about the cannabis growing before I went there, but I assumed it would be hidden in remote valleys. At first, I just thought it was bracken. The whole area is given over to the cash crop with complex and sophisticated irrigation systems.
Azmorou had insisted that I park my motorhome next to his home, so that his family could guard it and he insisted that he accompany me up the hill 'for the pleasure'. I think he was more of a bodyguard than a guide as we walked through the terraces of marijuana plants that filled the valley at the back of his home at N34.86938 W4.53806 (1587m).

Hectares of hashish
Each patch was guarded by one or two young men - who did not seem any more sinister than any other Moroccans, but who knows. Obviously not women's work - but I bet when it comes to harvest time it is.
We followed the track to the edge of the forests that line the mountain - at this point the track became undrivable as the bridge at N34.86433 W4.50408 had been washed away.
Jebel Tidirhine
In the forest  we followed the track as it contoured around the mountain - occasionally there were small clearances given over to more young cannabis plants. At a fairly arbitrary point, we left the track and struck uphill steeply through the trees.

Summit from south
I began to doubt about whether my bodyguard had ever been to the mountaintop before. He was too interested in the misshapen trees and he seemed surprised as I was to join a well-maintained and well-engineered path - that did not seem to have any connection with the local harvest - and lead to the tree clear summit tops. Although it is not obvious which is the higher top when up there, it is very clear from below.
Lower top
Summit from lower top
True summit
Summit from the east
For the descent I tried to persuade my guide that there was an easier way off going down more easterly. He followed me for a while but then insisted we follow a line that looked and felt more difficult than the one I had chosen.
We hit the forest road and then it was reversal of the ascent route. Back to Azmorou's house for the inevitable mint tea with olives and bread dipped in olive oil and apricot jam.
Overnight in the grounds of Azmorou's house.

At first light I set off through Ketama, which mercifully at that early hour was free of the numerous dope-dealers and made my way back to the border of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta to catch the ferry back to Europe.

Nice hats - note these are women working, not tourists
Renault 12 - I had a white one in the 70s - I thought it was sleek and stylish, then.
Overnight in Lidl carpark, Algeciraz.

Tazekka zigzags

Stripped cork trees
Jebel Tazekka

About 100 kilometres to the east of Fes, near the town of Taza there is the Parc National de Tazekka that is typically not signposted off the main road. However, once you enter the park it is, for Morocco, very well signposted. maybe at the weekends the park is full of daytrippers from Fes and elsewhere. However, it felt like that other than the people who live and work there, I was the only person in the whole park. The park has a couple of gorges, an extensive system of caves and lots of cedar and cork trees.

It also has a summit, Jebel Tazekka that is a 'mere' 1980m with an unknown (to me) prominence, but I reckon it must be a P600 Major judging by the visible drop between the neighbouring ranges of the Jbel Bou Iblane to the south and the Rif mountains to the north.
I entered the park by leaving the N6 road at an inconspicuous junction near Sidi-Abdallah-el-Ghiala at N34.17117 W4.32021 and following the road through  the Gorges de l'Oued Zireg to the south of the summit, where there was sign (N34.05765 W4.15975 1478m) offering a choice of two walking routes. However, there is an unpaved road that leaves the paved road at N34.05160 W4.16746 (1505m). I drove part way up the track to N34.06162 W4.17177 where there was a little shelter from the sun and just before the ruts in the road got a bit worse. It is possible to drive all the way to the summit - however I thought that if I wanted to remain slim, fit, tanned, good-looking and interesting company to be with I should go for a walk.
I followed the track until it came to a broad col and then decided to see if there was an alternative way that went to the east of the intervening summit and found quite a nice terrace that traversed all the way round - this terrace is quite obvious when viewed from the road below (in hindsight). This took me to another col - the terrace ends at N34.08178 W4.17540 (1753). There is a junction with the original track at N34.08241 W4.17731 (1786m).
A zig, or is it a zag?
From there you head for a gap in the trees at N34.08396 W.4.17788 (1804m), from where you become a zigzag wanderer on the road to the disappointing summit.

Summit rock
Why disappointing? because it is dominated by five masts, the detritus of previous buildings and the noise o several generators - and the view is limited by the trees. Shame - because up to then the walk had been quite pleasant with glimpsed views through the trees.I found a rock that could be the natural top N34.09063 W4.18304 (1985m) and then I made my excuses and left, using the mast road all the way back.
Not a pretty site

On the road to Taza I made a quick visit to the Gouffre du Friouato - a large hole in the ground that is the start of a much bigger cave system that I could have paid extra to have a guided tour. I then drove over the east end of the Rif mountains to the Mediterranean coast at the lively resort of Al Hoceima.

Overnight in the carpark of Al Hoceima port - as recommended to me by a gendarme.

Jebel Igdet

Jebel Igdet/Igdat

I suspect the majority of tourists if they cross the High Atlas, do so on the Tizi-n-Tichka pass; judging by the lack of ceramic stalls on the roadside far fewer bother with the Tizi-n-Test pass and only a tiny proportion of those would consider turning off to tackle the road along the Ougdemt valley to Arg N30.98984 W8.40574 (2145m). 

Traffic news - no road works
Hamish Brown claims in his book ‘The High Atlas’ that this road is paved all the way. The first few kilometres maybe, but then there are about 20 km of narrow difficult unpaved rutted road with no passing places and much of the way with a serious unprotected drop on one side. Luckily in both directions I met nothing coming the other way other than a few muleteers. Other hillbaggers will be aware that sometimes getting to the start of a walk is harder than the walk itself. I wouldn't say that the drive this time was harder but I was glad when I finally reached Arg. Within moments there was a swarm of men from the village inviting me to their homes for mint tea – I tried to put them off by promising I would go to one of their homes ‘ce soir’ but that I needed to get going before the day became too hot.
The walk entails following the road through the village, with several more offers of mint tea, and then the road narrows to a mule track that heads off to long line of cultivated irrigated terraces where as ever the women were doing the work as the men stood around in small groups. Fairly soon the track drops down to the valley floor and becomes much less well defined. At the junction of two valleys  N30.98742 W8.43015 (2555m) a group of men waved at me to carry on up the main valley towards an obvious col on the summit ridge. Quite why this route is any better did not ever become clear – it was a slippy, scree ridden ill-defined path all the way to the col and was taking me away from the summit rather than towards it. Also I realised that the previous day’s exertions on Toubkal had tired me more than I thought. I kept going up and then decided to make a long traverse from N30.98935 W8.43836 (2915m) across to the next col rather than go all the way up to the first one. This did not really turn out to be any easier and in terms of the effort/progress ratio did not make much difference. From the second col I traversed on the left hand side to the third col and then gained the summit ridge where the going was easier, even if the air pressure was lower. The final stretch was more of a walk and would have been quite easy if I had had the energy for it. Hamish Brown writes about the first ascent by Joseph Thomson in 1888 as an ‘extraordinary feat of mountaineering’ so maybe I should be pleased that I managed to get to the top of the Ultra, Jebel Igdet/Igdat N30.96462 W8.44337 3619m P1613 too. Karl Smith in his trekking book mentions there is a trig on the summit but I saw no sign of it – just a cairn and another cairn on the slightly lower summit a short distance to the south-east.  The views back to Arg and the Ougment valley were fine – however, there was little to be seen of the Toubkal which looked like it was having another afternoon thunderstorm.
Igdet summit
On the top
Igdet summit again
On the return I kept more to the summit ridge and when avoiding the more scrambly sections dropped down to the other side than the one I used on ascent and found the going a bit easier. At the second col I decided I would try going down the alternative valley. Sometimes the scree made it easier going, sometimes it was just  difficult and tiresome. I was glad to reach the valley floor and the mule track. As  I walked back to the village I could see the women gathering and carrying fodder and hear them singing and ululating as they worked. For quite a while I was accompanied by a mule that seemed to have slipped its tether – I began to worry that I would be accused of mule rustling. As I reached the village it was getting to dusk – one or two men used the two hands at the side of the head ‘sleeping’ gesture as an invitation to stay overnight – I thought they looked quite sweet doing that – I managed to decline by muttering about ‘mon voiture’. Somehow I slipped inside the voiture quietly without having to go through the lengthy elaborate ceremony of mint tea making. Despite Igdet in theory being a relatively easy quick grab from the road, I was too tired to be sociable.
Overnight on the edge of Arg village – falling asleep to the accompaniment of braying mules, ululating women and the mullah’s call to prayer.

Lakeside bedroom
One of the pleasures of travelling in a motorhome is that one night you can be high up in the Atlas mountains, the next night listening to the waves on a large lake created by the Barrage Ahmed el Hansali in the middle of Morocco close to the delightedly vowelly Ouaoumana. From Arg to Ouaoumana. Being besides a lake also gave me the chance to do what the Moroccans do whenever there is even a small pool of water, clean their cars. The van was literally covered in dust inside and outside – even things inside the cupboards were covered in a film of desert sand.
Back in the Middle Atlas

Toubkal at Imlil

13-06-2013 - 15-06-2013
Imlil from above
Trouble at the mill, sorry I mean Toubkal at Imlil.
After the altitude difficulties I met at Mgoun, there was no way that I was going to tackle Morocco’s highest mountain – or indeed, the highest mountain in north Africa – in a single day. Jebel Toubkal is 4166m, P3755 and destined to be the highest point I have walked to and the most prominent peak. Obviously it is also an Ultra.
Toubkal in the clouds
Around Aroumd
By the time I reached Imlil (1734m) it was late afternoon and too late to set off on the supposedly five hour walk to the refuge. I managed to get a parking space undercover and guarded overnight at the top of the village – and the car park people had no problem with me wanting to sleep in my vehicle. I went for an evening walk on a track that took me high (about 2200m) directly above Imlil and then across to Aroumd which is the next village on the route to Toubkal.

I returned to Imlil on the usual track that is used to get up to the refuge – so I was now familiar with how the main walk starts. There would have been a grand view of Toubkal itself if it hadn't been covered in cloud. I was to realise eventually that it seems to get clouded quite regularly in the evenings – and indeed a bit like the Alps there are local thunderstorms in the late afternoon.
Next morning after a fairly restful sleep, despite being quite close to the main thoroughfare, I made an early start. The path is very well used by hill walkers, trekkers, locals and mules. Once you find the start of the real uphill stuff at N31.11511 W7.91991 (1959m), after crossing the valley floor you would be hard pushed to get lost. I believe that the West Highland way is known to some as the Andrex way because of regular deposits, this path could be named the mule-pooh way. Nevertheless there are some demanding stretches that get harder as the altitude increases and the air pressure drops. I am glad I was not doing it in the midday heat. There are good views of the mountain and a number of stalls selling jus d’orange etc. along the way. 
A view of Toubkal on the way up to the refuge
First view of refuges
Both the refuges
Refuge Toubkal
Sounds like thunder
As I managed to get to the Toubkal Refuge N31.06295 W7.93790 (3207m) in less than four hours it was still morning when I arrived there. I debated with myself briefly about carrying on to the top and then thought better of it. Although my acclimatisation was better I still felt a little groggy. I thought I would have a siesta sleep and then review the situation later. As it happened I slept until after 4.00pm  - and I wasn't the only one; indeed I got the impression three young Germans in the same dormitory as me slept right through from early afternoon to the following morning. And when I awoke there was cloud and frequent rolls of thunder. I went for a stroll higher up the valley, giving me a chance to have a quick look across to the main route to the summit, and then back to the refuge for a delicious barley soup and a vegetarian tajine.

I was up at first light and after a quick breakfast was ready for the off. I wasn't the first party to leave but – to my surprise, especially as I was easily the oldest person there and I was in no rush - I soon overtook everyone else. I learnt later that several people who set off after me, who like me had not hired local guides, were using me as their route finder (if only they knew me, they would have not been so trusting) and I assume that  although they could have possibly overtaken me they chose not to. As a tourist route it is fairly obvious, well worn and with frequent graffiti/tags. Some of the micro navigation – i.e. do you go right or left of that  big rock was a bit of a puzzle at times but quite soon you could find the most worn route. 

The hardest route finding is where the snow lingers. Couple of clues to others turn left N31.06192 W7.93433 (3334m) and then right at N31.06274 W7.93273 (3390m), up to a false col at N31.06056 W7.92807 (3604m). At this point you realise there is still a long way to go but don't worry you soon get a view of the false summit. My advice, take the track that keeps to the right before getting to the ridge and turning left. Save the track down the middle for a quick descent on not very good scree.
Highest point in north Africa
I had the pleasure of the summit to myself for several minutes and as it was still earlier than 9.00am the sun was at a low angle. Unfortunately the haze meant that the distant views were limited. But, hey, I was there and with only little awareness of the low air pressure.
Without a shadow of doubt
Hazy summit view

Later, I was talking to one of the guides who had reached the summit some minutes after me and he had heard me talking about Mgoun to someone else the previous evening. He told me he came from nearby there. I asked him which village and, of course, it was the home of the children of Assaka. He agreed the gorge was not friendly and sarcastically referred to it as the ‘happy valley’.
Is that the way down?
On the way down
Mind the mules
The return to Imlil was long and arduous but didn't take as long as I had been told it would, despite falling over twice – once because a fully laden mule barged into me. I was tired and felt fractious with the stall-holders imploring me to ‘look inside my shop’ and a late afternoon thunderstorm was brewing. Time to go I thought.

Toubkal mouflon
Overnight at literally the road summit of the Col of Tizi n Test pass (2100m)

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Mgoun show

07-06-13 - 09-06-13
Women's work
Rare indeed.

The Ultra, Ighil Mgoun/Amsoud/ Oumsoud 4070m P1904, the second highest mountain in the High Atlas, took me three goes before I bagged it. In hindsight, what I should have done is taken a bivvybag and sleeping bag and stayed up overnight. I know I could have possibly stayed with one of the Berber families in their summer settlements, however I was not sure how I could guarantee that I would not end up forced to eat mouflon/wild sheep or some other meat. Having been a vegetarian for over forty years it is a case of one obsession, i.e. hill-bagging, being trounced by another one.

I knew that my first attempt would probably not get me there as I needed to acclimatise. Previous experience had told me that I get symptoms of altitude sickness above 3000m. Ironic considering my choice of hobby – bit like a keen sailor getting sea-sick, an avid nature lover getting hay-fever or even an arachnaphobe who collects deadly spiders.

My first attempt was from the remote village Tighouzzirin N31.39316 W6.43141 (2340m)  Almost from the beginning I lost the route and used a lot of time and energy struggling up the wrong slopes. Eventually I found – and then lost – the main path near a hamlet.
Beyond there I found another path that unnecessarily took me down into a small valley that would have been avoided by the main path. Below me there was a shepherd shouting at me and gesticulating to join him. I decided I did not want to lose more height and sat down to eat an orange. Within moments he reached me despite only wearing pointed toed slippers on a slope of scree and crumbly rocks. I gave him half my orange and he produced a large bread from a hessian sack. Saying hello and thanks for the piece of bread used up my full knowledge of Moroccan Arabic and he spoke no French. However, he still managed to explain to me how to get to Oumsoud and his equally non-French speaking grandson (clearly compulsory education does not get all the children into school), who appeared from nowhere, lead me up to the well used and maintained path. I followed the path for a while until reaching a height of about 3100m when the maladie d’altitude and the still long distance to go to get to the summit made me give up for the day. The annoying thing about the malady is that as soon as you start descending the symptoms subside and then disappear; this made me feel a bit of a wuzz and a softie for not struggling on.
Overnight near the village of Tighouzzirin.
How to get to Tighouzzirin – take the Toundout road from Skoura and just keep going for many kilometres until you come to an upside down speed sign. Shortly afterwards the tarmac stops in an unnamed village. Just beyond the village, unbelievably, there is a signpost N31.38251 W6.42414 (2082m). Turn left at the sign and it is up a steep rough windy track to the first village of Tighouzzirin where there is space to park. However, as this is also the area where the villagers gather in the evening to chat, I parked in a narrow re-entrant further down the road at N31.39129 W6.42569 (2202m).

The proper route to the point where I gave up is:
From Tighouzzirin follow the ‘main road’ to N31.39322 W6.43346, turn right between the houses up towards a water tank at 31.39478 W6.43520. There is a choice of paths that seem to head for the same oued/valley to the left. Cross the stream and then at N31.41063 W6.43561 (2680m) keep right. This takes you to the right of a small but well watered hamlet. At N31.41717 W6.43478 bear left from the stream and head for a hidden entrance at N31.42134 W6.43968 (2890m). The track traverses above a valley to a col at N31.42750 W6.43477 (2884m). This is where the young Arab boy took me. And the path now is quite obvious as it traverses around in a wide semi circle to N31.44550 W6.43642 (3090m) and onwards to N31.45560 W6.43293 (3116m). From there the route dropped to a broad col at N31.46042 W6.43045 (3041m). My headache and short breathing told me that I did not really fancy going much further and I was not really in the mood for trying to figure where the route went next. Whatever, it does it looks like it involves more descent before the final rise. Also, I realised that even if I had another go at the same route another day it would be a rather long day.

As it happens the next day turned into a rest day at the Ryad Igrane in a small village near Toundout. I ended up helping the owner, Azzedine, create a blog about his restaurant whilst he and his father plied me with mint tea, couscous and a tajine of vegetables. I was given a guided tour of the valley which included a visit to a museum reportedly containing a very large dinosaur skeleton – typically the museum is not signposted and access was difficult and unfortunately it was also closed.
Les enfants terrible
For the next two attempts, I drove to Assaka and parked up by the river at N31.41539 W6.48880 (1215m). As I walked through the village (for the first time of four) I was greeted by a small group of children who  good-naturedly called out ‘Bonjour Monsieur’ dozens of times – by the fourth time I walked through the village I had over forty children doing the same and rhythmically banging plastic bottles with sticks despite being remonstrated at by village elders. What was interesting was that at each end of the village there was a definite but unmarked boundary line that they did not cross. I might have been the Pied Piper but I would not have been able to lead them away from their homes.
No palm trees - but several satellite dishes
The main street
Beyond Assaka there is a rough drivable track. However, to get to that involves driving up the stream – more about that later. This track and the electricity supply runs out at the next village complete with satellite dishes on many of the roofs. The track becomes a mule track to the next village and ends at the foot of a steep narrow gorge that I got to know – but not love – quite well. 

Happy Valley
At the top of the gorge there are various small temporary and more permanent settlements with a number of families tending their mouflons and goats as well as growing a few crops. To them the gorge is just part of their way to work. I picked up a  mule track that went to the right and then up a wide stone filled valley. Somehow I missed a right turn and ended up meeting a path that looks like it goes from Tighouzzirin to the west of Mgoun to the source of the Oued Tessawt. Because, once again I was getting the symptoms of altitude sickness I wasn’t paying full attention until I realised from my GPS that I was no nearer to the summit than I had been an hour or so earlier. Somehow I had drifted too far west, was over 3600m high with a headache and still 4km away from the summit. I returned to face the les enfants terrible of Assaka and a night by the river.
Crumbly rock
On the way
Mgoun surface
Moon surface
Next day I had another go. At least this time I knew the area, I knew the way, and I left early enough for most of the children not to be up and about. And thankfully, I was getting acclimatised, the symptoms were still there, but bearable. It was a long haul and I was exhausted by time I got back to the top of the gorge. Thankfully as I was walking down a few kilometres from Assaka a minibus with a badly cracked windscreen came by and without a word spoken the driver opened the door and almost dragged me inside the vehicle which then lurched down the track and into the stream to the centre of the village. In many areas there are quite well established tracks following the river beds which are  dry except after heavy rain and in spring when the snow melts. This stream isn’t one of those wide beds – it was bouldery and narrow – the minibus felt like it was going to go over on its side more than once as we bounced along. And, the children were there, in abundance.
A view south
Old disused cave
All over Morocco you can buy a round loaf of bread for 1 dirham (about 8p) and very nice it is too. At the bus terminal (he says grandly) there is a little shop, little more than a booth. I asked if they had ‘du pain’ – they didn’t, but the shopkeeper sent one of the children off to one of the houses and he came back with two loaves that were still warm. They were ‘free’, presumably  because of the amount of entertainment that I had provided for the children.

And it was a second night sleeping by the river at Assaka, with the accompaniment of croaking frogs.
In the morning at first light I found four men squatting on the ground very close by, hoping for a lift into Morocco’s ‘Hollywood’ town Ouarzazate – there are a number of film studios around the town. Quite frequently as you drive around Morocco the gendarmerie set up roadblocks so that they can check people’s papers and that seatbelts are being worn – and to collect baksheesh. As cars come the other way driver’s flash a warning and it is only at that point do any of my hitchhikers bother to fasten their seatbelts to avoid the 400Dh fine. As a tourist I just get a wave through without any hesitation – although this is a relief it is also embarrassing as I dislike preferential treatment. Anyway somewhere on the road between Skoura and Ouarzazate a pack of dogs ran across the road and I could not avoid hitting one of them. Unfortunately for the poor dog it was killed; unfortunately for me it knocked my front number plate off. The four men in the back were telling me to just continue but I had to search around for the number plate. There was no way I was going to drive around Morocco and several European countries without it. And, sure enough just a couple of kilometres down the road there was a gendarmerie roadblock – they did not seem to mind though that the plate was on the dashboard rather than fixed to the front. I asked the four men if they could direct me to a ‘mekanik’ to fix the number plate back on and after a convoluted drive around Ouarzazate up very dusty back roads we came to where there were three ‘mekanik’ workshops in a row**. Being still quite early in the morning none of them were open for business – however, one of my lift takers scouted around and found a mekanik sleeping in his car at the side of the premises.
**In Morocco, and many of the southern European countries, you never seem to get just one of anything. Not just one person selling melons, rock minerals, ferry tickets or ceramics but seven in a row. As a business model it sucks. Imagine going to the bank manager for a loan and saying I want to set up a new business – I want to sell x – it must be profitable as there are already six people selling exactly the same thing within a few hundred metres. Even when they form co-operatives – such as the Argan olive oil women’s co-operatives they seem to set up rival outlets quite close to each other.  In Marrakesh you get entire souks where everyone is selling the same things. ‘Look inside my shop’ they say. ‘Why, I have looked inside the neighbouring one and there is no difference’.
Overnight in the Le Relais campsite of Marrakesh.
Cycling through the Marrakesh Medina is an experience to remember. In many action films you often get a car chase through a market, souk, narrow-streeted medieval town or whatever – the usual clich├ęs being a fruit stall knocked over, cyclists and scooter riders scattered, at least one of the chasing vehicles turning over on its side, vehicles bursting out of a side alley straight across a busy road, bystanders having to jump into doorways etc. Maybe I was not travelling as fast as Bond, Bourne or Indiana Jones but it was action packed. Thankfully, outside the Medina, most of the route to and from the campsite could be taken through the palmerie where the main hazards were the caravans of pale tourists on camels.