A Quick Look in the Atlas

A Winter Break in Morocco. †††††††††††† 6th-l3th January 1994.

I donít know how it came to pass but I was left with a few days of holiday to take before the end of January. I wanted to go somewhere sunny, mountainous, not too far away, and cheap. The Atlas Mountains of central Morocco is the nearest place to fulfill all these criteria so after spending New Year at the Farm I nipped round the travel agents and booked the first available flight from the Midlands to Malaga. The hastily formed plan was to fly to Malaga and indulge in one of my favourite hobbies, overland travel, on the way to Marrakesh. Once there I would indulge in one of my other favourite hobbies, hiking in the mountains.

Thursday morning at 8.30 I was at East Midlands airport. Being too mean to use the airport car park, I parked in an industrial estate round the corner, picked up my ticket and boarded the plane for Spain. Most of the passengers were of the wrinkly, blue-rinsed variety but I was surprised to find myself sitting next to a group of potholers on their way to Nerja on the Costa Del So! to go caving and mountain biking.
At Malaga, it was absolutely pissing down so instead of the planned hitch-hike to Algeciras I took the train to Fuengirola and then the bus to Algeciras. As the weather cleared the gateway to the Mediterranean came into view with the rock of Gibraltar on one side and the twin rock of Ceuta over in Africa. Back the other way the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada loomed out of the cloud. The bus dropped us off at the entrance to the ferry port where a sign announced that the next boat was due to leave in fifteen minutes. So I rushed down to the terminal, got my ticket and waited for two hours to get on the ship. African timekeeping had crept into the most southern extremity of Europe.

The ship was basic (but luxurious compared to the African ship I came back on) and I spent the journey on the deck absorbing the atmosphere of the strait. The two continents are only eight miles apart geographically but a world apart culturally as I found out to my peril when) got off the boat. I was greeted by an ĎofficialĒ tourist guide to Tangier who informed me that there were no trains or buses out of town that night and he would be glad to advise me on a choice of hotel. I was fortunate to spy a railway timetable on the wall and worked out there was a train leaving at 11.4Opm from Tangier Port. So I started walking into town. Immediately, I was joined by a man on a moped who informed me that the station was closed but he knew a very good hotel. When I asked him where the station was he pointed me at several buildings, most of which didnít even have rails passing by them! Then he started asking me for a tip because he had helped me. I think you can imagine the reply.
This rigmarole was repeated several times on the way to the station. Once there the ticket clerk confirmed that there was a train and that I could get some Moroccan currency at a hotel across the street. On the way across there a drug addict/dealer offered me a very fine assortment of cannabis at a very reasonable price, however in view of the sort of protection rackets I had already seen in the twenty minutes since getting off the boat, I wasnít tempted at all. Money exchanged, I went and got my ticket and, with an hour to spare before departure, strolled across the square to a restaurant for some tea.

Yet again a gentleman ĎhelpedĒ me order my meal and tried to sell me all manner of illegal things ending up with the usual demanding of money, this time with
menaces. When I refused to pay up he got very upset and aggressive and several of his associates gathered round. I knew when I was beat and ended up parting with 50 dirhams (3 quid) and resolving never to let it happen again. I had had enough of Tangier and so I got on the train.

The train journey was long, uncomfortable and smelly. It also rained very hard and many of the places we passed through were flooded. At 4am we reached Casablanca and at lOam we pulled into Marrakesh station and, having read my Fodorís Guide which had no information of mountains and trekking I set off to find the tourist information office. They had some information on how to approach the mountains but no maps or itineraries so I started looking round bookshop!. They had no maps either but a customer called Robert in one of the shops advised me on a good trek to do from Telouet to Demnate, and thought I could get by with just my Michelin map of Morocco and asking the way.

Armed with this information and a bellyful of lunch I headed down the bus station. There they informed me that all the buses to Tizi n Tichkat, the starting point on the main road, were cancelled as the road was blocked with snow. So I decided to trek around the central group of the High Atlas which Isnít approached on high altitude roads and got on a bus to Asni. The last of the rain showers were dying out as the bus pulled out of Marreakesh and it was dark when we got to Asni. A kid took me through ankle-deep liquid mud to a cafe in the square where I met his brother who said I could stay round at his house, 30 dh for the dinner and 30 dh for the bed. It sounded OK so I went round there. The dinner was Tagine of Lamb, a sort of Lancashire Hotpot cooked in a clay pot over a fire. It was tasty and there was plenty of it washed down with a couple of brews of mint tea. After tea the brother got out a few pieces of the family treasure to show me. When I declined to buy them he got the hump and said they were: Saharan antiques, a bargain, high quality, real gemstones, etc. I insisted that there really wasnít any room in my already overloaded rucksack but he said heíd take my tent, sleeping bag, jacket, etc. in exchange. Thinking I wouldnít walk out and find somewhere else to stay, he raised the price of the dinner and bed to 100 dh and started to threaten me with violence, I left the 30 dh I owed and went and stayed at the hassle-free youth hostel. The moral is, beware of staying at peoplesí houses.

Next morning it was bright and frosty and the liquid mud had frozen. It was also Market Day so I went and stocked up on provisions for the trek. After arguing with some lorry drivers over the price of a lift to the next village, Imlil, I decided to walk it. 17km of fine scenery up a beautiful river valley, steep-sided with a carpet of blight green irrigated fields is the bottom. 1 got to ImIil at 2pm and people informed me it was five or six hours to the Neltner Hut and the snow was quite deep.

ďItíll be reet!Ē I thought and set off immediately. The path winds around, divides and rejoins and children direct you the wrong way in an effort to extort guiding money from you. It was a point of honour to find my own way and soon I was above the tree-line in increasingly deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. At the last, empty village, Sidi Chamarouch I took a wrong turn and a Monk-type bloke in sandals redirected me. Here it started to get steep and I was buggered. But there was nowhere to stay so I scoffed some chocolate and carried on. In the last rays of daylight I found the only snow-free bivouac spot under an overhanging boulder and pitched the tent.
I was bloody glad I did because when I set off in the morning it was about another hour and a half over crisp snow (you know, the stuff that gives way every second step and leaves you up to your knees) before I got to the Neltner Refuge. The hut, run by the Club Alpin Francais Casablanca Branch, was similar to the more basic alpine huts, although it had a certain African atmosphere to it (damp and smelly). I talked to the warden about climbing up Mt. Toubkal, which is the highest mountain in North Africa at 416Gm, and he recommended crampons and ice axe. So I contented myself with a walk over the easier ground around the hut during which I met two British climbers who had just been out on a morning jaunt to the summit of Mt. Wanoukrim (4089m). I joined them for lunch, which was prepared by their chef at the hut. Two other Brits and a big team of Spaniards had also returned from the hills as the ice was too melted for climbing by Midday.

The atmosphere at the hut was one of boredom and I had seen all I could without
climbing, so I set off back to Imlil covering the last section in the dark and arriving at 7pm. I stayed in the very reasonable hostel there with some lads from Bury. The next day I had a choice: With two hiking days left, I could either take the safe option and take a round-about route back to Asni or I could push the boat out and head Eastwards along the North side of the High Atlas range to Setti Fatma along a more difficult and little used route. Unable to resist a challenge I took the second option. The path to Tachedirt was an easy, disused jeep track winding up through some of the only pine forests in Morocco, planted as part of a reforestation scheme. It crossed a pass at 2600m before skirting round over scree to the village at 2300m. From here the path gradually worked its way along the sunny, south-facing slope and was largely free of snow as it climbed toward the wide snow-covered pass at 3300m. It divided at a high meadow and from there on it was cross-country through thorn bushes and snow drifts. Nobody had been this way for a week as the snow had no footprints in it. A shepherd told me there was deep snow at the pass but I decided to go and have a look as there was always the possibility of retreat via Tachedirt to Imlil.

It was 4pm when I reached the pass and I stopped to take a few snaps before heading on eastwards. The tops were still clear but the valleys were filling up with some sinister-looking fog. The snow was firm as I set off running down but the deeper I went into the steep-sided valley out of the reach of the sunís rays, the softer it became. I was about 30Gm down by the time I realised that the snow was getting softer, and the thought of retreating back to Tachedirt up 30Om of snow slope was uninviting.

I was beyond the point of no return and committed to going down to Setti Fatma when the seriousness of the situation dawned on me:I was in the middle of the High Atlas and nobody knew where I was.

-l was going down a steep valley full of powdery snow and floundering up to my waist†† in it.

-l couldnít flounder back up.

-l didnít know whether I could get right down the valley or whether there would be an obstacle such as a cliff or a gorge.

-There was an hour-and-a-half of daylight left and no sign of a campsite.

-Freezing fog was pumping up out of the valley and an icy wind was starting to blow.
The only thing to do seemed to be to flounder on and hope for the best, so that was what I did for the next hour or so. After a particularly narrow part of the valley where I was forced to traverse along a ledge, the path, which had been buried in deep snow on the North-facing slope, crossed over to the South-facing slope and came into view through the fog as a diagonal white line across the hill side. I headed for it and followed its zig-zag course down through the luxury of knee-deep snow. As if that wasnít fortunate enough, I soon came to a piece of flat ground with no snow on it, the like of which I hadnít seen all day. Allah was being kind to me. Not so kind was the weather. The temperature was about -5C and a stiff, foggy breeze impeded my single-handed tent pitching efforts. Inside it was cosy with the cooker on and I passed a chilly night with all my clothes on.

In the morning I continued on to the first village. The first old bloke I met was quite surprised to see me and took me to his house for a brew and an early lunch of bread and butter. The rest of the village came and quizzed me about the trip. Apparently not many people pass by that way in the winter!By late afternoon I had reached the road head and tourist town of Setti Fatma. I holed up in a tea shop and next day got a shared (with eight other people) taxi to Marrakesh. It was a nice day so I decided to walk the two miles to the station and see some of the sights. When I got near the station I was stopped at a police roadblock. It appeared that my train had been cancelled in favour of the King of Moroccoís and I would have to get the afternoon train. So I went for a fine lunch of kebabs and baked beans and another wander round. There was no hurry as I had left some contingency for just such an eventuality. On the train I met some very nice people and was embarrassed because I hadnít washed for a week and I stank like a shithouse. A bit later on my guts began to grumble. At first I thought it was one of the usual attacks of farting Iím prone to when Iíve eaten baked beans (or even when I havenít!) but it soon became apparent that it was something altogether more serious. I spent the rest of the journey in the snake pit. In Tangier I found that I had just missed the last ferry and there wasnít another one until 6am. A crowd of suspicious-looking characters had already gathered round me and after my previous experiences there I didnít went to get involved with them. So I went and sat in the corner of a cafe and read my book, with occasional toiletry transmissions. If I hadnít been on my own, the goings on around me might have been quite interesting: drug dealing, people taking large amounts of drugs and staggering about, rough looking tarts touting for business, gambling, fights, etc. As it was, I took advantage of a useful loophole in Moroccan criminal etiquette: In order to rob, rip-off or attack somebody, the assailant first has to make polite conversation with the victim for a few minutes. Thus by refusing to say a dicky bird to anyone who wanted to speak to me I stayed out of trouble.
At 3.3Oam the cafe closed and so I moved to another one along the street. This was marginally better as the waiter not only looked after me, but forcefully evicted drug dealers and scrounging addicts. One bloke kept trying to come back in and the waiter kept on chasing him out. Another sat down and started to drink another customerís tea, so the waiter knocked him over with a right hook to the face! About 5am a big fight broke out between two rival gangs and I decided it was time to run for it. So I went and got my ticket and wandered down to the ferry port. After a fourth large, strong coffee it was time to board so I went and joined the queue. After a long wait most people got to the front to find that the ticket should have been exchanged for a boarding card at another office. Eventually I got out onto the quay and found the right boat. They were checking passports again on the gangplank with another half-hour queue, but my ring piece was about to burst so I pushed to the front.
The boat was already late and by the time it left it was 9am. What with a two-hour crossing and an hourís time difference I was in shit street for catching the plane at 2pm. At Algeciras I made sure I was one of the first off and I ran straight out and jumped in a taxi. After a brief stop at the cash point to withdraw the 60 quid taxi fare we were off at 1245pm. The driver was good, but the road was two-way, passing through a lot of towns. Even so we managed to cover the 130km in 1hr 5mins. This involved a lot of overtaking with oncoming traffic on blind bends and speeds of up to 180km/h!
At Malaga airport I had 10 minutes to spare, so dispensing with the check-in I ran through the security and round to the boarding gate. There they informed me that it had only just closed and I argued with the staff for the next 20 minutes to let me through while the plane sat on the runway with the tunnel connected and everything. BASTARDS!
I eventually got back on the evening flight to Manchester, just after the last train and bus to Birmingham had just left, of course. So after trying to hitch-hike for an hour or so, I gave up, slept in the arrivals lounge and caught the train home the next morning. Talk about having a bad day! Then, of course, my car was still at East Midlands Airport, a place thatís difficult enough to get to by plane, never mind by bus or train. So I ended up cycling the 50 miles over there to get the car which, fortunately was still in the industrial estate, before hitching up to the Farm for the weekend. In spite of the difficulties I had, I would still recommend anybody (who can cope with a certain amount of hassle) to go to the Atlas. The walking and climbing season extends all year and good weather is virtually guaranteed. I wouldnít, however, recommend anyone to go to Tangier.

Pete Hall.

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