07-06-13 - 09-06-13
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.
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.
|On the way|
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|
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 clichés 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.