Tour Operator Watch 9 May 2010

Posté par Michael Peyron le 4 mai 2010

            Tour Operator Watch 9: May 2010

                   (Spring 2009 – spring 2010)

                                           By Michael PEYRON 

Last hike to Imilchil (May 2009) 

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Fred and Bashir emerging from Tiboulkheirin forest; Ighil ou Ahbari (3042m) in background (photo: M.Peyron) 

Wednesday, May 20. Now that the upgraded Tounfit-Anefgou road-link bypasses Aqqa n-Wiyyad, via Tamalout and Sloult, we felt it was time for a last bash along the classic three-day Tounfit-Imilchil route. By taxi from Ifrane to Tounfit we headed, yours faithfully and two ideal companions – Fred the friendly Frenchman and Bashir the congenial Pakistani. Then, encumbered with our back-packs and trekking poles, came the hot afternoon grind to Assaka through Tiboulkheirin cedars, the crawl up to and along Amalou n-Tezra ridge proving particularly tedious. In Assaka were made welcome by Sidi Lho – quite like old times!

Sidi Lho explained that Anefgou people had slighty overdone things, taking advantage of child deaths in winter of 2006/2007 to prize benefits out of central government, just as the Ayt Abdi n-Qusar had done in early 2009. Though the deaths were real enough, countless other Atlas mountain communities, such as Assaka and nearby villages were just as badly off and equally deserving of official help, especially when winter snows caused roofs to collapse, let alone hardship in various other forms. Not that Assaka itself had been forgotten: a telecommunications mast now adorned a nearby knoll, at least allowing locals to obtain rizzu (a signal) on their mobile phones, thus guaranteeing a link with the outside world.

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  Afternoon plod along Amalou n-Tezra; Lemri village on left (photo: M. Peyron) 

Thursday, May 21. Melt-water was swirling almost knee-deep in Tadrout canyon, but Sidi Lho saw us safely as far as gorge exit. Further on, logging trucks had churned up the soil to such an extent that we missed turn-off up through cedar forest to Tizi n-Ayt Brahim. Two fruitless forays later, involving unhealthy foot-slogging up and down side-ravines, we were finally back on course. Peyron, you old bastard, you’re losing your touch!

After Bashir had at times lacked balance on final gradient to col, we treated ourselves to a well-earned rest. South-west the mountains unfurled unimpeded to the Lakes Plateau. Not the slightest hint of TO presence in the area. In fact, for logistical and other reasons the big outfits appear to have more or less abandoned this stretch of the Atlas Mountains, leaving it to small private parties. This could prove a positive development.

In this respect, must tell of our priceless meeting with a lone French back-packing couple in Aqqa n-Wiyyad. They had forestalled us to a piste-side hut at foot of Tizi n-Ayt Brahim descent, and which serves as impromptu tea-shop. Tea-glass in hand they taunted us from the shade of a nearby tree, smugly pointing out:  “Ha! Ha! We got here before you! I say, for walkers you’re not packing very big packs, are you? As for your boots, they’re pretty light-weight for conditions around here!”

“Don’t worry”, answered Fred in French, “our gear is adequate for the purpose!”  (« Vous en faites pas! Notre mathos est à la hauteur, pour ce qu’on veut en faire! » ). I couldn’t believe my ears. Unbridled one-upmanship of this sort was typical of the exchanges you hear at the top of some Dauphiné summit when alpinists of the weekend category make value judgments on each other; but not in the Atlas. Such pathetic attitudes probably stem from the uptight Frog approach to leisure sport.

These two were certainly taking their walking seriously. Spick-and-span, without one speck of dust or stain on their clothes, wearing immaculate boots and “plus fours”, they looked as if they’d just stepped out of the Vieux Campeur, a well-known, trend-setting Parisian sports outfitters’ catalogue. How on earth could they maintain such high sartorial standards, here in the wilds! By contrast, with our tousled hair, sweaty, unwashed bodies, dusty clothes and grimy footwear we looked decidedly like the B team!

As we resumed our downvalley plod Bashir fell in step with the heavil-laden Frog couple and, since the lady had some English, was able to learn that they were from Pau at the foot of the Pyrénées; both worked in higher education. Making leisurely progress, they would be setting up their tent each evening and eating what they carried in their rucksacks; they apparently aimed to spend another three days on the Imilchil trail.

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At Anefgou, “the times they are a-changing”; road construction work goes ahead (photo: M. Peyron) 

Taking leave, we pushed on for Anefgou, getting there shortly before sundown. Luckily, a friend was at home and put us up in his spacious abode, providing a comfortable substitute for the somewhat spartan Anefgou café, which would have been the fall-back solution. Accommodation-wise, incidentally, we had noticed one small refuge in Aqqa n-Wiyyad, and next morning we were to see another one, rejoicing in the name of Hôtel Fazaz, just beyond Anefgou.

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Hôtel Fazaz between Anefgou and Tirghist (photo: M. Peyron)

Friday, May 22. The third day saw us complete with further ado our final leg to Imilchil. For the opening half-hour of our climb to from Anefgou to Tizi n-Isswal we were rubbing shoulders with hundreds of sheep and goats making for summer pastures. As we turned off from the main piste up to Tizi n-Iswwal, we got a few long-distance waves from a party of trail-bikers that were churning up the dust, Tighedwin way. Huts at the Tizi were already in use with small herds (new-born lambs very much in evidence) scattered all over the hillsides.

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 Lake Isly’s wind-ruffled waters (photo: M. Peyron) 

After replenishing our water-supply at bottom of Igran n-Igenna ravine, despite encouraging signs to the contrary noted a few years before, we found that eastern Lakes Plateau pastures had resumed their inexorable return towards dust-bowl status.  There were also signs of reinforced human presence at foot of Msedrid: permanent sheep-enclosures and a profusion of leafy, recently planted poplars. Couple of Ayt Hadiddou families were met en route; the former resignedly agreed that pastures were declining; the latter proved unhealthily camera-shy, rudely breaking off conversation when Fred aimed his binoculars at a passing hawk, as they probably imagined they were going to become targets for candid photography. Banks of Lake Isly totally deserted, its waters ruffled by wavelets driven by a freshening, westerly wind. Beyond it we settled down to a mirthless road-bash, bowed down against the head-wind. Process was increasingly painful until we hit pastures N of Tislit, under lee of surrounding hills that afforded some protection from the breeze.

Upon reaching Imilchil we put up at Bassou’s inn, finding that at DH 170 per head, demi-pension including comfortable room, hot shower, dinner and breakfast compared more than favourably with Moha’s dilapidated accommodation, with which I had been more than a little dissatisfied in 2008. There were only about half a dozen other tourists at our inn, all motorized, middle-aged or elderly. Mercifully, no group and a mere handful of 4-WD vehicles! End-May is a pretty lean time of the year for TOs, anyway. Only snag – dinner was slightly long coming. A restful night, however, more than made up for that.

Saturday, May 23. Next morning was ssuq-day at Imilchil. After a substantial breakfast we spent half the morning in the sun, feigning interest in a few faded rugs and other trinkets at some of the vendors’ stalls. Imilchil was no longer the picturesque, remote tribal ssuq I had delighted in some thirty years earlier.

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   Oult-Hediddou women at Imilchil ssuq, March 1978 (photo: M. Peyron)

In the interval, modernity had stepped in. With few exceptions the striped woollen tahandirt, which gave local women such a commanding appearance, had become at worst a thing of the past, at best a tourist product.

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   Observe modernized attire of Oul-Hediddou women, Imilchil ssuq, May 2009 (photo: M. Peyron)

Ayt Hadiddou women were now relegated to drab coton dresses and nondescript headgear, many of the younger ones openly sporting hijab-s. This all fitted in with earlier observations reflecting the overall, national trend towards anonymity and standardisation, not to mention – like it or not – fall-out from the preachings of a certain confraternity in beards, sandals and skullcaps. Yes, even up here, in what used to be the back of beyond…

Otherwise, we noticed half a dozen foreign back-packers probably doing a spot of shopping. Which reminded us that time was flying and we needed to corner one of the taxis to Aghbala n-Ayt Sokhman before competition from homeward bound marketeers left us stranded. And it was a good thing we did. By 11:30 we crammed into the rear seats of the last northward-bound taxi to leave that morning. An antiquated 405 Peugeot it conveyed us in two hours to Aghbala. Rarely had we travelled in such acute discomfort, wedged between roof, window and back-pack, our necks askew, with five other fellow-sufferers.

We wasted little time in Aghbala. After a brief pause to admire Toujjit peak and the Melwiya sources, an onward taxi connection landed us in Tighessaline shortly before 3 pm. Here too, it appeared to be market-day and the busy scene was ours to admire from a kerb-side café. Actually, there was such a crowd that the ladies of the night for which the place is famous were barely visible – though Fred did make a short-lived expedition across the road, apparently to buy fruit. Ifrane was finally reached, and with it the evening cool, after a change of taxis in Azrou.

Baddou expedition (Asif Ghriss, June 2009) 

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 Aari n-Baddou from Asoul, January 2008 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Aari n-Baddou (2917m), where Ou-Skounti and his die-hards had braved four French army groups and implacable thirst for three weeks in the summer of 1933, was missing both from my list of summits and catalogue of Moroccan Atlas resistance period battle-sites. This was the third of three attempts (2006-2008) to approach the mountain in winter, all of which had failed due to the presence of snow above 2200m, while actually getting to base camp, even though on tarmac all the way, was an undertaking of some magnitude. It involved the long haul down from Ifrane, then on beyond Midelt and Tizi n-Telghemt to the right-hand turn-off at Rich before aiming for Mzizel, the barren plateau of Ikhf Aman and Amellago. Even then, you weren’t quite finished as a couple of hours of swervery lay in store: up the Ghriss gorges to Asoul; finally, across Azaghar n-Sidi Bou Ya’qoub to riverside camp site of Aghbalou Lebni with shady poplars and generous spring.

Monday, June 8. On this occasion, we of the advance party (Youssef,  Bassou and Meriem) reached the lodge of Saïd Ou-Sri at Amellago in Assou’s car on Saturday evening (June 7) around 6pm, fully expecting the rearguard (Haddou, Aïcha and Zrouri), who were approaching from Kelaat Sraghna, to be waiting there for us. It was not to be. Actually, they’d come to a brilliant decision after Beni Mellal: better to short-cut thru Imilchil and the upper Ziz, instead of making the lengthy detour via Midelt. For the next three hours or so, by erratic mobile phone contact, we charted their laborious progress across the High Atlas. Now it would be: “We’ve stopped near Imilchil to let Aïcha take a few shots of a kasbah!” Now we would hear: “Ah! It’s just got dark so we have to drive more slowly!” At 10 pm, as tempers were getting a wee bit frayed, we decided to grab some dinner. An hour later, the rearguard finally turned up and emerged from their vehicle, all of them as cool as cucumbers. Bassou was furious with the way they had let us stew in our juice for hours and told them so. The upshot of the ensuing argument was that nobody was in bed till midnight; though not before vaguely agreeing that next morning we’d move on upvalley. The expedition couldn’t have got off to a better start!

Tuesday, June 9. After breakfast Saïd explained that he’d called up his chauffeur Muha to come with his venerable Renault van and pick up our rucksacks, plus bivouac gear (‘igloo’-style tents, foam-rubber mattresses, mats, food, bottled water, etc.) so as to establish base camp. He did this, TO style, whenever he was escorting groups of tourists from France. Muha was a long time coming, so the sun was pretty high in the sky when we finally loaded up and moved out. While Saïd came with Bassou and I in the cramped, clapped-out Renault, Youssef left his car at the gîte and, with Meriem, joined Zrouri and Aïcha in the other car. However, on starting up his motor Zrouri made an interesting discovery: his radiator was practically empty… Solution: fill up several empty 2-litre bottles. Thus equipped they made off up the valley, Zrouri often stopping before Asoul, each time he was on the point of boiling his radiator. Asul’s scant resources, so it turned out, proved unequal to fixing a leaking radiator, so we pushed on after Zrouri had topped up again.

Thus did we complete the final kilometres to the bivouac site, situated around 1900m at a point where cultivation gives out and Asif Ghriss emerges from shallow gorges. Baddou lay to our left, occupying 3/4 of the skyline to the south. Saïd, Muha and his aide set up camp, a tasty al fresco lunch materialising shortly afterwards at ground level, complete with plates, forks, knives and salad bowl. Eating half squatting, half grovelling, folding my inordinately long frame as best I could, I thus experienced at first hand precisely what countless Atlas-trekking tourists annually pay good money for, just for the dubious privilege of culinary discomfort, TO style!

By the time we’d finished lunch, with a brace of Trumpeter finches paying us a brief visit, it was practically 3 in the afternoon, leaving us several hours for a tour of the left-bank escarpment opposite camp. A leisurely scramble took us up to a flat-topped hill, where we found traces of military outposts dating back to 1933: low stone parapets, smashed glass from beer and wine bottles that spoke of Foreign Legion presence, etc.  That evening, after a light dinner and setting the alarm-clock for 5.30am, we crawled into the claustrophobic confines of our ‘igloo’ tents; luckily, thanks to the foam-rubber mattress sleep came quickly.

Wednesday, June 10. Next morning, the moon was still shining when we showed a leg. However, what with washing, dressing and breakfasting (including a lengthy philosophical discussion about nothing in particular), it was broad daylight when we finally got under way at 06:20. Saïd led off up shallow Agererman valley, as we were soon stubbing our toes against rive-bed gravel. We were grateful for Baddou’s bulk which mercifully shielded us from the sun’s early rays.

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  Baddou: advance party during early morning walk-in (photo: M. Peyron)

After an hour or so of this it became painfully obvious that trail-wise we were not a homogeneous group; while one batch forged ahead behind Saïd, another was several hundred yards adrift back down the valley. On we went as barren slopes steepened about us, raw juniper, gorse and boxwood the only vegetation, with an occasional Sardinian warbler to grace the scene. Sun’s blazing shafts finally reached us as we paused to regroup at bottom of large cirque around 8am. Above us loomed a precipitous escarpment. Soon, step by weary step we zigzagged up slopes covered in dry, wiry grass that gave way to profuse boxwood higher up. As we breasted the escarpment, another long pause was called for. Overhead wheeled an immature Bonnelli’s eagle, one of the few birds of prey we were to see throughout the entire trip.

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Baddou: pause on top of escarpment among stunted boxwood bushes (photo: M. Peyron) 

This time, the stragglers (Haddou, Aïcha) wisely opted for limited progress beyond the escarpment, while Bassou turned back to camp; the rest of us pursued our gruelling hike towards Baddou ridge main slopes. This entailed detouring via a path that led right, passing just below a lone Ayt Merghad tent, trending SW to reach foot of apparently gentler slopes. It proved to the right choice as we in fact followed a path that climbed southward up gravel and tussock slopes. After passing thru residual stands of weather- and man-beaten thuriferous juniper, it was 12:30 when we eventually sat down astride the divide, gasping for breath at Tizi n-Wanou (2650m).

Far away and down to the left we recognized a blob of faded green – the walnut-tree gardens of Itto Fezzou where we had spent a freezing night a couple of winters back; by contrast, below us an occasional nomads’ tent shimmered in the heat, relieving the drab emptiness of the surrounding hillsides. Reaching the main, 2917m-summit of Baddou was clearly out of the question. That would have to await another day! In fact, it was all we could do to tuck into the provisions Saïd had bravely brought up here in his back-pack.

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Our party at Tizi n-Wanou; Baddou main summit in far background (photo: M. Peyron)

After an excellent picnic lunch and well-deserved rest began the long-drawn-out retreat to camp. So long as we stayed above 2200m or so conditions proved bearable. First there was a long rest in the shade beneath an overhang, followed by a shorter pause at Anou n-Baddou, where an Oult-Merghad woman was carding wool while her sons watered her camels and flocks of sheep and goats.

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 Young Ou-Merghad watering a camel at Anou n-Baddou (photo: M. Peyron) 

That was where we left Zrouri, Haddou and Aïcha. With Youssef, Meriem, and Saïd, eager to rest up in camp as soon as possible, we ploughed off down-valley.  Although were in first week of June, the pre-Saharan heat had to be felt to be believed.  About an hour from camp, the sight of a mother partridge devotedly steering her little ones out of harm’s way provided a charming respite. By 1600, we were lolling in the shade of base camp poplars. Well over an hour later the rearguard finally joined us, having rested in the shade on several occasions to take the sting out of the sun’s withering afternoon heat.

By common consent a strategic withdrawal to Saïd’s gîte at Amellago was decided upon. Only snag was that, though summoned by mobile phone, it took Muha a couple of hours to drag his dilapidated Renault van back to the camp site. Finally loaded up and shoved off well past 1900. Predictably, having again nearly boiled his radiator several times, Zrouri finally made it back to Amellago half an hour in arrears. The conversation that evening round the table was pretty subdued as we dined on sardines and spaghetti – though with little gusto  given the potent heat still coming off the walls! The next day, well, we could visit some abandoned mine tunnels near Agouddim Ikhf Aman, said some; other,s more prudently, suggested that fixing Zrouri’s radiator might be the absolute priority.

Thursday, June 11. It was. Over breakfast the following morning a consensus miraculously emerged in favour of heading back home, via Rich and Midelt, providing Zrouri with a more than reasonable chance of coming across garage facilities. We paid up our bill at Saïd’s, took a series of photos of Zrouri topping up his radiator and hit the road. Zrouri was sent out in front, while Youssef’s car followed after a 10-minute interval. We never saw them again that trip…

We heard later that they’d kept going all the way back to Zawit ech-Cheikh, frequently stopping to replenish their radiator; thus had Zrouri avoided inflicting permanent damage on his engine. As for us, we made a couple of photo stops, securing an unexpected close-up of a Short-toed eagle. After a light snack in Rich we made it to Midelt by mid-afternoon. We were able to spend a restful night at Auberge Ja’afar, there being only one small group of Australians. 

Friday, June 12. At Auberge Ja’afar heard this remark from elderly Aussie tourist in breakfast room to sleepy-looking, non-Berber-speaking Amazigh Tours guide: “Well, young man, the sun’s been long up! Whatever happened to that early morning stroll we were supposed to have had?!” Guide’s answer: a sheepish grin. This fellow, it seemed, wasn’t exactly “on his toes” when he ought to have been! The episode convincingly demonstrated shortcomings in efforts by local Tour Operators to market the “Berber” element for the benefit of tourists. 

We were in Rabat the next day and drawing conclusions from our failed attempt on Baddou. Obviously, a largish party with a mix of differently-motivated walkers and non-walkers was a poor recipe for success. Added to which the sheer size of largely waterless Baddou massif posed logistics problems. Hiring mules at or near Asul, equipping them with jerry-cans of water and setting up advance base camp somewhere above the boxwood escarpment would have made better sense. Instead of that we charged in from too far out and too low down, being ultimately defeated by a combination of heat, altitude and distance. If it had been a failure as a mountain walk, even less had been achieved in terms of survivors’ accounts (or children of survivors) of the Baddou battle, let alone finding on-the-spot evidence of fighting. The past appeared to have evaporated; there was far less atmosphere about the place compared to Tazizawt; we’d definitely have to return. 

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  Loading up the van at Base Camp after failed attempt on Baddou (photo: M. Peyron)

Off the beaten track in Oulmès 

It is refreshing to record that Oulmès (Walmas), once a much-frequented holiday destination has become a quiet backwater for local tourism, with reasonably comfortable yet adequate Hôtel des Thermes occupying pride of place. 

This my wife and I discovered after a 2hr 30 drive up from Rabat, via Tiflet, crossing rolling countryside up to Ma’aziz, followed by unceasing swervery through pleasantly wooded hills and the final broad-sky expanse of an upland plateau planted with lavender. Our friends  Klaus and Dagmar we’d arranged to meet up here arrived a quarter of an hour later from Casablanca. Access to our second floor bed-rooms was guaranteed by an old-style lift, actually functioning and probably the only one of its kind within a hundred miles. If we thought we’d have the place to ourselves we were in for a shock, two fairly large parties (one of French diplomats, the other Spanish technicians) also checked in shortly before sunset. Meanwhile we’d had time to stretch our legs and take in the sunset over the western hills. Came a substantial and well-cooked dinner accompanied by standard red Guerrouane house wine. In the heated room, the bed was comfortable and conducive to deep sleep.

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All shiny and welcoming, Hôtel des Thermes, Oulmès, morning of March 27, 2010 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Next morning an excellent breakfast was served in the spacious dining-room; before that there’d been a slightly iffy shower, nonetheless with hot water, and a visit to the Spartan yet adequate loo. By 9 we were off across the plateau, turning south-east down the Agelmous road. The next two hours took us down a winding road into a valley, across a recently-mended bridge, then gradually uphill again to emerge onto the wide-open spaces of the Zaïan azaghar. This was a treat for the eyes with vast flower-studded carpets stretching to the horizon, grazing sheep and donkeys, and an occasional small farm that bespoke of human presence. 

Thus we continued past dusty Agelmous, its streets crowded with market-goers; across more valleys that heralded the approach to Khenifra, and over the brow of a steep hill, Bou Hayati, from which skilled Berber marksmen used to take pot-shots at passing French army columns during the 1914-18 war. Khenifra, hot and sunny, offered little more than a baker’s for bread and a filling-station to top up our tanks for the next leg to Midelt. 

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Neglected “neck of the woods”, green hills of Oulmès, March 27, 2010 (photo: M. Peyron)

So far we’d seen plenty of evidence of road-damage, due to recent torrential rains and flash-floods, in the shape of collapsed portions of road, not to mention sand and/or gravel all over the place. On this section, between El Herri and Kbab, however, there had been mayhem: on the approach to a ford just before Lenda an entire land-slip had smothered the road, obliging us to detour via a rough, hastily bull-dozed track. The steep climb beyond Kebab, however, granted rewarding rearward views over the azaghar; beyond Sidi Yahya ou Sa’ad we stopped for sandwiches washed down with poor man’s sangria (house wine + Fanta orange!). At Tanout ou Filal pass we stopped the cars and walked smartly towards for the skyline, expecting to be rewarded with a glimpse of Ayyachi. Nothing of the sort: an all-encompassing cloud screen of haze and/or dust blotted out the hoped-for view. 

By 6 we had reached Aubergfe Ja’afar just outside Midelt. Over a tasty dinner of kus-kus and standard issue Gerrouane we made plans for the morrow: hire an off-road vehicle to visit the Ja’afar gorges and other Ayyachi foothill sights. 

TO watch in Ayyachi foothills (end-March 2010) 

Sunday, March 28. At last dawned the day on which we really earned our keep in terms of keeping tabs on polluting TO outfits; a day which was to give purpose and meaning to the entire Tour Operator watch exercise! The period couldn’t have been more propitiously chosen. The vacances de Pâques of my fellow-countrymen were still a week away, but with simana santa en Espana  a couple of days old, Iberian mountain-bike, trail-bike and 4-WD exponents were out in fully cry. Quite a few of them, in fact, had left their trailers together with various back-up vehicles outside Saïd’s auberge, for a few days spent burning up Atlas pistes.

The day got off to a quiet start. Shortly after 9 my friends, my wife and I piled into a spacious 4×4 driven by Salah (Saïd’s son), and followed the track past the Bou Admam Forestry Hut. After three quarters of an hour of jolting and bumping we emerged atop Tizi n-Tmerwit with a grandstand view of the whole Ayyachi range.

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Tizi n-Tmerwit with Ayyachi massif in background  09:45 March 28, 2010 (photo: M. Peyron)

What we saw proved a poor excuse for what had once been the finest stretch of scenery in the Atlas Mountains. Not one oak tree was left  up here where forty years ago grew a fine forest; down beyond the cirque the cedars too had taken an undeserved bashing; strangely though, evergreen oak formed a conspicuous matorral. Ther rot had started in 1969 when, acting on a recommendation put forward by French cedar specialist A. Pujos, the decision was taken to raze the Ja’afar oak forest. The oaks would grew afresh within ten years, so ran the rationale, the end-result hopefully being a re-invigorated tract of woodland. Except that it never had time to happen. In the interval, furious erosion on bare slopes, worsened by record summer thunderstorms, plus more indiscriminate hacking down of trees contributed to the present man-made desert. A sorry sight indeed…

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What it used to look like: Tizi n-Tmerwit with surviving evergreen oaks, December 1968 (photo M. Peyron)

While we were taking in the vast vistas of the haze-enshrouded, snow-covered main Ayyachi range, a couple of Spanish trail-bikers roared past, then plunged down the deeply-eroded track leading to the bottom of the cirque of Ja’afar. Salah suggested it was time we moved on  to take a look at the Ja’afar gorge, so back we went down the 30% stone-slide, before turning left off the track towards Tagouilelt. Minutes later we stopped on the edge of the gorge; onward progress down a steep, stony slope was out of the question. Josiane elected to look after our parked vehicle while the rest of us headed into the gorge on foot. Some eroded rocks of the Demoiselle coiffée-type on the left reminded me that with my companion Dourron and mule support, we had returned towards Bou Admam through this bit of country in late-May 1976 after a Ja’afar-Imtchimen traverse on skis. Nowadays, few mountain skiers frequent this part of the range… Which doesn’t apply to mountain-bikers, though, as we were reminded a few minutes later, when half a dozen or so Spanish cyclists in helmets, short-sleeved shirts and shorts came charging through!

 

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“Mountain Bike Alicante” tourists in Ja’afar gorges 10:30, March 28, 2010 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Thinking nothing of their presence we waved to them good-naturedly and headed on up the gorge. Half an hour later we emerged at the foot of cedar-covered slopes that climbed towards the main range of Ayyachi. As gorges go these were unremarkable (compared, say, to the Tadrout gorge above Assaka beyond Tounfit), but could no doubt next time be worked into a interesting circuit taking in Tizi n-Tmerwit and Tagouilelt. Returning to the vehicle we freed my wife, who had managed to lock herself inside, and made off northwards along the track in the direction of Ayt Oumghar to a picnic site some 10 minutes’ drive from there. Interestingly, we noticed that the sparse oak and juniper forest to the right had been fenced off, no doubt to keep out nomadic Ayt Merghad sheep-herders who, during the drought of the late 1990s, had inflicted considerable damage on trees around here.

Driving on, we reached a paved road just short of Ayt Oumghar. Here, we had a close-up view of Asif n-Ounzegmir, which was running high. Salah suggested we take a look at the Tamalout dam situated some 10 miles upstream, so we turned left and headed back in the general direction of the main range. Soon we finished the plateau section covered in esparto grassand were climbing back into the foothills. Next thing we knew we were back in familiar country, which I recognized as the Mitqan crossroads (just below the similarly named Forestry Hut), a point we had passed through several times in the early 1970s during ski expeditions to Ayyachi – except that in those days we had a tough piste to contend with, especially punishing for the saloon cars we then used! But what was this?! Seemed to be some activity going on… Parked right against the cedars lining the road were several off-road back-up vehicles (one of them marked « Mountain- Bike Alicante ») and some cyclists that they seemed to be supplying with provisions.

The road next took us over Tizi n-Ayt Ayyach and past the village clusters of Imtchimen till we reached the entry-gate to the Tamalout dam construction site. Unfortunately, the barrier was  closed and, as a solitary guard reminded us, it was Sunday and the place had shut down for the weekend. It was no go; we just had to turn back. First, however, we decided, to pay a visit to a village where Salah had relatives and this allowed us to take tea with a delightful family whom we hope to re-visit on some later occasion. Just as we were leaving the village (Ayt Bou Izgarn), we sighted once more the Spanish cavalcade we had twice seen earlier, the  mountiain-bikers out in front (we recognized the same as in the Ja’afar gorge) and the back-up vehicles bringing up the rear, one of them marked « Mountain-Bike Alicante »).

spanishrubbishtipmitqanecrossroads.jpg

Dog eating refuse left byMountain Bike Alicante” tourists, Mitqan cedar forest, 5pm, March 28, 2010 (photo: K. Mertz) 

Imagine our feelings of righteous indignation when, on passing back through the Mitqane crossroads, we discovered a small-scale rubbish-tip at the spot where we’d earlier seen the Spanish party. Hungry and thirsty bikers had not hesitated to delicately dump their discarded beer cans and sandwich wrappers, both along the roadside and even well into the cedars. Luckily, Salah had a bin-liner in his vehicle and all five of us got out and did a quick clean-up of the place.

This was going way beyond the limit! I had long heard stories about this kind of wanton pollution, even seen waste matter left at off-road bivvy sites such as Lake Tislit near Imilchil, but never anything quite so disgracefully provocative as this! One would expect mountain-bikers of all people to be a bit more respectful of the environment, especially in such a vulnerable, highly sensitive, already threatened eco-system as the Ayyachi montane cedar forest. Let alone showing a wee bit of courtesy towards Morocco, the host-country which they were visiting as pampered guests!

No, this was  merely an unpleasant reminder that so-called « eco-tourism » can easily cause damage to the area visited. It then qualifies as « ego-tourism »!

 

spanishpolluterscaughtredhandedcerveza.jpg

Proof of the cerveza is in the drinking, or Spanish polluters caught red-handed! Mitqan, March 28, 2010 (photo: K. Mertz) 

The accompanying illustrations tell their own story and require no further comment! This episode left us somewhat subdued on the homeward run to Midelt, as the distasteful evidence sank in; we had been witness to a gross act of environmental misdemeanour. Probably not the first, nor the last, as a short visit to the web soon confirmed. The offending Iberian TO apparently has been programming Ayyachi for several years now and  (this is the bad news!) plans more trips, usually around Easter. At least we now know what to expect, what to look out for in terms of environment-friendly behaviour on the part of some visitors from southern Spain. A sobering thought…

michael.peyron@voila.fr

Rabat, May 2010

PS – Although a certain Spanish TO clearly emerges as the villain of the piece,we are nonetheless confident that this outfit’s antics are far from representative of the behavioural standards obtaining in that country.

N.B. Unless otherwise stated all texts and illustrations copyright by Michael Peyron. Material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

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