Western High Atlas backpacking tour January 2009

Posté par Michael Peyron le 12 mai 2010

Western High Atlas backpacking tour January 2009

Mountain trip (Jan 23-27) 

This was a pleasant return trip to valleys of the Western High Atlas, refreshingly neglected by 95% of TO traffic, and long may it stay that way! 42 years after my early endeavours in the same area with Atlas pioneer Maurice Forseilles, I returned to the Seksawa with Grenoble-based Eric Hatt and Michel Mortgenthaler from Versailles, both mountaineering companions on many of my earlier trips. 

Day 1 (Jan 23) took us by bus from Marrakech to Imi n-Tanout in glorious weather, whence a local taxi drove us up along the swervery to Lalla Aziza. Humping heavy sacks we forded Asif Sembal, and commenced a gruelling climb through olive trees on the first stages of a path that would take us, so we fondly expected, to Tanesmekht by sundown. Luckily for us, however, our presence had not been undetected and after less than half an hour we had been caught up by two locals, one of whom made out he was the local “accompagnateur” and that the route chosen was a potentially dangerous one! Good thing he insisted, as the path disappeared after a while, leaving us to the tender mercies of our self-imposed guide. Slopes were actually quite steep, with path barely visible at times, past sheep hut complex, then over a rib with challenging views up-valley, first to Ras Moulay Ali’s immaculate pyramid; later to Tindri peak handsome in snowy apparel. Then a lengthy descent (some interesting moments on switchback path with heavy packs!) towards valley-bottom already in the shade and improbably cactus girt Tamzgourt village.           


Jbel Ikkis at sunset (photo: M. Morgenthaler)                                       

Tamzgout proved to be practically empty of men. Shown into a house we were made welcome by a grand-mother surrounded by a bevy of daughters, daughters-in-law and neighbouring housewives, providing heaven-sent opportunity for conversation in Tashelhit. We generously paid our guides who left almost at once on the long haul back to Lalla Aziza. After an excellent dinner and more conversation with a couple of sons who had arrived, we spent a restful night. 

Day 2 (Jan 24). Early start involved clambering down steep path through narrow vegetable patches to torrent, then crossing empty ssuq l-tlet, before following on up dirt road used by lorries. Long, hard grind that day, our packs beginning to take their toll as we twisted and turned up-valley. At Tansmekht considerable time lost; searching for trail. Finally, there was nothing for it but ford the asif and then climb right-bank path.                           


Fording Asif Sembal at Tansmekht (photo: M. Peyron) 

Sun beat down relentlessly while Moulay Ali and other snow-capped peaks shimmering in the heat haze to the south never got any closer. Thus past couple of other villages, meeting herds of sheep chased from heights by snowfall (having lost a few heads of sheep in the process) and making the most of sunny spell to make for relative safety of down-valley pastures. 

After lunch we approached entry to Ikkis vale, but as track wound on endlessly and shadows lengthened, it dawned on me that hoped-for day’s goal of Agersaffen was no longer really feasible. Switch of plan being called for, I proposed making up Ikkis side-valley on left to overnight in village of same name, then cross over col at valley-head into upper Asif el Mahl next day. 


Healthy afternoon plod aiming for foot of  Jbel Ikkis (photo: M. Peyron)     

To celebrate this decision we took the most energetic of all resolutions: having a well-deserved snooze in the afternoon sun, this proving the most popular decision since we’d hit trail that morning. Over an hour later we resumed stroll through cactus and stony fields till Ikkis village was reached, some time before shadows receded beyond southern ridge. We were almost immediately welcomed into spacious abode of Ba Hassine and his wife, a friendly couple who plied us with tea and biscuits. Contrary to what often happens lady of the house, called Aggou, remained in attendance with husband and eldest son making pleasant conversation till dinner-time. A peaceful night followed. 

Day 3 (Jan 25) left us in little doubt that we were in for a change of weather. Ominous grey clouds were marching in from west through a red sky as we said goodbye to our hosts at 08:20 and trudged off up corkscrew piste towards Tizi n-Mgayed. Compared to the previous day this was a blessing in disguise as it made uphill progress that little bit much cooler, what with our heavy packs.


Weather-front coming in over Seksawa hills (photo: M. Peyron) 

On and on we plodded as it became painfully obvious it would be a race to reach the pass before the weather closed in. The track narrowed till two or three yards wide, soon being covered in old snow, as we teetered on the edge of steep drops. Never got too hairy, though, enabling us to make good time till we found ourselves cloaked in wind, mist and driving rain that eventually developed into sleet. Last stretch below the pass, effected in near white-out conditions, did get a wee bit tiresome towards the end. At 11:20 we breasted Tizi n-Mgayed. 

Luckily, snow-covered track still visible, enabling us to drop rapidly down north-eastern side of col. Windy, sleety conditions meant that although we did get a little wet, we were at no time fully soaked; gradually track became snow-free and some shepherds braving the snows confirmed that we were on course for Isoukaln village.


Below Tizi n-Mgayed: on course for Isoukaln village (photo: M. Peyron) 

This proved to be a loose collection of about a score of dark-brown buildings clinging to a fairly steep slope, as we discovered at 13:00. Making for the nearest house and hoping for the best, our optimism was rewarded as the master of the house emerged and invited us indoors. This man was hospitality personified. Apart from covering us with rugs so we wouldn’t catch cold, he offered delicious home-bred honey direct from the honey-comb. Invited to escort us part of the way to the next village, our host pulled on a pair of gum-boots and, at 14:15, led us off downhill, a few inquisitive women looking out of their windows at these unexpected strangers who had come with the snow. 

That was an exhilarating afternoon walk along river-bank pebbles and through snow that lay several inches thick in the fields, while the heights behind us remained obstinately blanketed out by snow-clouds. As our tributary of Asif el Mahl escaped due north through gorges, our guide led us uphill to the right, over a steep ridge into another valley. Far down the hillside to our right we could barely make out the buildings of Azrou Mellen, that day’s destination. Eric continued on down with open umbrella, for all the world like a latter-day Hammou ou-Namir ready for take-off, which remark brought a guffaw of laughter from our guide. Shortly afterwards he said goodbye and turned for home, now that we were safely on course for Azou Mellen. We were shown into a spacious abode where we were able to get a change of clothes. 

Day 4 (Jan 26) dawned clear at Ighil Mellen and we were happy to share our breakfast with no fewer than six house buntings. By 9 am we had said goodbye to our kind host and, turning our backs on cloud-girt peaks beneath blue skies at valley-head, set off resolutely downstream. A certain Brahim Ougraich escorted us, our rucksacks now stowed away on the back of his donkey. What now ensued was a 6-hour descent of the valley of Asif el Mahl all the way to Imi n-Ddunit (Tawnghast), necessitating some 40 river crossings in all. Early on with weak current we kept our boots dry thanks to gaiters, but as main stream swallowed tributaries the torrent became swollen so that by Imi n-Ddunit we had our boots full! In fact we can fairly say that that was the day we won our river-hopping colours. 


Winning our river-hopping colours, Asif el Mahl (photos: E. Hatt & M. Morgenthaler)


We followed a lovely succession of villages, walnut trees and uninhabited stretches in the shade of cold gorges where snow still lay in places. After lunch, as we crossed Tasemlilt an amusing, talkative woman asked me: “Why visit this valley in winter? There’s only cold and snow. Come back in summer when everything is nice with almonds, walnuts and cactus pears (iknariyin) available!” 

It was a relief to reach Tawnghast; spoke to quite a few local women in Tashelhit and found people friendly and laid-back, pointing to obviously low frequentation level by tourists. School looked in pretty poor shape with broken windows, but everybody seemed to be kitted out with a cell phone (Nokia, Philips, Toshiba, etc.) and quite knowledgeable about how to get a signal (rizzu). Finally ended up in the spacious abode of a local notable, not far from the school. There was a short, somewhat ineffectual session attempting to dry socks, before sunlight disappeared behind the hills. 

Day 5 (Jan. 27) There was supposed to be a van going by some time between 7.30 and 8 am. However, after breakfast, we waited in the freezing cold from 7.55 to 8.35 till it finally a Mercedes van creaked into sight and in we got. Our original plan was to stop at Adassil, hire a mule and head up into the Erdouz massif. After an hour or so of a bumpy ride Adassil in the shade, with all the store-fronts locked looked unpromising to say the least. We were saved from a difficult decision because, as we emerged from the hills, Michel’s cell phone came back on rizzu and tinkled. It was his wife to announce that his mother-in-law had died and the funeral was for the following Monday, necessitating his swift return. We all immediately elected to cancel the Erdouz leg of our trip and carry on down to Marrakech.  


Near future Taskourt dam site; bringing more water to drought-hit Marrakech 

By 11:50 we were at the foothill market town of Had Mjatt, at point where adrar meets azaghar, full of Tashelhit-speakers. On the way we had time to admire outliers of the Erdouz massif, also to appreciate the roadworthiness of the Mercedes van which proved excellent at ploughing through muddy ruts and negotiating rocks in yard-deep river-beds whenever this proved necessary. Passed the Taskourt dam site, a project calculated to provide more water for Marrakech and its burgeoning urban development. Before catching onward-connecting taxi to Marrakech had a quiet snack of grilled chicken. 


       Grilled chicken in Had Mjatt (photo: M. Peyron)


Changes observed Iseksawn/Igedmiwn 

Opening up remote valleys involves providing electricity; hence winding dirt roads at medium altitude to facilitate setting up power lines. Because of this senseless meandering easy to waste over an hour out of a possible 8-hour daily stage, thus imposing unacceptable penalties on hikers. Former intermediate mule-path/foot-paths less frequently used and now falling into decay (erosion, fouled up with stones, landslides, etc.). Resorting to valley-bottom implies punishing river-crossings. If no mule is available, even footslogger wearing Gore-Tex boots and gaiters will be unable to remain dry-footed after fording stream for umpteenth time. Despite superb hospitality, Berber houses have no drying facilities, so near impossible to don dry socks and boots following morning. In the event, we totalled two days’ walking in wet boots, so that on evening of third day (Jan 27) we actually drove into Marrakech in a taxi with socks that had turned from dry to wet since the morning through sitting all day long in damp boots! 

Tashelhit has become increasingly larded with Arabisms (εam for aseggwas; lyum for ass-a, etc.), especially among younger people, though elders still retain finer points of vocabulary. Due to influence of TV, villagers are exposed to UAR and Saudi channels with trash series in American English sub-titled in either Gulf or Intermediary Arabic, and barely comprehensible newscasts that deal ad nauseam with Israeli-Palestinian, Kashmiri or Agfghani conflicts in ways that portray we Westerners as indifferent and undeserving kafir-s, or “miscreants”! Thus, for better or for worse, is creeping Arabisation on the move, inexorably snuffing out Amazigh culture. Happily, local ashelhiy star named “Bachkchich” provides much-need comic relief! 


The TV set mercifully switched off, we relish dinner at Azrou Mellen (photo: E. Hatt)

Even locals acknowledge that socially-speaking TV has its down side since it kills conversation when several persons foregather. Incessant fiddling with ubiquitous cell phones, and obsession with obtaining signal, has become another unavoidable fact of life. On arriving in some village locals are prone to ask you: “Did you get a signal as you came over the col?” (is tumzd rizzu adday teγlid tizi?), rather than say “Hello!”, or inquire after you health, or whether you have travelled safely? 

Traditional implements are on the way out: butter churns, weaving looms, pilon/broyeur. Hence warm woollen homespun cloaks or blankets have been replaced by light, manmade fibre cloaks, nylon dressing-gowns, etc. Villagers claim they no longer have wool as in the past. Some still retain medium-sized herds of sheep and/or goats (50 – 100 head) but subjected to poor local grazing on nearby slopes, chiefly in winter (snow); hence obliged to migrate towards Marrakech azaγar. Mosques in most villages, though ttalb of Azrou Mellen actually lives in Tansmekht; mudden stands in for him when he’s away. 

Marrakech end-January 2009 

Basically, most street crossings have become pedestrian unfriendly. Need to keep constantly looking over one’s shoulder to avoid getting run over or knocked down by motor vehicles, also by mopeds and scooters whose riders appear oblivious to all safety considerations. However, quality of traffic lights and zebra crossings has improved. Hassle factor slightly on the downtrend, with fewer cases than usual of youths accosting you with the familiar “Hullo! You my friend!” 

Haphazard urban development has led to blossoming of housing estates for both rich and poor. Metallic palm-trees/phone relays actually not the eyesore they might easily have been; in fact they blend in quite harmoniously with the landscape. As for the roof-top bar of Hôtel Marrakech we definitely recommend it for a sun-downer! 

Marrakech railway station (mhaddat musafirin) has undergone a totally satisfactory face-lift,featuring spacious hall and shopping arcade. Further work on-going in area fenced off with hoarding containing environment-friendly messages couched in appropriately slick French jargon. 

Hôtel Ali: this glorified funduq appears to be becoming a victim of its own success. Place has become a going concern with both over-nighting TO groups and individual travellers from Tokyo, London,Paris and sundry other places. While prices remain acceptable (DH 400,- for a 3-bed room), breakfast arrangements get under way with some delay, while service definitely lacks the laid-back, friendly atmosphere of the early 1990s. At breakfast (07:00 > 08:00 Jan 28, 2009) there was no more orange juice, nor were any coffee, mugs or glasses available. Excuse was that early-rising French group had drunk it all (my foot!). At dinner help-yourself arrangements proved OK, though plate of couscous and vegetable was sometimes cold by the time one got back to one’s table. Diners who light up at neighbouring tables sometimes have to be asked to refrain from smoking. In this respect, Morocco remains something of a smokers’ paradise, especially for French who feel victimised at home – poor souls! – now they can no longer smoke in public places.


           Author chilling out in Marrakech (photo: E. Hatt)

If you check in at 2:30pm, and want to take a shower, don’t expect a bath-towel before 4pm, even if you remind the reception desk a couple of times! Room 108 of this establishment featured interesting toilet flush system that caused water to seep through bathroom walls onto tiles near door and even out into corridor! When informed, charmingly inefficient reception clerk appeared quite unruffled by complaint and certainly took no action. However, hot water was available, and that’s a boon for any hotel anywhere in Morocco; not to mention laundering facilities. Also good marks for door-keeper and baggage attendant, Si Brik, an old-timer in flowing robe and slippers who grants incoming travellers a friendly greeting.

Michael Peyron

Grenoble, November 2009


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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