Tour Operator Watch n° 12: Midelt hotels and commercial caravans in Morocco’s Eastern High Atlas (+ miscellaneous items)
Posté par Michael Peyron le 28 janvier 2011
As readers may well recall, three or so years back our “Tour Operator watch” series carried a feature on out-of-the-way reaches of the Atlas, such as Bou Iblan and ‘Ayyachi, in which we highlighted the small number of TOs that programmed these destinations. In the interval the message appears to have been received loud and clear, as a brace of big-name overseas TOs eager to make a killing, together with several local agencies and guides, now target these areas. Also, in n° 6 of the same series we published a short, critical piece on hotels in Midelt, an ideal base camp for forays into these massifs and the major jumping-off point for parties tackling the GTAM.
Our purpose in this article is, first, to take up the cudgels on behalf of Midelt hotels, which have recently been coming in for more than their fair share of flak; second, to focuss on TO websites with a view to exposing and correcting some of the inevitable inaccuracies that creep into their on-line discourse. TOs should not take this amiss as they definitely stand to gain by projecting an image of efficiency and accuracy, rather than the sloppy, “anything goes” impression their brochure talk may at times convey. In fact, one wonders how certain agents can keep a straight face the way they continue publishing the same titbits of pure twaddle, year in, year out! As usual, of course,we also hope to convince individual backpackers to dispense with the service of TOs, glean as much information as possible from books and web, and ultimately do their own thing, possibly recruiting their own guides and/or porters on the spot.
Are Midelt hotels really that bad?
If anything, reports on Midelt hotels have worsened over the past three years. Of the three best-known contenders, Kasbah Asmaa, Auberge Itto Ja’afar and Hôtel El Ayachi are classified in that order, from least bad downwards, according to traveller review ratings published by www.tripadvisor.com. Even the brand-new (fall 2010) Hôtel Taddart, just outside town on the west side, registered one shockingly poor report; three, however, were more positive. Meanwhile, a less well-known facility, Villa Riad, had quietly netted only one review, yet a positive one at that.
Although not actually sited near Midelt, but right out in the countryside closer to Zeida, some 20 km up the road towards Azrou, is the road-side Auberge Timnay. This well-appointed establishment goes in for the full range of travellers, whether down- or up-market and is a very pleasant place to stay at. Run by Youssef Ait Lemkadem, it organizes hybrid tours (4×4 + walks) in the Eastern High Atlas region, prioritizing an environment-friendly approach to Berber culture.
But it’s among the above-listed “big three” that ratings have been consistently bad to average. El Ayachi, which comes across as Heath-Robinson, old-fashioned and dirty, is placed firmly at the bottom of the list; not one reviewer would recommend the place to a friend! And yet travelwizard.com, a California-based consultant who goes in for Luxury Travel Packages, would appear to differ. In its “Jaffar-Ayachi vacation” description this firm publishes a statement that is less than accurate: “The efficiently run Hôtel Ayachi is an ideal base for excursions to the Cirque of Jaffar and Jebel Ayachi”.
How to hoodwink customers; picture of some other hotel purporting to illustrate Hôtel El Ayachi (photo: firstname.lastname@example.org)
As for Belga Voyages (from Belgium) they not only publish a totally false picture of the El Ayachi hôtel (the one depicted above is of another establishment), but wax unnecessarily eloquent: “Une adresse de référence… Souci du détail jusqu’aux poignées de portes (…) ambiance cosy (…) une halte poétique pour nomade de luxe ” !! Another consultant (annuaires.phpbb-seo.com) publishes an equally favourable report. Surely, the truth must lie somewhere between these misleading items of info and the findings of www.tripadvisor.com?
What Hôtel El Ayachi actually looks like (from the hôtel brochure, circa 2004)
In actual fact it does and this writer, who has known the place for upwards of forty years, will now go out and bat for the El Ayachi side. Admittedly, the hotel is antiquated, slightly run-down and guilty at times of slipshod management. Yet, the bed-rooms are comfortable. There may not always be hot water, but put in an inquiry at the desk and you’ll probably get results. The last time we were there (night of Jan 21-22, 2011) there was scalding water on tap! If the room’s freezing, get the staff to set up an electric heater. Indeed, the people at the hotel (especially Ali, the manager) are generally friendly, hospitable, and anxious to please, while the quality of the food is above-average by local standards. It probably has something to do with the fact that the place has specialized for the last twenty years in luncheons for tourist coaches on the Fez-Erfoud run, now served in a comfortable, refurbished veranda restaurant. Furthermore, the surrounding gardens are as likely a spot to enjoy a sun-downer as you could wish for; the breakfasts, which may be served on the terrace depending on season, are generally wholesome and adequate – you can get a fry-up if you ask for one.
The other two of the better-known establishments, the Kasba Asmaa and Auberge Itto Ja’afar, share almost equal ratings. The former, sited outside town on the road to Rich, is readily accessible, hospitable and generally adequate for overnighters. Lots of groups stop there. Our own experience is that the beds are comfortable, the food palatable; as for the urinals in the ground-floor toilets, complete with a Madame Pipi, they are kept spotlessly clean. However, the place tends to be criticized for its tired-looking appearance, dusty carpets, poor plumbing and dubious-looking swimming-pool. As one French reviewer wisecracks, referring to Kasbah Asmaa: “Moyen… comme l’Atlas”!
The Auberge Itto Ja’afar, outside Midelt, May 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)
The Auberge Itto Ja’afar, way out of town at the foot of Jbel ‘Ayyachi, has been taken to task as a “random fake castle experience”, a definition that actually comes dangerously close to describing other establishments in town. Some travellers have also criticicized its poor cuisine. They have a point, mind you, as meals can be iffy. For example: one evening in March 2010 we sampled an absolutely scrumptious cous-cous; the next we attempted to dine off leathery brochettes and half cooked vegetables. Which is perhaps why one report says: “Luckily we stayed just one night only”. By and large, however, our experience at this inn over the past 10 years (practically since it was founded) is that board and lodging are reasonably good. In fact, a more sensible reviewer proved quite ecstatic: “I loved the place for its ramshackle authenticness. (…) Now you’re in Africa!”
Which perhaps sums up the way one should approach these Midelt hotels. It’s all about being a nomade, but not necessarily a de luxe one! “You’re in Africa!” means that certain uptight tourists should let themselves go; give up their spoiled-brat, consumer-inspired expectations of spit-and-polish-cum-air-conditioning, and face up with humour, tempered by fortitude, to novel situations. Then, when confronted with the miscellaneous yet on the whole adequate accommodation that Midelt can provide, they’ll come to see that they’re not so badly done by, after all.
Commercial caravans in the Eastern High Atlas
Evening view of Jbel Ma’asker from 3 km SW of Tounfit, as the cows come home, Oct. 1973 (photo: M. Peyron)
While tourists coming in through Fez have a distinct advantage as regards the drive to base camp (only 4 hours by road), the length of the Saïs airport runway has so far precluded landings by wide-bodied jets, thus limiting passenger intake. And keeping activity definitely small-time. Conversely, the one snag that has badgered TOs attempting to set up Eastern High Atlas tours from Marrakech has for long been the sheer distance involved in getting there (7-8 hours by road). Not to mention the long haul back on the last day from somewhere high up in the Ta’ara’art valley. Especially when most prospective trekkers are investing in a one-week package. As a result, air traffic through Fez remains minimal, with only one locally operating Moroccan guide, the lion’s share of the market going to Marrakech-based agencies.
What destinations are on offer? The favourite, and by far, is Jbel ‘Ayyachi (also Djebel Ayachi, à la française), an iconic summit programmed in various combinations from all points of the compass, with the basic Tounfit-Imilchil trek (or vice-versa) coming a close second.
H. Daoudi & C. Mackenzie near top of Tizi n-Ayt Brahim, Tounfit-Imilchil traverse, May 1998 (photo: M. Peyron)
Of the local agencies, Périple au Sud, run by an obviously knowledgable, unnamed Frenchwoman, has programmed a kind of hybrid tour. Instead of a straight, 8-hour road-bash Marrakech to Imilchil, the party sensibly makes a southern detour, camping en route, via the Dades and Todgha gorges to reach lake Tislit. From there begins a 5-day trek to Ja’afar, visiting Tirghist and Agoudim on the way, ‘Ayyachi being scaled by its southern flank from the Ta’ara’art valley. In all, a potentially attractive tour that takes up some 11 days.
Other local agencies will take you up ‘Ayyachi from Tounfit via Ta’ara’art, such as Trekking Holidays in Morocco, within an 8-day tour (choice of airports between Fez and Marrakech); some programme themselves out of Marrakech (Nature Trekking Morocco, Toubkal Rando, etc.), and another outfit from Agadir (Maroc Horizon d’Aventure), though the last-named actually offer trips through Marrakech. From Fez, Marrakech or Casablanca, Moulay ‘Abdellah Lharizi of Moyen Atlas Trekking offers ‘Ayyachi summit on a 5-day trek taking in Tounfit, the Ta’ara’art valley and Ja’afar. Abdeltizi, a Fez-based operator, organises a 10-day Imlilchil-Ja’afar trek culminating with an ascent of ‘Ayyachi from Ayt Ouchen. Azul Travel prove highly innovative, offering a 15-day tour out of Casblanca taking in Ja’afar-Ayt Ouchen-Ta’ara’art-Tizi n-Mawtfoud-Zaoui Sidi Hamza. They do a postscriptum including the much-frequented Merzouga sand-dunes. The most comprehensive coverage of ‘Ayyachi, however, including a Midelt-Zaouiat Sidi Hamza traverse, is provided by a Marrakech-based operation calling itself Marocco Tours and Excursion, on www.wanderingadventurestrip.moonfruit.com. If their English is somewhat slapdash their approach is commendably sensitive and insightful.
View from E end of Ma’asker: Amkaidou (L) & ‘Ayyachi main ridge in distance (centre R), Tagount (R) , separating Asif Toura n-Ayt Moussa from Toura n-Ayt Bou ‘Arbi, Nov. 1967 (photo: M. Peyron)
Variations on the Tounfit-Imilchil route are popular. Aziz Rando and Abdeltizi offer the basic 8-day tour. Local guide Mohammed Daghoghi, now based in southern Spain and whom we strongly recommend, will accompany you on a 7-day trek from Imilchil to Midelt via Tounfit between January and June. As for Caravane du Sud, Zagora, they plan a 29-day traverse from Jbel Ma’asker to Tizi n-Tichka which follows the Tounfit-Imilchil route for 3 days.
Highland Berber fortress near Imlilchil, March 2002 (photo: M. Peyron)
International TOs in the area are far from numerous. In fact, there are just four of them: Celtic Trekking Ltd, a French, Nepal-based trekking agency that has recently branched out to Morocco, with a certain Aziz, apparently operating out of Marrakech, as their representative; also Allibert from Savoy, and their twin, Azur Ever. These two are pioneering a 20-day Ja’afar-Megdaz traverse, claiming that “le Haut Atlas oriental (a été) absent jusqu’ici des brochures d’agence” (at best a half-truth), and highlighting “Ayachi, mythique point culminant du Haut Atlas oriental, sommet peu gravi…”. Atlas Sahara Tours are a Spanish outfit operating in Morocco who do an 8-day trek taking in Ayachi.
Celtic Trekking, one of the many agencies who need to do some work on their website, have programmed a choice between an 8-day and a 15-day tour from Imilchil, exploring what they strangely define as “le Moyen-Atlas méconnu… le massif Maaskar où s’élève le sommet Ayachi à 3747m”. Toguna voyages, for their part, contradict this by claiming that ‘Ayyachi is a well-known summit. This kind of haziness is typical anyway of Marrakech-based operators for whom any mountain east of Bougemmaz belongs to the Middle Atlas!
Jbel Ma’asker: a much abused summit
Jbel Ma’asker seen from due N, Anfif gully on R, March 1986 (photo:M. Peyron)
In fact, while trawling the net it came home strongly to this writer that some peoples’ ignorance of Atlas Mountain terminology is abysmal. Examples abound, too numerous to be itemized, where visitors confuse the High and Middle Atlas. But dwelling on these would border on the absurd as we tend to favour a positive approach. Some errors, however, deserve to be highlighted, such as the puzzling confusion between ‘Ayyachi and Ma’asker. This emerges from the following description: “Around the Maaskar culminating at 3747m in a splendid world of virgin and undisclosed country, you discover scenic lakes, cedars and oak forests…” (cf. Moroccan Skies, another Marrakech-based TO). Actually, Ma’asker (and we won’t quarrel over the spelling!) is only 3257m high. This sort of mix-up is unfortunate as it will end up confusing not only readers but backpackers who actually visit the area.
Pics of Ma’asker purporting to illustrate ‘Ayyachi (photos: F. Boulbès, top, & Trekking Atlas Berber Morocco, bottom).
Even stranger, French travel consultant François Boulbès and local guide Zaïd Oukda (cf. above) both publish photos, purportedly of ‘Ayyachi, but actually showing Ma’asker! Wow! Somebody at the office must have messed things up. They ought to get their act together, though, as no fewer than 16 outfits actually offer the summit and we believe that their customers are entitled to a genuine view of this prestigious mountain (cf. full article on ‘Ayyachi elsewhere on this website).
Another offender : our friend www.its4youtours who use the above perfectly good picture of Ma’asker to illustrate the description of a tour to the Rif mountains, of all places! Well, it’s over 300 kilometres from Ma’asker to the Rif as the crow flies, and anyway the two have precious little in commmon. By looking carefully you can even make out the town of Tounfit at the bottom left-hand corner of the photograph. (Rather like using a shot of Lochnagar to illustrate Snowdon.) If they get the captions to their website pics wrong, how are these people going to perform on the actual trip? Come on, gentlemen, try and get your act together!
Cleaning up brochure talk
It is obvious from the above that many of the local agencies have work to do on their websites. Those that take the trouble to word their descriptions in English should avoid dropping too many bricks regarding idiom and lexicon, and this applies especially to our previously mentioned friends on www.wanderingadventurestrip.moonfruit.com. There are also too many fanciful spellings of place-names, faulty captions to photographs, misleading pieces of information and other minor inaccuracies that cannot avoid casting doubt as to the serious nature of an agency’s activities in the field. A typical example: a consultant called Travel in Morocco has a webpage devoted to the Eastern High Atlas with a description that goes like this: “ Situé à l’Est, c’est le massif marno-calcaire de Midelt à Imilchil, aux vastes plateaux d’altitude que borde en versant nord la cédraie primitive. Il culmine à l’Ayachi à 3747m.” Fair enough. Three illustrations are then provided; one of them shows the village of Oul-Ghazi situated several miles beyond Imilchil, well to the west, therefore out of the area referred to. Agreed, our remarks may be dismissed as niggling, and, let’s face it, these mistakes are probably not committed by the actual guides who go out into the field, but by ill-informed pen-pushers at home base. All the same, none of this carelessness looks good on paper and it lays the agency’s professionalism open to question.
Regarding inaccuracies, these Marrakchi blokes operating out-of-area far to the east appear to have a spot of trouble registering local place-names. Here are a few examples:- Imtchim for Imtchimen; Aboulkhir for Tiboulkheyrin (‘wild boars’, sing./plur. confusion); Oued n-ouaqa, for Aqqa n-Ouyyad, ˂ aqqa n-uyyiḍ (‘river of the night’); Imi n-Tkhant for Imi n-Tkhamt (place-name at foot of ‘Ayyachi N slope meaning ‘tent entrance’); Tizi n-Bou Lassen for Tizi n-Bou Igoulassen (‘pass of the ripe barley’), a col between Tounfit and Assaka; Akhbalou n-Assaka, for Aghbalou n-Oussaka, (a mistake that argues ignorance of Berber grammar); Jbel Bou Eljallaber (sounding like a famous French cyclist and sports commentator, Jalabert!), for Jbel Bou Ijellaben.
E face of Jbel Bou Ijellaben overlooks Tatrout gorge near Assaka village, July 1968 (photo: M. Peyron)
There are also some faulty statements:- Talking of climbers attempting ‘Ayyachi from Ja’afar one operator (Travelwizard) claims : “Early risers in good physical shape can climb to the top of the ridgeback (3737m/11,958ft) in about a two days’ hike”. Actually it takes about 5hr to reach the top; another 3-4hr to climb back down again. So, plan ahead for one day on the mountain, not two!
The spring of Inzar n-Oufounass is not on “Oued Ait Bou Arbi”, but several miles away to the West on Asif Toura n-Ayt Moussa! (Toguna Voyages). Now consider the inaccurate description of a river-side picnic: “Déjeuner au bord de l’oued Mellouya qui prend sa source dans le Haut Atlas central à Zaouit Ahansal” (Aziz Rando & Tichka Trek). Actually not « Mellouya » but Asif Toura n-Ayt Moussa, a headwater tributary of Ansegmir, which eventually flows into the Melwiya ; furthermore, the Melwiya springs are situated between Tounfit and Aghbala in the Eastern High Atlas, whereas Zaouit Ahansal lies some 100 kilometres to the SW. Talk about shaky geography!
Because of indifferent accommodation, Midelt has unfortunately got itself a bad name over the years. Hardly anybody stays a second night there, anyway, because of its reputation as a town where there’s nothing to do. As a result it tends to be used as a whistle-stop for tourist coaches, or by over-nighters with off-road vehicles fresh from the pistes of the Deep South or Grand Atlas. Our answer to that is that Midelt’s pronounced frontier town atmosphere, together with the terrific sourrounding scenery of high steppe and snow-capped mountains more than make up for this. Also, plenty can be found on the spot, in terms of cool mountain air, artisans and mineral vendors, tasty apples to sample, or excursions in the vicinity, to keep the visitor happy. And as for the picturesque hotels, take them in your stride; make polite requests if you need service and try to retain fond memories of interesting, entertaining experiences to look back on later. Back from the trip, regale your guests at the inevitable after-dinner slideshow, with a « When I was in Midelt… », for curtain-raiser!
The Eastern High Atlas with ‘Ayyachi and the Imilchil Lakes as chief attractions has aroused interest among TOs over recent years. The Marrakech-based agencies, however, with their sketchy area knowledge, approximate brochure descriptions and somewhat supercilious attitude to the region, which they dismiss as the « Middle Atlas », do not deserve their present strangle-hold on the local market. Bearing in mind the tiresome 8-hour drive getting there if they choose Marrakech, visitors stand to gain by arriving through Fez and making arrangements with local guides and/or muleteers to take them up ‘Ayyachi, or through the cedar country between Tounfit and the Lakes Plateau. That, in fact, should become the rule of thumb, when approaching any of these out-of-the-way areas: always rely on the local lads to see you safely up the mountain and down the other side!
Front cover of Des Clark’s guidebook (photo: nomadic.morocco)
1) The above guidebook to the High Atlas by Des Clark, who has been living in Morocco for several years, is apparently now available, although actual availability status is not quite clear. The book deals with the winter ascents of Atlas summits (on foot or with snow-shoes) and as such will be a welcome source of information for a sizeable chunk of the mountaineering fraternity. Indeed, more and more people are attracted to the High Atlas in winter, when snow conditions pose an additional challenge, while weatherwise such trips usually prove far more rewarding than in summer in terms of clear skies and ideal light for photography.
2) This eco-lodge run by Houssa Yakobi and his wife Michèle, situated among olive groves just outside Zawit ech-Cheikh, is ideally situated for motorists converging from Casablanca and/or Marrakech, who can put up here for the night en route for the Eastern High Atlas. Its quiet foothill location, friendly atmosphere and wholesome cuisine (mostly organic food) are highly recommended. Ourthane is an ideal base for bird-watching; also for excursions to the forested hill of Boumrar, to the pleasingly green, fertile expanses of Tit n-Zegza, or investigating interesting historical vestiges of the once powerful Ayt Yummur tribe in Aqqa n-Ibouhha. We warmly recommend this gîte.
3) Henri Terrasse’s classic late-1930s book on Berber kasbahs of the Atlas and Deep South has recently (September 2010) been re-published by the Rabat-based Centre Jacques Berque and the French publishers Actes Sud. Architect and anthropologist Salima Naji, herself a Moroccan specialist of Berber vernacular architecture, has penned a scholarly and informative preface placing Terrasse’s work in its historical context. The result is a pleasing, 190-page volume profusely illustrated with fine sepia prints from the author’s personal collection, not to mention various other contributors, including line drawings by Théophile Jean-Delaye. A book to scan by the fireplace; a must for any « old Morocco hand »!