Tour Operator Watch n° 14: May-June 2011

Posté par Michael Peyron le 19 juillet 2011

Tour Operator Watch n° 14: May 2011 

After a brief stint around Midelt and Khenifra in mid-April, not to mention various walks through the Middle Atlas (cf. Tour Operator watch n° 13), the spring of 2011 afforded further opportunities to grasp various facets of the on-going tourism scene in Morocco. While a dire drop in actual number of tourists following the Marrakesh bombing had been feared, things didn’t turn out quite as bad as expected. All the same, we felt we had to try and beat the bombers by carrying on undaunted with Atlas mountain-walking. 

So we went out and did just that.

Midelt-Imilchil-Bilouidane, Eastern & Central High Atlas May 13-16 

Our outward bound party of four people in two cars made a first stop in Azrou. No tourists in sight. At the terrace to the Hôtel des Cèdres, however, we met an elderly Frenchman, claiming to have married a Moroccan woman who told us he had opened a gîte under the sign of Chez Ali Baba, at Souk el Had, half way between Azrou and Khenifra.


    Address of guest-house in Souk el Had (between Azrou and Mrirt) run by retired Frenchman.

Near Timhadit we met a couple of 4×4 heading north. Later, a handful of foreign bikers were spotted, half a dozen in all, though there were none at Auberge Ja’afar. According to proprietor, however, plenty of Americans and New-Zealanders around the previous night; he even claimed the inn was full. 

We passed through sun-baked Rich shortly before lunch-time as temperatures soared above 30°. Found the place undergoing full-scale transformation of its downtown; pushed on as rapidly as possible to reasonably shaded riverside picnic site near Ammouguer. Onward progress revealed frequent places where gravel and small rocks deposited on tarmac: conditions which are meat and drink to the trucks, mini-vans and 4×4 that habitually frequent this run. Come August, however, with the Imilchil Moussem in the offing, the local Travaux Publics will have to catch up on their road maintenance to facilitate access by  run-of-the-mill visitors in saloon cars.


  K. Mertz, with wife Dagmar, back on scene of long-past photographic exploits, Ayt ‘Ammer, May 14, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Accompanying us was veteran photographer Klaus Mertz indulging in a nostalgic return visit to Imilchil Moussem site at Ayt ‘Ammer for the first time in over 40 years! Back in 1967, his superb black and white studies of Ayt Hadiddou brides-to-be, shot with a Pentacon 6×6 camera, had adorned the Royal Air Maroc calendar. Today’s visit proved something of a come-down beneath lowering grey skies, barely lighting up the deserted spot, though enough to show that cupola and doors to shrine of Sidi Hmad Lmeghni had been re-painted blue-green (Could this be Darqawi influence?).


   Repainted shrine of Sidi Hmad Oulmeghni, Ayt Aâmar, May 14, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

A few more European-registered 4×4 vehicles (one French, two Brits, two Dutch) seen between Rich and Imilchil. Just beyond latter town a brace of camping-cars belonging to senior citizens had found a berth at Tizlit auberge. 

After a short walk around Imilchil, we spent the night at Bassou’s immaculate little inn.  Only one other guests were a French couple. No backpackers around. Room satisfactory with shower and comfy bed looking out onto fields back of hotel. However, wise to avoid room near front of building because of early morning shindig from cement-mixer and trucks. Dinner and breakfast up to par; all in all a bargain at DH 170,- per head for half-pension.


   Bassou’s lodge on the edge of Imilchil, May 15, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

Also checked out a likely-looking, budget-priced stopping-place just across the way: hotel de l’Avenir. On leaving Imilchil en route for lake Tizlit our attention was attracted by a panel advertising local tour leaders’ association (APAME), surprisingly adorned with now rarely seen GTAM mountain/palm-tree logo.


  Publicity for local tour leaders, Imilchil, May 15, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

 Got in a wee bit of walking around Tizlit. Perfect weather. The lake was a joy to see, water being at a much higher level than in recent years; cedar plantations doing surprisingly well along SW shore; coots, ducks and grebes out in force.


    Lake Tizlit showing high water-level and cedar saplings in foreground, May 15, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

 In this connection a nearby signpost proclaims existence of Eastern High Atlas national Park, southern limit of cedar forest, presence of fossils and likelihood of observing Barbary Sheep, though for that it’s best to work one’s way further east, towards Tirghist and/or Ou Terbat.



  Signpost advertising Eastern High Atlas National Park, Tizlit (photo: M. Peyron)

 Less than satisfactory, however, was the sight of a derelict lakeside building recently used by indelicate picnickers. If packaging anything to go by, culprits would again appear to belong to the Iberian fraternity. A timely reminder that local authorities would do well to remove eyesores such as these, and address problem of waste disposal, as previously recommended by one of our Moroccan colleagues.


   Spring in full bloom, roadside field between Naour and Larbaâ n-Ouqebli, May 15, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

 Moved on into a quiet Atlas backwater: the road from Naour to Taguelft (tigleft) past Larbaâ n-Ouqebli. Pleasant exchanges in Berber with locals. Roadside fields a riot of colour: thistles, poppies, green poplars, weeping willows. Tarmac put in only a few years back but due to defective maintenance is already heavily potholed; fortunately, however, traffic pretty light along here.  After crossing sparsely wooded plateau, came a succession of steep gradients and hairpin turns on descent to Oued Laabid affording distant views of Bilouidane lake and Central High Atlas summits. Sky turned overcast as on previous days, but no rain as such. 

Where to stay: Bilouidane 

If you happen to be rolling in lolly or have just won the jackpot, then the Widiane hotel is the place for you. Completed only last year (2010) on the strength of a possible economic upturn, this de luxe facility appears to be having a mild problem netting clients. No wonder. With accommodation at DH 2600,- a night, Thai massage at 400,- and  breakfast at 120,- it’s definitely not targeting the hoi polloi. Management are, however, thinking in terms of weekend promotional stays at 18% discount.


De luxe water-hole: Widiane hotel at Bilouidane, May 15, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

Contrariwise, the Little Morocco « Chez les Berbers » gîte d’étape, next-door to up-market Chems du Lac hotel, apparently operating in conjunction with a local Moroccan Berber family, appears to be successfully exploiting the budget-priced, low-impact camping niche.


  Put up at « Chez les Berbers » if you’re out-of-pocket, May 15, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

As luck would have it our party settled for medium-priced, refurbished hotel Bin El Ouidane, situated next to Cantarel’s marina housing estate. Set well back from the lake, boasting own swimming-pool, it does have outlet to aquatic sports, though activities,  including kayaking and quad biking, do extend to trekking.



  Quad bike line-up outisde  hotel Bin el Ouidane, May 15, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

A riad-style room (similar to that at Ouzoud) was available for DH 600,- including breakfast. AC available and recommended, with temperatures at around 30°. Though unsollicited, a young lady did attempt to access our room in the small hours! For dinner (including vino), served in well-appointed upstairs restaurant avec vue sur le lac, we had to pay extra, of course. Berber-speaking maître d’, however, is a credit to the establishment.   


 Breakfast-room at Bin el Ouidane hotel, May 16, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

Zat-Ourika region, Marrakesh High Atlas May 21-26 

Five days with two French companions (Michel Morgenthaler and Eric Hatt) on a classic leg of the GTAM through a relatively unspoiled High Atlas region, carrying 7-8kg packs and with a locally recruited unqualified guide. Almost like old times. Actually guide’s name was Aomar from Afrah village, son of old acquaintance Ahmed n-Ayt Boulman. Blue skies greeted us for a mid-morning, 2-hour ride in a Trans Almou coach from Bab Doukkala in Marrakesh to Taddert, which used to be this writer’s base camp during his early mountaineering days in the 1960-70s with Maurice Forseilles.

As it was just past noon, we treated ourselves to  Ahmed Bokar’s excellent tajines and kebab at Le Jardin, just across the street from the coach stop. Three or four European guests at other tables.  Lunch over, we made relatively short work of the gradients to Afrah village (1h30 out from Taddert), where we bumped into Ahmed n-Ayt Boulman in the middle of the path as he was trying to get a signal (rizzu) on his mobile. This worthy, quite a mountaineer in his day, had accompanied us up nearby peaks forty years before, when he had had us in fits because of his bare-footed antics on snowslopes! There ensued a cheerful reunion-cum-photo-occasion with Ahmed’s grand-daughters joining in for good measure. 


   Family shot with Ahmed n-Ayt Boulman, Afrah village, May 21, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

This follow-through of a portion of the GTAM showed, even more than on a previous visit in 1999, to what extent secondary paths, especially those serving side-valleys, have fallen into disuse, the emphasis now being on deep penetration pistes for 4×4 vehicles following main valley bottom wherever possible. As in Upper Zat as far as Imerguen. A development that  serves both market-bound hillmen and TOs, and will probably soon make the baggage-mule redundant, except with animals earmarked for use by commercial caravans on high-level routes. 


  « Short-cut » path (L) on approach to Imadsen, Zat valley, May 22, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

It was certainly the case regarding our hopefully time-saving “short-cut” from Asats to Imadsen via Asaka-Hangir and Tizi n-Wakal. Of reasonable viability between Asats and Tizi n-Wakal, beyond the col the eroded path became quite hairy in places. On the long drawn-out flanking descent to Imadsen at times it was quite easy to lose the trail, requiring skilled navigation and sturdy ankles. In the end, it proved an exhausting, totally pointless exercise. 


   E. Hatt & M. Morgenthaler after aborting attempt on Tizi n-Teinant, May 23, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

For similar reasons we were compelled to abort a bid on Tizi n-Teinant. After an energetic early morning footslog up path from Imerguen to Ansa, then completing lengthy detour along stream-beds and irrigation ditches, we reverted to main valley and tried to follow riverside path that skirted walnut trees up past some ‘azib-s. Everything looked hunky-dory. We seemed all set for Tizi n-Teinant. 


It was not to be. A few hundred yards up-valley the trail simply petered out half-way over a boulder slope scoured by erosion runnels. Proving that what a Berber woman had told me minutes earlier was only too true: “išqa fell-ak. ibbey uġarass s-unzar d-iselliwn!” (“It’s too difficult for you. The path has been destroyed by rain- and stone-fall!”). 


   Ansa village, upper Zat valley; note satellite dishes, May 23, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

 Barely recovered from boulder indigestion, we ambled back  and were surprised to see a few iris (susban), coloured a bold blue, edging some vegetable patches near Ansa, contrary to previous recollections of a flower usually at its best around end-March. Later, entire fields dedicated to this plant (sometimes sharing space with cherry trees) were seen at Ouarzazt up on Yagour plateau. Local Berbers have taken to cultivating this plant because of demand from Moroccan pharmaceutical trade. 


    Beyond the yellow flowers a field of iris, Yagour, May 24, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)


     Ouarzazt village, 3/4 empty before summer arrival of massed herds, May 24, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

The Ouarzazt hamlet, which this writer put on the trekking map back in 1976 while reconnoitring the Bougemmaz-Oukaimedden leg of the GTAM, has since developed out of all proportions. From unprepossessing, temporary ‘azib-s the locals have graduated to handsome and comfortable symmetrical houses of dry stone, with roofs a medley of poplar cross-beams and sandstone slabs. The village is actually only fully lived in from late-June to end-September when flocks arrive en masse.


   Typical dry-stone house on Yagour plateau, May 25, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

Fields of wheat, ripening and undulating in the breeze, monopolize most of the flat ground over scores of acres across the neighbouring plateau.  During the last two days of our little traverse, the weather took a decided turn for the worse. In fact, it rained practically all night (May 24-25).

Next morning we were off by 9am after donning foul weather gear. In the intermittent rain the vast green expanses of the Yagour appeared at their best. In places grass and other vegetation were two feet high. At least seven varieties of flower observed, while three species of mushroom grew in profusion. A lone toad, some 6” long, and several tree frogs were seen lurking by small tarn known as Dayet n-Ifferd – a particularly fine spot, with the snow-streaked peak of Meldsen mirrored in its waters. 


      No Mrs Tittlemouse around! Jackson the toad skulking in pond-side vegetation, Dayet n-Ifferd, May 25, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

Two commercial caravans were met on Yagour plateau: the first near Dayet n-Ifferd and its famous site of prehistoric rock carvings. This party was led by two apparently competent, serious-looking Moroccan guides with seven-eight tourists (mostly French), all humping light day packs. 


  TO group at Dayet n-Ifferd, Yagour plateau, May 25, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

An hour down the trail we met another very laid-back  group headed by leader Brahim from Ayt Bougemmaz, in company with another Moroccan and six French tourists gallivanting along the path: four boys, hands in pockets; two girls with couple of day packs. In each case standard arrangement of unimpeded trekkers with luggage  and camping equipment following on back-up mules.


    Leisurely backpacking on Yagour plateau, our laidback « guide » in foreground, 2nd TO group, May 25, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

Serious backpacking, however, as still practiced by yours faithfully on this particular trip, appears to be on the way out! Just to set the record straight, however, the next day, while descending from Wigrane village to Sti Fatma, we were passed by a private party of three youthful Frenchmen with backpacks; former Marrakshi residents revisiting old haunts. Welcome news since it showed that mountain-walkers were not allowing the post Marrakesh bombing atmosphere to interfere overmuch with their travel plans. 


   Serious backpacking: M. Morgenthaler & E. Hatt at Tizi n-Ghellis with footsore « guide », Meltsen in background, May 25, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

Forsaking the standard descent down past awesome waterfalls and Annamer’s irrigated terraces, our guide led us left at the trail-fork along another extended flanking traverse through clumps of asphodel. There were impressive views down over terraced Ayt Oucheg villages, and beyond the Ourika valley to where snow-capped Tougroudaden and Anghomar loomed out of the thunderclouds. 


   Tougroudaden (L) and Anghomar in middle distance from above Wigran village, May 25, 2011 (photo: M. Peyron)

 Penultimate section of our 5-day traverse entailed negotiating a twisting, stony path down to Wigran village after a pretty good day (8 hours on trail). Aomar managed to find first-class accommodation in house where middle-aged couple were living with married son and his cheerful young wife. Peaceful night.

Following morning after breakfast the final stretch into the Ourika valley took us less than two hours and, after crossing the hanging bridge over the raging torrent, we paid off our « guide ». All in all  a friendly, good-natured chappie, but next time he might choose suitable footwear to guarantee a smoother walk!

As light drizzle was developing into a full-sized downpour we put our best foot forward in the direction of Sti Fatma to find a taxi. There was hardly a soul in sight, except for a couple of French backpackers kitted out in water-proofs and, not to be outdone by the rain, sturdily striding along the tarmac. Just then a taxi hove into sight, we clinched an almost instant deal in Berber, and minutes later were speeding towards Marrakesh. Several minibuses and a 50-seater coach or two seen en route proved yet again that tourist-wise the Arghana café bombing had not yet brought things to a standstill. Lunch at hotel Ali rounded off a far from unsatisfactory trip.

Touch of nostalgia tinged with regret, however, for this little stint along the old GTAM underscored the fact that, given the pace of change in the backpacking world, the number of individual footsloggers was declining in the face of unfair competition from commercial caravans.

Grenoble, July 18, 2011 

The Lone Backpacker 

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