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.

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    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.

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  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?).

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   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.

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   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.

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  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.

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    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.

  

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  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.

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   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.

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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.

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  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.

 

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  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.   

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 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. 

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   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. 

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  « 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. 

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   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!”). 

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   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. 

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

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     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.

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   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. 

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      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. 

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  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.

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    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. 

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   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. 

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   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 

michael.peyron@voila.fr 

Publié dans Tour Operator Watch | Pas de Commentaire »

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

Tour Operator Watch n° 12: Midelt hotels and commercial caravans in Morocco’s Eastern High Atlas  (+ miscellaneous items)   

Introduction   

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”.

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       How to hoodwink customers; picture of some other hotel purporting to illustrate Hôtel El Ayachi (photo: info@belgavoyages.be   

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

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   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”! 

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  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   

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 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. 

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    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.

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 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.   

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   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

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   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.    

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 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).  

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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. 

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 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!

Conclusion

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!

Miscellaneous items

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    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.

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    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.

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    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 »!

  Lone Backpacker

  michael.peyron@voila.fr

Publié dans Tour Operator Watch, Tourisme de montagne Atlas marocain | Pas de Commentaire »

Tour Operator Watch N° 11: 22-day Great Atlas Traverse

Posté par Michael Peyron le 7 décembre 2010

Tour Operator Watch N° 11: 22-day Great Atlas Traverse

by Michael PEYRON

Up to now most information under the « Tour Operator Watch » heading has been in English. However, as some readers have pointed out that there is a slight imbalance on this website in favour of English, for a change, we thought we might resort to the French language.

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Imilchil, ssuq es-sebt, oct. 1997 (photo : M. Peyron)

 Cette rubrique, qui compte déjà 10 parutions, s’est donnée comme but d’éclairer d’un coup de projecteur ce qui se passe sur la planète Tour-Operators/Atlas-marocain ; de suivre les tendances du marché, de façon à informer là clientèle montagnarde ; de la mettre en garde, le cas échéant, contre les supercheries toujours possibles. Chercher aussi, à démonter le discours des TO, à en exposer les failles, les demi-vérités et les pittoresques approximations de façon à amener le randonneur à y voir claire dans cette approche mercantiliste du Haut Atlas ;  à disséquer le produit qui lui est proposé.  En fin de compte, si ce n’est pas trop présomptueux de notre part, l’amener à faire son choix en toute équité. Eventuellement, à se prendre en charge lui-même, de monter son affaire avec quelques amis triés sur le volet, de recourir le cas échéant à un accompagnateur ou gîteur local, afin de mieux vivre son aventure marocaine en harmonie avec les populations amazighes de ces montagnes.

Si tel est notre souhait c’est que nous constatons, au fil des années, une dégradation progressive des sites de l’Atlas marocain qui subissent des atteintes répétées, du fait du tourisme de masse auxquels ils se trouvent exposés, processus auto-destructeur qui est en passe de gâcher irrémédiablement certaines destinations ayant jusque-là fait le bonheur des visiteurs. En effet,  le pasage répété de « petits » groupes de 12-16 touristes provoque de la pollution environnementale (Tizlit), des graffiti (Toubkal), l’éffondrement de l’architecture traditionnelle (Imilchil, Telouet, Aremd), l’abandon de certains champs et chemins de traverse (Zat-Ourika), un phénomène de masse (Toubkal), joint à  l’acculturation et l’ altération de l’hospitalité traditionnelle (quasiment toutes les régions),  enlève son charme aux bourgs et contrées, décourage les visiteurs.

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   Tafrawt n-Ayt  ’Abdi, avr. 1984 (photo : M. Peyron)

 On peut, sans se tromper, prétendre que le Haut Atlas est devenu un produit commercial à multiples facettes. Les agences ont puisé sans vergogne dans divers ouvrages publiés sur les montagnes du Maroc, dont la Grande Traversée de l’Atlas Marocain (GTAM) de Michael Peyron (éditions 1984 & 1988). Elles se sont inspirées largement les unes des autres, et, au terme d’une trentaine d’années, ont mis au point les destinations phares qui ornent leurs catalogues. Parmi celles-ci, une tendance très nette se dessine depuis deux ou trois ans : la « Grande Traversée du Haut Atlas » (GTHA) des Bouguemez à Imlil en 22 jours. Un numéro hors série de Trek Magazine (2009) y a puissamment contribué ; dans une moindre mesure, sans doute, une lettre circulaire des années 1980, ébauchant le parcours en question, précisément en 22 jours, que l’auteur avait rédigé en réponse à des demandes d’information alors qu’il était Président du CAF de Rabat.

 

 Une étude approfondie du dossier nous a permis de constater qu’au moins 24 agences visent ce créneau des 22 jours pour une traversée axiale de l’Atlas. Il s’agit, pour une écrasante majorité, de TO français (Visages, Grand Angle, etc.), à côté de quelques britanniques (Kendal Adventure, Classic Journeys, etc.), ainsi que d’une poignée d’agences locales (Azul Travel, Maroc-Vert, etc.), qui, quant à elles, prévoient 21 jours. Constatation qui appelle quelques remarques. 

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 Aghembo n-Chinzar (massif du Kousser) vu depuis Anergui, fév. 2002 (photo : M. Peyron)

  1)    Il s’agit, à proprement parler d’un phénomène de saturation, liée à une banalisation pure et simple du produit GTHA, surtout lorsqu’on sait que les voyages ainsi programmés sont censés connaître plusieurs rotations par saison. Avec autant d’agences sur les rangs, chacune soucieuse de préserver sa part du marché, on va trouver un peu de tout dans le lot : de bons prestataires de service ; des moins bons, aussi. C’est dire que la médiocrité risque de faire son apparition, si ce n’est pas déjà le cas. Faire preuve de manque de professionnalisme, c’est bien là l’ultime tare pour un voyagiste. En effet à force de relever les bourdes, voire les attrape-nigauds qui émaillent les catalogues des agences on peut valablement s’interroger quant à leur sérieux sur le terrain. Quelques exemples : illustrer l’Ayyachi par une photo d’Oul Ghazi, dans l’Asif Melloul (!), ou le damier de champs des Ayt Bougemmaz par une vue des gorges du Haut Dadès (!) ; l’orthographe fantaisiste (Yagourt pour Yagour) ; les coquilles (Mgnou pour Mgoun/ Armed pour Aremd) ; les inexactitudes (situer Zawit Ahansal dans le Moyen Atlas) ;  ainsi que d’autres lacunes (parler de Megdaz sans évoquer les Chants de la Tassaout). Certains catalogues et/ou sites web, c’est du « n’importe-quoi » !

 2)    Si les agences semblent être d’accord sur la pointure de 22 jours pour la GTHA, on distingue des nuances quant aux parcours. Heureusement qu’elles ne suivent pas toutes le même itinéraire ! Cinq d’entre elles programment Imilchil-Telouet ; une Toufghyn-Telouet en 15 jours; 17 prévoient Bouguemmez-Imlil en y ajoutant l’ascension des sommets du Mgoun et du Toubkal (parfois aussi l’Inghomar), périple souvent annoncé comme « combiné Mgoun-Toubkal », ou « Raid Mgoun-Toubkal ».

3)    En revanche, à prévoir grosso modo le même itinéraire, le système garantit une certaine uniformité mêlée de souplesse. En cas d’entente entres agences (la solidarité inter-TO semble exister), si tel voyage ne compte que peu d’inscrits chez l’agence A, on va les faire basculer chez des collègues plus chanceux en partance pour la même destination. Ainsi chacun y trouvera son compte. Ce serait le cas, notamment, de certaines agences lyonnaises et savoyardes qui, à la lecture de leurs programmes, semblent assurer une forme d’interchangeabilité.

4)    Du point de vue du seuil de rentabilité, il existe parfois un minimum exigé, disons 8-10 participants.  Les clients souhaitant partir en sous-nombre peuvent se voir pénalisés à hauteur de € 150 environ par tête. Du reste, certaines agences proposent d’emblée un forfait pour petit groupe d’amis, car tout le monde n’aime pas forcément se promener en compagnie d’inconnus à la fois illustres et nombreux. D’autres voyagistes, flairant là un créneau porteur, se mettent en quatre pour ces petits groupes, allant jusqu’à les inviter à formuler leur propre budget. Ou alors, on annoncera que les groupes seront limités à 10 participants. Signe révélateur d’un marché hautement concurrentiel, voire en crise.

5)    On retiendra qu’en fin d’exercice la part du gâteau revient très nettement aux TO, alors que les locaux (accompagnateurs, gîteurs, et muletiers) sont les grands perdants dans cette affaire. Une étude toute récente par deux géographes marocains, en poste à l’IRCAM, ne laisse aucun doute à ce sujet. [cf. M. Ait Hamza, & H. Ramou, « Le tourisme en milieu rural et le développement local », Marocco : turismo e sviluppo locale, (M. G. Lucia & H. Ramou, éds.), Paris, L’Harmattan, 2010 : 177-196]. En somme, les locaux continuent à se faire exploiter à distance par des acteurs étrangers, situation déjà dénoncée par l’auteur il y a 30 ans.

6)    Il ne faut pas croire, non plus, que tous les voyages programmés aboutissent sur le terrain. Assurer le remplissage sur une destination n’est pas toujours aussi évident qu’il y paraît ; l’Atlas marocain est une destination privilégiée, mais il suffit d’une menace d’attentat pour tout remettre en cause, si ce n’est la baisse du pouvoir d’achat lié à la crise économique. Le déchet serait même assez élevé, bien que nous ne disposons d’aucune donnée chiffrée là-dessus.

7) Une minorité d’agences se distingue, par rapport à cette GTHA en 22 jours, en introduisant des formules différenciées, et c’est tout en leur honneur. La Balaguère, par example, prévoit 15 jours pour sa « mosaïque berbère » sur Imilchil-Bouguemmez ; pour la même durée elle programme un Toubkal-Essaouira via Tinmel, l’Aghbar, le Tichka, et le Seksawa. Le voyagiste Club Aventure, quant à lui, annonce un Imilchil-Bouguemmez en 15 jours.

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 Ras Moulay ‘Ali et village d’Ighilmellen, Haut Seksawa, avr. 1987 (photo : M. Peyron)

Autre tendance que nous observons actuellement : certaines agences font le forcing publicitaire sur des créneaux de 8 jours : les quatre 4.000 du Toubkal ; traversée N-S du Mgoun ; séjour multi-activités dans l’Atlas de Marrakech avec notamment de l’accroc-branche chez un gîteur local. Ou alors c’est la rando océane qui est proposée, si ce n’est le très alléchant binôme dunes-dromadaires dans le Grand Sud…

A scruter la liste des voyagistes on constate que certains, autrefois présents sur ces créneaux, manquent à l’appel ; sans doute en raison de la crise ont-ils dû « boire le bouillon ». Dure loi de l’offre et de la demande sur un marché hautement compétitif à la déontologie impitoyable. D’autres encore, et c’est le cas des britanniques Sherpa Travel et Exodus, semblent abandonner cette GTHA sans doute jugée hyper-fréquentée, banalisée, préférant se déployer sur des créneaux plus porteurs comme le Toubkal en hiver, le tourisme côtier ou oasien. 

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  Couple chez les Igliwa, région de Telouet, oct. 1975 (photo : M. Peyron)

Car, à lire les blogs d’usagers, il apparaît que l’on repproche aux TO de faire preuve de manque de créativité et d’imagination. Surtout dans leur façon de suivre d’une année sur l’autre des itinéraires identiques. Si tout le monde fréquente les mêmes sentiers en même temps la saturation risque, à la longue, de dégoûter les usagers. On sait que le randonneur grenoblois ou savoisien n’aime pas se retrouver seul, mais, tout de même, de là à jouer des coudes avec une foultitude de ses semblables en des bivouacs collectifs comme les Neltner ou le camp de base du Mgoun, c’est une autre paire de manches. A ce moment-là pourquoi chercher à tout prix le dépaysement au Maroc si c’est pour y retrouver la même ambiance qu’un Dimanche de Pentecôte en haut du Taillefer ou de la Tournette ?

Les TO, sensibles à ce genre de critique, répondent par une mesure de souplesse : à l’intérieur d’un trek comptant une quinzaine de participants, on créé deux, voire trois sous-groupes selon des critères d’affinité. Chaque composante du groupe va désormais progresser à un rythme qui lui est propre ; emprunter éventuellement des variantes d’itinéraire, quitte à se retrouver en un campement commun un jour sur deux.

Autre tendance relevée, les limonadiers de l’aventure qui proposent la GTHA en 22 jours se targuent de pratiquer une forme de « Tourisme responsable », voire « durable » : formule floue, fourre-tout qui sert à donner à ces agences bonne conscience, à rassurer leurs clients, sans que l’on sache vraiment de quoi il s’agit. Esbroufe et faux-fuyants; nous pensons que tout cela flaire l’effet d’annonce plutôt qu’autre chose ! Cela va surtout permettre aux voyagistes de continuer impunément à mettre à mal les dernières destinations encore intactes, ou ayant conservé un résiduel brin de charme.

Donc, en définitive, si vous voulez randonner en paix dans les monts de l’Atlas marocain, préparez sérieusement votre affaire, documentez-vous à fond, impregnez-vous du Maroc par la lecture, car ce genre de voyage se mérite. Munissez-vous de la carte Michelin du Maroc, fort utile pour toute planification de périple ; éventuellement du Routard (du Rough Guide ou LPG si vous êtes anglophone). Puis allez-y en voyage individuel avec 2-3 amis de votre choix ; sur place faites-vous accompagner par quelqu’un du pays, et à l’étape essayer de loger chez l’habitant. Adoptez une attitude ouverte, sympa, sans misérabilisme aucun. C’est la meilleure formule pour aborder le monde amazighe (berbère). L’auteur de ces lignes ne fait pas autrement depuis 45 ans.

Lone Backpacker

michael.peyron@voila.fr

Publié dans Tour Operator Watch | Pas de Commentaire »

Tour Operator Watch n° 10 Atlas Mountains

Posté par Michael Peyron le 1 octobre 2010

Tour Operator Watch n° 10 Atlas mountains
Morocco : October 2010 
  

by Michael PEYRON

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   Toubkal massif seen from Saturday ssuq at Asni (photo: M. Peyron)  

  The world economic downturn has certainly had an adverse effect on some outside Tour Operators who target Morocco. “Hommes et Montagnes”, for one, the successful Bernezat-founded agency from Voiron (France), formerly active in the Hoggar and Atlas Mountains, went under in the spring of 2010 – not that were shedding any tears. If anything, in terms of mass consumer impact, this is good news; any current indication of a lessening of tourist attention becomes a positive factor.  In fact, even TOs have observed that the remotest Atlas valleys are beginning to feel the wear and tear from regular package tourist visits. This is evident from their sales talk containing ominous references to “les dernières terres sauvages de l’Atlas”, or “une region encore préservée”, as if fully aware that the pressure is on and, as it were, encouraging consumers to sample these areas’ pristine charms before it is too late. We had already detected this hypocritical attitude among TOs some thirty years ago (cf. Working Papers IIa). 

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    Megdaz village, Tassaout valley, February 1983, (photo: M. Peyron)

  Current trends  TOs are increasingly aware that, to break even, flexibility is the watchword. More than ever, they’re sub-contracting out to other agencies, pooling customer lists when a particular trip is under-written, or customizing their product to suit clients’ taste and initiative. Nothing new here; in fact, we’d commented on this trend a year or two back.  One new development, however, has been noted: hybridisation. Instead of sticking to one speciality, say, rafting, walking, mountain-biking, two or more of these activities are jointly offered. This becomes a hybrid tour. Actually, Club Med in the Atlas has been a pioneer in this field for some years, combining 4×4 tours with mild walking, Imilchil and points beyond being typical destinations. Recently luxury holiday camps near Marrakech have been going in for this: multiple activities on offer include parapente, accroc-branche, trekking and quads. Another discernible trend is that more and more Moroccan agencies are taking over, which is a good thing in the case of regional firms more likely to plough back funds into the local economy, than selfishly motivated big-city operators. 

The GTAM – now you see it, now you don’t! 

For reasons unknown the powers that be appear to have reneged on the idea of a grand traverse of the Moroccan Atlas (GTAM). End-to-ending has gone out of fashion. Even the Ministry of Tourism booklet containing practical information for visitors no longer mentions the GTAM, not even the palm-tree mountain logo, present focus being on “Mountain and Desert”. On their websites, however, the TOs continue to refer to the GTAM, the GTA, or even (ludicrously) to the “Great Crossing of the Atlas”!

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Route of GTAM n° 3, June 2010 (www.martinpierre.fr/rubrique-maroc-gtam-3,731986.html)

A certain Pierre Martin would appear to belong to a slightly different category. This freelance trekker, loosely connected with the Grenoble-based magazine, Trek, has been diligently mapping out a “traditional” or “official” GTAM, basically Mgoun to Toubkal in 20 odd days. There have been two variants: one being GTAM n°2 (Imilchil-Hadida in 18 days); the most recently reconnoitred route is GTAM n°3 (Midelt-Bou Taghar). Fully illustrated descriptions of these have been appearing on the web.

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Author’s daughter Caroline Mackenzie at foot of ‘Ayyachi during 6-day Midelt-Asif Melloul backpacking traverse, Sep 1998 (photo: M. Peyron)

Although the last-named itinerary is presented as totally innovative, virgin and un-trodden, as if no previous backpackers had ever ventured along these well-worn trails (perish the thought!), at least it provides free info for all and sundry. And, significantly, shows that somebody out there is trying to keep the GTAM alive. For which he must receive all due credit!

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 Jbel Ma’asker at dusk seen from Ayt Ouchen (photo: M. Peyron)

Such disinterested openness with information, far from any mercantile considerations, also encourages individual trekkers to do their own thing, thereby taking away some of the TO’s business. Which is all for the good.

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Oul-Ghazi village, Asif Melloul, June 1998 (photo: M. Peyron)

However, given the immediacy of life in the global vbillage, when they don’t give the impression they’re operating within a time warp or personal bubble, GTAM newcomers may be totally oblivious to developments past or present on the Atlas Mountain scene. Furthermore, contrary to Morocco-based walkers, outsiders like Pierre Martin arriving through Marrakech airport appear to lack the time and/or the inclination to include the Middle Atlas or Western High Atlas in their versions of the GTAM.

 120tousefseddidec1987.jpgTousefseddi, Asif Melloul, during 6-day Tounfit-Tillougit hike, Dec 1987 (photo: M. Peyron)

On the other hand, some Atlas exponents may wax boastful. This is very much the case with a well-known British North Country TO, who, in setting up a reasonably orthodox Mgoun-Toubkal mountain bike traverse, claims that it is “going where others don’t dare”! Almost as a rejoinder, a rival Brit outfit announces that it is staging the « definitive » Atlas biking traverse, whatever that means! One-upmanship such as this is now unfortunately commonplace in the game.

One individual, however, who seems to be concentrating on doing his own thing and extending a helping hand to Atlas trekkers, deserves a mention right here. Matthew Low, a British mountain instructor and tour leader settled in Imlil a few years ago and seems genuinely fond of the local mountains and their inhabitants. Visit him on www.imlil.org

To conclude, while 2010 apparently failed to witness the arrival of 10,000,000 tourists in Morocco, some 80,000-100,000 of whom would probably have made for the hills, only a minimal decline in mountain tourism activity has been observed. However, it remains to be seen whether the downward trend will be maintained in the foreseeable future.

  Lone Backpacker

michael.peyron@voila.fr

October 2010

Text copyright by Michael Peyron; material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

Publié dans Tour Operator Watch | Pas de Commentaire »

Tour Operator Watch 5 spring 2008

Posté par Michael Peyron le 4 juin 2010

Tour Operator Watch 5 

Report based on field observations, High Atlas, spring 2008 

Two trips by car into Morocco’s Deep South plus a few High Atlas outings between March and June 2008 have unfortunately convinced this writer that the heyday is definitely past, that these beautiful regions are going to the dogs. The culprits, needless to say, are mass tourism, unthinking exploitation of water and other natural resources, together with unstinting development conducted in the name of modernity, progress and (up to a point) social welfare. All well and good, except that nobody bothered to tell the World Tourist Order (WTO) that by dint of their non-environment-friendly activities they were painting themselves into a corner, amounting to a self-destruct of their Moroccan resource. 

Mountain inns, eco-lodges and guest-houses 

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Late snow above Imilchil on Tissekt n-Tamda (May 2008)

The pleasantly seedy guest-house in Imilchil where we usually put up before our annual romp through the High Atlas, appears to have fallen on hard times. Proprietor, after providing a kus-kus dinner expertly cooked by his wife, followed by night in bed-room with peeling paintwork and reasonable breakfast, next morning tries to convey impression he’s doing us a favour by charging DH 150,- half pension (May 20). 

Earlier (Mayday weekend) I had forked out DH 400,-  half pension at a marginally posher facility outside Midelt for nocturnal rowdiness and decidedly slapdash service, including a lousy breakfast in noisy, over-crowded dining-hall. Two cases of over-charging but for different reasons. 

The Imilchil proprietor’s attempts to expand existing 6-bed capacity requires self-financing, which is not readily forthcoming, as clientele has dwindled dramatically in the face of competition from other Imilchil gîtes, some of which have jumped onto the bivouac band-wagon – very much the present trend among the eco-business brigade. Thus have the competition been making hay while the sun shines, catering for groups of mountain-bikes up to 60-strong, together with 4WD backup, camping out in highly polluting lakeside bivouacs. To cap it all, the local authorities haven’t got round yet to setting up a waste disposal service. 

Conversely, the Midelti colleague has recently been striking it lucky, expanding his business to include customers from Iberia and Down Under, and playing host to 20/30-strong off-road groups, mostly operating under the banner of some big-name TO or another, thus making it an ideal spot to stay away from during high season or long weekends. Making much of a good thing, the Midelti now overcharges without batting an eye-lid. A pity, really, since Midelt’s reputation as a recommended stop-over has been taking a lambasting on the Web (cf. WWW://Midelthotels.com), and such behaviour does little to enhance it.

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Commercial stickers on door to Imilchil « hôtel » (photo: M. Peyron)

Contrast with Anergui where friendly lodge owner’s wife charges only DH 120,- for half pension, including substantial dinner and breakfast, plus shower and thick carpets on which our 4-man party was able to sleep in comfort (May 21). 

Compare, yet again, with a more upmarket facility, at the confluence of Asif Melloul and Asif n-Ouhansal, with half-pension terms back at DH 150,- . What did we get? Well, tepid spaghetti and booze-inspired song and dance that kept us awake till 11 pm! Juste une petite fête qu’on a organisée pour nos trekkeurs et nos muletiers!”, explains Moroccan guide Hafida next morning over breakfast. Actually hadn’t been much of a fête for muleteers who had dossed down outside on their saddle-bags beneath the trees. Have to admit, though, that our sleeping arrangements had been quite adequate with real beds and mattresses beneath empty light-bulb sockets dangling from the wall (May 22). 

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Parking-lot outside Imi n-Warg gîte, May 2008

As all-encroaching tarmac creeps up secluded Atlas valleys, this particular inn is typical of a new kind of roadside facility that is appearing all over. Situated less than three hours from Beni Mellal (a town notorious for its heavy drinking) it can safely guarantee booze supported evenings. So much for respecting local susceptibilities. 

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Imi n-Warg gîte near Cathedral Mountain, May 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

Easy access also attracts a miscellany of visitors: mountain bikers, canyoning and white-water enthusiasts, off-road exponents, motor bike tourers, trekkers, base jumpers, tourists with wheeled luggage in tow, etc. Occasionally, a genuine backpacker knocks at the door and requests admittance. If the place isn’t booked out he’ll probably wonder what he’s letting himself in for – in terms of a quiet evening and restful night, that is! 

In contrast, early-season (June) conditions make for easily obtainable accommodation in the Toubkal area. While the recently enlarged CAF-Toubkal Hut appeared already rundown and slightly grotty to my Moroccan companions, the rival facility (Gîte-camping des Mouflons) just downhill provided an uncluttered dormitory with comfortable two-tier beds that we had to ourselves.

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Gîte des Mouflons: competition for CAF-Toubkal Hut next door (photo: M. Peyron)

Half-pension at DH 150,- covered an acceptable dinner and breakfast, including toilet and shower facilities. The latter were much in demand from trekkers camping outside on a platform specially provided for this purpose. In fact, so a guide told me, groups sometimes camped there for three days as part of a Toubkal circuit, making easy ascents of nearby peaks, generally resting up away from it all. However, respectful of present-day milksop trekking trends, they shower regularly and use cell phones to keep in touch with home. 

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Friends & inn-keeper, Auberge de la Vallée, Imlil, June 2008 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Back in Imlil, at an unobtrusive inn rejoicing in the name of Auberge de la Vallée, our party enjoyed a good dinner, peaceful night and excellent breakfast, all for DH 100,- 

TO bivouacs: what they look like on the ground 

Which brings us to this new-fangled camping or bivouac craze, now popular with TO groups, and which, in certain areas, bids fair to put some of the local guest-houses out of business.

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CAF-Toubkal and Mouflon refuge with TO tents in evidence, June 2008

At the Neltner site, just beneath the new Mouflon Hut, a two-tier platform was crammed with igloo-shaped two-man tents, plus the conspicuous white mess- and kitchen-tents of two (possibly three?) different commercial caravans (June 9). A perfect example of the soft option for TO parties that can avail themselves of the creature comforts (hot meals, showers, flushing toilets, etc.) of the adjoining CAF-Toubkal or Mouflon Hut. 

By this token, the less lucky or hardier types are relegated down-valley. On the opposite bank of Asif n-Aït Mizane, a hundred yards or so downstream, were two similarly organised camps. Half-way down to Sidi Chamharouch, two other camp sites were spotted.

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Brit TO bivvy below Tikint n-Wanas, Toubkal, June 2008 (note loo-tent on L)

One, opposite a huge residual snow-field at the exit of Tikint n-Wanas ravine, in addition to the eight regulation igloo tents, plus larger mess- and kitchen-tents, boasted an intriguing little canvas pill-box, probably a portable loo. I had heard stories about these contraptions, pioneered by the Brits, equipped with a tripod-like seat, that can apparently double as showers. 

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Brit TO party setting up camp before tea-time (photo: M. Peyron)

While passing the other bivvy site we saw we had arrived at a crucial moment (17:00, June 10, 2008). The muleteers and cooks making up the advance party had finished unloading the baggage mules. The kitchen-tent had just gone up; the mess-tent was about to follow suite. Of the loo-tent, there was as yet no sign. As we watched, the Moroccan tour-leader arrived on the scene, followed by a 16-man crocodile. The trekkers, obviously in a boisterous mood, overjoyed at catching up with visible signs of forthcoming dinner, all pitched in to help erect the two-man tents.(1) 

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Forlorn-looking TO bivvy near Sidi Chamharouch, June 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

By contrast, yet another TO camp further down-valley, a somewhat forlorn-looking establishment, was sited amid straggly juniper left of the main path between Sidi Chamharouch and the Aremd gravel-plain. With a comparatively low cloud ceiling over the darkening, steep-sided Aït Mizane valley the atmosphere in camp must have been decidedly claustrophobic. The usual eight or nine (blue) igloo-tents were up, but there was at the time (18:30) little activity around the mess-tent; just one or two tourists traipsing disconsolately around; killing time before dinner must have been proving a headache. What were the others doing? Washing their socks, or getting a spot of shut-eye? Or attempting to socialize with other party members, which can be a bit iffy when dealing with total strangers and potential killjoys. 

A final bivouac, with now-familiar standard issue igloo-tents, was spotted (19:15) on the eastern edge of the gravel-plain, within shouting distance of Aremd, but critically close to the riverbed. Interesting to see what would have happened in the event of a flash-flood! Next morning, we met this camp’s inmates window-shopping in Imlil with their Moroccan guide from Kelaat Mgouna. 

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 Guide from Kelaat Mgouna with TO clients, shopping in Imlil, June 2008

All these bivouacs or camps comply with a set pattern: usually 8-10 red-coloured (sometimes blue) igloo-tents and two larger white tents for cooking and eating purposes. Precisely identical arrangement had been observed in TO bivvy at Bateli (Asif Melloul, May 20, 2008). Party there was made up of one guide and 16 trekkers, 10 mules (each with muleteer, of course), a cook-cum-musician and lady who probably provided help in the cuisine and back-up vocals. On passing their camp previous evening had heard singing and strumming of the luth, light folklore entertainment obviously being part of the package. Interestingly, we had met a certain Muha u-Mimun, who put us up for the night in his hill-top house two hundred yards upstream from the TO camp. Next morning, as the TO party had used his land, he made a point of going down to pocket the rent, before they headed off for Aqqa n-Ouensa, Zerchane and Zawit Ahansal. In all fairness, it must be mentioned that they left the bivvy site fairly tidy, apart from unavoidable mule-dung! 

Respect for the environment 

This is a major issue as nobody’s going to hoodwink the present writer into believing that mass tourism is impacting the High Atlas in an environment-friendly manner. Not after witnessing the existing mess around the heavily visited Imilchil lakes or Toubkal huts. Uncollected litter is the chief offender. Striking that careless, supercilious attitude typical of tourists away from home, visitors casually drop fag-ends, poly bags or coke cans, apparently taking it for granted that somebody else is going to pick them up. 

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Guide-led commercial caravan leaves Tizi n-Toubkal for the summit, June 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

Hence the odd Kleenex hanky or miscellaneous item of garbage spotted on the tourist route to Toubkal; despite the presence of litter-bins near the Kasbah Toubkal Hotel or at Sidi Chamharouch. Having come braced for massive pollution, I was pleasantly surprised, even commenting favourably on this to a Moroccan mountaineer on Toubkal summit (June 10). Ce n’est que le début de la saison,” he replied, “En septembre il nous faudra organiser un ramassage collectif des ordures accumulées !” Mass clean-ups were apparently conducted on a yearly basis, usually early in October. He went on to point out that information panels had been posted in the area and that it was in the local guides’ interest to create awareness about this issue among visitors. Early results were encouraging, or so it seemed… 

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Mountain-walkers descending from Toubkal summit by « Voie Normale », June 2008

Also on the debit side is footpath erosion on the Toubkal Ordinary Route. Given the “anything goes” attitude that prevails, there is no way-marking. Moroccan guides are afraid that clear indication of path might take part of their business away from them! This doesn’t make sense as, anyway, a conspicuous main trail meanders up into Ikhibi South, with at least two major variants.

Overuse and corner-cutting have caused savage erosion,(2) especially on a couple of sections that are developing into loose, pathless scree before the “Voie Normale” reaches up towards Tizi n-Toubkal. From there, several variants lead up the ridge and onto the summit plateau. No footpath maintenance is attempted, whereas it is clearly high time this problem was addressed. 

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The twinToubkal huts, June 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

Yet another environmental problem: the Isougane n-Ouaggouns pasture down-valley from Toubkal/Moulfon huts is a sorry sight, much trampled upon by mules, while straggly sections of barbed wire fence (purportedly to protect somebody’s grass patch) have been torn down. 


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Creating awareness about the Lammergeier, Toubkal massif, June 2008

On the credit side it must be admitted that the CAF-Toubkal Hut is equipped with an incinerator for refuse disposal. In an attempt to substantiate the grand-sounding “National Park” appellation, various signs and panels have been erected along the approach route up from Imlil: a reminder that proper behaviour towards animals, local population and the environment is de rigueur; an appeal to help protect the lammergeier; hunting and fishing prohibited; exhortations not to pollute river-banks, not to wander off the path, etc. Much is also made the Barbary sheep revival in the area, lately thanks to the Takherkhort reserve near Ouirgane. This emblematic breed of wild sheep fulfils a role similar to that played in the Pyrenées by the brown bear. 

 

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Tamga Natural Reserve notice-board,May 2008

Near Cathedral Mountain (central High Atlas), now a “sweet spot” for base jumpers, a large pedagogical panel at Tamga Forestry Hut reminds passers-by that this is the Tamga Natural Reserve, coupled with a list of protected species of birds and animals. All of which is very fine and dandy. Only the future can tell whether all this theoretical concern for the environment will work out in terms of concrete measures on the ground. Meanwhile, we must confess that it’s a small step in the right direction.

   Lone Backpacker

   Grenoble, July 2008 

michael.peyron@voila.fr

__________ 

(1) – On commercial treks participants are supposed to help with setting up camp, an activity perceived as a chore by some elderly persons and likely to cause friction with muleteers if the latter have to do it for them. 

(2) – Though no worse, perhaps, than on similarly frequented path between Près de Madame Carle and Écrins hut in Dauphiny Alps (France). 

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.

 

Publié dans Tour Operator Watch | Pas de Commentaire »

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 »).

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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 »!

 

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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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Tour Operator Watch 7 Ayyachi to Atlantic in 43 days

Posté par Michael Peyron le 4 avril 2010


MOROCCO : TOUR OPERATOR WATCH 7 

            Ayyachi to Atlantic in 43 days 

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  Ayyachi from Imtchimen Eastern High Atlas (photo: M. Peyron)

Introduction 

The purpose of these articles is to keep tabs on what’s going on in the Atlas Mountains, as much to analyse the various products submitted to a long-suffering trekking public as to warn prospects of any potential hankypanky. The present trip is a case in point.

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Jbal Ayyachi from A’arid plateau, Eastern High Atlas (photo: M. Peyron)

A well-known French TO had, for some time, been toying with the idea of upstaging the competition with a grand High Atlas fling from far westerly Ayyachi to the Atlantic coast. An exercise obviously aimed at the more sporting, cutting edge segment of the trekking market. Through the TO’s website we now learn that the trip indeed came off in 2007 and that repeat performances are scheduled, though subject to some modifications. Closer perusal reveals interesting details that, in the light of our own not inconsiderable on-the-spot experience we feel compelled to impart to the Atlas traveller. 

An interrupted journey 

Aspiring end-to-enders should not get carried away by that ballyhoo about 43 days! Far from being a continuous GAT follow-through the trip is in reality broken down into three parts. The first half works out at 18 days of actual trail bashing from an Ayyachi foothill camp to the Tassawt village of Megdaz, taking in two major summits (Ayyachi and Mgoun) on the way.

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Ighil Mgoun Central High Atlas (photo: M. Peyron)

Otherwise the route followed is a fairly standard GTAM effort via Imilchil, the Kusser plateau, Taghia (involving some nimble footwork on cliff-edges), Ayt Bugemmaz, Tarkeddit plateau and Tassawt valley. Those that feel like it can call it a day and head for Marrakech to recuperate for a brief respite before boarding a homeward bound flight. 

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 Yagour Plateau, Jbal Inghemar in background (photo: M. Peyron)

Those made of sterner stuff, after a rest-day at Megdaz washing their socks, are now free to pursue the second, apparently more impressive leg of the traverse. This includes highlights such as unlikely Lake Tamda and nearby Anghomar’s treadmill scree-slopes, Telouet and the Glaoui’s castle, the Tichka road, the rock-carvings of Yagour plateau and Meldsen traverse, the upper Ourika valley, Iferwan summit, Lake Ifni, the Neltner and Lépiney Huts, finally trampling the tops of Toubkal, Afella n-Ouanoukrim, Biguinnoussen and Tazaghart to keep the peak-baggers happy. 16 days of this roller-coaster from grass-lined irrigation-ditch to slag-heap brings the party to Imlil. From here, technically, would-be drop-outs can escape to Marrakech by bus and/or taxi. The hardier souls, who want to see this thing through to the end, are now conveyed by 4-WD vehicle down to Asni, then up to Tinmal (with its Almohad mosque), eventually following a track that climbs the Ogdemt valley into the usually neglected Western High Atlas to Arg at the foot of Igdet. 

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  Jbal Igdad (Igdet) & Adrar n-Oumzra, Western High Atlas (photo: M. Peyron)

The final, little-frequented, potentially most interesting part is dismissed in three days! Day 1 is devoted to climbing Igdet before descending to a camp at Ansa. Day 2 takes the party up the Aghbar valley to the Tichka plateau and the Imi n-Wanzig huts. Day 3 lamely concludes with a valley-crawl down through the walnut trees to Agersaffen and up the other branch of the valley to Afensou where 4-WD transportation awaits. The (un)happy trekkers are then subjected to several hours’ pounding along dusty pistes before hitting the tarmac en route for a ryad in Essaouira and choice of sundown cocktails. 

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Afensou village and snow-covered Tizi n-Imedlawn High Seksawa region  W. High Atlas  (photo: M. Peyron)

Brochure talk 

How does this TO go about selling his supposed end-to-end traverse? To get clients on board the sales talk harps on well-known themes: the “confidential” aspect of the eastern and western extremities of the Atlas, the fact that they generally don’t get visited by other TOs, that they are virtually virgin, untouched territory, that the whole trip has never been done before – all of which amounts to little more than eyewash! The varied aspect of Atlas landscapes is also put forward, including two lakes, not to mention the sporting aspect. Daily stages of 6-8 hours (though in our day we thought nothing of 8-10 hours per day with full packs), allegedly only one rest-day, eight peaks climbed on the way, represent a physical challenge worthy of the hardened trekker, albeit with full mule back-up. Those who have stuck it out uncomplaining from Ayyachi to Atlantic, notwithstanding the various interruptions, are no doubt understandably proud of having pulled off such a feat – another one they can tick off on their list of coveted epic journeys. 

Closer scrutiny of the trip, however, shows only 37 days on trek. To the one Megdaz rest-day can be added 48 hours spent camping outside the Toubkal Huts, in between stints up Toubkal and Ouanoukrim, enjoying the full gamut of creature comforts (hot showers, flushing toilets, etc.)! Not to mention a brief stop at Imlil where trekkers can chill out with the odd coke. All of which may disappoint the purist, especially the ensuing long interruption between Imlil and Arg that takes advantage of recently-opened vehicle tracks, not to mention a sizable chunk of mountain territory beyond Afensou that gets left out of the walk. After traversing the Western High Atlas in this way the observer will realise that justice has not really been done to the area. What with peaks like Adrar n-Oumzra, Ikkis, Ras Moulay Ali and Awlim-Tinergwet literally begging to be climbed, we clearly have a case of quick fix here! 

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Ras Moulay Ali from summit of Jbal Ikkis, Seksawa region, W. High Atlas (photo: M. Peyron)

Conclusion 

This particular product, then, the flagship of any TO’s Morocco brochure (counting a total of 30 Atlas Mountain trips on offer by this operator alone), is indicative of the present saturation of classic Atlas trekking routes. It obviously needs cleaning up, however, before it can be deemed properly marketable. At least it will provide the discerning, go-it-alone backpacker with a road-map for organising his own unsupported stint with a couple of trusted companions. 

   michael.peyron@voila.fr

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

 

 

 

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Tour Operator Watch 8 Dec 2009

Posté par Michael Peyron le 4 avril 2010

Tour Operator Watch: Atlas Mountains  Morocco n°8 

(December 2009)

                                    

Well, here we are returning to the web after an absence of several months. Why’s that? Oh, quite simple. Free.fr, my previous access provider, whose piss-poor package did not include meaningful after-sales back-up, helpfully hi-jacked my website at the end of May 2009 after I had quite legally switched to Orange.fr. I had to spend the interval picking up bits and pieces from here and there so as to recreate, as faithfully as possible, my “Michael Peyron’s working papers” and “Tour Operator Watch” series, dealing with the Berbers and Atlas mountain tourism. Now, after perusing over fifty sites of Morocco-oriented agencies on the Web, I wish to bring the would-be Atlas traveller up to date in terms of what’s on offer, exposing some of the pitfalls that creep into the slick sales talk of those commercial outfits, so he’ll know what he should go for, what he should avoid. 

                        

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    TO bivvy by « Tizlit Bride » auberge, near Imilchil , Aug. 2005, (photo: M. Peyron)

The over-riding impression is that in spite of the continuing economic downturn, Atlas mountain TOs are quite obviously remaining as up-beat and wishful in their thinking as ever as they gear up for “Vision 2010” and its astronomically impossible target figures for tourism in Morocco. This overall mood emerges from brochure talk analysis, where info contained in route descriptions is often carelessly and inaccurately imparted. A few examples: Lake Ifni is described as “the only lake in the High Atlas”, which is a blatant fallacy, while the otherwise reputable Footprint guide-book to Morocco erroneously refers to Isli and Tislit (also Isly, Izly and Tizlit) on the plateau near Imichil as “glacier lakes”. In this connection a well-known operator from Savoy manages to name one of those lakes « Tiznit” (name of a south-west Moroccan town) in his brochure (actually called “Tislit”)“– talk of dropping a brick!  Again near Imilchil, trekkers are led to believe by another TO that they will meet “semi nomadic sheppards” (sic), while those approaching Toubkal are inanely invited to visit the “high circuses and plateau of the massif”. Some circus… 

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Tizi Mqorn seen from Upper Dadès road, Dec 1968 (photo: M. Peyron)                   

Another amusing spelling mistake appears in the brochure of French operator H & M – “plateau du Yagourt” (making it sound deliciously like yoghourt!), before getting it right – Yagour – a couple of lines further down. This kind of slip-up, of course, should probably be attributed to an unknown office wage-slave, in Voiron or wherever in the Dauphiny or Savoy, who has probably never set foot on the Yagour, rather than to the guides who actually lead the tour. Yet it makes one wonder whether they’re as wobbly on the ground as they are on paper! 

The funniest case, however, is the new spelling for Mgoun – M’gnou, strangely evocative of some African antelope, employed by “cyberberbère” and at least three Moroccan agencies and blogs. In terms of ineptitude it slots into the same category as a reference elsewhere to a shop in Midelt that would seem, by dint of some geographical quirk, to sell “Berber kilims”, of all things, whereas everyone knows that the kilim is not produced outside of central Asia! Also a wee bit off-target is a strange reference to “the Jbel Maaskar range where rises Ayachi”. This should be the other way round, with its 3747m Ayachi (compared to Maaskar’s paltry 3207m) is the real name that should be given to the range.

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  Tounfit and Jbel Ma’asker, April 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

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  Cliffs of Jbel Ayoui (Aroudan), Aug. 1968 (photo: M. Peyron)

Another agency, calling itself “amazighatlasrando”, publicize a trip to Mgoun with a photo of Jbel Ayoui (Aroudan), which is wilfully misleading, the latter summit being a technically far more difficult proposition, rather like advertising a trip up the Ben Nevis ordinary route with a picture of precipitous Liathach in the Torridon peaks! In another attempt to lure customers they print a photo showing trekkers setting up tents on, of all places, a threshing floor with its large flag-stones in the middle of Imilchil village. Just about the very last spot you’d choose to camp, I would think, in terms of peace, quiet and comfort… Anyway, a highly counter-productive photo no doubt calculated to deter comfort-loving trekkers  (and they are in the majority today) from resorting to the services of that TO! Pretty amazing stuff, all of this, although very much in keeping with the present “anything goes” atmosphere, and all the crap it nurtures, that appears to characterize the activities of our so-called mountain tourism “professionals”. 

The terminology, too, is undergoing one of its subtle sea changes: trekking is now seen as belonging not so much to “eco-tourism” (ego-tourism?) or “sustainable tourism”, as fitting into a new niche – “back-country tourism”. Which, by the way, comes across as “tourisme d’arrière-pays” in French. Also in Frogspeak, we have the new notion of setting up a specific area as a PAT (Pays d’Accueil Touristique), apparently part of the Moroccan government’s plan for improving the quality of eco-tourism in out-of-the-way mountain pockets of the country. 

On the whole, however, TOs remain as unimaginative as ever, copying each others’ programmes, breaking little fresh ground and pandering to the usual, more obvious “adventure” tourism tastes. Whether it’s Frog or Brit, Terdav, Kendal, H & M, Exodus, Allib, Club Aventure or Sherpa, Toubkal remains the n°1 most visited peak in the Atlas, and websites continue to feature those tedious summit shots with a gaggle of laid-back, privileged trekkers gawping at the camera, safe in the knowledge that they have topped out on the roof of Morocco without contracting Mild Altitude Sickness (MAS)! All very facile and obvious. 

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Exiting from WSW Toubkal ridge, climbers head for summit, autumn 1968, (photo: M. Peyron) 

Yet Mgoun has been running a close second over recent months. People praise its remote setting, seen as much wilder and more remote than the oft-trodden surroundings of Toubkal, together with an arguably greater sense of commitment. The actual climb to Mgoun summit is a tedious plod up a glacial cwm to reach the summit ridge. Then follows a protracted scree-bash to the main summit along a well-worn trail. This should surprise nobody, when you reckon that on average 1000 visitors or so make it to the summit every year between June and September. 

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 Not quite so crowded in those days: above Mgoun base camp, Sep. 1966 (photo: M. Peyron)

Understandably, it can be quite crowded at the top, at times, which has you wondering why some of those visitors, decked out as imitation “Blue Men”, ever forsake their native Alps. After all, in terms of herd, scene and scree, Mgoun-4073 on a busy day is pretty much like the peak of Taillefer – a Grenoble Sunday mountaineers’ favourite. A small refuge, or mountain hut, has been functioning at the foot of Mgoun for the past few years, guaranteeing board and lodging for individual trekkers, even serving beer. TO groups, however, camp out on the Tassaout source plateau, sharing the spot with transhumant shepherds who, rumour has it, have started charging each successive party a specific sum for this (un?)welcome use of their grazing land. And quite rightly so, when you think of the miscellaneous waste that accumulates with time. In this connection, some environmentally conscious Brit TOs have been organising clean-ups at Mgoun base-camp, just like at Toubkal! 

And those recurring sob stories about how environmental-friendly every TO has become. They have to be read to be believed. How respectful of the local environment they can be (I wish I had been aware of that before I went up Toubkal last year)! Pious declarations about how the agency deducts 5% from each traveller’s bill to plough that sum back into the local economy. How they provide for the education of the local Berbers, evidence of which actually exists for only one actor in the Toubkal area. How they remove and/or burn the trash generated by their bivouacs. They just go on and on pulling the wool over our eyes. 

Mgoun and Toubkal are sometimes linked by a traverse of some 22 days which figures in practically every catalogue, a trek then variously and undeservedly referred to as the Grand Traverse, or the GTAM, even amusingly translated as the “Great Crossing”, or “Great Adventure Moroccan Atlas” by some TOs!  Which will lead yet another Tour Operator to remark, somewhat modestly: “We, however, offer the real Grand Traverse!” 

 

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                 Tassawt Voices, English translation of an Atlas classic (2008)

Or they plan treks according to some cultural theme, such as “Les chants berbères de la Tassaout” programmed by a Parisian agency that should know better, drawing on the title of a well-known collection of Berber poems recited long ago by Mirida n-Ayt Atiq, then translated and published in French by a certain René Euloge (and by this writer into English, as Tassawt Voices, in 2008!). Except that the description of the itinerary does not make the slightest mention of the book and its author; nor does the trek take in Megdaz, reputedly poetess Mririda’s home village! This is typical of the inconsequential thinking that goes into the organisation of these outings. 

The eastern ranges have, it must be admitted, been belatedly coming in for some attention: Imilchil, Midelt and the Middle Atlas. Here again, though, some agencies think they’re God’s own gift to the trekking world, one claiming that they are “probably the only one to offer the Eastern High Atlas” in its programme, whereas at least three other competitors field similar outings! 

 

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Middle Atlas back-packing: on Bou Iblan circuit, May 2002 (photo: M. Peyron)

Then we have a touch of hype around the term “virgin”, in connection with the Middle Atlas, described as “a genuine, little-known, and virgin part of the Atlas mountains”, and rightly mentioned after years of neglect. This, however, is reinforced by a spot of balderdash when one tourist enthuses over a visit to the Gouraud cedar, which, as everyone knows, has been a dry, shrivelled up stump these past seven years! 

But the prize for incongruity must surely go to a Middle Atlas birding trek organised by one outfit: “For bird lovers this trek is perfect for seeing the various species. They are quite the ninjas, hiding out but bellowing their rapping tunes!” Who are the ninjas? Who is fond of rap? The reader is left guessing, which is never a good thing! The vocabulary, the noise associated with rap…, how much further away can we be from a normal, peaceful birding environment. Ah, but Peyron, you old stick-in-the-mud, you’ve got it all wrong. The lurid language used is probably designed to lure the new-look breed of bird-lover!

Michael PEYRON 

Grenoble 2009

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

 

 

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