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Index page | Casablanca | El Jedida | Oualidia | Safi | Essaouira | Marrakesh and back to Casa | Fes | Meknes, Volubilis, and Moulay Idriss | Ifrane and Mt. Ayachi, 3737 m. | Meknes and Tangier | Spain
Bobbi, Dusty, Glenn, and Vance in Morocco and Spain
IFRANE AND MT. AYACHI (3737 METERS)
We had read that Ifrane was unlike any other town in Morocco, and this was our impression when we saw the trimmed greenery at the roadsides lit up by street lamps, and quaint buildings that could have been in France or Switzerland. We were let out of the cab at a new market, brightly lit and active at that hour of the night with shoppers and diners at the many kebab restaurants. We called Pete and waited for him to collect us in his ancient Land Rover, the same one he'd had in Oman, where we'd known him 5 years previously. He was about to move in with a young lady from Panama who worked at the same university as he did, and the advantage to us was that, since he hadn't quite made the move, we could take his place, and he could stay in hers. He took us for a quick pizza, made with over-ripe cheese, but there was enough left over for breakfast, and he didn't call for us too early next morning, so we got a good lie in.
The following day we would climb Mt. Ayachi, at 3737 meters, a fairly tall mountain. At ten Pete showed up with two of his mates, Alan and Mel. Alan was a gangly business lecturer from Texas about my age and Mel was a young runner from a midwest university on his first post-grad posting. The four of us piled into Pete's land rover. There was room for one more, but Bobbi, Glenn, and Dusty all refused the opportunity to join us for one reason or another. This turned out to be a good thing, because the trip we were about to make was pleasant only in retrospect.
We started out at the market in Ifrane where Pete had picked us up the night before. We bought bananas, oranges, cereal, milk, carrots, cucumbers, and Vache Qui Riz pseudo-cheese. Alan had brought some nuts and smoked chicken from a place in town, delicious, and Pete had made a stew to get us through the night. By 11 or so we were on our way. We drove through the pine forests around Ifrane (literally, in Pete's offroad vehicle) but soon emerge on the bleak plateau surrounding the road to Midelt for as far as one could see. We passed through some nice market towns where I could practice my Arabic ordering cold Coke, and I bought a hat for a'ashra dirhams, a'ashra. A dollar for a straw hat, why not? I also got to ask the locals where the hamam was and found there actually was one, and it was even in service. The man who showed it to me hesitated when I offered him a dirham for its use. I guess he wasn't actually the attendant.
Toward late afternoon we were driving through a valley alongside a range of mountains, and the guys pointed out Mt. Ayachi to me. From where we were it looked pretty high up, and Pete said we weren't driving much further up the mountain, just in closer. Pete had been up this mountain before, and Alan had also been in the area, and they were looking for a familiar way into the cirque where we could park and camp and go for our stroll in the morning. We were winding along some back roads, Pete taking the curves slowly, tires crumpling on the rocks in the graded road, when we appeared to come out of the valley. Pete was thinking he'd missed a turn when a tire went flat. So we all piled out and changed it. No way Pete was doing it himself. He'd brought two spares, one on the hood and the other on the back of the car, so we still had a spare spare.
We wheeled about on our new tire. Pete was tired of driving so Mel took the wheel, and we worked our way back to where we saw a faded signpost for Midelt, and Pete recognized that it was a French style post, where a left pointing sign actually indicates straight, which was up a road so insignificant we hadn't even noticed it before. But that was the way in. Another half hour of winding in and out of graded road traversing hillsides and we pulled up at a bend where Pete had Mel stop the car. This was our camping spot.
We were at a point where the road doubled back to avoid continuing up a valley where it would soon become impassable anyway. This was the way we would walk in the morning. I took a GPS reading, 2100 meters. That leaves, let's see, 1600 meters of uphill gain to make in the morning. Hmmm.
Meanwhile, we got the tents out of the car and start setting up. Shepherd boys were passing by, bringing the sheep in out of the mountains, and they stopped to gawk and to see if they could cadge anything from us. Kids from the nearby hovels wandered up the road to sit and stare and see what they could get as well. Al said all he wanted was a beer. The rest of us thought it might be best to wait a while. I figured they'd all go away at sundown. Al was carrying sweets with him, and he handed them out to some of the kids, not the sort of behavior that would encourage their departure. Mel asked a girl and her little sister if he could take their pictures. Their hands went immediately out, and he snapped a photo and graced their palms. I told him if you don't want kids squatting by your campsite, don't keep giving them candy and money. The psychology seems pretty simple to me. As far as the kids are concerned, they can squat and look at you or they can squat at home and look at the walls. At home, there's no payoff whatsoever, so it's obvious they're better off with you. Your discomfort at their intrusion doesn't enter into their picture, and it's certainly not a matter of give them a treat and maybe they'll go away. Quite the opposite. Meanwhile some shepherd kids that had wandered by noticed a bag of nuts that Al had left on the hood of the car, and when they pointed to it and edged closer, Pete gave it to them. What can you do, he shrugged. I was sitting near a couple of kids who'd just plopped themselves down a few meters away. We looked at each other, then away, then back again. As humans do, it appeared that one of us should initiate a greeting. Before I could say anything, one of the kids said, "Donnez-moi un bon bon." That was the greeting. I scowled and looked elsewhere.
Eventually dusk fell and we cracked out the first round of beer and started snacking with the kids still sitting around us. Night fell, a mother called from up the valley, and the kids left. We started eating our stew which Pete had been heating on his camping gaz stoves. Then the head of household from the hovel up the road wandered up with a pot of tea and sat among us and started distributing it. We gave him a bit of what we were eating. The tea was so sweet that my friends didn't like it, but. I didn't mind. I was thirsty, and it was good to drink tea. I offered the guy a palm spear from a can that Al had brought. He took the can, had a look inside, and put it in his robes. Oh well, I guess we were about through with those anyway, I thought.
This guy was the brother of the man whom Pete had met there before and who usually brought Pete tea. Pete was good with the local dialect. My Arabic was not cutting it well here. These were Berbers and they didn't speak much Arabic and knew only 4 words of French (donnez, moi, une, and bon-bon). Pete was able to find from the guy that there was a road leading out to Midelt that might be shorter than the way we came in. In the morning Pete would leave his car at the man's house, as he usually did. He felt the car would be protected there. In return for the favor, Pete tried to make it worth these people's while. In his need to stay on their good side, he was willing to put up with a certain degree of intrusion. The people appreciated his visits, but their needs are greater than Pete's capacity to give.
One thing I noticed in this part of Morocco in contrast with what I find in the smallest hamlets of Oman and the UAE, is that the people in the Gulf countries might be poor, but they are looking forward to improved standards of living. They may be living in mountain aeries in Oman with little more than goats and samad (goat crap, which they bag and sell for fertilizer) but one day a road will reach them, as it has their neighbors further down the mountain. They are proud people, and generous with visitors, and they can count on their government to improve their lot. There's evidence of that all over the Gulf: pumps to push water up hills for example, so it doesn't have to be hauled up on the heads of barefoot women each morning, as was done in the past.
In Morocco, I didn't detect this feeling of well-being. The government is neglecting these people. They have little beyond what they can scrape from the earth, and no prospects for even long-term improvement. Therefore, they clutch at passers-by for whatever they can make fall off the truck, so to speak. And the Berbers don't appear to have the hospitality ethic of the Arabs. When you encounter an Arab in his environment, his first reaction will be what can I offer you. With the Berbers we would meet on this trip, it was what can you offer me? In the eyes of my friends, they were largely beggars. It was hard to like them. With the Gulf Arabs, the reverse is true.
At night, the wind picked up and hammered our campsite. We had left nothing out that might disappear by morning (at night, we were visited by shepherds who announced their arrival with drumming, but finding us in our tents, wandered off as they had come, drumming). So there was nothing for the wind to blow, except to flap the sides of our tents. It was hard to stay asleep with gusts bringing the tent crashing in on us. Except for that, it would have been perfect. The weather was cool, and the bedding was comfortable. I would have slept like a log. But the tent cracking and fluttering all night long kept everyone awake.
We had sort of agreed to arise at dawn, and I was the first up. I could hear the birds singing against a barely illuminated sky. I sat up and asked Pete where the key was so I could start the coffee. It was a quarter to 5, but it was time to get up. We anticipated 6 hours walking up and 3 or more back (which I myself thought was ambitious; 4 or 5 at least), and we wanted to be driving out of there before nightfall.
My noisy ruminations in the car for equipment I didn't know the location of eventually got everyone moving. By then some of the kids had run over from the village in hopes of getting in on breakfast, and my colleagues rewarded them with the occasional handout as we nibbled bananas and cereal. Eventually we'd packed for our hike and Pete drove the car off to the nearby house, out of sight around a bend in the valley. He returned walking bent against a wind that was blasting out of the gorge we were about to walk up.
The wind was a factor in our walk. We were heading into it, always slightly uphill. It kept us quite uncomfortable and gusted us off balance. We wound our way into the gorge and came out onto a large level area where the mountain was starting to go up and where the sheep were grazing on the sparse grass. Here some Berbers had pitched their tents, and they ran across the slope that comprised their domain to surround us as we took rest on the hillside above their encampment. Al found a girl he thought was cute and decided he wanted to put a smile on her face with the remainder of his bon bons which he ended up giving out to everyone present.
Al wasn't carrying anything but bon bons. I found it strange that he wasn't even hauling water. We had figured we would need about 3 liters each for the trip, which turned out to be more than we required, since the wind blasting us turned so cold at higher altitudes. But I was carrying over 5 liters, so after lagging behind the group in the lower reaches, I got Al to carry one of my canteens. Anyway, he didn't really need anything but water as it turned out. The trip was intense but brief and could have been done on a couple of liters of water and a handful of dates. But I always like to carry extra water if I'm capable of it because you never know when someone will twist an ankle on a trail and have to await rescue for a few hours or a day.
Ironically one thing I didn't carry with me was my fleece. I'd left it in the car, but the wind higher up was cold. I had only a flannel shirt on top of my t-shirt but after a while I wrapped my khafeeya about me like a shawl and that helped. The slope of the mountain must have been 25 degrees, and a lot of it was scree, so when you stepped, half your step crumbled away down the mountain. Meanwhile the wind was gusting full in your face so you were trying to keep your footing and balance against the erratic windchill at the same time. It was very uncomfortable walking and I lagged behind the others.
At 3400 meters, after hard and tedious slogging, we stopped at a natural shelter and left our packs for the final assault on the summit. The weather was hazy so the views of the surrounding peaks weren't spectacular, and the terrain was bleak. The wind force at this altitude was the most I have experienced in my life. Walking up there I felt like a zombie. The others reached the summit before I did and were on their way back before I even saw where I was going. But I plodded on and soon a tripod came into view. I took a picture of it, my last before my camera battery packed in. I spent some time bracing myself against the gale while I tried to gps the place. The vibration of trying to hold the gps steady while bracing against the wind kept shaking the batteries loose, and my gps kept cutting off. It wasn't quite like being on Everest - at least my hands weren't frostbitten, but it was uncomfortably cold, and the wind was literally trying to blow me off the mountain. When I finally got a reading, it showed 3712, just 25 meters off the official height of 3737 meters.
There followed a long scramble down the slopes. The first task was to get back down to the 3400 point where my friends awaited. They were having lunch, but when I arrived Pete and Mel took off and left it to Al and I to gather all the picnic items and water - in my pack of course, since Al wasn't carrying one. It wasn't all that heavy, and I got Al to again carry 2 liters of water. But the extra weight was a counterbalance to my getting down off the mountain.
Pete and Mel had gone fast down a huge slope of scree and Al and I followed in their footsteps where they'd overturned rocks as they'd skied down. We could see Pete and Mel at the bottom, half a kilometer below us, for the hour or so it took Al and I to pick our way down slowly. If I tried moving too fast I'd go over and get pieces of rock under the skin of my palms. Lower down I was breaking my falls on sticker bushes and queen ann's lace. The bits that got embedded there were still bothering me a week later.
We got down off the mountain at around 3 or 4 and drove out of the wadis on rough tracks through gorges that could have been transplanted from Oman. We got on the tarmac road around Midelt and passed through pretty barren country until we reached the forests around Ifrane, where we arrived before dark.
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