Author Archives: Chris S

N is for: Not Riding to Taghia

Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set

alex-free-solo‘Free Solo’ is a documentary covering Alex Honnold’s mind-boggling, rope-free ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, California in 2017 (left). If you’ve seen it you may recall that, among other places, Honnold practised on a hidden cirque of cliffs surrounding the scattered hamlet of Taghia, buried about as deep in Morocco’s High Atlas as you can get. A couple of rudimentary gites cater for visitors but, even among Moroccan know-alls, unless you’re a rock climber you’ll have never heard of Taghia. The only way in is a four-mile mule trek through a canyon from the valley head at the equally obscure outpost of Zuweiat Ahansal, an hour or two’s ride south of Rocher de Mastfrane, better known as the ’Cathedral’ (below).

cathedral.jpg

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI rocked up at Zuweiat one lunchtime just as a group of young American climbers were spilling out of a taxi, and continued over the bridge to the edge of the old town. I pulled over for a snack and, unsure of the way and not wanting to blunder on, asked a passing local whether it was possible to ride a bike to Taghia and if yes, which way?

‘Oh no’ said the old man. ‘You can only get there on foot.’

I finished my snack and thought it over. Back by the bridge, I sought a second opinion from some more worldly looking dudes hanging out outside the post office. They were eyeing up the new, North Face-clad arrivals and one spoke good English.

‘Yes, I saw you pass and was going to say, you can’t ride your moto to Taghia.’

It turned out he’d worked on the Honnold doc as well as other National Geographic features and, reading his manner with my finely tuned bullshit detector (which they now hand out free at the border), it didn’t sound like the usual bragging. After that, he switched seamlessly into sales mode, offering lodgings and guides.

‘Maybe next time’, I said. I genuinely did hope to visit the mysterious valley, but the weather forecast was a bit shaky for the next couple of days. I wanted to get out of the mountains, not stuck in them.

zuhanaA year or two earlier a bike-riding climber who’d visited Taghia suggested to me that a small bike (like my Himalayan) could probably reach the cirque following the riverside mule path.

While that may be true, I figured just because I could, did I have to – or even, should I? The local guide may merely have been protecting his mule-trekking services, but I like the idea of leaving some of the world’s wild corners unspoiled by the putter of mechanized transport. As I was about to be reminded, there’s plenty to see in Morocco on a bike or in a 4×4, but there are many places in the world which are best reached by less intrusive human-powered transportation. That’s what makes them special.

A Good Day in Morocco

Set off with a mission to join some dots for my spring tour in a couple of weeks.
Mission accomplished. Dots joined.
More about the bike here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHigh Atlas village

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother new road from nowhere to nowhere much. I suppose it helps stir up the local gene pool.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of these days I’m going to watch a youtube doc on how they build mountain roads.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbove the clouds at 2500m or about 8300′ in old money.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn isolated juniper tree that’s managed to dodge the village wood burners.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChecking the link route to Map Junction above Ijoukak.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA1970s Transit. One of the only vehicle’s I saw today once off the main roads. The other was a Trannie too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother photogenic village somewhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Resting outside a village north of Sidi Ouazik, a relocated Reguibat (Saharawi) ends up giving me some meteorites from the Hammada du Tindouf (St Expert mentioned these in WS).
Never knew Saharawi were relocated way up here – 45 families, he said.
I tell him I’m on my way to Reguibat country. About 5 days ride from here to #thedigtree

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASunset at the casbah.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlways room for a whaffer thin slice of cake.

How to be safe in Morocco

Like most people, I am shocked by the brutal murders of the two Scandinavian women camping in the High Atlas this week. Sadly it is another attack being attributed to young men seeking to show solidarity with violent Islamist causes.
One assumes the two women were stalked by the perpetrators from Marrakech, and so the attack might as well have happened anywhere once an opportunity presented itself.
Morocco has been largely free of the types of the attacks which have become commonplace in western Europe in recent years, and yet tourists who’ve long been targets elsewhere in North Africa and the Sahara, are thick on the ground in all the usual places because they feel safe. The last reported terrorist attacks were a bomb targeting tourists in Marrakech in April 2011 and a bigger wave of bombings in Casablanca way back in 2003, mostly aimed at Jewish interests. Unlike the rest of the Sahara, to date no tourist has ever been kidnapped in Morocco.

firstimeHow to be safe in Morocco
As a tourist, maintaining your safety in Moroccan cities is no different to any other unfamiliar place. Hustlers are common in certain areas; traffic appears chaotic and driving erratic; pickpockets exist, cheap hotels may feel insecure and mountain roads are not velvet-smooth Alpine super highways. All these have long been far greater threats to visitors in Morocco than Islamist violence.
Being a Muslim country does give Morocco an edge to those unfamiliar with Islamic culture, particularly women, but the Islam practised here is a lot milder than that found in Saudi or Iran. Read the blue box, left, extracted from by Morocco guidebook published in 2017. Also read the sensible guidelines given on the British FCO website, to give one example. They spell out all how to avoid or be aware of the most common risks.

toubkaIn a crime sense, the popular hiking area below Mt Toubkal (right) where the women were murdered is not dangerous compared to a big Moroccan city. It is probably its popularity and proximity to Marrakech which made it an easy, adventurous destination.
Occasional unnerving but actually harmless encounters over the years have long led me to advise the following: when wild camping, do so unseen and completely out of sight if possible, and if not then camp close to or in a settlement. This way either everyone knows you’re there or no one does. I give similar advice in both my global overlanding books and act like this anywhere in the world, just for peace of mind.
In Morocco many have found undisturbed wild camping can be quite hard to achieve. Even in the desert, travellers commonly report someone popping up out of nowhere, usually a curious nomad or villager, or sometimes police checking up on you. It should be understood that in North Africa and the Sahara, camping alone in the middle of nowhere away from other people is regarded by locals as suspicious or odd.
m17-P1210574For us Euro-tourists camping has long been regarded as a money-saving adventure, but because hotels and auberges can be so numerous and inexpensive in southern Morocco (from <€10), I’ve long preferred the comfort and security they offer to all the clobber and faffing required with camping, especially if not travelling in a spacious car, or when travelling in the cool season when mountain nights get chilly and drag on for 12 hours. In a cozy auberge you get to meet local people or fellow travellers, eat well, rest properly and recharge your gadgets.

Another practise desert travellers like me have adopted since the deep Sahara became FUBAR’d, is not to share detailed travel plans with strangers or online, especially on publicly readable social media. I don’t do Facebook or Whatsapp, but by all means keep friends and family in a closed group appraised of your movements. In Morocco the reach of the mobile network is far greater than you’d expect, not least in remote rural areas where locals depends on it. A local SIM card costs from €2 which includes €2 of credit. You may need the vendor’s help in setting it up.

No one could have anticipated the appalling murders in the High Atlas any more than crossing a bridge in London, backpacking in New Zealand, visiting a market in Strasburg, attending a Baltic island retreat or a school or place of worship in the US. Morocco remains one of the few countries in North Africa where tourism continues to thrive despite anxieties about ‘Muslim countries’. It helps sustain the local economy, particularly in rural areas where the true level of poverty is much greater than it looks. Don’t let this tragic event unsettle your plans to visit a wonderful country, any more than any of the other places listed above.

P1310022

Tichka–Marrakech: alternative roads

toubviewThe N9 is the main highway crossing the High Atlas between Marrakech and Ouarzazate, topping out about halfway at the 2260-m Tizi n Tichka pass where a superb fakefossilsrange of clay souvenirs and vibrantly coloured ‘gems’ are permanently on display. Being the main road, traffic can be relatively heavy and slow, and the hundreds of bends make cycling a bit stressful and overtaking tricky in a vehicle, especially when climbing or away from the recently widened ‘race track’ which uncoils a few kilometres north of Tichka (below). But even on this recently improved section, landslides and subsidence are already taking their toll.
Short of the usual floods and storm damage, both the diversions outlined below are doable in a regular 2WD rental car, on big motorcycles as well as sturdy bicycles.

tichkawide

Telouet-routeOn the warmer, south side of Tichka, the alternative route (right) via Telouet was well known, even before it became largely sealed a few years ago. It starts just 4km south of the Tichka col, where the final roadworks on the P1506 are nearing completion on the 20km to Telouet with its famous Glaoui kasbah.
From here the P1506 soon drops off a plateau to follow a long, oasis-lined ravine (below) all the way down to the Aït Benhaddou tourist trap, rejoining the N9 10km later at Tazentout, 23km west of Ouarzazate.

aitbenvalley


 

N9-Toubkal

On the north side of Tichka, road widening disruption has currently spread down the valley over 17km north of Tadart, the first village below the col. But once you get to Zerkten village, signed and 33km below Tichka by a red and white telecom mast, there’s an easily missed side road to the west. See map above.
As pictured below, it leads steeply 6km up to a 1750-m col to an impressive view 60km  southwest to the 4167-m mass of Jebel Toubkal. It’s one of the few points on a sealed road that gives a full view of North Africa’s highest mountain (picture, top of page).

tichcolclimb

From here the road drops down through apple orchards recalling the Aït N9-Tichka-viewBoumengueze valley further east, below the Mgoun massif (MH18. MH19).
oliverIt levels out along the Oued Zat at the town of Tighoudine in the Oued Zat valley where, in late November, you’ll detect the strong aroma of olive oil being produced in roadside presses (right).winxo
The side route rejoins the N9 after 35km, just before a green Winxo fuel station on the north side of the road, 46km from Marrakech.

highatlashighway

The Spiral Tunnel of Tagountsa

spirtunaHigh up on the side of a remote High Atlas valley is an engineering marvel – hewn through the cliff face a spiral tunnel manages to curl down through the rock and emerge underneath itself.
spirmohaI was told about this curiosity in 2012 by the chap at the cozy Chez Moha auberge (right) in Aït Youb while researching the second edition of Morocco Overland. Riding a BMW F650GS, I followed his directions with the usual route-finding issues and then, beyond the last village, hacked up a stony disused track to the 2250-m (7340′) Tagountsa Pass. From the cliff edge I recall the timeless view stretching east up the Plain d’Amane valley towards Rich, pictured below and on p128 in the current book. A short distance later I spun through the tunnel and rolled down a series of switchbacks back to the valley floor and a tasty tajine back at the auberge.

tang

Spiral tunnels have been a long-established solution to constricted route building challenges across mountains. You could even say that your typical complex freeway intersection where the road winds back under itself to change direction tightly is the same thing in flyover form. But you must admit that hacking out any type of tunnel – let alone one where there’s no room to dig out a regular switchback – is an impressive task.

spirplakyvromNot for the first time on this website, I’m able to benefit from research of Yves Rohmer (right) on his always fascinating collection of old Saharan curiosities at Saharayro, including the Tagountsa tunnel. Viewed on Google Earth, the big picture is more vividly rendered setting View > Historical Imagery back a few years.

spir

spirplanspirtunaEven then it’s hard to visualise what’s happening until you look at the old plan, right. You can see the anticlockwise descent of the bore and just work out that it starts with a short separate concrete bridge over the lower mouth of the tunnel. The daylight streaming down the gap can be seen in the image repeated on the left (and as a slim shadow in the round inset, above)

spirimitBuilt in 1933 over a period of just three months by some 3000 labourers from local and French regiments, few realise that at this time the French were still fighting to subdue renegade Berber tribes in the mountains of Morocco.
As you can see on Yves pages, the engineers, sapeurs and legionnaires passed their spare time commemorating their achievement by engraving regimental emblems in and around the structure. I was told the motivation for all this effort was to enable a secure, high transit of the valley, so avoiding protracted Berber ambushes at the narrow Imiter Gorge (left; ~KM70) with legionit’s Mesa Verde-like dwellings.
The same crew probably built the better known 62-metre Tunnel de Legionnaires five years earlier at Foum Zabel now on the main N13 highway north of Errachidia. A plaque there boldly states:
The mountain barred the way.
Nonetheless the order was given to pass…
The Legion executed it.”

spirtunThe Tagountsa tunnel the Legion helped build is at KM102 on Route MH13 in the book, though if you reverse the route it’s only a 10-km off-road drive off the Rich road just east of Amellago, turning north onto the dirt at KM113. Depending on storm damage, an ordinary car or a big bike should manage it, but note that you’ll be negotiating all those hairpins on the Google image above. From the west side (as Route MH13 describes the loop) it was a rougher and slightly more complicated ride on the BMW up to the pass.

spirdramPerhaps because trains can’t negotiate hairpins or climb very steep grades, it seems that spiral or helicoidal tunnels have been a much more common feature on mountain railways than roads, particularly in the Rockies.

Norway’s Drammen Spiral (left), some 50km southwest of Oslo is a notable example, dug we’re told, as an alternative to disfiguring effects of open quarrying on the landscape back in the 1950s while at the same time producing a revenue-producing tourist attraction in the process.

Morocco Overland: Route MH20

M3acoverTrans Atlas: MH20 • Talat n Yacoub > Ouneine > Ouaougdimt > Aoulouz • 88km
April 2018 – BMW G310GS, Honda XR250 Tornado
Updated April 2019; Enfield Himalayan


Description
mh20Another High Atlas crossing to try alongside MH19 (also an online addition to the guidebook). This one only rises to 2200m, initially climbing some 500m in 8km after leaving the road SE of Ijoukak (below right). Initially you may find the looser parts of this climb a struggle in a 2WD or on a heavy bike. It’s probable that local 2WD vans only do it southbound.
From the pass the incline abates and the track smoothes out as it rolls down towards the villages of the Ouneine basin and the P1735 whose sealed extension eastwards to Igli on MH6 is now sealed (red line, map, left. Actually it goes NE not ESE as shown, to join the track near ‘Afra’ on the map. To be updated).
You carry on SW along the P1735, and at Sidi ali ou Brahim village swing sharp left off the road, cross the stream and follow the Ouaougdimt valley piste 24km SE (not fully shown on most paper maps) to join the MH6 road coming down from Aguim on the N9 Marrakech–Ouarzazate road.
If you’re in a rush or heading towards Taroudant, at Sidi ali ou Brahim carry on 23km south on the P1735 to Sidi Ouaziz on the N10. Otherwise, it would be a shame to miss out on the scenic Ouaougdimt valley stage, as it rises onto a terrace high above the valley floor.

mhh20Mapping
Parts of the route are just about legible on paper maps, least badly on the inset ‘High Atlas’ panel on the Michelin. But none show the full Ouaougdimt valley route. It’s all on Google, Olaf and the OSM digitals.

Off Road
The climb up to the 2200-m Tizi n Oulaoune pass from KM11 is a little steep and loose and about as hard as it gets, but we saw local 125s two-up and minivans, albeit heading the other way (ie: descending). From the pass a310-7the gradient eases off while you’ll find the Ouaougdimt valley stage no harder than anything you’ve just done. Carefully ridden, a big bike could manage the loose hairpins; so could a 2WD with clearance, though as always these mountain tracks require concentration. On an MTB it will be a slog if not a push up to the Tizi n Oulaoune, followed by your freewheeling reward and no more steep grades.

Route finding
mh20-igliEasy enough. We winged it just by studying Google satellite imagery beforehand, jotting down some distances between junctions. That’s now all listed below. Download the MH20kml file.
Alternative route: at the old ‘Afra’ sign at KM23, a rough but Transit-able track goes east 9km to join the new Igli road; see map right. But the highest part of the new road, which rises to over 2550m or 8300 feet, is as yet unsealed for another 8km but in Spring 2019 was being worked on.

Suggested duration
Half day will do you.


Route Description
0km (88) Talat n Yacoub fuel station on the R203 Tizi n Test road. Head north to Ijoukak.

3 (85) Pass through Ijoukak, cross the bridge and turn right up the side road. Soon you’ll pass a nice-looking auberge.

11 (77) At the fork before a village turn right, drop down over a bridge and carry on. Soon there’s a sign right: ‘Ouadouz/Ouneine? 24km’ (it’s something with ‘O’). The 500m climb to the pass begins.

19 (69) Tizi n Oulaoune 2200-m high point. The track now eases off as it descends. (Photo, bottom of the page.)

23 (65) Fork with sign (photo below: ‘Map Junction’). East at this fork is a rough track which in 9km job s the new road to Igli as mentioned above. Keep right (south) to continue descending to the villages in the Ouneine basin visible to the west. Eventually at a junction around KM35 you join the new extension of the P1735 which is goes E towards Igli over a 2500-m terrace. The P1735 crosses the basin SW and threads through a small pass back into the hills.

mh20km23

mh20ouaval54 (34) Sidi ali ou Brahim. Turn sharp left, drop down to the stream and up the other side. The track is initially a bit eroded and loose as it climbs to the first village, but that’s why they invented suspension. It then eases off as it rises above the valley on a terrace (right) with great views down to the villages below. You could be in the Cevennes or the Pyrenees, but you’re in the High Atlas. It could be worse.

78 (10) Join the tarmac (MH6) by the reservoir.

83 (5) Roundabout on the N10.

88 Aoulouz fuel station/s.

mh20desc

 

Fortnight’s camel trek in Mauritania

Just back from a two-week camel trek in Mauritania, walking with a mostly French group of 14 from Chinguetti (‘la Sorbonne du desert’) to Terjit (map, left), about 150km. For the first two days over the rim18 - 11dunes we were accompanied by a crew filming a report for a French TV station on the return of tourism to Mauritania (see below).
Of course tourism never really stopped for independent travellers (compared to Algeria)  and despite the killings and kidnap
pings of a few years ago (including an rr21entire French family in 2007, right). But the recent resumption of charter flights bringing much bigger groupsrimadvmaps from Paris directly to Atar (not via Nouakchott) was something for local tour operators to celebrate. It is probably the result of revised travel advice issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (left). You’ll see they critically (and imo, correctly) extend the ‘travel if you must’ orange imontheplanezone further east compared to the British FCO. It makes all the difference for local tourism because in that orange zone most of what most people want to see in Mauritania is easily accessible. Our weekly plane chartered by Le Point (with seats sold on to other operators) was packed out.
rim18 - 53The Vallee Blanche is the longest trek Le Point offer, but in terms of landscape and pace, maybe not their best depending on your previous experience. Horror des horreurs, we even walked along a road for a bit. Our guide recommended the 8-day Amatlich Erg walk – fewer interminable rocky plateaux he said, but then that’s all part of the deal in the desert. Wherever you go, it’s a variety of sand, rock and passing landforms that’s the key to a satisfying experience. I got the feeling that by day 8 or 9 most were counting the days, partly because the 25km/day pace had dropped by over 50% (as planned) by which time the 6-hour lunch breaks were exceeding walking times.
The fact it was unseasonably hot, with temperatures of over 40°C in the shade, may have tempered enthusiasm, but actually the morale and ambience of our group was very good; most had done previous tours with Le Point, including Chad which can be a tougher call. rimshaderThe Adrar at this time is usually in the low 30s – as it was on our very last day to Terjit, but most days it really was too hard to move or even stay awake for long, while lying under an acacia between noon and 3pm.
The plus side was that being on the trail before dawn was great fun, although I’m not sure what shape I’d have been in had we walked 25km/day for the full two weeks. So in fact the long siestas were the right thing to do. We’re not all huddled round that meagre shade tree on the left just because someone has cracked open their stash of Haribo Yellow Belly Jelly Snakes. We’re gagging to cool down a bit. Much depends on the terrain of course – is dodging trackless rubble worse than sinking into ankle-deep sand? They’re about the same once you add your daily endowment of aches, pains and cumulative fatigue.
All this was eased by a hard-working crew (left) plus our guide Mohamed who, it must be said, was feeling the strain after a busy season tramping around the desert with us nasranis. (There was no French-domiciled accompagnateur, not a need for one; with a Brit group it might need to be different.) I was just relieved I had a fully charged Kindle to help pass the long hours hotmaninching along with the shade from 11am till 4 or 5pm. By then it wasn’t going to get hotter, or the remainder of the day’s walk was short enough to not matter so much. One night it felt like it didn’t drop below 30°C and after a week of this everything, even your toothpaste buried in your bag, is hot and stays hot. I’ve not been in such heat for so long since an early-80s moto trip to Algeria, rim18 - 22mistakenly taken in September fun-hot-libwhen it was hotter still. Oh, and Libya in April 1998 (right); also very hot. Both were quite shock and yet watching our Mauritanian camel crew stride along in their flip-flops from camp-to-camp without rests and after spending over an hour locating and laboriously loading over a dozen camels makes you wonder what you’re whining about. You got to take your cheche off to these guys.
As it was, a couple in the group chose to ride when weary, and another couple had reserved camels to ride whenever possible. If you take this option, good saddle padding is essential, especially on the backbone. Me, I like to walk – some days more than others.
Sleeping out, I was a bit concerned that le chaleur might bring out the spiders and snakes everyone talks about in the desert. I heard later that the guides had indeed spotted a snake on night one, and again at Berbera guelta, but I never even saw any tracks. I suppose the good thing is that, besides being too big to eat, at night a reposing human is not much warmer than the surrounding desert and so not that alluring.
rim18 - 47Compared to my Algeria camel trips (here and here) I have to say the service was as good if not better; it’s only a shame the fresh lunchtime salad couldn’t last beyond day one out of Chinguetti. After that it was cous cous/rice/pasta with tinned fish and hard veg at lunch, and the same but with veg stew in the evenings, plus soup and tinned fruit for afters. That said, rim18 - 39we got two goats (right) which we didn’t have to buy, sandbread baked every night and pancakes every morning. And there was never a shortage of water, even for washing. After a while you do crave fresh fruit and veg as well as cool, clear water, but despite what you might call a ‘high-carb’ diet I managed to lose 4kg which I happened to have going spare. Heat kills the appetite which is why I’m currently dressed in three ski suits while doing Hot Yoga next to the radiator.
giftshopOne thing that spoils the Mauritanian desert vibe for me is the endless ‘gift shops’ unrolled at many desert stops and every nomad camp. In this way Algeria feels more sauvage; on the Immidir treks we might come across a family  of feral goat nomads in 11 days and never ever see car tracks. But as I recall from the late-90s, wayside trinket markets were always the way in the Adrar, as it was in the Aïr of Niger. And anyway, not everyone may have as replete a collection of cheches, stone tools, teapots and other desert souvenirs like me. At one place I noticed a women selling an unusual fulgarite necklace among her collection of silver jewellery.
The large group size didn’t really bother me, perhaps because much of the chat went over my head, but probably because it was a good group and anyway – resting or on the move there is plenty of space, it’s not like comfychairbeing stuck in a bus. Plus you imagine people who choose to take a two-week walk in the desert in March aren’t going to be complainers. Having said that, you do wonder if Homo Sapiens’ mysterious Great Leap Forward; the so-called advent of behavioural modernity 40,000 years ago is attributable to the invention of the comfy chair. Or maybe that’s where it all went wrong.
cropped-cam2dins.jpgIt’s interesting to observe how the Frenchies (and the few Belges) are much more casual about desert walking than some Brits brought up on the exploits of tormented ex-public school masochists like Thesiger, Lawrence and maybe Michael Asher. Le Sahara to them is just a holiday destination like Vanuatu, not necessarily a place to pit yourself against the elements to within an inch of your life.

tik
Straight out of Atar into the desert.
rim18 - 26Great value at €1200 + €55 airport visa
Pre-dawn starts. Feels like a proper desert trip
Sand-baked goat x 2, merci beaucoup
A shady acacia just when you need it
Great crew from Mauritanie Voyages
Wheat flour sandbread, not heavy tagela
Afternoon at Berbera oasis
You’ll get plenty of dune walking in

cros
luncharnLack of prolonged remoteness (to be expected in the Adrar)
Flatish landscape out east
Trinket stalls every day
Pace slowed too much (but just as well)
Nescafe – in the end, undrinkable whatever you try
Missed fresh lunch salads and fruit, too
Oued Abiod; the better places were off it

You can watch the 4-minute French TV report here. We didn’t encounter the army patrols featured in the film – they were up north shot later (so to speak). But it reminds me how brilliant drones are for desert filming. Makes me want to do more walking in the Sahara, but maybe not in a springtime heatwave.