The High Atlas (Part 2)

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Wed 24 Sep 2014 08:11
13 September 2014

We bid farewell to Ali and Shemule who were heading back up the way we had come the day before and set off down the steep slope to the bottom of the Tessaout valley where the river exits the Wandras gorge on its way to the villages of Tasgaïwalt and Amezri.

As we headed upstream, we enjoyed the lush riverside vegetation which included mint and other herbs; a refreshing change from the dry thorny bushes we had become accustomed to. Cordelia filled her pockets with mint to add to our 'até' and I watched dippers skimming the water.

Tessaout river downstream of the Wandras gorge

We arrived at a rickety bridge made out of branches laid across stepping stones, from here the river sides steepened as we entered the Wandras gorge. According to the guidebook, we would encounter the first 'bad step' of climbing grade 'moderate' after four hours, then thirty minutes later the second 'bad step' grade 'v. diff' (very difficult) with 'pitons' in the rock to attach safety lines to. All three of us are capable of leading v.diff though both Cordelia and Franco are capable of much harder climbing.

As we advanced we were awed by the towering golden cliffs on either side of the river, we were constantly having to cross and recross the watercourse to avoid getting our feet wet, there were many signs that the valley is frequently used; the occasional discarded sardine tin as well as man-placed stepping stones. Increasingly we were having to scramble up and down the banks and over boulders, eventually we reached a small waterfall. Here we climbed up on the right hand side, we wondered whether this was the first 'bad step' but it seemed a little too early as we had only been going for two and a half hours.

Half an hour later we arrived at a second more impressive waterfall and we found a bolt (rather than a piton) half way up an obvious climb. It looked more difficult than a v.diff and very much more difficult than a moderate; the cliff was overhanging and to fall would be bad news.

Franco lead. The rocks above the overhang were rounded with no obvious hand holes, he was struggling to find a way to haul himself up. Above him a Lammergeier vulture soared I wanted to watch this amazing bird which would occasionally land on a ledge way up the cliff side but I had to keep my eyes on Franco as I was belaying him. Franco succeeded in attaching a sling to the bolt while muttering to himself "when in doubt - cheat", he stuck his foot in the sling and up he went. Phew! Cordelia and I followed rapidly behind.

We rated this climb as at least v.s. - very severe, much more serious than a moderate. It is plausible that a ledge has fallen off since the author came this way or (and this would be worrying) he has mis-graded it. If he rated a v.s. as a moderate then how hard would his v.diff. be? Would we be able to climb it? It would be a very long way to retrace our steps out of the gorge and back over the mountain to where Ali would be waiting for us.

First 'bad step'

We were still unsure whether we had just climbed the first or the second 'bad step', we had reached it in three hours so the times didn't correspond to the book. As always when in doubt, we stopped for lunch.

The gorge was fabulous, golden rock formations, Berber summer cave dwellings, goats skipping around on the high cliffs above and higher still Bonelli's eagle swooping for its prey.

We walked for another fifty minutes and just round corner there was another waterfall, much taller this time and a long way above it,  the way out. A loud bang: thunder, followed by lightning and more thunder, we found the climbing route over on the right and as we reached the top of the scree slope just below the climb the heavens opened and we were pounded by hail stones! Inch'Allah. If you are a climber you will know all about wet limestone.

Franco set to task and made short shrift of the 'v.diff.' despite the wet rock. I swear I heard him muttering "good thing I'm more of a paddler really". Cordelia went next and I brought up the rear. On Caramor we have a 60m rope for our climbing forays, we thought it would be overkill for this trip but it was only just long enough as we were using it doubled and the climbing pitch was over  thirty metres by the time we had reached the top of the terrace, rather than the "twenty" described in the book.

Climbing the ‘second bad step'

At the top of second 'bad step' looking back down the gorge

We gingerly worked our way along the exposed ledge around to the waterfall, it looked worse than it was. Cordelia asked "Is that the last of the climbing?" I wouldn't have liked to say. A few steps further on we came to a small man-made wall built to stop livestock from the top end of the gorge straying as far as the waterfall.

Another short climb up the right bank and several more scree scrambles and gradually the gorge widened to become a valley and we walked out the head of the gorge into the familiar landscape of the Tarkeddit plateau.

We passed blankets drying in the sun after the heavy showers, donkeys peacefully grazing along the stream and ladies doing the laundry. We arrived back at the Tarkeddit camp at half past five, tired but elated. Ali saw us from a distance and fetched water from the fountain to make us a well- deserved cup of até.

Ali had been cold the night before so Franco treated him to a night in the refuge, where he was fed fresh bread (we could smell it baking) and delicious tagine while the rest of us had to make do with 'Kath's bad couscous' again! It was another cold night, I wore all my clothes in my thin sleeping bag and lay awake shivering while Cordelia slept contentedly 'snug as a bug' in her down bag.

14th September 2014

Our last day, a long day for Ali and Shemule, they would be retracing their steps from day 2 and day 1, meanwhile we would drop down below the Tarkeddit plateau to meet the Arous river and follow it downstream, thus avoiding the steep climb to Tizi-n-Tarkeddit.

The trekking guidebook says of our route "8 hours, moderate - an interesting gorge variation, involving an abseil". About the abseil it says "the waterfall is circumvented by an 18m abseil (piton belays)". Ali said "don't bother taking lunch, I'll meet you at Café Atlas and we'll have lunch there". I stuffed my rucksack with musesli bars, regardless.

The first part of our route is shared with those climbing Ighil M'goun.

Mule caravan on its way to M'goun

Where the path crosses the Arous river we turned off and followed it, the helpful stepping stones soon ran out and we were faced by a big drop behind a large boulder, we would have to get wet, there was nowhere to go. We hesitated, this was hardly a 'moderate trekking route'. We looked at the alternatives: climb all the way back up to the plateau and follow the route taken by Ali or follow the track to the foot of Ighil M'goun and cut back to the Arous valley over a col. Both would take hours and we had to get back down to the Aït Bougamez valley that night in order for Cordelia to catch her flight the following evening. We went for the gorge.

We were constantly wading knee deep and sometimes higher in the river, we scrambled down boulders, down-climbed cracks in the rock, slithered through mud and bird faeces. The gorge was very narrow, a genuine canyon and Cordelia remembered that she is claustrophobic! At last the waterfall, we hoped for some bolts to which we could attach the rope, or at least the pitons mentioned by the author. We searched and searched, eventually we found the screwholes where the bolts used to be. We sacrificed one of our slings to set up a belay using a hole in a rock and abseiled safely to the bottom.

First abseil

The guidebook says that the gorge widens out after the waterfall ... only it didn't. On and on we went, it was raining now, not much but here was not the place to be during a thunderstorm. We hurried on. Another waterfall! and two bolts right above it, we were going to have to abseil right down the middle of the waterfall, we would be absolutely soaking! Franco went first, a loud shout, then he appeared safe at the bottom, a big grin on his face. I helped Cordelia clip into the rope and she quickly disappeared into the waterfall. My turn next, a couple of seconds in the water and then you break through and descend behind a curtain of water. Fantastic!

We all had big grins on our faces, what a fabulous place!

Another impassible step, three metres at most but high enough to hurt if you fall and no helicopter at the end of the phone to come and collect you, so we set up an abseil. Each time we abseiled we were having to leave some gear behind. We hoped there wouldn't be too many more difficult sections as we would soon have no gear left!

Soon the gorge widened and we were walking on shingle beds. We stopped for some food and to dry out our clothes before regaining civilisation. We were delighted, it had been difficult at times but we had made it safely.

Cordelia and Franco

On the way out of the gorge we admired thin airy waterfalls dropping into the river, we met a shepherd and passed a leat built by the Arous farmers to irrigate their fields.


Arous fields

It wasn't long before we were back at Café Atlas where Ali and Shemule were patiently waiting. We gulped down the compulsory soft drink and a quick lunch and set off down the valley as the storm broke, rain poured down, the path turned to mud, villagers ran for shelter and we plodded on glad we were no longer in the gorge. Inch'Allah.

The rainbow over Aït Bougamez

Back in Imelghas we spent the night at Hussein's, his wife cooked us couscous and kindly let me in on the secret. So next time I see you, I will make you Berber style couscous. Hussein speaks perfect French and we learnt a lot about Berber customs and Morocco.

Hussein’s wife at her loom

The next morning Mohammed, our taxi driver arranged by Hussein, drove us all the way back to Rabat. He had never been to the capital and his eyes were out on sticks as he negotiated three lanes of hectic rush-hour traffic to the airport where we waived goodbye to Cordelia. Franco and I then directed Mohammed to downtown Salé where we took a wrong turn and ended up in the Medina before eventually making it back to the marina and Caramor.