Category Archives: Africa

Getting There…

Link to Morocco Part 1: Marrakech

Mercedes with 527,000km

Our Joy Rider (with Rolling Stones headlight decor)

Taghia is tough. Getting to Taghia sets the tone. I met Juan, Alvaro, Carlos and Heraldo at the Marrakech airport at 7:45, just after the northern African sun had set and the night began to cool. My four companions had arrived together and were waiting for both me and the hired car to arrive. We took the car Juan had arranged with our gear haphazardly strapped to the roof for the next eight hours.

The trip was not too far but the car was old. All night, oncoming cars flicked their high beams at us. Where the lights aimed was the least of the things to worry about in this old Mercedes but apparently not everyone on the road could see that. The speedometer ticked off a marvelously low 0 kph though I am certain we did about 90 kph (56 mph) at times. Fortunately the mileage gauge stuck at 527,000 km so we didn’t have to worry about how far we went (for when we had to walk back). The young driver made two roadside stops after using his cell phone light to check the engine temperature gauge. During the stops he popped the hood and refilled the radiator while we four burst from the back seat to have a stretch and a piss while Juan laughed from the front. I wouldn’t say we were uncomfortable but with four men in the back seat two had to lean forward nearly the entire ride for space reasons. By one in the morning this was not a problem as we figured out we could place one of our bags on our laps and lay forward on it to sleep between potholes.

Berber Woman

Young Berber woman on the side of the road to Taghia

As we neared Zaouia (after a two-hour detour to buy necessities) the road became less and less “finished.” At some point a lug nut detached itself from inside the right rear wheel. Luckily the hub cap kept it from escaping to the road and it only clanged along with us into the mountains rhythmically. In one of the very small towns we had come to, the boy pulled to a stop next to a large house that was under construction. From behind a cement wall lumbered a large Moroccan man, greeting the boy and then us. Juan valiantly tried to communicate to find out where we were and what was going on but gave up with a shrug of his shoulders as he told us he was pretty sure we had further to go and that the man would drive us now.

Less than an hour further along the four of us in the back seat jumped from our dazed state as the bottom of the car bottomed out on a large rock. The man stopped after scraping the overloaded car backwards off of its perch. We got out and helped him move a large boulder that seemed to have intentionally been placed in the middle of the dirt road. A hundred meters on and we stopped again. Another large boulder. Beyond it two more lying together. We moved them all and walked along beside the car to keep some weight off the low rider. When we found a spool of high tension power line we stopped and conferred. The car wasn’t going on… the road was clearly blocked for a reason. Without much debate, and hoping Juan knew where we were from his previous trip, we grabbed our bags and started marching.

Farm fields on the way to Taghia

Corn and potato fields on the way to Taghia

By four in the morning the silhouettes of a few small structures appeared out of the dark night. We had made it to Zaouia, our pick-up point for the donkeys the next morning.

After an early start and a hearty breakfast under a portrait of King Mohammed VI, we set out with two fully loaded donkeys. We walked along a fast-moving stream among terraced farm fields. The land was harsh and the stream bed soon became the bottom of a twisting gorge.Small orchards lined the way between naught rows of weak looking corn. Ingenious mini-canals cut away from the stream and ran along the trails and then into small shacks that dumped the water back into its current. Inside the shacks water wheels turned car alternators to push electricity along the black cords hanging along our path.

Donkeys on the path to Taghia

Donkey Jam

After passing between the steep sides of Isfoula (2553m) and Tilemsine (2615m) we were able to see the cliff faces of Oujdad (2685m) and Ifrig towering above the yet seen village that hid in this remote mountain landscape.

Our Berber donkey boss was a young man. The eldest son of Said Messaoudi, the owner of Gite Tawajdat, black lines tattooed beneath his eyes. Permanent mascara to help with the bright son, it made his eyes look sharper. He bummed smokes from Juan and gave the donkeys a whack every now and again when they decided to take a break. They knew the way and where all the good spots to stop and eat were.

Moroccan Donkey Guide

Our Berber guide to Taghia

Taghia blended with its terrain. The rocks that made up the walls of its homes were the same grey and purple hues of the scree that lay in every direction. Steeply growing up the mountain sides it occupied, we were in the middle of Taghia before we knew it. Between the flat stone structures ran children, chickens and sheep while a few dogs barked aggressively from the roofs of their owners houses. All around us were the mountains and cliff faces we had come to climb.

We had arrived in the Cirque de Taghia Zaouiat Ahansal and gone back in time 200 hundred years.

Beautiful Oujdad on the path to Taghia

First glimpse of the faces we had come to climb

Link to Morocco Part 3: Crushed Head

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Bloody Helmet

Link to Morocco Part 2: Getting to Taghia is tough

Not too many people outside of the climbing community go to Taghia.  There is no hospital in Taghia and so there I hung, 25 meters above a rushing mountain stream, as warm sticky wetness dripped down my back.  I had definitely just blown it.

Juan crossing the dry stream bed to my Taghia Hospital; a.k.a. where my helmet was when I should have been wearing it...

“Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck”

Alvaro yelled up from below, “Are you alright?” His tone indicated that he wasn’t quite sure if I would answer.

“Yeah.” I said feebly.

I reached my right hand up and touched the back of my head and felt the blood that was leaking.

“Lower me a little.”

As Alvaro did so my feet wobbly touched the ledge I had miraculously not collided into as I careened upside down the 9 meters to my point of impact.  The fucking rock had broken on the first pitch of the first climb.  Shit.

I took off my shirt and tied it around my head as tightly as I could.  Then I stopped again, tried to chill, wiped some blood from my neck and forehead, and looked at my dully aching arm.

“Alvaro, I think I can go back up and get the gear.”

Juan who had appeared from inside the narrow gully further up-stream yelled something to Alvaro who couldn’t see me.  Then asked if I was O.K.

“Yeah, I think so.  Just cut on my head.”

Juan yelled back over the sound of the water, “Good.  Alvaro can lower you and he and I can get the gear.”

Minutes later I stood next to the stream watching red drops come off my blood soaked shirt run down my arm then drip into the clear mountain water.  I took off my harness and handed it to Juan who stood close by watching me.

“Don’t go back without us.  We will get the gear and come right back down.”

I agreed then walked to a small cascade and stuck my whole head under the frigid water as I washed the blood off my shirt.  I climbed out, sat down and re-tied the shirt around my head.  What a stupid move.  I had left my helmet on my mattress in the small Hutte we were staying in not expecting to climb… paradoxically I had brought a rope, harness, shoes and gear ‘just in case.’  Bad decision.  I surely couldn’t climb with a cut that would reopen and bleed half way up the 600-meter face of Oujdad in the High Atlas Mountains.  At least I was in a beautiful place and my brains weren’t spread out all over the ledge I had narrowly missed as gravity showed me who was boss.

A few minutes later, Alvaro, Juan and my new friend (the headache) joined me.  We started back to the Hutte as ominously dark storm clouds appeared from the East.  I wished the clouds had appeared an hour earlier as I walked slowly on with unsteady feet guided by unsteady eyes.  Within seconds of stepping into the shelter of the rustic Hutte operated by Ali and his family the sky opened.  I made to go and clean myself up while Alvaro and Juan went to ask about bandages. At some point Alvaro also snuck back into our room and snapped a quick photo of my helmet.

Lara working while a storm raged

The Angel of Taghia removing my 6 sutures after a beautiful week of climbing!

The nurse-climber in action...

As I washed the last bit of blood from my chest and hair Juan walked up and said that there was a nurse with the Italian party that was in the Hutte with us.

A few minutes later the angel of my trip showed up with a rather large first aid kit and an Italian friend, video camera in hand.  As the lights went out in the Hutte a small collection of Italians and Spaniards gathered while Lara the Italian nurse simply told me that she had sutures and that I needed some but unfortunately she did not have any anesthesia…

“Sorry” she said under the light of Juan’s headlamp.  The next minutes were spent digging my fingers into my legs, or anything else that happened to come close, every time Lara pierced and tugged.

Flooded stream bed in Taghia

Six stitches later we all walked outside where the dry stream bed that flowed past our Hutte to join its larger sibling (whom I had bled into) was a raging torrent.  The rain had stopped and the post-storm dusk light lit the scene well.  The dry bed was raging full with mud filled run-off as I realized how lucky I was… because of my cut I had narrowly missed getting stuck on the cliff in a downpour which would have made my first day of climbing in Taghia, Morocco not fun at all.

One question lingers: Was it kind of Alvaro to qualify my stupidity with evidence?  Leave a comment; let me know what you think. Maybe I’ll even post the picture!


Marrakech, Morroco… on the way to the Atlas Mountains

Cobras

Snake charmer in Djemaa el Fna

My senses awake as I enter the North of Africa.  Arriving in the hot morning with no plan or reservations I hop on the local bus (L19) and take it to the center of Marrakech’s medina, the Place Djemaâ el Fna.  Using one of the plaza cafes to get my bearings I drop my bag, sit down and order a Berber whiskey more commonly known as mint tea.  Trying to appear less bewildered than I am, I see monkeys being dragged around on chain leashes and groups of snake charmers blaring away on Pungi’s with their black Egyptian cobras and puff adders coiled in front.

Marrakech’s red medina walls reverberate with the sounds of Afro-Arab culture as old-world donkey carts roll among the traffic of daily life.  Snake charmers, storytellers, and musicians of all variety captivate Moroccans and foreigners alike.  After stumbling around some narrow streets, I find a riad that I like.  With a pocket full of dirham (DH) and my bag stashed, I head back out for the streets.

I am not a shopper, in fact despise having a lot of shit.  However, the souks of Marrakech captivate me.

Typical shop in the souks.

In the circus of stores aggressive salesmen were surprisingly kind, hock handmade crafts of every variety.  I actually enjoy this shopping.  I feel good about getting a good deal and giving these people some hard-earned cash.

The place comes alive at night with food stalls that magically appear.  The music, already intense becomes more layered with varieties of texture.  Like a loosely woven blanket the thread of one group weaves with another.  It is overwhelming as the sounds surround you.  There is no escape.  It seems best to sit close to one group and let their music entrance you.  It’s very clear how one could be influenced and controlled like a charmed snake by this place.

“Almost” beautiful dancers draw a crowd.  They wear veils, only showing the skin of their hands and ankles.  But, they have no curves?!  These are the she-boys… they can move with best of any belly dancers.  Across from them the marketing department of a food stall yells, “Tastes like chicken.” Then, “Hey, Ricky Martin and Jessica Simpson, come sit here.” His food looks good and the stall is up wind from the greasy steam of 100 other stalls blazing away.

Dinner in the plaza

I sit, ordering some stuff, not too sure what it is, but definitely consisting of vegetables, couscous and some seafood.  Perhaps seafood next to the largest desert in the world is a bad idea.  I eat with my clean hand and share my table with a longhaired Japanese guy who has a tongue ring (I mention the tongue ring as it makes for one of those awkward moments that is completely due to my own stereotyping that I will mention further on).

A British couple sitting across from me asks to settle their bill, throws a fit, “We didn’t ask for that. I’m not paying for something you just brought to me.”

I think, seriously? This lady is upset over 50 DH… less than 8 dollars.  Not to mention she did eat what they brought her.  Embarrassed by my occidental peer, I decide that I will be gratefully generous when it is my turn to pay.  Talking to my Japanese table guest I find out he is extremely well-traveled.  Although this is nearly always the case with Japanese people I meet on the road.  He explains that this will be his last big trip as his marriage is planned for the following year.  This is the awkward cultural moment as the Chris Rock spoof song No Sex in the Champagne Room plays in my head, “if a guy has a tongue ring he’ll probably…” Because we are communicating rather poorly and I have this Chris Rock song in my head I decide to play it safe and say, “Oh, your spouse (gender neutral) doesn’t like to travel as much… that’s too bad.” The conversation peters off, as I no longer know what to say.  I feel ridiculous.

The night rushes on, children boxers, more music and another mint tea overlooking the plaza.  What a scene.  The people are grateful for every Durham you share and Arabic word you attempt.  They make this circus a comfortable spectacle that I will not soon forget.

Walking outside the "red" medina

Transportation Details:
Frankfurt Hahn (HHN) to Marrakesh (RAK) via Ryanair 177€ round trip with extra bag
Marrakesh Airport to Place Jemaa El Fna via local bus 19 (L19) ~2€ one way (20 Dirhams)
The local bus system is easy to use, safe and inexpensive

Accommodations:
Hotel Atlas, on the left down Rue pietonne (through the arch and down the ghetto alley right of Cafe Glacier) ~8€ per night (90 Dirhams)

Useful Info:
There is no black market for money so you don’t have to worry about getting a bad exchange rate. Any booth or bank will give you Dirhams at a fair value.

Link to Morocco Part 2: Tough to get to Taghia


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