Freesteel Blog » Morocco – New Year 2001


Morocco: New Year 2001

To cut straight to the page of what I learnt from this trip read organising future caving expeditions to Morocco. Otherwise you will be subjected to a long-winded and personalized write-up of this holiday on this page.

This caving holiday was quickly planned to fill in the gap over New Year since the usual ritual of drinking beer until hung-over has been done enough times to learn lessons. Why Morocco? Not many people knew about it, except that it has caves. It is also close to Europe. I have been to Majorca six times and the name sounded the same. Becka searched the internet dredged up a single message posted to a notice-board in May from a Mohamed who lived in Beni Mellal. He was inviting cavers to come to his country and go caving. Seemed okay. We exchanged emails with a guy called Mohamed for a couple of months, not getting much of an idea of what it was going to be like, until finally we just decided to do it. Andrew and Juliet, from Bristol, also wanted in our New Year plans, whatever they were, so we bought plane tickets for them too. We also bought one of those “Lonely Planet” type guidebooks, fetched a load of old club rope, and had a backup plan to convert our trip into a standard backpacking holiday (with unnecessarily heavy backpacks) in case there had been a terrible misunderstanding.

Beni Mellal from Abdu’s roof.

I don’t think Andrew understood at first the vacancy of our plans. None of us knew anyone who’d been to the country in the past twenty years. We found very little caving related literature in places like the UBSS library. As far as guidebooks go, Beni Mellal is barely on the map except as a bus station. We failed to get answers to basic questions such as: “What is the average temperature of the caves?” to know how many clothes to bring. Mohamed was meanwhile bringing up news about his friend Abdu, who was a professional mountain guide who could knock up a seven day itenary of four wheel drive transport and trekking across the mountains, including a one day visit to a cave, for a large sum of money. We got across the point that this was not the idea. We were only interested in caving, and whatever means of transport and accomodation the locals use to visit the caves would do for us.

The Moroccan government takes tourism pretty seriously. For example, realizing the utter pointlessness of things like entry visas and airport taxes, it appears to have abolished them for foreigners. They do not take kindly to fake guides ripping off gullible tourists, so they have passed strict licensing laws. If a local Moroccan is showing you around his country, the police will check his papers and give him hassle, but they won’t care about you. Mohamed had to inform the local authorities before we arrived to go caving …. I think this was to keep him out of trouble rather than us. Foreigners can probably get away without it.

Destination Casablanca

Becka chipping at the stone wall that is AirFrance’s customer service.

After Christmas, Andrew drove from his parent’s house in Southampton, to Sevenoaks by London to pick up Juliet, through Cambridge to pick up me, and then on to his parents’ second house in Manchester, all while listening to a stack of depressing CDs. Sociable family Christmasses must have taken it out of us for if we had spoken a word we could have spared ourselves two hours of driving: if he’d wanted to be accurate, Andrew should have described his parent’s second house as being close to Preston – further away from Manchester Airport than, for example, Liverpool where Becka was staying with visiting parents and the offer of an early morning lift to the airport. It was so dumb being there that we retraced our steps back to the M62. We spent the evening packing, got to bed late, and got up early to find 10cm of snow on the ground and the closest gritted tarmac ten miles up the motorway. A taxi would have told us to get stuffed, but parental power was willing to have a go, subject to grumbles about risking a dented car.

We heaved into the airport on time to find that the plane had been cancelled and there was a line the length of the terminal building queuing for the one AirFrance desk which was issuing alternative tickets. There were other AirFrance desks, but the people behind them, although perfectly capable of reissuing tickets as well, directed you back to this desk in the hope that you would give up and go home and no longer be a problem. There is no compensation for cancelled flights due to the weather because — apparently — snowfalls in late December are considered an “Act of God”, and as such are as unexpected as, for example, an earthquake. Two hours later we were issued with tickets to Paris on a British Airways flight. The plane change in Charles de Gaulle airport for the onward flight to Casablanca would have been tight, but they booked it anyway. The check-in queues for British Airways flights would have been around the block had there been a door to string out of, so instead it was all folded up like a fallen over stack of coins. Then check-in desks broke down. A man stood up and told us how he was going to lead us all to another set of desk and would we please be kind and not push in in front of one other. What a joke.

The plane was three hours late and we arrived in Paris after the Casablanca plane had departed. Now AirFrance told us we had been “Flimmed” and we were British Airways’ problem because their plane had been late causing the missed connection. It was somebody else’s fault. We went from desk to desk. BA said this story was bull. The plane was already delayed when they booked us on it. AirFrance said the weather was an “Act of God” so they weren’t going to do anything about putting us up for the night in Paris until another flight to Casablanca came along. Their 9pm flight was was fully booked, although it hadn’t been at the time when we rearranged our flights in Manchester in the morning at a time when they could have given us the slack. It was difficult to argue. Every time Becka thought she was getting somewhere with someone behind the desk they’d leave and be replaced by someone who spoke less English. We changed terminals, at last found a helpful person (who was wearing a “new employee” badge) and discovered that there were in fact spaces on the Casablanca flight on account of so many other flights into Paris being cancelled. We landed in Casablanca at midnight, arrived in the city at 1am and, because it was not Europe, found a hotel for a reasonable price.

Abdu doing a barbeque in his kitchen.

In Casablanca and Beni Mellal the ATMs work, so archaic devices such as traveller’s cheques are as pointless as they are in most parts of the world. We took the CTM bus to Beni Mellal in the morning which took six hours. The country is hot and dry and absolutely flat all the way from the coast to the foot of the mountains where Beni Mellal is. We piled off the bus into the bus station with all our excessive load of baggage and sat on a bench wondering what to do now. So few tourists who don’t know what they are doing land here that there isn’t an industry of hassle merchants to tug you in the direction of their guest-house/restaurant/carpet-shop/whatever. We were left alone not knowing what to do.

Then this smiling guy toting a mobile phone showed up and talked us and our luggage into a couple of “petit taxis”. Having travelled enough to hear the usual horror stories, I became slightly concerned. However, nothing was going wrong, and everything was going right. Abdu, for that’s who he was, took us to Mohamed’s house where we were fed dinner by his mother, and then led up some medieval streets to Abdu’s house where we stayed the night.

Everybody must get stoned

It was just like we had joined a caving club the day before a weekend caving trip. In the morning we went shopping. You recognize the standard stuff for a camping trip such as tins of tomatoes, pasta, jars of coffee and jam, but then they insisted on getting four kilos of sugar blocks which did seem over the top. Carbide can also be bought in half-brick-sized rocks if you know where to look because it used to be a standard source of light before everyone converted to camping-gaz lamps.

Above the entrance of the first cave, home to a flock of angry choughs.

After a long delay, Mohamed found a truck to take us straight up the road into the mountains overlooking the city, in the Bouimoura area. From there we walked for an hour to an entrance he wanted us to have a look in. A friend of theirs, Khalifa, who lived nearby and whose house we would be staying in for the night, joined us for the week as a handy helper. He moved our non-caving related luggage from the road while we went caving. The cave was Ighi Yamna Gouffre, a vertical entrance, and our bolting kit was included in the non-caving related luggage. Khalifa was sent to get it. The sun went down while we waited and a flock of noisy black birds flew backwards and forwards trying to get into their cave for the night. Becka moved all of our stuff away from the entrance and we stood back while they darted into the hole like a stream of arrows. Once Andrew had received his bolting kit and rigged the rope he refused to go down the pitch because the cave was too full of disgruntled birds trying to roost.

The local Islamic prayer leader chats with Mohamed while some other guy brews up some Moroccan mint tea with as much sugar as can be stuffed in the pot, doubled.

It was now completely dark. Mohamed and the others were warming themselves by a fire. We detackled and carried our stuff partway down the hill and across a coll to a stone house intending to leave it there for the night to save taking it all the way down for the next day. The woman in the house took a fright, thinking that we were demons and treasure hunters come to drink the blood of her infants, having seen our procession of carbide lights snaking its way out from the cave to her door, and threw fist-sized rocks at us. She scored a direct hit on Andrew’s head, but he was fortunately still wearing his caving helmet. The rest of us gringos dived behind a cactus leaving Mohamed and Abdu to sort it all out and explain to her what we were doing (quite hard since going caving makes no sense). Once the problem was resolved we left our packs there.

Abdu was embarrassed, but I thought, all things considered, that her superstitions were at least self-consistent. If you go caving in Hicksville, USA, the farmers will shoot you in case you are coming to steal their land (how can you do that?), and you should feel grateful to them if you get a quick and only moderately painful death.

Khalifa and his fine mule. More reliable and less temperamental than my car.

Down at Khalifa’s house everything was warm and cosy. Well, the kitchen was hot and smoky and okay so long as you crawled through the door and didn’t raise your head more than a metre from the floor. We retired to one of the other rooms spread with carpets and waited to get served our food. There were a couple of guys there whom I didn’t understand their connections. I gave up trying to understand the world as everything was becoming too surprising. I saw Moroccan mint tea being made and understood then how three people expected to get through four kilograms of sugar in as many days. Mohamed tried to entertain us with some terrible jokes and I couldn’t remember any of my own to tell. However, I did remember a couple of tricks with a serving spoon and two pieces of string. I won’t explain them now, but here is a timeless piece of advice which I will now endeavour to follow: Before you spend an evening with people whom you don’t share a language, culture or anything, learn some magic tricks which you can practice because they are ideal in these circumstances. In fact, I would propose the anthropological question: give that all humans enjoy magic tricks and that they take little talent to learn and perform (unlike, for example, singing), why are they not prevalent among folk and passed down the generations like nursery rhymes or food recipes?

We went back up the hill to pick up our gear. The man of the house in which our gear was left came out and gave us a warm greeting and apologies, and then proceded to give Khalifa a heck of a serious bollocking for frightening his wife, before turning on the charm and aplogizing to us again.

The birds had left Ighi Yamna cave. We went down into it to a bouldered slope which stopped at the end with a small chamber and a grumpy bat on the ceiling. We taught Mohamed and Abdu a little bit of prussicking on a rock outside, but the pitch head was too difficult to bring them into the cave.

The postal snake

Becka checks the depth of an entrance that has been baracaded rocks to stop goats and small children falling in it. If this was Europe they would have built a handy privy over it, but here it was used only for the disposal of dead snakes and wild dogs.

We headed for our next cave not knowing how far the walk would be. Travel tip number 2: get good walking boots. Mine were thin and not up to the job of traipsing down steep paths made of sharp rocks. I have no idea how heavily laden mules and donkeys walk on this. We crossed the Timsit area to reach Adouze. We arrived at the entrance on a hillock just below a house. There were cliffs on two sides of it. While we sat there and sweated, the local Berbers pulled out the rocks they’d blocked the entrance with for safety. The cave blew out a draft of warm smelly air. Before it got completely dark (and while Andrew and Becka rigged the pitch), Juliet and I went around the bottom of the hill looking for the second entrance through which the air must be getting in. We failed to find it. Mohamed later told us that the farmer said the way out was halfway up the cliff. Some time ago when they pushed a wild dog in the top (probably one with rabies) it found its way out several days later.

Abdu begins his second ever prussick with a combination of brute force and ignorance.

The pitch was a scrotty rift that went down for about 40 metres and then along through great banks of batshit. I’ve never come across batshit before, but I’ve heard it’s bad for the lungs (though this might just be bullshit), so we were less than enthusiastic to grovel through all the small holes in the cave. I found a couple of skeletons of small dogs or sheep (I don’t know which) in hollows of the rock, but did not find any good ways on. We all climbed out to a freezing cold windy night and walked around the corner to the house in which we were staying. I nearly set light to their dried-twig ceiling with my carbide light, which would have been embarrassing. The view from the front door looked out over the lights of Beni Mellal and the Moroccan plane. It was New Years Eve. At the stroke of midnight, nothing happened. Not a single firework. Not anything.

Becka makes a surface survey with some onlookers. Later on they helped by holding the tape, which would have been great were it not supposed to go in a straight line.

We wasted some time in the morning looking at the local grain stores. There’s probably a story about why the people used to store their grain in walled off enclosures halfway up a cliff rather than in their houses, but I don’t know it. We’d carried our heavy bags of rope and kit down the hill and up to this place. Then we had to carry everything back up the hill, past the house where we started at and further up the slope to a series of three caves at Taouloute (two gouffres and one grotte, ie two with vertical entrances and one horizontal cave) which Mohamed had partly explored. He had been lowered down on a rope by four friends into the first gouffre, and hadn’t enjoyed the experience. We rigged it on rope and sent him and Abdu and another friend, Khalid, down on SRT and back up again. It’s bad enough teaching SRT to an English speaking person. To someone with it as their fourth language (first three are Berber, Arabic and French) it gets pretty tricky.

The middle hole in the ground was a grotte, a horizontal entrance. I felt too queasy to explore it and slept out in the sun. The final hole was another gouffre which we didn’t bother going down. Mohamed had a theory that these three entrances were connected, so Becka and I surveyed between them, and partways into the two caves we had explored. Andrew was losing enthusiasm at this point. We had wasted a lot of time having another nice picnic brought up to us by donkey while we were underground (how could we refuse) and he was keen to get to bed early so that we would be up in time to get to the next cave Mohamed had planned for us.

Berbers on the rocks

Your donkey is packed!

Getting away was delayed by a hearty breakfast of coffee, pancakes, baked bread, fried bread, jam, scrambled egg and fresh squeezed orange juice. We sat there and did nothing, not even wash up, as if we were in a restaurant. Then we tottered down the hill with our packs and one loaded donkey to the road and caught a couple of taxis to the next valley and Friata village. After a quick trip round an olive oil factory and a long wait to find a mule (it was market day, so they were scarce) we headed up the hill and parked ourselves outside another Berber house at Tafrent being fed lunch till the owner of the house came by and gave us permission to stay there. Then he led us up the side of the valley to the Gouffre des Pigeons. There used to be a lot of pigeons there till someone caught them all in a net and sold them to market. Only two species of bird live in caves: choughs and pigeons. Choughs don’t get caught because they are black and devilish. And the pigeons are exactly the kind which have taken over our cities throughout the world. If choughs weren’t so shy they could have done it too.

This is inside an olive oil factory. There’s none of this poncy “cold” pressing and filtering here. They grind up the fresh olives, stones and all in these big dishes, then press the resulting mash between a sandwich stack doormats and separate out the water. What you get left with looks and tastes like olive flavoured mud.

This cave, like all the other caves we did, had been visited before. Mohamed and Abdu climbed down the entrance pitch and started a fire while we rigged it with a 10 metre rope and had a look at the second pitch. The locals do not know much about what the cavers find, but can always tell you how many hours a particular group of cavers several years ago spent in the cave. Andy rebolted and rigged the rope-singeingly dry 80m pitch and lost enthusiasm at the bottom where it was full of old tree branches and a desperately steep soil slope. We convened in a hollow in the soil and rolled rocks down the rest of the way which seemed to go forever. It was already 8pm and we decided to clear out.

Back at the Berber house our meal included funny olive oil, butter from the cows and a dish of acacia cactus honey collected locally. The milk came from a couple of cows in the corner of the enclosure. It’s ironic how the poorest people here eat only free range chickens, goats and sheep and organically grown vegetables which are such a luxury in England. All the domesticated animals have been bred for so many millenia that they are like tools such as a plough: the chickens wander around and find their own food, come inside for the night and don’t care if you pluck one of their number on the doorstep in sight of them. The goats practically herd themselves. And the donkeys, I have never seen such a stoic animal. They stand there like wheelbarrows and amble down to the market with as big a load as can be fit on their backs, eat some rubbish at the side of the road, and lead you back up the hill. But I don’t know if the owners even give them names. If you try and offer one a sweet it does not know what to do with it.

Waiting for the Mule

Abdu cooking up dinner for us again (having comandeered my caving light). Being a bachelor he is an excellent cook, especially with the Tagine.

The next day my stomach was funny and producing a smelly burp every five minutes. We went down the hill, caught a lift from a truck and were dropped partway up the track in the next valley, at Ait Hammou Abd Es Salam. It took until late in the afternoon for Mohamed and Abdu to find a donkey or mule for our stuff. We walked up further than Abdu had told us it was going to be. It was nearing the last day and we had plans of heading up much higher in the morning to visit the Cave of the Bears before coming all the way back down and getting a lift into Beni Mellal in time for Mohamed to do his one day of work the next day. Finding a place to stay was as awkward as finding a donkey, it turned out, so when a schoolteacher passed by and kindly offered his rooms we moved in, guiltily knowing that he had no idea how many people there were with us and how much stuff. While Abdu cooked dinner, Mohamed took Andrew, Becka and Juliet into the lovely Manssour Cave near to the town (while I rested) and returned at midnight.

In the morning Abdu decided that Bear Cave was too ambitious and scratched the plan. We cleared off having left enough baggage for two mules and went down the hill. Halfway down Abdu remembered Hyena Cave and took us on a shortcut off the road to visit that. Over an hour of tramping across acacia-cactus-infested landscape and asking directions from goatherders brought us to the entrance of a large chamber. We later saw documentation by some French cavers exploring the possibility of turning this into a show cave, concluding that the infrastructure (electricity, water, roads) was not available yet. It did show up a way, at least, that cavers can pay for their caving from regional development grants. It’s probably better than using the money to build five-star hotels for rich people, but still rather questionable since history shows that local people are rather good at exploiting caves for show wherever it is viable entirely without government help.

Entering the “Valley of Suffering” where there used to be water but now there is none.

We crushed into a taxi back to Beni Mellal with an extra day to spare and decided to ask Abdu to guide us on a nice walk around the Ouzoud Waterfalls, a popular tourist attraction complete with wild monkeys, while Mohamed was at work. Abdu came up with one that was pretty good, crossing a canyon, Ouad Elabid, with steep slopes on either sides. We didn’t carry enough water. The only food we’d brought was Becka’s dried figs and dates from England. Fortunately it was Friday, a holy day for Muslims. The village at the top of the gorge, Ait Alarbi, was having their post-mosque lunchtime feast. Since we were a group of so-called “passing travellers” they insisted on feeding us and serving us tea as part of their religious duty. Somewhat embarrassed, we demolished an entire mound of couscous. Abdu, still hungry, pigged out on the rest of someone’s tagine. After a quick prayer the group split and we went on our way. There was no proselytising or hassling us about our “beliefs” as you would expect from Christian group charity. Whether it is because people are more polite to strangers than people they know, my personal perception of Muslims is somewhat more positive than it is of Christians. Of course, the Western media gives Islam a very bad press which is not surprising given that it is dominated by Christians.

The walk brought us down to a cross-roads town much of whose population migrates to France for work each year. We downed bottles of coke and cups of coffee in a cafe until Abdu organized us a taxi back to Beni Mellal. With one evening remaining, things because quite hectic.

A guy from the Marrakesh caving club showed up with an awful lot of knowledge and paperwork which would have been useful a little earlier on in the week. We found surveys of some of the caves we explored in his photocopied pages. He apparently has links with French caving expeditions to the country, but doesn’t have sufficient time to put in to establishing and keeping alive a thriving Moroccan caving community. We didn’t have enough time to talk. He spoke good French and no English, which brings me to my important tip number 3: brush up on your French before you go out to Morocco. Since most of Morocco’s interaction is with France, and the French are generally unwilling to countenance people using English at them under any circumstance, Moroccans only learn English as a second foreign language.

We also had the embarrassment saga of paying Abdu since we had, due to shyness, neglected to agree on a rate beforehand. He was unwilling to give us a figure since he had intended giving us this help because his friend Mohamed, who had invited us, was not equipped in terms of experience for leading foreign tourists into the mountains. However, since he had taken over and led us on walks and to caves in practically a professional capacity (and this job was his only source of income) we felt we had to pay him. We eventually extrapolated from a figure he had mentioned in conversation about working for the travel agencies, went to an ATM and fetched the money while he finished cooking dinner.

Juliet sitting in the entrance of Hyena Cave.

After an extended stay in someone’s house, English people traditionally take their hosts out for a meal on the last night as a note of thanks, and so that they don’t leave behind a house full of dirty dishes. This was not a Moroccan tradition because restaurants are never as good as home cooking, either socially or culinarily. Andrew was fascinated by Abdu’s traditional earthenware tagine pot enough to want one of his own. This was, of course, a complete pain to get back on the plane. On the other hand, we lightened our load considerably by donating all our used ropes (they were now out of date) with the intention that they would be used for tying up mules. We also donated an oversuit, a carbide set, several head torches and my old boots which I never want to see again. The head-torches may be a waste of time because the Wwhite Horse batteries, the one available brand around Beni Mellal, powers them for less than twenty minutes. We decided that leaving an old SRT kit behind would be asking for trouble but, in the future, a compass and clino would make a good donation once a context for cave surveying has been established.

On the way back, AirFrance tried to strand us in Paris again with a lack of follow-on boarding cards and a twenty-five minute plane change in their outrageously confusing airport. The snow was entirely gone by the time we got back to Manchester, so it looks like we’ve missed it for the year.

Final thoughts: Morocco is one of the friendliest countries I have been to. Due to the lack of a tourist infrastructure in the places we went to trekking or caving (which is part of the attraction of those places), a guide is probably a necessity. No one can predict how successful a caving expedition from England to Morocco will be in terms of discovering new caves, but it is easy to organize and well worth a go. Read the follow-on page for a few thoughts on how it could be done. I expect I will be returning soon, once all my other travel plans have been worked through. Whether it’s for caving or tourist trekking out in the open in places I haven’t seen depends on what happens in between.

For direct contact with the guide, find the CV at Abderrahman TISSOUKLA. And a more general web page inviting you for “Tourism of Adventure” at Beni Mellal [–added 12/2002].

Julian Todd 10/1/2001.