Moulzoune – snowballs and chocolate

Yesterday we took time out to do a family outing. Things here can be so busy it is good to reconnect around Anika. Going for a walk in the mountains is also great therapy for that ‘step-back’ perspective. Django came along too. Partly to motivate Anika who is still not keen on using her legs. He is also her best friend.
The walk begins in the valley of Moulzoune. Already just getting there is a magical break from the world of people. We pass through the market town of Belesta. Then the road climbs up towards the Sault. We pass under the shadow of the Pog, on top of which is Montsegur. Passing Montsegur we head down the D9, turning onto the D909. Rising into old forests, the D909 continues on to a ski station. We turn off onto a rough track marked by a hand painted notice about a commune forest and a mine.

The rough track in the snow and ice is pretty sketchy. Best done with a 4×4. In place north facing – the snow drifts had built up on the road. After a few kilometers the track ends at a carpark with a picnic area. It feels surreal. A tiny encampment of civilization in the wild. Perhaps in summer the feeling is different but right now we feel remote, far from anywhere.
Landrover Defender wolf

Anika Django Defender
The trail starting at the carpark goes up to a lake, now drained. It is used in the summer for salmon breeding as part of a re-populating program. A sign informs fishermen that they can keep any trout but to please put the salmon back in the water.

The lake has a foot of water under the ice. A network of flowing streams. One after another, we find our boots break through the ice into the water. The snow here fell heavy a week ago and is now frozen under the blue sky.
Ice on the lake
Above the lake is a lost quarry. It was for talc. Abandoned in the forest are machines once used to extract and transport the rock. Iron cast frames, cogs, motors, train carriages. Above the quarry are some ruins, perhaps the crew sleeping quarters.
Moulzoune trolley lift
The Moulzoune quarry
Our walk ended here in a fantastic snowball fight. If we had the energy, we could have continued upon to the col, where a natural doorway opens through the shoulder of solid rock (Carrière de la Porteille (1650m)). That leads onto the Jasse de la Taula, a round mountain top overlooking Montsegur. Not the tallest mountain but spectacular. Then there is a path back down to the car making a 3hour loop. That is for another time.
Anika and Django

Agouti village

We have spent the day winding through extraordinary landscapes that could be from another age. It has felt like entering a fantasy novel where mythical villages nest in enchanted valleys accessible only through braving impossible mountain passes.

Anika decided to take us on an expedition up a stream...

Anika decided to take us on an expedition up a stream…

The stream adventure required some bouldering... something she is getting good at.

The stream adventure required some bouldering… something she is getting good at.

The mixing of humans and nature is seamless. Villages are intentionally coloured in the local rock. At times a village has grown to cover the lower ochre rock and higher altitude yellow tan rock. In this case it uses both colours. The effect is a chameleon characteristic that hides the village from the eye of strangers. Some villages are built on top of tall mounds, commanding spectacular views, with fortified earth walls giving the appearance of giant ant hill. Now and again we pass an old Kasbah, testament to days when kings and sheiks fought over these lands.
One of many nameless villages built into the hill

One of many nameless villages built into the hill

Another village

Another village

Notice how buildings colour themselves according to the bedrock.

Notice how buildings colour themselves according to the bedrock.

Agouti Village

Agouti Village

The land around is intensely used for agriculture. Terraces abound but they are not built to great lengths as if they are ragged scars. These terraces are short, ad-hoc constructions that are as fragmented as the tumbling rocks. They form beds for trees, wheat, fruit, grass. The terraces are then irrigated through a complex network of narrow water channels. Some channels are mud, others stone or cement. They feed off the plentiful rivers, running at great lengths through the valleys.
Zil re-fills the water tank from a mountain stream. A dozen village kid came to hang out with us.

Zil re-fills the water tank from a mountain stream. A dozen village kid came to hang out with us.

Throughout the hills are long haired sheep. They have brown faces. There are also (though we have not seen them yet) wild boar, mouflon and gazelle. Once these mountains had lion too.

Our trip so far has taken us past Achaouikh, into the Ait Bououli valley. This valley is famous for its petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings dated at 4,000 years of age. We never made it to the carvings as they are 14km up a trail into the mountains. We did spend time playing in the river, climbing rocks, splashing in waterfalls. Its been a glorious sunshine day though the air is mountain cool. Going through Ait Bououli (and the village of Bououli) the road ascended another mountain pass to come down into the village of Agouti. Here we are camping for the night.



Its been a long day, of breathtaking views. We gave lifts to several Berber hitch hikers. The roads are mostly tarmac though there is a graded section from Achaouikh for about ten kilometers. There are no difficult sections though at times the road gets very narrow. The few river crossings were straightforward as there has not been heavy rain.
Ruined farmhouse or kasbah?

Ruined farmhouse or kasbah?

From Agouti we plan to head north to Azilal.
We have stacks of photos but the internet is too poor to upload any.

An Oasis in the desert

Date palms of the oasis
Guelmim is a rough trading town that straddles the desert and Morocco proper. There is a large market, plenty of contraband tobacco, cheap fuel smuggled up from the south, and heavy military presence.

First task as evening came on was to get the down pipe on my second fuel tank welded back together after it fell off during the shakes. Then we restocked with some food. As it was getting late there was little point in hitting the N1 so we headed for an oasis seven kilometers distance, the same oasis where we had agreed to meet up with Saltman Frank for new years. The Ait Bekou oasis forms part of a chain of watering holes along the foot mud bricks used for construction.of the Anti-Atlas mountains and Sahara. It has the effect of creating a thin green line from Guelmim to Akka in the east. There is a rich history to this belt as the meeting place for Caravanserai, those coming up to the Maghreb and those departing back to the desert or even west Africa. Here they can replenish supplies, exchange information on the activities of bandits, wait for more caravans to travel in larger groups. The Ait Bekou narrow passages weave through the mud houses and palm grovesoasis has a three hundred year old kasbah that served as the meeting place for the tribal chiefs leading their caravans. Its fortified walls could safeguard the more precious cargo of silver, whilst slaves and salt were stored else where. Springs water the oasis, distributed along small irrigation channels.These can be opened or shut using dry mud so that the small fields behind high mud walls can get watered when needed. Tall date palms keep the oasis cool, whilst olive groves and other fruit trees are planted in peoples gardens. The houses are made of mud mixed with straw, two storeys tall with wooden beams to support the floors. The streets are raised up like dykes above the irrigation canals but still feel protected from the sun through the use of high mud walls.
Irrigation fields
The kasbah is now a museum founded by the current curators grandfather who amassed an impressive collection of Saharwai artifacts, from goat skin water carriers to camel saddles, jewelery, ornate boxes, Berber pillows, agricultural tools etc. The tour of the museum is short after which we sit in the courtyard under a Saharwi tent sipping mint tea.

In the afternoon we head back to Gelmim to recharge the internet key. Whilst there the three of us grabbed some lunch, delicious chicken tagine, salad, lentils, orange juice for 80 dirham (8 euros). A good meal sets me off for the long drive to Tantan. The meal was only upset by this Moroccan chap that insisted in sitting at our table and kissing Anika. His teeth were reduced to crooked black nails, dangling nerves, protruding from his swollen gums. Unfortunately I allowed the image to linger in my mind as I tucked into my chicken which quite upset my appetite. I suspect the chap is a local loon, who moved on when we gave him no attention.

The N1 is a two lane tarmac road, the highway to the south. It has been heavily used and little maintained so that the edges have been eaten away like piranha bites reducing the available space for when two trucks must pass each other at full speed. Several times I have had to drop my outer tires off the road. Much worse than the trucks are the coaches on steroids that keep to the middle of the road without dropping below 100km an hour. Like high speed train drivers they come past me with a gust of wind.

Whilst driving along the N1 we cross paths with the zebra stripe Toyota of German’s that we encountered on a piste. They flash as they pass us heading towards Guelmim. Given their direction I wonder if they found that piste to Tantan.

Shortly before Tantan and minutes before the bridge over the Draa river (just before the foreboding police checkpoint on the other side of the bridge) is a turning to the right advertising a paying campsite and Kasbah. It had been indicated by the veteran French couple from Plage Blanche that this would make a good stop. The sun was setting as we trundled along a rough piste to reach the campsite. The sky was a dark blue streaked with pink that made the walls of the kasbah glow a evening rose colour. The campsite is an unlikely hotel resort, a seemingly artificial green creation in the desert.
The desert hotel just north of Tantan and the Drau
Tapping wells beneath the sand it has become a flourishing oasis. The building is tastefully designed and decorated to resemble the ruined kasbah a stones throw away. Impressive gates lead into a large atrium with a pool. Small windows keep the roasting summer sun out whilst thick walls maintain a cool temperature. The electricity is powered from a noisy generator, the heating is solar. There were several overland Toyotas there and a twelve tonne MAN 4×4, all drawn to the luxury of hot showers, lush vegetation and commanding views from the roof terraces over the Draa valley. One night cost us 80 dirham (8euros) which is expensive when one considers the wide open desert which is all free parking. It is easily justified for the pleasure of showers and company. Parked near us were a Russian couple who come to north Africa every two years for the pistes.

In the morning we explored the old Kasbah. It sits on the next hill along from the hotel. Most of its walls are standing though its first floor has caved in. There are two towers of the sort that can be classically described as square set with a taper at their height with wooden poles protruding out of the walls. The ruin is quite abandoned and will not be there for many years to come, its mud walls collapsing inwards.
Moving on we pass through Tantan and several police checkpoints. For the first time since arriving in Morocco we are requested to pull over at a check point. The officer on duty only wants our fiches (print outs of our passport numbers, vehicle registration details) and wishes us a good time in Morocco.

Heading past Tantan plage (El Oatia) the perilous N1 now hugs the coastline which is unremarkable being flat with cliffs barring our access to the sea. We pass a small coral of campers that include the Austrians and Dutch in their 4×4’s. We picked up a Moroccan hitch hiker, a young chap on his way back to his parents in Laayoune. He is the epitamy of Maroc cool, thick hair combed back over his head, dark sunglasses, black satin shirt under a black blazer with satin lapels, blue Levis jeans hugging his waste with the aid of a large buckled ‘Levi’ belt, finished with brown suede shoes. Our destination is a spot recommended by the veteran French couple, a sulphur spring popular with French motorhomes. It is a delightful spot, beside a lagoon rich in shell fish (and birds) with dunes leading down to the Atlantic. The spring is like a tumbler of tonic water, sweet water in a stone bowl large enough to bath in, with strings of gas bubbles rising to the surface. It is not as strong smelling as Renne les Baines but is a delight none the less. The French here love it, washing in it daily. A local fisherman does the rounds here with his catch each morning and evening. His small head protruding out of an oversized frog-suit. Unfortunately last evening, after taking the orders for fish from the motorhomes, he proceeded to gut and clean his catch in the sulphur pool much to the chagrin of the campers, but he is an obstinate fellow and took no heed of their protestations. A German Samaritan cleaned up the mess after him.
Fisherman cleans his catch in the sulphur spring
The Moroccan hitch hiker remained with us for the afternoon. I had offered him a glass of rum and coke to wash away the dusty heat which he sipped at, getting progressively more wasted with each drop. He became quite hard work, bubbling away in Arabic quite oblivious to my blank stare, giving me big hugs and no doubt swearing eternal friendship. Feeling very pleased with himself he put on his walkman earphones and began singing away some Arabic pop song. Eventually he went back to the road but not before giving us his number and promising that if we get to Laayoune his mom will cook us the best couscous we have ever had!

There is a little girl here aged three which has taken a delight to Anika and her toys. Her parents are from Britanny and have been on the road since May, first reaching the arctic circle then tacking south east for central Turkey before doubling back to Morocco. They speak very highly of Senegal, having raised our expectations innumerably. Anika is not as patient with her as would please a silent observer.

Next stop is Sidi Akhfennir for our first taste of cheap diesel fuel. There have been several black market petrol stations on the road but for now we carry enough to hold us till Sidi Akhfennir.
Petrol station a la Sahara