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Cardiff Air Cadets on Atlas Mountains Expedition
14 staff and 20 cadets from 1344 Cardiff Squadron, Air Training Corps, have just returned from their first overseas adventurous training expedition in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco. The Atlas Mountains are a mountain range across a northern stretch of Africa extending about 2,400 km (1,500 miles) through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The expedition lasted a week and included a day in Marakkech before being transported to Oukaimeden at 8,600 feet in the Atlas Mountains to begin trekking. They had no experience of expeditions in Morocco and so this expedition was arranged in conjunction with The Adventure Company, of Hampshire, who arranged a hotel in Marakkech and gite accommodation in the mountains, qualified Mountain Leaders, chefs, muleteers and mules to transport the food and main luggage on the mountains.
Many cadets were unable to afford the full cost of this expedition, so the squadron applied to 4 charities for additional funding to support the expedition. They all made significant contributions, and they are The Royal Air Force Charitable Trust, The Ulysses Trust, The Scarman Scholarship, The Jane Hodge Foundation, and finally a grant from the Air Cadets Region HQ (Wales & West).
Thursday 20 Aug 09 - Arrival
The group experienced very heavy rain on their coach journey to Gatwick but arrived with plenty of time to spare and boarded an Easyjet flight to Marakkech. The plane landed in Marrakech after a 3 ¾ hour flight where they met Abdu and Khalid, their 2 Mountain Leaders for the expedition. The temperature was, according to the pilot, a chilly 42 degrees Centigrade.
The team arrived at hotel Ryad Mogador after an interesting drive from the airport. Four lanes of traffic apparently driving in 2 marked lanes, and lots of dirty mopeds weaving around made things hair raising. Horn beeping indicates that an overtaking manoeuvre is about to take place, and the whole scene can only be described as organised chaos. To cross the road you walk out in front of the traffic and hold your hand up. It was very hot for a chilly day. That evening the group visited a restaurant in the centre of Marrakech for the first taste of Moroccan food.
Friday 21 Aug 09 - Tour of Marrakech
They were taken on a walking tour of Marrakech which is a curious blend of 3rd world basic living and the modern world. Mules work alongside motor transport and housing or shops were very basic but have electricity. Most electrical goods and furniture on display were 1970s style. There are very few modern cars and trucks on the roads, most taxis being very old Mercedes and small Peugeot cars.
The guide for the Marakkech tour and Khalid and Abdu are all Berbers, but whilst the guide books imply they are a separate culture these young men were very metropolitan and mixed culture. One of the guides spoke 5 languages. It was extremely hot again, but when it is this warm the daily variation of a few degrees is imperceptible.
They visited a Berber pharmacy in the Souks and after a glass of mint tea were educated on the different herbs oils and creams and their uses. The group then visited the Palais De La Bahia.
After the palace there was time for souvenir shopping before making their way to the main open square in Marakkech, Djemma el-Fna, where there are snake charmers and market traders. The walk back from the square to the hotel was very arduous in the extreme heat.
On arrival at the hotel they had a few hours playing in the hotel swimming pool. In the evening the group went back to the square, which this time was packed with people, and visited a nearby hotel for dinner. The roof garden of the hotel was covered in large dining marquees. Most people in the group had the same feeling about Marakkech - it felt like they have been there forever, and yet it was only one very long day.
Saturday 22 Aug 09 - Marrakesh to Oukaimeden. First day in the mountains
The overriding impression of both Marakkech and the journey to the Atlas Mountains was one of a lack of architectural style and of poverty. The mountains appeared very slowly through a heat haze. The mountain road as they climbed to Oukaimeden brought spectacular scenery and a few shops which appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. The road had shear unprotected edges but the scenery was a great distraction. Berber houses appeared in the hillsides. Most trees disappeared from the mountains at around 2000 metres.
The accommodation at Oukaimeden was dormitory style. At 8633 feet the scenery was rather like a cowboy western with grassy plains and mountains (usually covered in snow), and the temperature was more like a very hot day in the UK with a gentle breeze. There were mules, small cows and the occasional horse. Homes around the area are mostly hand built with dry rocks (for the Nomads) and rocks with concrete for the others.
In the afternoon the plan was to trek up to the summit of Oukaimeden at just over 9,800 feet, the highest peak in the area. They set off on the climb with the sound of thunder all around. The sun disappeared, and having climbed just over 100 feet had to stop to put on waterproof clothing. By 200 feet the rain was getting very heavy, and the guides wisely decided to abandon the mountain. Near the bottom of the mountain the rain turned to hail stones, vindicating their decision. At this height the hail stones really hurt as they hit your head.
Not everyone attempted the first climb because the altitude affected some more than others. Most people felt queasy, some felt sick and others had mild breathlessness, but the vast majority had recovered within hours.
The group finally set out again after an hour and climbed the mountain trail behind our gite. The same pattern began again with waterproofs being put on as it rained at 100 feet, but as the group continued the rain eventually stopped, and they reached the summit after an ascent of approximately 300 feet. The vista was breathtaking. The first mountain had been conquered.
Sunday 23 Aug 09 - In the Mountains, Oukaimeden to Aguersioual
Ten mules arrived the previous evening, and on this bright Sunday morning they were just standing still, untethered, with no thoughts of running away. The first thing you notice about mules is that they do not turn their heads when standing still. They just stare at whatever they have been pointed at. The group discovered later that mules walk faster than people on hills, so the mules would set off an hour or so after the walking party, overtake them, and arrive at the destination an hour or so ahead of them.
The altitude was still having an effect on some people so 3 staff and 2 cadets were taken by Land Rover to the next gite. The ride was very rough, and the Land Rover stopped 5 times for the group to get out and help fill in holes in the track to make it passable.
The morning climb up the first mountain to a height of 9000 feet did not take long, and the group stopped at this highest point in the trek for photographs holding the old Ynysybwl Ensign which is being photographed in as many locations as possible around the world by air cadets.
The terrain ranges from cement dust consistency to rocks and everything in between, and a trail is a 12-18 inch wide place where others have gone before – not always a proper footpath. The morning trek was 10km to a Berber village of Asamkru and was extremely difficult, with much of it along the sides of steep gradients or down steep rocky descents. The only shade to be found was underneath Juniper trees.
Light rain started as the group lunched under the trees, but as the lunch ended the rain became torrential and everyone had to rush to clear up the mats they sat on and put their boots back on. With waterproof clothing on they scrambled back up the village hill to be met by a torrent of muddy water which they had to get across. A Berber family gave them shelter in their barn. Whilst watching the floods develop a young boy was spotted trying to prevent the floodwaters enter his house. A group of cadets and staff and Abdu, one of the guides, went to help him dig a diversionary channel. Five minutes later they returned -mission accomplished.
The rain stopped and the guides arranged for one cadet suffering from dehydration to be carried on a mule to the next village. Sounds easy but imagine being scared of heights and then sit six feet up on a mule which is walking on an 18 inch wide unmade track with a long way to fall if you slip. Every step on the trail is an effort as you look for a secure place to put down each foot. The group had descended about 1000 feet to lunch, and then climbed 800 very difficult feet and finally descended a similar height down to the village of Aguersioual. The total distance travelled today was 19 km. Life is so simple and basic around these parts of Morocco. The weather had been so variable and the trekking was above the fitness level of the average 50 year old. The trek today took 10 hours, and noone will forget it. Nor will they forget the shower at the gite – just a bucket with a tap.
After dinner the cooks, muleteers and guides entertained them with Berber music and dancing, the music being made with metal trays, water carriers, saucepans and spoons. A fantastic cultural experience. The scene was reminiscent of African dancing.
Time in Morocco passes very slowly, approximately half the speed that a person would guess without a watch. By the end of this evening all cadets were feeling fine and only 2 staff were below par.
Monday 24 Aug 09 - Aguersioual - Imlil - Aremd
This morning one cadet and two staff were not well enough to walk. They were all taken by minibus to the next gite in Aremd. The trails on the 10km walk were wider and more solid and much easier to walk on, and it took just 4 hours. The temperature was high and at one point the group came across a channel of fast flowing water which they used to cool down by soaking their clothes and immersing their heads. The scenery is breathtaking and they passed through Imlil which is a very tourist centred village. A little while later they passed another mule and muleteer coming down a trail as they climbed.
The fitness and agility of the native Berber people in the group had to be seen to be believed. They run on slopes on which others would fall and they have the bounce and energy of a spring lamb. The group has been supported by the addition of muleteers and cooks whilst walking, and they would run ahead near the end of the trek in order to be ready with drinks and food when the group arrives.
Tuesday 25 Aug 09 - Aremd / day Walk to Sidi Chamharouch
This morning as the group set out they were passed by many local women walking up steep hills back to the village carrying grasses and sacks of feed on their backs and heads for the mules and goats. The men had all gathered at a house to build an extension. The community spirit in this Berber village is everywhere to be seen. It is incredible that despite their basic existence the Berber women and their children are always very well dressed, the women particularly often looking so brightly and smartly dressed that they look as if they are going out to dine, which of course they are not.
The group trekked 1300 feet up an almost continuous climb to Sidi Chamharouch which is a religious shrine where a holy man died. It is a place used by Muslims in the same way as a pilgrimage to Lourdes. People with health problems visit looking for a faith cure, and we suspect it is mostly used by couples who cannot have children. Some people purchased little mementos. Then it was down to a river for a tented picnic and a swim.
After the 9km trek back to Aremd the group passed a Mosque with the sound of young children chanting. The guide explained that this was the Koran school where children have to learn the Koran word for word between the ages of 3 and 7, after which they start normal schooling.
Wednesday 26 Aug 09 - Back to Marrakech
The group started with an hour's walk from the Gite down to the village of Imlil where they met the coach to return to Marakkech. Just above the village of Imlil the group saw the beginnings of Western civilised standards with a major road construction project under way with huge lorries delivering hardcore, and one lorry delivering stone which was then carried by mule up an incline to a house being built very much in line with our construction standards.
After a pleasant return journey to Marakkech most people stayed around the hotel in the afternoon to play in the swimming pool and experience a rare event in the Atlas Mountains - a HOT shower.
Thursday 27 Aug 09 – Return home
Today they flew home tired, having completed a difficult but very enjoyable trek in the High Atlas Mountains. The witnessing and, to some extent, experiencing the Berber culture has been an eye opener, making everyone appreciate the standard of living we have in this country, and this was equally as important as the actual trekking.
The heights and distances covered have been phenomenal and quite a strain on the whole group, but if it was too easy it would not be such a great achievement. I found that by the end of the third day trekking most muscle pains just disappeared. The Berber people are camera shy, hence no pictures of them.
Our appetite has been whetted. We can’t wait for our next adventure.
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