Sunday, May 14, 2017

Morocco: the Mountains

We finished up at the beach and said goodbye to Tamri just as a flock of Bald Ibis cruised over our heads and circled over the river mouth. We stopped in for some some fried fish and filled a bag with all the fruit I could carry. I have to say, gorging on fresh fruit is one of life's sweetest pleasures! As I eagerly removed the peel with my fingers, I must have hit the right spot since it squirted its sweet juice all over my lap.

It was almost time to go but not before we paid the parking steward. Nice chap, he even gave us some Moroccan chocolate for the road.

Now, we had only 2 and a half days left and had still not seen most of the mountain stuff (including Tristram's Warbler). We had to chose between 2 options.

a) Go for Crimson-winged Finch at the Oukaimeden ski hill which would take 1 full day.

b) Climb Mt Toubkal (a highly desired peak for me!) and hope that we can get the Finch along the way (but was it a naive hope?).

Like John Muir, I felt a timeless calling to the mountains so for me it was worth the risk of possibly not getting the finch. I just couldn't justify passing up Morocco's highest peak to the mountaineer in me. Dom was kind of on the fence. Steve was slightly leaning toward Oukaimeden for the Finch.

I decided to not press my agenda until we'd had a good night's sleep. In the meantime, we had some work to do. We needed to find the Levaillant's Woodpecker AND Tristram's Warbler. A full day of driving and stopping at many switchbacks in suitable habitat was starting to frustrate us a bit. We even targeted our stops to encompass a range of altitude and blends of oak/juniper/pine as well as some poplar gullies, but were having no luck. We were so tired by this point we were starting to argue about where to camp and it became this obsession with finding the perfect clandestine camping spot. One of us would argue for where we were, then someone else would be like "no, lets push on further so the habitat is better for the morning" and "it needs to be flat with a good view" etc. etc.

We finally reached the Tin Mel mosque where we'd been told we'd be allowed to camp next to the mosque. However, it was already dark when we got there so we weren't gonna bother somebody with this odd request. The habitat around the river valley looked good enough so we parked in the back of a little gravel parking lot, pitched our tents and fell asleep to the sound of the evening call to prayer reverberating from invisible mosques all around us.
The Tizi-n-test pass (2092m)
Dominic's new Tinder profile pic
In the morning, we were up and birding the ravine. We were so happy we'd decided to camp there because the birding was amazing! There were melodious warblers, nightingales and hawfinches in full song. Steve's rage-o-meter spiked on the nightingales but their novelty soon wore off. I was pretty keen on seeing this 800 year old mosque up the hill but the others seemed pretty determined to press on to new sites before the morning died off. A young lad pulled up beside me on a scooter. I greeted him in french but was surprised that he spoke near-perfect english. He offered to show us the mosque for a couple of Euros. Yes! this was the perfect excuse to swing the vote in favour, and we were soon entering the only mosque in Morocco that allows non-muslims inside.

The 800 year old Tin Mel Mosque
As happens so often on these whirlwind-style trips, the best moments can be the ones were you just chill for a second and turn off the rage-meter. Not only that but Dom and I got a lifer right inside the mosque, not a place I would expect to get one! Magnificent European Rollers were nesting in little cavities in the sides of the mosque wall where some roof is missing, battling for airspace with Common Kestrels.

European Roller

Steve poses next to the last original cedar planks from the mosque
Tin Mel was so ancient and peaceful (aside from the battling rollers and kestrels) with its beautiful moorish arches and stone details that we left with a newfound peace. Levaillant's or not, this had been a special experience. We walked leisurely back to the car to continue our journey.

It also happens that when you relax your mind, your senses truly awaken and that's when magical things happen. I walked past an Argan orchard with Dom close on my tail. He suddenly stopped in his tracks and said "Levaillant's Woodpecker!" The thing flew right behind my back and in front of Dom, so I totally would have missed it completely. I turned and saw this red-crested beast jockeying from the back of a trunk and perch with its back to us. I don't know if it was just the excitement but this thing looked  massive. Not having my camera freed me up to enjoy perfect views of this beast through my spankin' new Zeiss Victory SF's...I cannot express it enough but if you have never viewed a Levaillant's Green Woodpecker through a pair of primo German optics in the Atlas mountains then it is a combination of thing you need to get on!
Levaillant's Woodpecker! (Steve Pike)
We drove away high on life. In my mind, I patiently restrained myself with my Toubkal agenda until the last possible moment so we could at least enjoy this awesome scenery!

An ancient Atlas Village
Then we arrived at the junction. Time to make a choice: guaranteed Crimson-winged Finch, or epic Mountain trek with uncertain birdy outcomes. We debated the options sensibly over some tagine when an old man asked if he could join us. "By all means." We told him we were thinking of tackling the mountain and 'as it so happens' he said he could hook us up with everything we need for a good price. That guy had us scoped out before we even got out of the car! We had succumbed to his Berber charm and he even managed to unload a couple trinkets on us. This whole trip Dom managed to buy only one thing, a rock. This time it was me letting my guard down (rather than Steve). And so off we went with a couple of gifts for my ladies and our guide hitching a ride with us up to Imlil, the last outpost for trekking to Mt. Toubkal. He hooked us up with crampons and a map and a secure parking space for the car and we were off by about 3 with a 5 hour hike ahead of us. 

The approach just past Imlil looking ahead
Damn this guy is photogenic. Also, he is single
Our first mountain climb together
We got to the top about 30 minutes before sunset which allowed us to set up camp. Dom had his down-filled jacket but was sorely equipped with a light tropical sleeping bag due to carry-on limitations. I knocked on the door of the Club Alpin Francais just up the trail to see if they could hook us up with a berber blanket for 10 Euros (and throw in a sleeping mat for good measure). This proved to be a possible literal lifesaver. There we were tucked in for bed, camped just outside the lodge property enjoying the company of some Moroccan campers. They never let you down when it comes to tea. As soon as we arrived they passed us two cups of tea from inside their tent! 

One question remained: where was Steve? It had been dark for about an hour and his headlamp was nowhere to be seen. We almost rock-paper-scissored for who was gonna go back for him, but I ended up just dragging my arse out of my sleeping bag and going. Luckily, he was only about 10 minutes away, albeit looking quite exhausted. A past accident meant that Steve's mountain capabilities are not quite as they were 20 years ago, plus his pack was bloody heavy what with the camera gear, so I hoisted the burden myself and we went up to the camp together, deciding he'd bird around the basecamp while we attempted the summit, which was crazy enough as it was with about 5 hours of sleep ahead of us. 

We were up at 4 am and hiking up the hard snow in the pitch dark with our headlamps and crampons. It was a solemn march. The higher we got, the more frequently we stopped. With only one route and no way to get separated I pressed on, impatient with the frigid cold temperatures and wanting to just get the ordeal over with. Each time I'd see a crest above me, I'd convince myself that that was the last of the slope, but about a dozen times it would only yield yet another massive slope. My body had become accustomed to life near sea level and we had rushed this climb, having no time to acclimatize. Could this be Mt Kenya all over again? My body said no but my spirit said yes, and I solemnly marched on, one foot in front of the other. Then I got so tired that my body was having a hard time keeping itself warm and I regretted not bringing my heavy gloves. A kind frenchman, Thierry, lent me his spare mountain gloves, which was enough of a morale boost to get me going again and we pushed on together. Finally after hours of climbing, I could see the summit in the distance. Still far (1 km by my reckoning) but "It'll do" I thought. 

Sunrise on Toubkal
I went into a semi-run when I saw that glorious metallic pyramid ahead of me. Hallelujah! I made it. I enjoyed the panoramic view for about 15 minutes, hoping to see Dom chugging away in the distance. I wanted to wait longer but something told me he wasn't going to come, and besides, I physically felt terrible! The altitude sickness was setting in, and it was time to go back whether I liked it or not. I found Dom sitting in the snow. He said he'd advanced a few inches in about 40 minutes, but at least he saw an Atlas Horned Lark which I missed. Yup, time to go back down and get rid of the sickness. We carefully made the descent with no regrets and enjoyed some Alpine Accentors and Choughs along the way, along with glorious scenery. The best part of going down was that having been the second party up, we got to pass all the late-risers going up. "How far is it?" they would ask. "Far" we would say, along with "bon courage!" or "no pain-no gain!" which returned a pep in their step taken away by the "far" part.
"I feel terrible"

We met up with Steve who was already packed and ready to go, so we said "in a bit" and he left us to pack up our own tent. During our climb, he'd managed to photograph a White-throated Dipper in the canyon. As soon as we lay down, a powerful lethargy set in and it became almost impossible to move. It took formidable effort just to roll over on my side like a seal to take a picture of this Alpine Chough and Accentor.

Alpine Chough: a bird with character!
Alpine Accentor
After a while we had to summon the strength to get up so we ate the last couple oranges we had left and that gave us just enough juice to activate, finally feeling the strength return to our muscles the lower we got. Unfortunately this meant saying bye bye to Crimson-wing habitat but oh well, you can't have everything in life.
This Seebohm's Wheatear was not hard on the eye though
A wild Rock Pigeon in it's native element
Alpine Choughs playing in the wind

We caught up with Steve just as he reached the village. Perfect timing! His news both excited and annoyed us: he had seen a Tristram's Warbler exactly where we'd stopped to sit down next to an orchard. It was way too far to go back. We'd have to get it by the roadside on the way back down the mountain. We made a few stops but were having no success. We got to the turnoff to the main highway and decided we should maybe turn around and go back to check more habitat, since our flight was not until the next morning. We were dead tired. This is when, heroically, Dave Bell messaged us from Canada with an urgent message. We'd asked him to check ebird a couple hours earlier and his reply came in with coordinates and dates for that entire stretch of road. We knew which one we wanted, it was this one nature trail that sounded good. We drove the 10 km back there and looked around but still could not find it. When Dom mosied on back to the car, I continued far up the trail playing the song from Steve's speakers as I walked, in a last act of desperation. Then, I heard the scratchy song. So far, I had practically yelled "Tristram's!" every second time we heard a Chaffinch, so similar are their calls. But this time, it was the real deal, no mistaking it. The little bugger popped out of the juniper for a perfect view. Wow, what a rush! I ran back down to get Dom and we both had perfect views again. Dave, if you are reading this, we both owe you a beer the next time we see you! 

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