What goes up…

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Montpelier le Vieux, on the causes north of the city of Montpelier, France. Erosional remnants create a “city” of  towers, arches, and other stranger shapes. To repeat an old cowboy line from Bryce Canyon, “It’s a tough place to find a cow.”

Some people have a fear of heights, some of water, others of confinement, and so on. Luckily, I do not seem to have any of them. What I do have is a love of the outdoors and also of novelty. Therefore, as I discovered the mountain scenery of Morocco, I also looked to some of its underground sights. Caves are common where there is limestone, since they are generally formed when acidic ground water slowly dissolves the rock. Morocco has plenty of limestone, as well as the water to dissolve it.

Some parts of the Middle Atlas look much like the causes of southern France, just north of Montpelier, where scrub vegetation, la garrigue, covers the limestone uplands. A variety of erosional features are found there, including collapsed surfaces and caverns.

In Morocco, the karst topography of the area between Azrou and Sefrou is plainly evident in the several small lakes, without inlets or outlets, fed by underground streams.

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Daya Iffer, karst lake and Berber tents, south of Sefrou
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Just south of Sefrou, Daya Afrouga, another karst lake, sheep drinking in the spring.

Springs are common, and sometimes they can be spectacular. The Ain Sebou, a large artesian spring which surfaces beside the Oued Sebou, is a good example. Diving into the cold, upswelling waters is an interesting experience.

Aïn Sebou. Notice how the clear water of the spring enters the muddy waters of the Oued Sebou,
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The gorge of the Sebou, just upstream from the El Menzel road. The Ain Sebou, is farther up the river, before it becomes a deep gorge.

The clear spring water tumbles over a small ledge into the waters of the Oued Sebou, which are usually colored by sediment from runoff, and the contrast, before they mix, is striking.

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The Oued Sebou, where it flows out of the hills down toward Fes and beyond. The Rif Mountains form the horizon.

For anyone not familiar with Morocco, the word oued is dialectical Arabic for a stream. In the Middle East, the word is wadi, and is used for dry valleys as well as rivers. In Spain, you might note that some of the large rivers bear toponymes beginning with Guad-, a prefix that was derived from Arabic, such as Guadalquivir (oued el-kebir) or “big river”. Even spoken in different languages, the name sounds virtually the same.

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The Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir at Córdoba. The great mosque, la Mezquita, has a cathedral rising out of its center. It is said that after having given permission to build the cathedral, the Emperor Carlos V visited the site and was so taken by the beauty of the mosque that he commented  “…they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”

In other places such as parts of the Rif Mountains, erosional remains such as natural bridges or even true caves give further evidence of water working on the limestone.

The natural bridge at Oued Lao seen from directly below. It was big enough to walk across in those days, maybe big enough for a mule or small car.
The natural bridge seen from the stream, Oued Lao, far below. The water, emerging from springs, is crystal clear.

Morocco has not make much of the tourist potential of its natural caves, and most guide books only mention them in passing, if at all. Some of this scenery is just a bit too far off the tourist track or simply not grandiose enough. Nevertheless, living in northern Morocco, it provided plenty of interest to me and did not demand long or difficult travel.

The city of Taza sits in a place where the Rif and Middle Atlas Mountains come together, about 70 miles from Fes to the West. To the east are the plains of the Lower Moulouya River, and farther the Oujda and the Algerian border.

Just south of Taza, is Tazekka National Park. Originally created in 1950 to protect the isolated cedar forest on Jbel Tazekka, the park was later expanded significantly. Within it are two sets of caverns, Friouato and Chikker. The latter are considered to be spectacular, but require specialized equipment and spelunking experience. The former cave, first expored by the famous French caver, Norbert Casteret, was developed by the French for tourism, but by 1969 had pretty much fallen into disrepair. It extends several kilometers.

The terrain between Sefrou and the highlands south of Taza, is relatively low. One June evening as I sat on my roof in Sefrou the flashes of lightning from a big storm over Taza repeatedly lit up the mountain skyline. It was far too far to hear the thunder, and there was no rain in Sefrou, but the light show was spectacular.

One Saturday I set off with a couple of PCV architects from Fes to visit the Friouato Caverns. I don’t recall that the drive from a Taza was very long, and you exit it on a high plateau surrounded by hills.

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These wide stairs lead up to a small entrance. They remind me a little of the entrance to the morlocks domain in The Time Machine. A portal to another world. The stalwart Willys Jeep is parked on the right.

Once at the entrance of the Friouato Caves, we found some rather plain and worn concrete steps leading down to a balcony looking into the first chamber which was about 400 feet deep.

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This was the entrance in 1969 or 1970. Steps take you to a kind of window into the first chamber, lit by an aven.
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The aven, created by collapse of the roof. 100 feet across, it illuminates the first chamber.

The room was illuminated by a huge aven (circular opening) about 100 feet wide. The view was impressive, but we had to ask ourselves, should we go further?

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Friouato. The stone steps lead to iron steps fastened to the wall of the chamber. The bright spot is sunlight from the aven illuminating the wall below.

Descent into this deep pit was by iron steps that the French had secured to the wall. We tested them, and took a chance, slowly descending. The only life we saw was an owl that we flushed from a crevice in the mossy wall. Finally at the bottom, the aven was now just a small light, far above us.

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The aven illuminating the first chamber from below, but not yet at the bottom. I have another picture from the bottom where it is smaller. The chamber was 400 feet deep.

We searched for a passage, and found one. With our headlights now on, we descended through a hole, down dilapidated wooden ladders, through rooms with seemingly bottomless pools. There was no noise, except for dripping water. There were few stalactites and stalagmites, but the rooms were mysterious and interesting. We only stopped when it was clear that our headlamps were dimming. We had no exact idea of how far we had gone, but as we had no extra batteries, we hurried out. We had no map with us, and didn’t have any clue as to how huge the cave system was.

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At the surface, in the afternoon. Dave and myself have just emerged.

The other cave I visited was Kef el-Ghar, which was in hilly land north of Taza, on the edge of the Rif mountains. From the distance, Kef el-Ghar is a dark elongated indentation in a mountain side. Entering it, we followed a rising, sandy path. At some point, we could feel bats flapping about, and, shortly after, I was disturbed to see a footprint of an animal, probably a dog or jackal. What was it doing, hundreds of feet into this cave, without any light to guide it? Despite the paw print, we saw no animals. The cave floor climbed and eventually we could feel the flow of air. After a narrow, winding passage, we emerged on the opposite side of the mountain. The cave pierced it!

On a dumber note, on the trip to Friouato described above, a dash board light indicated an electrical problem. I ignored it. So driving in the dark, mostly empty road between Taza and Fes, the old Willis Jeep abruptly stopped, and could not be started. The battery was dead. The problem was the alternator, and, without a charged battery, there was nothing to do. One of us had to hitch to Fes, about 45 miles away, find a tow truck, and have us towed back to Fes. It must have been 5 am when we got to Fes. That jeep was incredibly rugged and dependable, but when it needed an alternator, I didn’t listen, and paid the price. In 1968, it cost about $ 20 dollars to get towed all the way to Fes!

Taza, in the twilight, looking North. The Rif mountains are in the distance. Taza is the choke point between the eastern plains and Algeria, and the rest of Morocco. If you invade Morocco by land, you must control Taza.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

One thought on “What goes up…”

  1. Fascinating post. Again. Water courses and Morocco is something I had never considered. Love the links with France etc… Another informative post. If someone had said “come and see the oued, I would probably have said “cool, I play the guitar so that may be interesting”. But now I know they are not talking about an instrument! Not sure about going into long cave systems when I have no idea how far they go though!


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