Bouiblane and Moussa ou Salah

جبل بويبلان

On the plateau, just above Sefrou

In the nineteen sixties, there was no paved road to the foot of Bouiblane. Today there may be one, at least part way, and perhaps the slopes have been developed for skiing. I believe that the French, during the Protectorate, skied there. In 1968, the way in, whether you came from Sefrou or Taza, was by mountain tracks. Streams flooded the pistes, rockfalls blocked them, and in the cold months, snow on them increased the danger of slipping off the road, and potentially down some very steep slopes.

Travelling from Oujda to Taza, Bouiblane is visible from the plains of the lower Moulouya, and, of course, from the air.

The long crest is particularly evident from Taza. Aerial view.

Bouiblane also is visible from the region of Fes. The mountain was visible from my rooftop in Sefrou. It was my Kanchenjunga, and Sefrou, perhaps, my Darjeeling. Not the ominous looming presence of Kanchenjunga of the nuns of Black Narcissus, but a friendly, steady presence. The mountain beckoned. It was impossible to resist the temptation to see it up close. Ahermoumou offered a belvedere and a grand view, but at the price of a drive.

Jbel Bouiblane and Moussa ou Salah from Ahermoumou.

Climbing the stairs to the roof of my house was far easier. In the twilight on clear winter days, Bouiblane slopes slowly turned pink, as the kestrels living in the city wall did a few more acrobatics before disappearing into their holes for the night.

Bouiblane in twilight from the roof of my house in Sefrou.
And so we off we went, Gaylord Barr and myself, on one winter weekend, on the route de Bouiblane. I had been assigned one of the Peace Corps Willys jeeps.
Stopping to talk with farmers on route to Sefrou.

Strictly speaking I was not supposed to use it for tourism. And I was very good about that generally speaking. I used buses and taxis to go back and forth to my job in the Ministry of Agriculture in Fes, for example. The jeep would have made the commute much shorter and more convenient, but most of the time I read and enjoyed the commute. In restrospect, though, I wish I had used the jeep much more for touring my corner of Morocco. I never went to Erfoud and Merzouga to see the dunes, though I saw plenty crossing the Algerian Sahara after leaving the Peace Corps.
Gaylord and I set off with no good plan in mind. I think we knew that there was a forestry station or an old ski chalet at Taffert. It was probably mentioned in the Guide Bleu. We took some food and sleeping bags in any case, and made pretty good progress until the last 15 or 20 kilometers, where we began to encounter snow on the road. The jeep had off the road tires. They were not much good on snow. Coming around a long, deep curve, the jeep began to slide toward the edge of the road where there was nothing but a steep slope. Luckily I recovered control. From that point, we slowed down considerably. We also began to wonder how we would get back if it snowed overnight. We didn’t have a weather forecast, but the skies were clear, and, foolishly optimistic, we continued. It certainly would have been embarrassing to get stuck there.

Not long after the slipping and sliding incident, the road leveled out and paralleled the mountain crest. We picked up a local man and he rode all the way to Taffert, where, after thanking us, he wrapped his sandaled feet in rags, and made straight up the mountain toward the pass at the western end of Bouiblane, referred to as Tizi Bouzabel. A dirt road goes through it, and I imagine that once he was over the pass there was less snow and the going got easier. The sun was setting and it was getting colder, so we wished him well and he wasted no time. He was up and over before the sun set.

Gaylord and shepherd’s dog at Taffert.

There was a guardian at Taffert, but the building, though substantial, was dilapidated, and there was no fire to temper the cold. I reckon it wasn’t used much at the time. I don’t recall electricity either.

A view from the cedars of Taffert, just before sunset.

So we ate and went to sleep in our sleeping bags.
The next morning was grey and overcast, and the mountain, covered with snow, looked a bit menacing. We were still worried about the road conditions, so we left early and returned home. There were no problems but we drove cautiously.

The next trip was with Louden and his wife, Ginny, and their dog, Pigpen. We didn’t get very far past Ahermoumou.

The track was muddy and snowy, and the streams, with enough water to flow over the crossings, had to be forded. I think we gave up when faced by more serious snow. Pigpen loved the trip, a real change of pace from his yard in Rabat.

Jeep with Louden and Ginny and the dog, Pigpen.

That trip set the stage for the next. Don Brown, then an administrator, and formerly a Peace Corps volunteer in Oujda, had always wanted to climb Bouiblane, which he had frequently seen on trips back and forth to Oujda. Now we had a newer Jeep. Louden was there, along with a volunteer, John Paulas. Gaylord and I filled out the roster. It was spring and we started out very early.

Louden and Don, early stop on piste. Bouiblane on horizon.

There was no problem getting to Taffert aside from some fallen rocks.

A minor rockfall, Louden, Gaylord, and John.

I don’t remember whether we went on our hikes immediately.

The refuge at Taffert

I think Don, Louden, Gaylord, and John were set on getting to the summit of Moussa ou Salah. For whatever reason, I think it was weather, I decided that a shorter hike made more sense. I think I suspected that there wasn’t enough time. I climbed the little pinnacle to the left of the Tizi Bouzabel, directly above the refuge at Taffert, and was rewarded with some great views.

Looking east along the ridge of Bouiblane, toward Moussa ou Salah.
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Looking to the southeast, Jbel Bou Naceur, the culminating point of the eastern end of the Middle Atlas.

The others soon found out the obvious, that the crest of Bouiblane was a very long slog, and only took them to the saddle between Bouiblane and Moussa ou Salah.

Louden heading toward the ridge.
On the ridge.
Snowfield along the main crest.
Louden and his bota.
Clouds settle in toward the end of the day. Moussa ou Salah still far off.

From that point, they could see clearly that the summit of Moussa ou Salah was higher, but it was very late and they were tired, so they returned defeated. The next day it was foggy at Taffert so we returned home via the Sefrou track.

Gaylord and Don at Taffert.

This set the stage for two more attempts, both via the Taza track. Louden and John returned. Maybe Louden will elaborate if he reads this post, but I think he or John told me that that they went up in moonlight. It is only about a three or four hour climb, so perhaps they witnessed a sunrise, which would have been awesome. It’s always great to be on a big mountain at sunrise and sunset. In the Alps, this is often the plan as you want to be down and out of range of the rocks that hurdle down the snowfields in the warming sun of the afternoon. If you ever experience the sound that these projectiles make, you will never forget it.

Maine people await the first sunrise in the Lower 48 from Cadillac Mountain or, much more rarely, Mount Katahdin. I witnessed a sunset from Toubkal, but paid for it, descending through a damp and cold mist.

Tadat, from the shoulder of Toubkal.

I also saw a sunset descending the west ridge of Angour, and another from the summit of Tichoukt. One of my favorite sunsets, though, was from the summit of Pic du Midi de Bigorre, which resulted in a long, long moonlit walk down to a ski place in La Mongie. My companion and I were lucky it was a warm night, and the receptionist was surprised that we arrived at the nearly deserted ski resort without a car! We tried hitching, but very few cars were crossing the Col du Tourmalet that night, and none of them was interested in picking up hitchhikers in the dark.

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Sunset from Pic du Midi de Bigorre. August, 1965.

In May of 1970 I finally got my chance at Moussa ou Salah, when a group of staff and volunteers took a couple of jeeps in from Taza.

Taza lies in the valley between the Rif to the north and the Middle Atlas to the south. The spot marks an historic invasion route to Morocco.

The views from the drive to the base of the mountain were often beautiful.

Moussa ou Salah from Taza piste.
Moussa ou Salah from the Taza piste. May, 1970.
Moussa ou Salah and Bouiblane in twilight.

We camped overnight and climbed the next morning. The views from the summit of Moussa ou Salah were nothing special. There was a cairn on the summit. Was it a burial spot for a local holy man?

Summit cairn or grave with Bou Naceur in distance
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Summit ridge of Bouiblane, Tizi Bouzabel, and cedar forest at Taffert in the valley. I should have entitled this post, “I’ve looked at Bouiblane from both sides now…”

I think John Paulas and some Peace Corps trainees later climbed Bou Naceur, visible from the summit of Moussa ou Salah, probably in the summer. That must have been a long, hot and dry ascent. There is not a lot of water on any of Morocco’s mountains in the summer.

Morocco is such a beautiful country!

Bouiblane and Bou Naceur from the summit of Tichoukt

Springtime

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This shore ice accumulated after strong winds blew it out of Lake Erie and probably over Niagara Falls.

Before the Peace Corps, I grew up in the city of Niagara Falls, New York, a small industrial town on the Canadian border. The city sits along the Niagara River where early use of hydroelectric power fueled a chemical industry that sustained the city’s economy through the mid-twentieth century. Today the city’s economy is in a steep decline, a fate shared by many smaller cities in the Rust Belt.

Less a river in the traditional sense than a strait connecting Lake Erie with Lake Ontario, the Niagara receives almost all its water from Lake Erie.

The Great Lakes of the U.S. and Canada contain twenty percent of the world’s fresh water. Only Lake Baikal in Russia has about the same amount.

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An ice-covered Lake Baikal. 344 rivers flow in. One flows out, equivalent to the Niagara. ESA.

That’s where similarities end. Lake Baikal is over thirty million years old, far older than virtually any other lake in the world. In geological terms, lakes are here today and then gone in a flash. Baikal is exceptional because it sits in a continental rift zone. The lake is over 5,000 feet deep, and getting deeper. Its age accounts for all the endemic species found in it, including the only freshwater seal in the world. Its remoteness protected its natural setting until Soviet times, and because Baikal is in the middle of Siberia, the lake freezes over completely in the winter.

The Great Lakes are much younger, the result of recent glaciation during the last ice ages, a few tens of thousands of years ago. None are nearly as deep as Lake Baikal, but four of the five are relatively deep, so deep that they do not freeze over during the winter.

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A view of ice coverage in the middle of a harsh winter. Ice covers most of Lake Erie, but not the other Great Lakes. NASA

Only Lake Erie is so shallow that it exhibits a typical dimictic limnological cycle, where the lake water turns over en masse in the autumn and spring. Erie’s surface freezes solid during cold winters, too.

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A close-up of the ice on Lake Erie. The Niagara River is visible in the upper right of the photo. NASA

Yes, if you are intrepid, you can walk from the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, across the lake to the northern Ontario shore, though no one would recommend it. Winds cause the ice to heave and form pressure ridges that obstruct movement. And it would be a long, cold, and dangerous walk, and one strongly discouraged by law enforcement agencies.

Every winter the New York Power Authority, which manages a large hydroelectric plant in Lewiston, New York, just north of Niagara Falls, installs an ice boom across the source of the Niagara River at Lake Erie. Made of massive timbers chained together, the ice boom floats on the lake surface and keeps lake ice from floating into the river where it might clog the intakes to the American and Canadian hydro plants.

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The Lake Erie ice is held back by a boom in the lake. The Niagara River is ice-free except where ice accumulates in the gorge below the falls. NASA

Keeping ice from entering the river also helps to prevent ice jams, which sometimes cause serious flooding. In the mid-nineteenth century, an ice jam formed such a solid barrier that Niagara Falls actually went dry for a short time.

Since the boom floats, strong winds can force ice over it, which is part of the design. A few days ago continuous winds from the west blew so much lake ice over the boom and into the river that the ice continued downstream over the falls, through the gorge below the falls, and into Lake Ontario where it collected along the shoreline, which happens to include a part of my backyard. Hence the initial picture. Because of its depth, Lake Ontario never freezes over, but ice does form along the shore during the winter months.

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Typical shore ice that accumulates along Lake Ontario.

By the end of March this year, the shore ice had disappeared, but a few days ago it suddenly reappeared. It was Lake Erie ice that had made its way downriver into Lake Ontario.

This isn’t rare, and usually happens when the Power Authority removes the ice boom. In this case, it happened with the boom in place. The Power Authority just began yesterday to remove the boom, but the ice remaining on the eastern end of Lake Erie is now minimal. Today most of the shore ice is already gone. Diving ducks, geese, and an occasional loon are stopping  for a feed on their journey north.

My younger daughter, Kate, has been visiting, and Kate, my wife, and myself, wanting to get some fresh air, went into the city and walked down some newly created stairs near the Whirlpool Rapids bridge, part of a larger trail-building project in the Niagara Gorge.

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New stairs lead to the old gorge railway trail.

The stairs led to a section of the Old Gorge Railway roadbed.

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Rockfalls and frozen seeps are characteristic of the gorge in the winter and early spring
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I took this last fall when the Buffalo News was doing a story. The News photographer was adjusting his camera.

Early spring and winter are the least scenic times to visit the gorge. Fall is my favorite, though I spent many summer days fishing there.

Until the mid-nineteen thirties, a trolley ran from Niagara Falls, through the gorge, to the village of Lewiston. In the railroad’s early days, a similar trolley ran along the Canadian side. The route was scenic, and many tourists included it in their visits to the area. In 1901, President McKinley rode it the day before he was assassinated in Buffalo, New York.

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President McKinley riding on the Great Gorge Railway at Niagara Falls, Sept. 5, 1901. Photographer: G.D. Brinckerhoff. Source: Western Electrician, v.29, no.2 (September 21, 1901) p.182. Courtesy of the University of Buffalo.

Frequent rock falls and changing transportation technology forced abandonment of the trolley, but the roadbed remains in place for much of the former American route, and today it offers a convenient way to descend to the area below the international bridges where the Whirlpool rapids begin, or even farther, though shale slides make certain passages difficult. The Whirlpool rapids are Class VI, and seldom attempted by kayakers.

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Two arch bridges connect Niagara Falls, New York with NIagara Falls, Ontario. One is a commercial railroad bridge. The other carries autos and trains. The first bridge built on this spot was a suspension bridge designed by John Roebling, who also designed the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. To start the cables, a kite flying contest was held. The rapids begin just beyond the bridges.

Having a unique microclimate, the gorge provides a home to many plants, including very old cedars (Thuya occidentalis), but due to the railroad and urban development, the natural flora has been severely degraded. The Nature Conservancy is in the midst of an ambitious project to restore native vegetation. After mapping invasive species, the Conservancy’s first step is to remove them, primarily Norway maple and Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Girdling will kill the trees, removing competitors, and letting light reach through the canopy to the forest floor, where native species can regenerate and compete.

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Sap flowing from the girdled trunk darkens the bark of this maple.
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Many of the larger trees are invasive, and have been girdled.

The Niagara Gorge is a small, but unique place, and totally overlooked by most tourists. Let’s hope a new trail system and an emphasis on restoration of the native vegetation will make it even more interesting.

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My daughter, Kate leading the way up and out.

Following the railroad trail out of the gorge rewards the hiker with views of Niagara Falls. Indeed, the former village of Bellevue took its name from the view.

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A view of the Falls from below the Whirlpool rapids bridges.

Saints and Brotherhoods

Americans sometimes regard the Muslims as if they all are cut from a common cloth. Of course, that is not the case. There is probably as much variability in Islam as in Christianity. Even in a single country like Morocco, a wide variety of beliefs and practices coexist and compete.

The city of Fes boasts one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the world: the Qarawiyyin. A center for religious studies, the school teaches Islamic law and religion. The Qarawiyyin has been a center of orthodox Islam since the Middle Ages.

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The tomb of Moulay Idris is under the large green tiled building on the left. The Qarawiyyin mosque and university are in the center.

Leo Africanus, whom I mentioned in a post on architecture, lived and studied there after his family fled Granada.

Adjacent to the Qarawiyyin is the zawiyya of Moulay Idris, founder of Fes, which contains his tomb, and a center for devotions.

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An entrance to the shrine of Moulay Idris. Deep in the medina of Fes.

Like his father, Idris I, and like some of Morocco’s modern sovereigns, Idris II had baraka, acquired through piety or inheritance. A kind of blessing from God, baraka can cure illness or bring fertility.

The Islamic world, both Sunni and Shi’a, hosts tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of tombs of men and women whose holiness confers benefits to those who venerate them. The Saudis and other Muslims practicing extreme forms of Salafism abhor this. ISIS in Iraq destroyed every tomb they could find. The Saudis consider some Moroccan practices as idolatry and witchcraft.

Folklore and superstition do mix with religion, however, and some of the Moroccan brotherhoods, attached to zawiyyas, do things that seem strange, not just to us, but to their fellow Muslims in Morocco. On the other hand, some Christian sects in America dance with snakes. Who am I, a non-Muslim, to judge? The people in my photographs were often friends, neighbors, students, and co-workers. They welcomed me to their country and took care of me. I will be grateful to them until I die.

The tombs of saints come in all sizes and shapes.

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Tombs near Beni Mellal
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Wood roofed tombs near Imouzzer des Marmoucha.
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The shrine of Sidi Ali Bouserghine. Sefrou.
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Shrine in the Sahara. If one circles it three times and leaves an offering, one’s journey will be blessed.
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Moulay Bouchta. Pre-Rif, north of Fes.

Whether in the wilderness of the Sahara, the middle of a great city, the empty countryside, or in a village, many tombs and brotherhoods have rituals and practices unique to themselves.

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Aissawa during the Miloud (the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday).
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On top of Jbel Alam, for the moussem of Sidi Abdeslam Ben Mechich. It took a convoy of trucks to get the crowds to the top of this mountain..
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Aissawa at the Cherry Festival. Sefrou. The snakes were not poisonous, but they bit the dancers, drawing blood.
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Moulay Bouchta. Gun play before entering the shrine.

None of the scenes above were staged for tourists. Those in them are not of the same ilk as the performers at the Jemaa el-fnaa in Marrakesh. They were taken at religious festivals, or moussems. Indeed, few non-Muslims have stood on top of Jbel Alam in the Jbala during the moussem dedicated to Sidi Abdeslam Ben Mechich. I consider myself fortunate.

I have many more pictures from these events. Perhaps I will do a separate post on each if there is any interest, and try to explain in more detail what is happening.

Love in Times of War

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Chauen at dusk, 1977.

Here in America, Netflix has just premiered a Spanish series, Love in Times of War, which takes place in Morocco in the nineteen twenties, during the Rif uprising by Abdelkrim. Filmed in Morocco, much of the series is situated in the Spanish enclave of Melilla.

Not well known outside of Morocco, except in Spain, the Rif rebellion was an unmitigated military disaster for the Spanish, and an episode of Moroccan history that showcases Berber resistance in the North, never a popular subject with the Makhzen, the Moroccan government. The Rif remains a region where the government is unpopular and its rule is heavy-handed.

The Rif War was marked with corruption and incompetence, and fought with conscripts so poor they sometimes sold their weapons for food and clothing. Against common sense, the Spanish set up a series of forts extending west from Melilla, through the dry hills and rugged mountains of the Rif. Many were located in spots without permanent water sources. In the hot summer of 1921, the Riffians, after warning the Spanish not to advance deeper into their territory, struck simultaneously along the line and cut off each fort from resupply. The rout in the battle of Annual is immortalized in the Spanish novel by Arturo Barea, The Track (La Ruta), part of his larger work, The Forging of a Rebel. Over 13,000 Spanish soldiers died, and for a long time afterwards the Spanish army was confined to Melilla. Barea sought asylum in Britain after the civil war, and his wife and friends helped him translate his autobiographical novel into English. An interesting footnote to this story, Barea lost the Spanish copy after the translation. The Spanish version of his book, La forja de un rebelle, is a translation of its English translation.

In only two battles of the war, the Spanish suffered casualties of roughly 30,000 men. The next disaster was Chauen.

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City gate, Chauen..

In the retreat from Chauen in 1924, with the weather turning bad and fear that the army would be trapped in the mountains without supplies for the winter, the Spanish attempted withdraw to Tetuan through narrow mountain valleys with poor roads.

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Chauen. During the rainy season.

The weather was rainy and the road turned into mud. The Riffians waited until the Spanish column was strung out, then attacked along its whole length.

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Road between Chauen and Tetuan.

It was a slaughter for the Spanish and a major victory for Abdelkrim. Franco was an officer involved in the debacle. Indeed, Spanish Morocco might be seen as the incubator for the Spanish Civil War.

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Rif viewed from Jbel Alam. The Chauen-Tetuan road runs in the valley below.

Abdelkrim’s succes was also his downfall. The French, deciding that he had become a threat to their interests, intervened massively, put down the rebellion, and sent Abdelkrim into exile.

My first encounter with the Rif was early in my Peace Corps service. My job often took me to the pre-Rif as Fes Province extended north.

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Pre-Rif seen from ruins of old fortress near Moulay Bouchta.

By the winter of 1968, I was sharing a house in the Sefrou medina (old city) with another volunteer, Gaylord Barr. He had decided that he needed a 35 mm SLR. He had brought over an 8 mm movie camera from home, but found it insufficient. I had been taking color slides, and he wanted to do the same. We decided to hitchhike to Ceuta from Fes. Ceuta was a free port: no taxes. The route was straightforward, north of Fes, along the western edge of the Rif Mountains. It went through the hilly country of the pre-Rif, where I occasionally worked, and by Chauen to Tetuan.

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Typical pre-Rif houses.
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In the winter, the houses kept you warm and dry, but the roads turned into mud where they were not improved.
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The Rif seen from the pre-Rif. Road north of Fes.

We did it in one harrowing ride. It really was a dark and stormy night. There were rockfalls along the route from the recent earthquake and all the usual mudslides from the winter rains, and the driver had been drinking!

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Erosion and heavy winter rains played havoc with the roads. Here in the pre-Rif a bus is being extracted. This was a common scene in the sixties.
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In the heart of the Rif, near Ketama. So much marijuana is grown here that all over southern Spain air samples show marijuana pollen.
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Chauen from the Tetuan to Fes road.

The ride was scary, but we arrived safely in Tetuan and Gaylord got his new camera in Ceuta. Sadly, it got lost on the train crossing Algeria in 1971. Gaylord was a good photographer, but most of his Moroccan slides seem to have been lost.

If you decide to watch Love in Times of War, perhaps you may reflect on the drama playing outside of Melilla today. NPR just feature the story of an African migrant trying to get past the fences and barriers, hoping for refugee status.

In the This American Life program, look for this reportage:

https://www.thisamericanlife.org/641/the-walls/act-one-1

Just Another Kind of Outdoor Game

ByDavid Kestenbaum
There are two tiny Spanish towns on the African continent protected by multiple layers of razor wire, cameras and guards. A man from Cameroon tells producer David Kestenbaum about his attempt to get through the obstacle course and onto European soil. (19 minutes)

The Pillars of Hercules

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The Strait of Gibraltar. Looking toward the Mediterranean. The city of Fes is barely visible at the bottom left. Tangier, Tetouan, and Algeciras and Ceuta are clearly visible. Volubilis is slightly to the northwest of Fes. NASA photo.
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I love this passage. A god’s view of the Mediterranean, as I recently commented on another blog. Too bad the rest of Wilder’s novel wasn’t as interesting.

Morocco might be called an outlier. Until modern times, it has always been a place on the marches. It has always existed on the edge of large empires, but it was never part of them. Arabic historians traditionally referred to Morocco as the place of the Farthest Sunset (المغرب الأقصى), where the sun set in the Atlantic, an immense, unknown ocean.

The Phoenicians set up trading posts in Morocco. They were more traders than colonists or empire builders, though in Carthage, in the middle of the Mediterranean, they produced an empire that rivaled and threatened Rome.

The Romans had client states in the north of Morocco, where Rome eventually took full control during the Empire, but it left most of Atlantic Morocco untouched. The Byzantines had only nominal control, and the Ottomans never got past Algeria.

Some Moroccan dynasties reached across North Africa and into Spain, but none were long lived. The Mediterranean world was focused on the basin of its sea, and had its own dynamics. Morocco had an inhospitable Mediterranean coast with mountains crowding the shore. Most of the country, and its richest agricultural lands, faced the Atlantic. Morocco was barely part of the Mediterranean, the world of the “sea between the lands.” Mare Nostrum, our sea, the Romans called it, because it indeed was theirs at the height of Rome’s power.

The natural continuation of Morocco is Spain, not the Sahara or the rest of Africa. Only 15 kilometers wide, the Strait of Gibraltar can be crossed in one-half hour by car ferry. The Strait of Gibraltar posed few difficulties for the Vandals, who invaded Morocco in Byzantine times or for the Arabs and Berbers who invaded the Iberian peninsula a bit later. Today it poses few problems for migrants swarming into Europe.

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In the distance, about eight miles away is Spain as seen from Morocco.

After the Spanish Reconquista, the Strait took on a new role as a moat, protecting from invasions, much like the English Channel protected England. It separated Christian Europe from Muslim Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese tried to establish toeholds on the African continent, but ultimately were repulsed except at Ceuta and Melilla.

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Burial in the Portuguese fortress of Ksar es-Seghir. This toehold didn’t last long.
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On the left, the tip of Gibraltar, on the right, Jbel Musa and Ceuta. The Mediterranean is in the distance.

Barbary pirates harassed European ships, but technology favored the Europeans. Now technology enables migrants, desperate for work and a better life, to cross cheaply and relatively easily into Europe.

As European sea power grew, the Mediterranean Sea became even more inhospitable. Morocco’s connections to the east were more and more by land, and there were no longer roads as in Roman times, but only horse and camel tracks until the advent of steam ships and cheap air travel put the Hajj within the reach of those with better means.

Trade continued via new routes. The British brought tea, and Queen Anne style teapots. But despite trade connections, Morocco became more and more landlocked until the twentieth century, when the French seized control and established a protectorate, a system under which the Moroccan sultan was relegated to a ceremonial role, while the French ran the colonial government as their own interests dictated. With independence and modern technology, the isolation is broken forever, for better and for worse.

When I lived in Morocco, I always thought of it as a backwater, and I suspect many Moroccans, proud as they were of their country, may have felt some inferiority. Important events in the Arab world took place in the east. Important history in Maghreb had taken place in Al-Andalus. The greatest monuments of western Islamic Art are in Al-Andalus.

None of this is said to disparage Morocco, which is a place I love dearly, but simply a recognition that Morocco is an outlier, and has been for a very long time. Yet another example: Morocco was one of the first, if not the first, countries to recognize the new United States.

If someone asked me where to see the ruins of a Roman city in North Africa, I would say, without hesitation, Timgad in Algeria or Leptis Magna in Libya. Perhaps I would suggest that they go to El Djem in Tunisia, and visit the largest arena outside of Rome. If western Islamic architecture were their interest, I would suggest going to Córdoba to walk under the superimposed, multicolored arches and through the marble columns of the Mezquita, and then go to Granada, to wander through the rooms of the Alhambra and the gardens of the Generalife. I once did that at night. The palace was dimly lit, and virtually empty. It was as close as I could ever get to Washington Irving’s vision. You would be fortunate, indeed, to have that experience today.

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The Court of the Lions, in the Alhambra palace.

Still, there are virtues that arise from being off the beaten track. Morocco’s most important Roman site is Volubilis, a short drive from Fes, north of the Massif of Zerhoun, just a short distance from the town of Moulay Idriss. The Arab leader, Moulay Idriss established the first dynasty in Morocco at Volubilis, before building his capital a short distance away, partly from stones quarried from the Roman city. After the fall of Rome, it was common practice to reuse stone from the abandoned Roman cities.

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The base of the Great Mosque at Kairouan. Note the block with Latin inscriptions to the left of the door.

Today there is a large shrine devoted to him.

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The town of Moulay Idris. The green tiles roofs cover the shrine of the founder of Morocco’s first Arab dynasty.

When I visited Volubilis in the late sixties and mid-seventies it was virtually without tourists, even on weekends.

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The road leading to the site was a dirt track, in the middle of wheat fields

One could wander through the ruins, step into and out of Roman houses, climb the forum stairs, and do it all in complete freedom, with no crowds to distract from the quiet of the place.

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The forum. Moulay Idris can be seen in the fold of the hills in the background.
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Emperor for a day. The forum at Volubilis. 1968.

Tourist facilities were limited to a tiny cafe that served simple, but delicious, food.

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Dining at the little cafe, Peace Corps volunteer Gaylord Barr. Spring, 1968.

It may be different today when Morocco has twice as many inhabitants and the tourism industry has grown substantially, but then it was a place lost in time and space. The city of Volubilis, wrecked by earthquakes, quarried for building materials, seemed to float over the rich agricultural lands that surrounded it, a stone oasis.

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Volubilis. The main thoroughfare.

One could wander through it, dreaming of the life and people of that ancient place, reflect on history and the passage of time, and do it alone, in the quiet of the countryside.

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Mosaic floor of a house.
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House of the dolphins.

There were no guards to remind you to keep to the path. There were no tourists to jostle you. You were really alone.

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Many houses had mosaics, a testimony to the town’s wealth.
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This mosaic depicts the labors of Hercules.
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Some of the animals that formerly were found in North Africa.

Volubilis was not a big or important center. It was an outlier. It grew to prominence just before the Empire entered its long decline. Still, to a young person, new to North Africa, it was a truly magical spot.

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Main Street, leading to a former gate in the city wall.

There are many other places to see larger and better preserved triumphal arches.

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Triumphal Arch. Volubilis.

There are larger, better preserved, and much finer mosaics elsewhere.

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When wet, the mosaics show their colors.

There are spectacular aqueducts, great temples, immense baths, and fantastic amphitheaters scattered all over the Mediterranean. Volubilis lacks all that, but at Volubilis you felt and heard the wind, and you breathed the scent of the fields around you, while the only footsteps that echoed from the 2,000-year old stones were your own.

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The Wind. Note that the modern labels were not in the best condition in 1968.

Trip to Spain

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Morocco to the south of France. Fes is to the north of the snowy uplands in the right of the photo, and Brive-la-Gaillarde is under clouds at the top center or maybe slightly off the photo. NASA satellite.

The Trip to Spain

If you’re a movie fan, and, in particular, a Brit, you may be thinking Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, but this blog post is more mundane and less amusing, and it also lacks the sadder, darker undercurrents of their comedies.

In a Walk above the woods I mentioned that Peace Corps vacation policy for Morocco volunteers was basically travel within Morocco, or anywhere in Africa, or Spain. Most of us had numerous opportunities to travel within Morocco, and, much as we loved Morocco, many of us wanted a change of scenery, and, perhaps, a bit more freedom. Algeria was officially considered a hostile country, so a visit there was out. That was unfortunate, because the Algerian people were friendly and happy to meet Americans, and Algeria is full of interesting places to visit. Airfare to the rest of Africa, or, to Europe for that matter, was limited and expensive. Spain ended up the place of choice by default. According to the Peace Corps, the cultural affinities and mutual histories made Spain a perfect visit. Some volunteers discovered even quieter and cheaper vacations in Portugal, but many of us went to Spain.

What you did in Spain depended a lot on your personality. Did you want to see historical sites, major cities, Islamic monuments? Lounge on the beaches, eat tapas in the bars, look for romance? Ski or hike the mountains? Appreciate art? Catch a recent movie? Spain already had an enviable tourist infrastructure, and the south coast had become an important destination for British pensioners. Spaniards were friendly and accommodating, and the food and wine was great.

And what you could do depended on where you went. Ceuta or Melilla were for duty-free shopping and a visit could be as short as an afternoon or an overnight.

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Ceuta. Fishing boats. Monte Hecho in background

If you lived near these enclaves, they were only a bus ride away! The peseta was cheap, and the hotels were inexpensive.

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Ceuta. The harbor and town at dusk

Once in Spain, the possibilities were unlimited. If you were going to peninsular Spain, you could take ferries from Tangier to Algeciras or Malaga. You could also go to Gibraltar, but during much of my stay in Morocco, Gibraltar, because of Spanish territorial claims, was blockaded, and you could not get into Spain from the Rock. The shortest, cheapest route was Ceuta to Algeciras on the passenger/car ferry. It only took an hour and a half. Once in Algeciras, the train would take you north to any big city.

One summer I took my vacation in Chamonix.

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Downtown Chamonix. 1965. You could still encounter Gaston Rébuffat in the cafés.
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The Appalachian Mountain Club statue dedicated to the first ascent of Mont Blanc, the beginning of modern mountaineering. Of course, the Brits and the Swiss like to talk about the first ascent of the Matterhorn. A number of other alpine clubs contributed to this statue of Balmat and de Saussure

This was, of course, against the rules, but I didn’t care. It was 1970. Perhaps the rules had even changed by then. The downside of making stupid rules is that no one pays much attention to them. Most organizations, even the most benevolent, have a penchant for making stupid rules.

The French had a special program for kids and young adults under the auspices of the Union Nationale des Centres de Plein Air. You could spend a couple of weeks learning and participating in just about any summer sport imaginable. The French government subsidized it heavily. During the previous year, I had been corresponding with a member from a Club Alpin Français section in the Pyrenees, and he suggested that I try it. I love the Pyrenees, and hope to return while I can still walk, but I chose Chamonix over the Pyrenees (and other Alps sites), because, frankly, Chamonix was more historical (the place where French climbing was born) and more spectacular (the highest mountain in Western Europe, and lots of high, vertical granite rising amid glaciers). I spent a month there, something I could never have done on my very limited Peace Corps budget if I hadn’t been subsidized by the French Government. Remerciements à l’UNCP!

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Ascent of the Allalinhorn, above Saas Fée. Another nice thing about Chamonix is its location on the border of Switzerland and Italy. This is Switzerland, of course. The Valais is separated by a low pass from the valley of Chamonix. The border control didn’t even ask where I was from or check my passport. He assumed I was French.
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Mont Blanc at dawn from the Italian side. Courmayeur is in the valley below. Far below! We got here, above the Val d’Aosta, through the Mount Blanc tunnel, and stayed at the Italian Torino refuge on Point Helbronner. I no longer remember what peak we are on in this photo. We did several easy climbs in the area.
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My young self, Elizabeth, and Jean, French members of the cordée. The Matterhorn is off in the distance.
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Déjeuner sur l’herbe, alpine style. After a traverse of one of the minor “aiguilles.” I think the Aiguilles Rouges may be across the valley.

I will be forever grateful, too, and I am happy to learn that the UNCPA still exists after all these years. Thus I spent a month living with a group of fifty or so French kids, roughly my age, and I had a ball. It was co-ed, and we were housed in comfortable chalets. In the mountain refuges, when the weather was bad, we ate, told jokes, and played cards

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The chalet in Chamonix, between hikes. We lived in a communal atmosphere, but most of the time we were outside. It really was a centre de plein air.

The food was fine, as you might imagine, certainly far better than French cité universitaire cuisine. This was a holiday in France! Would anyone tolerate bad food? Bon dieu!

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Dinner in one of the huts above Chamonix. I think we were climbing the Petit Pélérin. Wine, bread, cheeses, and lots of good company. The sun is setting over the mountains to the west.
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Above Saas Fée. In Switzerland.

Now if you are wondering what this has to do with Spain, remember that I was living poor and had few resources. I figured I could save and scrape up enough for the train trip, but fortune shined. Jean, a young French kid from Brive-la-Gaillarde, had been touring North Africa in his Peugeot 404, and was passing through Fes just about the time I was about to leave. He was hoping to find someone to share expenses and driving as he returned home. How he found me, I don’t recall, but there weren’t that many foreigners in Fes, and I worked there. He met someone who knew me and knew that I needed to get to France.

We drove up to Ceuta or Tangier and crossed to Algeciras. It was late, and we were tired and we spread our sleeping bags out on the beach facing refineries in La Linéa.

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Gibraltar. On the left is the bay of Algeciras, in the distance, La Linéa

I would not try this today when crime in the region is a problem. Even then, though it was summer, it was damp and uncomfortable and the lights of the towers and burning gas lit up the beach with an unappealing industrial glow. The next day we drove up the coast, taking time to swim in the Mediterranean before turning inland.

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North of Malaga. 1969.
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A dip in the Mediterranean before a long dry day.

There were fewer roads, then, and even the main north-south routes were not very good. We skirted Madrid, and, after dark, pulled off the road into the stubble of a wheat field somewhere in Castile.

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My mummy bag in a field in Castile. Dawn.

The following day we continued north, stopping briefly in Burgos to admire the Gothic cathedral.

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A spire and part of the facade of Burgos Cathedral. One of the best of Gothic cathedrals in Spain. Spain is a place of beautiful and varied architecture, but Gothic is not Spain’s forte. Much of Spain was still Muslim during the high point of Gothic architecture.
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Door knocker on the cathedral door. Burgos.

We crossed the French border at Irun and Hendaye. I had been there once before, when I lived in Pau.

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San Sebastián Harbor, near the border with France. 1965.
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Pic du Midi de Bigorre, seen from the Spanish border. Note the armed border guards on the hill. It was 1965 and Franco still ruled. You can see this mountain from Pau, 40 miles away, at the end of the valley of Laruns.

The Mediterranean weather gave way to that of the Atlantic, and, entering the pine forests of the Landes, it began raining. It was now dark and wet, and we were exhausted, so we found a small, inexpensive roadside hotel that had one room left, but with only a double bed. Sharing a bed with a stranger was odd, but not a problem: we were beat, and neither of us had slept in a bed for two days. Outside it was raining.

When we got back on the road the next morning, we were fresh. For Jean it was the homestretch. Brive-la-Gaillarde was only a few hours away.

That day began with some excitement. The Peugeot was beat up, made a lot of noise, and needed brake work. About midmorning, we drew the attention of a gendarme, who directed us off route to a police station. The police, finding that we were returning from Morocco, were interested in whether we were carrying drugs, which we were not, and, after a short interrogation, they released us to continue on our way. The route continued through the Dordogne. I would have liked to stop, but Jean was tired and eager to be home. He had done his sightseeing in Africa. Once in Brive-la-Gaillarde, I caught a train to Chamonix.

I can never think of Brive-la-Gaillarde without hearing the Brassens song, Hécatombe, in my head. Its anarchist message resonated with my younger self, though I am happy that Brassens eventually made his peace with the police in a later song, L’épave. If you can understand French, you may, depending on your sensibilities, find the songs hilarious or offensive. According to Wikipedia, Hécatombe is now associated with Brive-la-Gaillarde throughout France! And, of course, every place in France has something named after Georges Brassens. Rightly so!

So that was another Peace Corps volunteer experience with Spain. The following summer I got a postcard from Jean, who was then touring the Middle East in his car, but we never stayed in touch, which I regret because I enjoyed his good company, and he really had done me a big favor. The train ride home to Sefrou was far less interesting and totally uneventful. But Sefrou was home, then, and it felt good to be back.

What goes up…

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Montpelier le Vieux, on the causes north of the city of Montpellier, 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.

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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.
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The natural bridge seen from the stream, Oued Lao, far below. The water, emerging from springs, is crystal clear.

Morocco has not made 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 east of Fes. More to the east are the plains of the Lower Moulouya River, and even 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 much 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 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 (circular opening).
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The aven, created by collapse of the roof. On hundred feet across, it illuminates the first chamber.

The room was illuminated by a huge aven 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. My architect friend 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 dashboard 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!

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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.