09 May 2013

Ikniouen and around, Morocco

I was in Morocco for one reason, to visit two of my best friends who were working there for the U.S. Peace Corps.  They were stationed in the remote town of Ikniouen, and we stayed there for four and a half days of my time in Morocco.  Ikniouen is a small town about 100 km west of Ouarzazate and 45 km southwest of the mouth of the famous Dades Gorge.  It is a mountain town, sitting in a high valley in a minor range, the Djebel Sarhro, south of the High Atlas, separated from that range by the large valley that Ouarzazate sits in.  The climate is dry, but the mountains provide water to support the town and local agriculture.  Ikniouen is the main market town for the villages and towns in the surrounding region.

These first two pictures provide a panoramic view of Ikniouen with the rugged ridgeline that form such a lovely backdrop to the town.  These pictures were taken from the rooftop of my friends apartment building.  I ended up sleeping up on the roof each night, appreciating the cool air and breeze, sleeping on a mattress pad with my local blanket under the stars.  It was pretty awesome!  Since it was Ramadan, the town seemed abandoned during the day, when most people stayed indoors and dozed to fend off the hunger and thirst of the fast.  Come nightfall, though, the place came alive as people broke fast and ventured to the mosque for evening prayer before having dinner with their families and friends.  The men stayed up late into the night, socializing in small groups out under the odd tree or outside of the cafe or store.  The women were awake and social too, but they mostly stayed indoors.  Being remote, the people of Ikniouen are generally quite religious and conservative.

The town's setting really is quite beautiful, and as you'll find out below, it is a great place for outdoor activities.  You can see how many of the buildings have gardens, where people grow fruit and vegetables to supplement their diets and maybe even their income if they can sell at market.  

Two men sitting in the shade of a house.  The unfinished second floor was a pretty common sight around town.  It seemed like many families were in the process of adding to their homes.  The construction is simple but effective, just cement blocks covered in painted plaster.  Older buildings and walls used stone, though from what I could tell, most of those buildings weren't in use for human habitation anymore.  Note also the water tank beside the building.  My friends' apartment had tap water, a shower faucet, and an Asian-style (squatter) toilet that you flushed with a bucket of water, and clothes had to be washed by hand.  So overall, it was different, but still quite comfortable.  The tap water wasn't potable, but at least it was there.  I know a lot of people around the world live without internal plumbing providing water from a tap in the home, but I know I'd have a challenge living like that for any prolonged period of time.  There was no central air as far as I could tell either, which meant plenty of heat indoors during the summer and cold during the winter.  One of the incredible things about traveling is that it is a humbling experience, and really makes you appreciate how much you have and take for granted.

The old fort above town.  Morocco was a French colony during the late-1800's and first half of the 20th century.  The mountain regions were infamous for their tribal strongholds and fierce spirit of independence.   Around Ikniouen, the Ait Atta tribe was in control and fiercely resisted French occupation.  In 1933, the tribe was forced to retreat to Djebel Bou Gafer, a very tumultuous mountain stronghold surrounded by some extreme rock formations.  The French attacked the stronghold persistently, and the Ait Atta held the defense for over a month against daily assaults.  They suffered 50% casualties and eventually had to surrender only after they ran out of ammunition.  The French got what they wanted, access to the valuable mining prospects in the region, and they allowed the Ait Atta to maintain their tribal structure and customs.  To make sure no future insurrections could stand a chance, the French established forts throughout the region, including this one at Ikniouen.

Looking down on town from the hike up to the fort.  One can see the farm fields and trees along the creek on the right side of the picture.  On the hill in the near distance (behind town), the rows of trees of an attempt at reforestation are also visible.

Today, the fort stands in ruin.  It was occupied by the Moroccan military for a time after the French departed, but it was abandoned some time ago.  It is now a haunt of angst-ridden teens and drunks, the latter of which must hide their vice for fear of punishment for breaking a fundamental Islamic law: Muslims shall not drink alcohol.  I'm sure some of the teens take advantage of the forts seclusion to partake in some vices as well.  The fort also houses a communications antenna, taking advantage of the prominent point.

Another look down on the fields and mountain backdrop from the fort.

An older home back in town.  The blue door is pretty typical of the region; bright and rich blues are very popular colors in Morocco.  While we were in town, we had the pleasure and honor to break fast with several of the families that had befriended my friends during their stay with the Peace Corps.  These experiences were amongst my favorites from my time in Morocco.  We didn't suffer from significant language barriers due to my friends' incredible grasp of Tam (the local language) and Arabic.  I even got to speak up a bit in my broken French.  A few of the people I met in Ikniouen even spoke a bit of English, which I was very impressed by.  Again, Moroccans are gifted with language ability... conversations often include sentences mashed together with words from 2 or more languages... combining words that are most accurate for what is being said.  Anyway, breaking fast with some of the families in Ikniouen was a great experience!  I was honored to be invited into their homes and share their food and tea during such an important time in their religion.  The food was good and included lots of fats (this incredible fatty bread and plenty of cheeses) and sugars (like the super sweet mint tea and syrup-coated shebekia); I guess when you haven't eaten all day, you go big when you can!   There were plenty of olives and dates too, which along with the fatty bread were my favorites for sure.  The best aspect though were the conversations about life and education and politics and religion (all friendly of course!).  I can never thank those families enough for their hospitality, and I hope someday to be able to return the favor in some way.

Ikniouen on market day.  Ramadan or not, on market day, Ikniouen is bustling.  Hundreds of people come into town to sell their goods once each week.  The main market square is the epicenter, but people spill out into the surrounding streets as well.  It must be great for the local economy.

Fresh produce at the market.  We ate a lot of fresh melon during our time in Ikniouen... being the peak of the summer, they were definitely in season.  One question that eluded me throughout my time there was: What exactly are these yellow melons?  They were SO good!  The flesh was white and very, very sweet, like honey turned into buttery, yet crisp fruit-flesh.  The watermelons were delicious too.

A view down on the market square.  There were all sorts of things for sale, from produce to cookware and hardware.

A seemingly entirely different street from the one at the beginning of the post.  I can see how people would look forward to market day each week.  It brings some excitement to the town by way of news and gossip and new faces.

I mentioned that Ikniouen is remote.  Not isolated, since it has a paved road connecting it to the main highway to the North, but it is pretty far out there.  This, combined with its mountainous surroundings in the once volcanic Djebel Sarhro, makes it a perfect area for mountain biking, hiking, and 4x4'ing.

The surrounding area is criss-crossed with a series of trails and dirt roads, known as "pistes".   You can find many French books on the network of pistes throughout Morocco.  It is apparently a very popular thing to rent or buy a 4x4 vehicle and explore the mountains and desert along these tracks.  The pistes work very well for mountain bikes too, as do the hiking trails if you're more into single track.  In this sense, Morocco's mountains are a playground, and a very big and beautiful and (relatively) empty one at that.

My friends were given two nice mountain bikes by the Peace Corps, so I took advantage of this one morning and went for a nice ride.  My goal was the Tizi n'Tazazert pass.  I ended up taking a wrong turn at one of the forks in the road and headed for the saddle point seen in the right side of the above picture.  The pass I wanted was in the shallower valley to the left of the prominence seen here.  No big deal though; I had a much more challenging ride to the top of this saddle, which housed a weather and/or communications station.  The ride down was epic too!

Our next outdoor goal was Amalou n'Mansour, the high point on that rugged ridge overlooking town.  He had heard that there was a trail up the mountain, but we couldn't see one initially.  After talking to some of the locals who claimed to have climbed it, we had an idea where the trail was and took off early in the morning, with plenty of water and some snacks.  The trail started off very clear, heading towards a small farm on the outskirts of town.  Through the farm, the trail split and disappeared on the start of the steep climb.  We had an idea what the safest and easiest way up was, so we decided to stick to that and continue up, trail or none.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the scenery just got better and better on our side of the mountain.  It was very rocky hiking and scrambling, as exciting as I had anticipated from gazing up at it over the first few days in town.  We scrambled up the side of a gully for much of the way, then had to make our way through cracks in the cliffs closer to the top.  It was a pretty straightforward though fun route finding exercise.  I'm amazed I didn't see any rock climbers in or around town... with cliffs like this just a short, easy approach away from town, I'd imagine explorative climbers to be just itching to try and find some new, fun routes.

Towards the top, we had some epic views down on the valley and Ikniouen below.  Unfortunately, it was very hazy due to smoke from wildfires in Spain and Portugal (seriously!).  So, we weren't able to see the High Atlas, which I was really looking forward to.  Regardless, the scenery was still spectacular.  We even saw some goats.

Looking up toward the top.

On top of the ridge line, looking at the high point ahead.  The cliffs ended on this large, gently sloped incline at the top, which then opened up into a series of valleys and hills on the other side, falling off towards the Sahara (below).  At the summit (seen here in the distance), there was a communications tower, a helicopter pad (for access to the comm. tower), and a small wind shelter made of piled rocks.  There was plenty of evidence of human visitors, from some fire pits to plenty of lamb and chicken bones and empty sardine tins.

Looking down the far side, we could see another farmer's homestead down in the nearest valley.  The trail up over the ridge line may have been maintained primarily for that family (and any others tucked down into those valleys), though that is pure speculation on my part.

Out of the mountains and on the way to the Todra Gorge... running water makes its path very clear, as seen in the brilliant swath of green cutting through the drab earth here.  The small river (really just a stream when we saw it) that carved out the star of our next destination (the gorge) provides a precious resource to the sizable communities that have settled along its banks.  Again, it was amazing to see how the vegetated areas were not used for habitation; the land is just too valuable as a source of food and cash crops to take up space for houses.

This is the town of Tinghir.  I really liked how well the buildings blended into the desert.  

Further upstream, it was just such an incredible contrast between the fields and trees and the stony mountains behind, which were devoid of essentially any flora.

At the entrance to the Todra Gorge.

The river, which used to be much larger apparently, has carved out a beautiful, steep-sided section of canyon, and the locals (and some tourists) haven't failed to notice.  The river was full of people cooling off in the clear, shallow water.  There were a few patches of houses, cafes, and hotels here and there too.

At its narrowest point, the gorge (wadi in Arabic) is only 33 feet wide, with the steep sides rising up to 525 feet on both sides!  The ground along the bottom is so flat too.  Rock climbers haven't let this opportunity go by unnoticed; there are over 150 routes bolted throughout the gorge.  I didn't see any climbers there, but it must be a popular spot at times.

The narrow gorge only lasts for 2000 feet (600 meters) or so, a very easy hike, and further upstream it opens up again into a more typical canyon.  The paved road continues up to some villages further up the canyon.

The scenes in the gorge can be truly epic when not hindered by crowds or cars.  It feels almost as if you've chanced upon some hidden community, tucked away and hiding from the outside world in their deep gorge by the river.  The whole place had a very laid back feel too, everyone was just relaxing and enjoying the surroundings.  Even the restaurant/hotel owner and waiter at the cafe were super chill.  It was like the whole gorge runs on a slower, relaxed clock.

At the far side of the gorge, there are several market stalls selling souvenirs.  The splashes of color of the carpets and scarves waving in the gentle breeze were too good of an opportunity for me to pass by without a picture.

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