Morocco trip:

Alison Strafford (nee Lamping, L/G 77-84) recently followed in her father’s footsteps to Morocco and has sent the following account:

“It was only really at my father’s funeral in 1991 when Tony Cotes mentioned it that I was reminded of Dad’s trips to Morocco with boys from the school. I was only a very young child at the time, so other than the unusual gifts that he brought back (and I still have the rather fetching green kaftan from his last trip to North Africa), I have no real memories of dad’s travels to Morocco. We did find a small number of photos from his African adventures and since his death I have kept them in an envelope, taking them out once in a while to try and figure out who was who and wonder what these trips had been like. In among the photos was one taken in 1969 of a group on the summit of Mount Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak at 4167m (13,672ft) easily recognisable from the metal tripod (actually a quadrapod) on its summit, along with various mountain views and scenes from Marrakesh.
I had often thought about a trip to Morocco, and being a keen walker and climber, trekking in the High Atlas was an ideal holiday location. However, it was one of those things that always remained as a future possibility until some friends decided that they also fancied trekking there and the wheels were put in motion for a holiday to remember. A group of ten West Cumbrians – seven men and three women – set off for Morocco in September 2009.
The St.Bees school trips to Morocco were in the days before adventure holidays existed – real exploration and self sufficiency. Our trip was far easier in comparison, flying direct to Marrakesh (well, forgetting an unscheduled stop over in Casablanca, but that is another story!) being met by our guide at the airport and having everything arranged for us. Guide, equipment, mules to carry our equipment, muleteers, food, a cook all at our disposal. All we had to do was turn up and follow the guide. I felt a bit of a fraud but the world has moved on a lot in the 40 years between this trip and my dad’s, and the lack of organisational effort required allowed us to concentrate on enjoying our surroundings and absorbing the culture. The other major difference between the two trips was the weather. The school expeditions had always taken place in the Easter holidays and as such, snow had always been a factor. Our trip meant that the scenery was dry and barren, although the autumnal weather did give rise to a number of thunderstorms and a sprinkling of snow on the high peaks.
After a night in Marrakesh our group was driven to Arba Tighedouine southwest of Marrakesh in the Zat valley and we began our 12 day trek from there. As I had never spoken to dad about his trips to Morocco I didn’t have a clue where he had been – the only certainty from the photos was that he had visited both the Toubkal Massif and the city of Marrakesh. In the early days of the trip I was disappointed that I didn’t feel spiritually close to dad, I dismissed these feelings as overly sentimental and rationalised them as being due to the fact that the scenery was unlike that in any of the old photos. It wasn’t until day four of our trek when we passed over the Tizi Tamatert pass and we got our first glimpse of the mighty Toubkal that I started to feel really excited about treading in my father’s footsteps. Up until this point we had had a relatively gentle start to our trek, passing through Berber villages and across the Yagour plateau, climbing steadily before reaching the foothills of the Toubkal Massif. Our Berber guide, Bennacer (“Ben”), was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastically shared this knowledge with us. Hussein, the cook, worked miracles every night cooking delicious meals on two calor gas stoves – mostly vegetarian but goat and chicken provided welcome meat on several occasions. The muleteers pitched our tents, broke camp each morning, loaded up the mules and accompanied them to our next destination – the team looked after us marvellously – nothing was too much trouble. The seven mules which carried all the equipment and our belongings, whilst we carried only small day sacks, accomplished their task easily, sure-footedly picking their way up even the most unstable of footpaths despite their heavy loads. We were pleased to see that the mules seemed healthy and well cared for.
Day six of our trek saw the ascent of our first 4000m peak (Adrar n’Dern), which was technically easy and achieved without too much trouble, although the effect of the altitude limited the speed of our ascent. This was a warm up for the later peaks in the Toubkal range and over the next few days we made our way there, passing through the village of Amsouzart (our first glimpse of civilisation beyond the remote Berber villages in several days), past the glacial Lake Ifni and up the Ounoums Gorge before passing over Tizi Ounoums at 3650m one of the most spectacular passes in the Atlas to drop into Mizane valley below.
The next 4000m peak was Ouanokrim and this was conquered on day nine of our trek, with amazing views across the Toubkal Massif from the summit. The ascent involved a bit more hands on scrambling but did not present any real difficulties for the group. On our descent, we camped at the Neltner Refuge and this was our base for the next couple of days. We had our coldest nights here with the temperature dropping below zero, evidenced by the frozen condensation on the inside of our tents. The following day was the “big day” with the summit of Toubkal as our objective. We woke at 0500 as we had done on many occasions previously, enjoyed a hearty Berber breakfast of pancakes, bread, cheese and jam and mint tea and set off shortly after six in very cool temperatures, up a well trodden path towards the summit. Again, the route was not technically difficult, but it was steep and long and the effects of the altitude limited our pace to a steady plod. We reached the summit by mid morning. We were once again lucky with the weather, with sunshine and blue skies the views were amazing and although we were only on top of North Africa, we felt as if we were on top of the world! We took a large number of summit photos. My husband, Ian, worked out the exact angle of the 1969 summit photo and took one of me in the same position holding a copy of the original photo. We also decide to build a small cairn in Dad’s memory and leave copies of photos from the school expeditions buried inside the cairn, which is one of many miniature works of art clustered near the summit iron work. It was quite an emotional experience for Ian and myself and it was shared with the rest of the group, who were very interested in dad’s previous expeditions. The summit of Toubkal became a shared objective for us all – the thought that the weather might have prevented this pilgrimage was unthinkable, but luckily the gods smiled on us!
The final 4000m summit was just as unpronounceable as the others – Bouguinoussen – and was the most difficult ascent of our trip. Technical scrambling, loose scree, steep climbs and a summit with sheer drops on all sides all contributed to a heart in the mouth ascent followed by an equally worrying descent. This was followed by a precipitous path to the Leipney refuge where we stopped for a later than usual lunch - the difficulty of the day had lead to a long and slow return from the summit. We trekked to our final campsite near Tamsoulte before passing over the final pass of the trip (Tizi Mzik) to drop down to a gite near Imlil. I had shared Dad’s photos with Ben, Hussein and the muleteers and Hussein thought that he recognised one of the villages. On the minibus trip from Imlil to Marrakesh, Ben asked the driver to pull over and sure enough the view of Tamassit village with the river below is definitely the village from the photo – the trees are taller, the village has expanded and the photo is taken from a different angle – but it is definitely the same place. We took photos to record the moment - a fitting end to our voyage of discovery.
From the mountains we returned to Marrakesh and then to Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. Both cities are atmospheric and interesting, well worth a visit, but personally for me, an anti-climax after the exhilaration of twelve days of discovery in the fresh open air of the Atlas mountains. The Berber people are generous and welcoming, qualities which probably haven’t changed much in the forty intervening years between two generations of Lampings visiting Morocco. The scenery is breathtaking and took millions of years to form. However, I expect that the Morocco I visited is very different from that which dad saw; tourism has been a double-edged sword, bringing much wanted income to an otherwise poor nation but at the same time diminishing its beauty through pylons, satellite dishes, rubbish and graffiti, which I am sure weren’t there in the late sixties. Whilst many of the villages we visited didn’t have electricity, it is steadily reaching those that are closer to the more populated areas. Bizarrely, one of the first things the Moroccans buy when electricity reaches them is a satellite dish! The contrast of the mud and straw houses topped with a white satellite dish is intriguing and we have images of Berber villagers watching past episodes of Eastenders and repeats of Pop Idol! They must think that the Western world is a strange place to live, if satellite telly is their perspective on our society.
On my return from Morocco I decided to contact the Old St.Beghians’ Society to see if I could find out anything more about dad’s trips to the Atlas. With hindsight, I wish I had done this before I departed, but although this seems such an obvious idea, it didn’t occur to me before I left on my trip. David Lord and Tony Reeve were most helpful and Pam Rumney sent me copies of articles from the Pacquet dated 1967, 1969 and 1971. The articles didn’t give me as much information as I’d hoped, with only one describing the full itinerary of the trip, but I was delighted to read some familiar references to stories of landrovers breaking down and lost passports! I found that not only did dad and his party climb Toubkal but also Ouanokrim. The Neltner and Leipney refuges were also mentioned. The Neltner refuge I saw was built in 2000, but the St.Bees party obviously visited its much smaller predecessor. I have also discovered that dad did get further east and that Tizi Tamatert, the location of my first real feelings of spirituality, was mentioned as well as our final town in the mountains of Imlil. The school party also passed as we did through Asni, a larger town between Imlil and Marrakesh. There are a lot of similarities between our two trips but also a lot of differences. On my return, a colleague at work mentioned that I must have got my sense of adventure from my father. I think dad was a lot more adventurous than I am, but perhaps I have inherited some of his thirst for challenging fun – I love to ski and I often think that dad would have relished hurtling down Alpine pistes among the trees – and certainly his untimely death has left me with a sense of living for the moment and enjoying every day to the full, because you never know when it might be your last.
I would really like to hear from any old St.Beghians who travelled with dad to Morocco, and in particular I’d love to see any photos they might have and share experiences. I don’t know whether the school will do any more trips there, the risk assessment would take too long to complete, but I hope it does continue to encourage the sense of adventure in its pupils which was evident 40 years ago. If you can provide me with any further information on the Moroccan trips, please contact me via the Old St.Beghians’ Society.”

Please click here to see photographs of trip.

The St. Beghian Society,    St. Bees School,    St. Bees,    Cumbria,    CA27 0DS.
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