RETURN TO MOROCCO – FROM DESERT TO POWDER AND BACK

This wasn’t a snowboard trip: It was an adventure with a bit of riding thrown in.It was also my second attempt at riding in Morocco, but the last jaunt was, pretty much, an unmitigated failure. This magazine ran an article about it titled “Morocco Fail”, which set the dubious precedent of being the first action sports magazine feature that featured absolutely no action.

Despite a complete lack of snow, the potential of Oukaïmeden (“U-kaym-dan”) was obvious: A single rickety chairlift rises to a respectable 3200 meters, providing access to an impressive range of terrain and offering incredible views over a ridge and the plain beyond, all the way to the sprawl of Marrakesh. You can also see clear over the Atlas range to the south, where the mountains shrink to hills, before fading into the immensity of the Sahara: The start of the largest dry desert on Earth. The top of that lift really, really feels like the top of the world!

Between the chairlift and the main village is the other feature that drew me back: A slope bustling with hundreds of ramshackle huts, packed in cheek by jowl and organically hugging natural features to minimise build materials. Each hut is built into the slope or its neighbours, enclosed by three walls and topped by a flat roof made from thick branches overlaid with slabs of local sedimentary sandstone. Over time they have become assimilated into the hill: Solid ground seamlessly flows into unsupported roof and vice versa. You really have to watch your step.

Countless sets of feet tramped in well worn paths over years. These were respected by later builders and resulted in a completely unique off-road-downhill-street-course. It was the potential of this rural-urban side country park that made me determined to go back a second time, but my experiences in Marrakesh told me the team had to be more than just snowboarders: I needed a motley crew of land pirates, adventurers, roadmen and opportunists to make the most of Morocco, without getting intimidated or ripped off (too badly).

I was motivated to make a trip happen with Sparrow and once I saw Niels Shack’s 2016 movie “Loose Change”, the deal was done. Sparrow suggested Niels might be down and I thought that Gus (Leith) and Gaz (Andrews) had the right combination of confident snowboard skills, high spirits and impervious blag facades to get shots, have fun and deal with the constant stream of randoms trying to sell them everything from rugs to hash, without having a meltdown or a sense of humour failure.

We needed a team where everyone does everything: Digging, grabbing a camera for second angle, cooking pasta, scouting spots, whatever. Fortunately, it seems that the kind of people who aren’t intimidated by a persuasive Arab with an aggressive monkey are comfortable enough in their skins to leave their egos at home

Photo: Jonny Pickup

By another fortunate coincidence, Jonny Pickup had just finished his photography Master’s. A shit ACL prematurely stopped a promising riding career, but his photos are so good that he skipped uni and went straight to the Masters! His portraits are especially impressive. Somehow, in just a couple of minutes, he can put someone with whom he shares no language or culture sufficiently at ease that he is able to shoot incredibly natural and emotive photos. Being a nine out of ten probably helps with this (and much else). Also a talented videographer, with a strong streak of adventuring, exploring and possibly pirating, we were unanimous in wanting Jonny along. He was immediately in, saving us having to kidnap him, and we hatched a plan to go when there was most likely to be snow: Late January.

Photo: Jonny Pickup

Since 2011, Moroccan snow forecasting has not improved much, but social media has. Oukaïmeden now has a location page on Facebook, populated with photos taken by visitors who tag the location and lots do, giving accurate daily updates. I kept a close eye on the page and saw how fragility the Moroccan season is: A storm is followed by a relentless freeze/thaw cycle until conditions get desperate, then maybe another storm. Sometimes, not even the mountain peaks get a base lasting all winter. However, by the time we booked flights there was already more snow than there had been in 2011 and the same storms that were covering Europe were dumping on north Africa. Parts of the Sahara had received their first snow since 1979 and the most in living memory!

We arrived to a sunny evening in Marrakesh, on 30th January 2017 having made a close fly-by of the high Atlas mountains on our final approach. With Sparrow arriving the next day, the rest of us had a night in town to get our bearings and gather supplies. We took a taxi to Jemaa el-Fnaa: The main square in the medina, where I had booked us the same large rooftop room that we had stayed in on my last visit.

Getting from the cab to the hotel was great: All dragging snowboard bags across a massive square, full of people, businesses and animals, in UK summer temperatures. It was a Monday night, but the square was rammed. There was a pop up market for cooked food and a random collection of drum circles, whirling dervishes, snake charmers, hawkers, beggars and chancers. We were like peas in a pod really, but stuck out like sore thumbs.

‘Sheep’s head for dinner, boys?’ Photo: Jonny Pickup

Gaz and Gus’s faces displayed the same combination of “Amazing!”, “What’s that smell?”, “What the fuck?” and “What does this guy want?” that I recall from my first visit, but I finally found my way back to the Central Palace, where we received a warm welcome and were relieved to drop off our bags. The place was basic but full of character: We were all in one large room, with mosaic tile walls and cushions all over the pace. It was airy and cool and had the added benefits of costing about £4 per night each and looking like the set from a 70s porn flick.

Wandering back to the square, we had dinner at one of the ‘same-same-but-different’ food stalls mostly flogging similar fare and differentiable only by the chat from the ‘PR guys’ who hustle you in. When one dude welcomed us in all our native languages, including Scottish, we were sold. Our spot turned out to be right next to the only stall full of locals. They were all sitting around a central station manned by a big lad with a bigger machete, which he used to hack up cooked sheep heads. The offal was then served with bread dipped in the stock: Not peng, just hench! After dinner, we took a stroll round the old quarter, met some friendly roadmen, picked up some local export and went for a drink in a rooftop cocktail bar. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to madness and by the time the square was quietening down (12-1am), everyone was feeling much more relaxed and at home.

The next day it was ominously cloudy in Marrakesh – a bit like Manchester, even down to the dour faces. There was snow on the forecast and with Oukaïmeden only 80 kms from Marrakesh, I was optimistic. We headed to the airport to collect Sparrow and our hire car and having visited a supermarket, we were ready to head up.

One strange thing about Morocco is the contrast: Walking across Jemaa el-Fnaa is like crossing the set of an Indiana Jones action scene, but the roads are better maintained than much of Europe and as soon as you leave the medina, so are many of the suburbs. Supermarkets are reasonably priced (except for booze) and they have all the same shit brands as here. There are so many prosperous locals that it’s a surprise to go outside and see four year old children selling tissues for pennies in the middle of the street, but that’s how it is there: We should be thankful for and protect our welfare system.

The long, dark route. Photo: Jonny Pickup

From Marrakesh, the highway crossed the plain before ascending into the Atlas foothills, wrapping around the hillside and hugging the villages it passed. The villages and road thinned together as we climbed first toward and then into a thick cloud layer. We drove for about half an hour through zero visibility, at maybe 5 mph, while I chain smoked and avoided an endless barrage of kamikaze locals coming the other way. The van eventually popped out of the top of the cloud at around 2500 meters, just in time to give everyone a murky view of the ski area as we pulled into town.

Oukaïmeden’s main hotel was built by the French in the 70s and was intended to kick off a development of the ski area that never really materialised and the brutalist triangle now lies derelict. The only other hotel in town is expensive and their customer service sucks, so I resorted to Air B’n’B and booked us an apartment. I was instructed by the owner to phone our ‘guy’ Mohammed when we arrived in town, but we had barely pulled over when a bloke in a red ‘Vars’ staff jacket came over and asked if he could help. I assumed he worked for the resort (he didn’t), and he said he knew Mo and offered to show us. We arrived to an apartment block that would not look out of place in a European resort, complete with an open fire and views over the ramshackle Berber village to the ski area beyond.

Our host was also Berber. They are the indigenous people of north Africa and are easy to tell apart from Arabs, the other main group. They tend to be smaller, with a lighter skin tone and sometimes blonde hair and blue eyes. ‘Mo’ looked after the apartments for the owner and his home was dug into the foundations of the block. He lived there with his dog, his son and, I assume, his Mrs., though we never saw her. He might not have had much, but the guy was one huge smile with a thick moustache and from the moment we arrived, everyone got a good vibe from him.

We tried to get dinner from the only restaurant in town, but they were closed by 7pm: Oukaïmeden gets incredibly busy with visitors from Marrakesh each day, but almost nobody stays overnight, hence the derelict hotel and misty car pinball. One man drinking at the bar offered to take us to his place for tajine so we accepted and soon found ourselves in a concrete box that was cafe by day and family home by night. In addition to a table for us to eat from, was a blaring TV and sofa complete with sleeping child and a group of local men, who as well as generally lurking, insisted that we sample their local moonshine and hash, which certainly helped us to see off the dinner! Having overstayed our welcome and turned awkwardness into comedy, we set off back to the apartment. It was snowing gently but persistently and being above 2600 meters, even walking up the gentle slope put us out of breath. Everyone was happy to have made it and stoked to see snow.

We awoke at daybreak to a ghost town under blue skies. Jonny was already out filming the sunrise and with a few centimetres of fresh snow everyone was hyped to ride. We had asked our hosts the previous evening at what time the lifts opened at and found it to be a grey area so we arrived at the station for 08:45. The lift was broken and the guy fixing it kept saying “20 minutes” until it finally opened at 10:45, but with a day rate of £8, what are you going to do? We just snaked the lift line for fresh tracks.

Angus gets Slashed

The panoramic view from the top is even better with snow: Majestic white peaks all around, pouring out onto the vast expanse of the plain below, with the shadow of the city in the far distance on one side and the mighty Sahara on the other. We took a few high speed chaos boarding laps, over pockets of great snow interspersed with random icy sections. I shot some nice turns and slashes from Niels and Gaz and we got about four hours before the weather rolled back over. Sparrow turned a slash bank into a sick jump but Angus took man of the match with a burly gap to tap on a boulder. Pretty full on for day one.

As the cloud came in, it was like putting your head into a sack of cotton wool and with runs and cliffs not signposted clearly, we called it. The street market that had been springing up as we were heading out was now in full swing, weirdly just a few meters under the bottom of the cloud. Even though it was snowing up top, it seldom gets cold during daylight hours this close to the biggest desert on Earth and it felt muggy.

Gaz stales the rocks

I felt like we were in a dysfunctional TV show where the set for Arabian nights had been accidentally delivered to Coronation Street and they had made the film anyway: Grey, wet, kind of miserable weather but warm, with brightly decorated horses to ride, men selling tea from giant ornate tea pots and possibly magic carpet rides. Everyone was getting gently rained on, with all sporting faces like Monday morning commuters up north. There were ski rental stalls offering museum quality pieces, as well as thousands of sledges made of plastic, wood, metal and bin bags. Sledging is Morocco’s premiere winter sport: I estimate that for every 1000 tourists, perhaps 10 use the chair lift and only 1 actually skis! The rest come just to sledge, hang out and take selfies. Having wandered round a bit, Mo lit a fire for us when we got home and we headed out early for dinner, which was a tajine from Cafe JuJu, including access to the only internet connection in town. ‘Like flies round shit’ sprung to mind as we completed family check-ins and other domestic duties.The second day dawned clear and we had decided to spend the day getting to grips with the ‘abandoned’ Berber village on the side of the slope facing our apartment: From the footprints in the snow it was obvious that this place was not completely derelict.  We imagined that these rooms may have been homes at one time, but had assumed that recently their use would be limited to housing cattle.

However, a closer inspection of the huts from our apartment revealed some to have glazed windows and these to be the footprint epicentres. The main giveaway came a few minutes later when a bloke brought a donkey out of one and an old boy came out of another to bask in the morning sun. We were astounded. You can’t live in one of those, even if it does have a bloody window: It’s freezing at night and there is no electricity or running water!

We could still see many spots that definitely did not involve shredding someones’ home, so we went up there with a mind to remain respectful. This turned out not to be necessary: The donkey man was stoked, had literally no clue what the fuck we were doing, but immediately offered to let Niels jump over his donkey. As we hiked up, we got a closer look at the huts. They included random walls with collapsed roofs and all kinds of dingy cave spaces, right up to ‘potentially some guy’s house’. Constructed side-by-side and on top of previous structures with pathways, enclosures and lots of rocks it was an assault course like no other. The snow inside the village was mostly fresh and soft but only a foot or two deep and below the lowest structures it gave way to a packed sledging area with bulletproof snow, random ice blocks and oblivious day trippers.Conscious of the changeable conditions, we ticked off a good few spots on the first day, including a gap (front 1) to flat roof to drop (switch ollie) from Gaz, a front 1 to switch back 1 combo from Sparrow and a sick ‘first try’ line from Angus: Front 3 over a wall to ollie off a big rock. We noticed that a good long ride out showed the mad location of the spots and how busy it was as well as adding a serious amount of danger crossing the sledging area at speed. Therefore, almost from the start it was agreed that when a trick was nailed, the rider would hang on for dear life and try to straight line it to the bottom, à la GX1000. Having already scouted a bit while building and shooting that day, Gaz and I decided to take a closer look round the whole of the village after riding, to sniff out more spots. That is how we found ourselves wandering around the village at nightfall, trying to pick out a line back to the apartment. We heard an ominous creak off to our right and quick as a flash were joined by a man speaking to us in ‘Berber French’.

Being fluent in the old Franglais, I fielded it and understood the gist of his words to be “What are you two doing here?”, so I replied “Looking for things to jump off on our snowboards…. What are you doing here?” My crap French was at least enough to catch “I live here, with my horse”, as he pointed at a nearby door, followed by “Would you like to come in for tea?” Having travelled in the middle east, I knew hospitality to be an important part of their tradition and faith. Extremely curious as to how someone could live in one of these caves, I said “oui”. Gaz doesn’t speak any French, so when our new pal grabbed us by the hands and started frogmarching back towards his door, Gaz somewhat nervously asked what the hell was happening, but when I told him that it was more ‘come dine with me’ than ‘Fritzl’, he was relieved and down to take a look inside.

Entering the dwelling, we saw space at one end for the horse and at the other a gas stove surrounded by rocks and a bed made of straw. Our host busied himself brewing up and offering us snacks while I did my best to find out a bit about him. It turns out that Franglais and Berber French aren’t that similar and a good bit of the conversation was lost in translation, but I did understand that he kept warm by heating rocks on the stove, then putting them in the straw of his bed. We enjoyed a great cup of tea and some top hospitality from a man who didn’t have much, but shared what he had without question.

I knew that Jonny would love to photograph this guy and his horse so we told him that we would return, then set off for home now in complete darkness. Getting back to the apartment, the rest of the crew had organised for Mo, to make us tajine. His style was to cook entirely on a hob, starting wth the meat in the centre and building the vegetables up around it in order of looking time. He even taught us how to do our own at home.

We got up early and went to see our friend, taking gifts of instant coffee, mega mix and a hoody as well as Niels: A fluent French speaker to translate. We found out that he doesn’t live there all the time and is actually from a village some distance away. In the winter, while there is snow, he comes for a few days at a time to sell horse rides to tourists and stays in the cave. We gave our gifts and a few quid for his trouble and Sparrow got a lift back to our apartment on the horse.

We spent the rest of the day hitting more spots in the Berber village, which were getting more hectic, more technical and more gnarly especially with the danger ride outs.

Sparrow opened proceedings with the biggest spot of the trip: Off the top of a large rock, over a wrecked hut to a tight landing surrounded by pointy rocks. He nailed an tweaked indy over it all, bounced, then pinned it out to the very bottom! Gaz took on a rock ride to ‘thread the needle’ ollie: Off a roof and through a gate. I found a pretty nice angled rock, over a collapsed hut and got a back one into a soft landing with very few pointy rocks. The hardest part was definitely holding on switch to the bottom. Sparrow ended the day miller flipping a huge boulder, framed beautifully by troglodyte caves and with Oukaïmeden as a backdrop.

He had earned it so we bombed the hill to get Sparrow some snails. I guess that Morocco got the whole ‘snail thing’ from France, but in France they are normally cooked in garlic butter, whereas in Morocco they are served in a stock that tastes of soil. It’s less rank than it sounds, but I would advise just eating the snails and leaving the broth! We got hustled by the snail vendor upon trying to haggle a ‘local’ price. He just took his bowls back, hit us with the ‘classic’ walk off and we crumbled.

Heading home we saw a group of cyclists brandishing a huge Moroccan flag. Evidently cycling in Morocco isn’t that different to the UK as these gents seemed middle aged and middle class. They were hyped though, presumably about having just peddled up the mountain and were jumping around and singing and waving the flag. We blended in about as well a Channel Four news team at a Britain First rally and were invited to join the chanting session. They were super friendly, if a bit confused (like everyone else) about why we would fly over the Alps to shred Morocco.

Having enjoyed another amazing dinner from Mo, we decided to do a night mission up to the observatory on the ridge. I had a surreal conversation with the caretaker about the technical aspects of the observatory and the moon was so bright that it cast shadows! Jonny wanted to get a time lapse of it setting over the mountains. This was the kind of commitment that had led to Jonny being christened ‘Jonny Geographic’, ‘Nat Jonny’ etc. He had been out for every single sunrise and sunset and was stacking the kind of ‘establishing’ and ‘lifestyle’ shots that you only see in Nat Geo then filing riding all day. After two hours we were tired and cold and went home, but ‘Ol’ Geographical John’ stayed up there all night to get the shot and get it he did!

On our last day riding there was a frenzy of action, hitting spots immediately adjacent to the main touristy slope. Angus started the day with a close out right in front of our window, so I took the easy option and shot from the couch, backed by hundreds of day trippers up from Marrakesh. I framed the shot by asking Gaz to point at Jonny’s filming lunge (look real close).

Gaz found a double close out with a brilliant angle to shoot from, but it took him ages to build, so in the meantime, Angus jammed a tractor tyre up against a wall and built a wallie off it. He nailed the classic: ‘Back 3 stale / switch method’, stomped it and flew out through the day trippers. By that time, Gaz had finished his spot and made short work of it, getting another banger in the process. The best thing about being visible from the market was that we got hot ‘Berber coffee’ delivered to us at the spot.

We finished up mobbing runs through for filler shots, with people dropping out to pack their shit. The last line was just Sparrow and Gaz riding a familiar line that I sequenced, which summed up the trip perfectly. Finishing virtually at the van, they threw the wet kit in the back and we all gave massive heartfelt thanks to Mo (as well as a solid tip), before setting off for the desert.

Gaz and I drove through the night. Our destination was only around 300 miles away and the roads that exist are good, but it takes a long time to cross the Atlas mountains by car because there is only one route through, over a high pass. By the time dawn broke, we were crossing a plain on the other side towards mountains in the distance.

As the sun rose higher, we soon realised these weren’t mountains, they were enormous sand dunes, over 150 metres high. The whole area is named Erg Chebbi, one of two sand seas in Morocco. I had felt drawn to the desert from the start of planning the trip and everyone was keen. I did some research and booked us a small camp in the dunes for one night, choosing one that showed people trying to sand board in their adverts. That was enough of a connection for this story.

Having packed the van at nightfall in a ski resort, it felt extremely strange to be unpacking it at daybreak in a desert: Boots were still wet! Our hosts were very welcoming and gave us a breakfast of coffee and fresh fruit under the hot sun. Apparently it gets to 50 Centigrade by 09:30 in the summer, so we were happy with 25 in early February.

The boards went ahead on a quad bike and we packed warm clothes for the night, (now dry) snowboard boots, rum, cameras and jazz cigs for the camel ride. Walking to the edge of the town we found our camel train and saddled up, with very little grace or finesse. Camels are generally pretty smelly and very pissed off and these were no exception. The sensation of riding a camel is pretty damned uncomfortable if I am honest and we all ended up side saddle for the sake of the gooch.

Arriving to a secluded bedouin style camp nestled into the dunes, we enjoyed a massive lunch in our ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ digs, then tried snowboarding down sand dunes. Somewhat expectedly if disappointingly, It’s impossible to even move on anything but the steepest slope and even then, friction means that you cant go more than a couple of miles per hour. Finding that out was still a lot of fun and didn’t detract from the adventure of being there.

We all hiked the biggest nearby dune for sunset and it was one of the most unique and enjoyable experiences I’ve had on a snowboard trip. We all agreed that the 18 hour round trip was worth it just for that. Having run around shooting even more amazing shots, Jonny joined us for a quiet quarter of an hour as the Sun dropped over the horizon. The rum came out and got passed round as we listened to stories from one of our hosts, who was from a bedouin family and knew the desert very well. The other fellow didn’t have much chat but he wanted in on the rum.

Heading back to camp for an amazing dinner, we then joined our hosts round their camp fire, where Sparrow quickly earned the nickname ‘Shakiro’ thanks to his song, dance and rap show, combined with the tan. Having watched the acrobatics and entertainment they had his number after one afternoon. Being our only night in the desert, we hiked a dune for sunrise, which happened so quickly you could see the sun move! We relaxed under rapidly warming sunlight, chatting about the trip until our guide shouted that it was time to leave, then battled the camels back to town and eventually set off to Marrakesh.

Arriving back to the rooftop pimp palace, we only had one day with Niels and Sparrow before they left to for somewhere in central Asia, so we made the most of it by getting into some serious haggling in the market. Many Brits are not good at haggling, but we did pretty well. A lot of people pay the first price, which can make business pretty lucrative given that price is an actual piss take, but it’s no good assuming from this that the shop guy is out to rinse you either: You can’t blame them for getting what they can. The persuasiveness is a consequence of their situation. There’s no sick pay, holiday pay or pensions for these guys. We figured the key was to have a laugh with the guy, then you get a good price!

We also skated. Watching Sparrow and Gaz skating darting about between locals and tourists to a mixture of anger, amazement and incredulity was funny. One guy saw me with my skateboard and came over, carrying a cobra, to tell me we were crazy. On our last evening as a group, Jonny convinced us all to try the sheep heads by offering both to eat some himself and pay for ours. It was nowhere near as bad as it looked and eating the weirdest local shit you can find is an important part of these trips.

Having said goodby to Sparrow and Niels, Gus, Gaz, Jonny and I spent our last days hanging out on rooftop bars, skating around in the medina, getting some last shots, soaking in the atmosphere and discussing other strange places that we could try to go in future. We found a fair few countries where you can snowboard even though that doesn’t make sense, so watch this space!

 

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