Tafraoute and the Ameln – from Gorge to Mountain

As we needed to go into town anyway pick up lunch we decided that Monday would be our ‘tourist’ day and we would head into Tafroute for food, a quick browse and then out to Palm Tree Gorge for the afternoon. Our plans were quickly amended on meeting Mohammed at Maison Troc and deciding that carpet gifts were an expensive but necessary option as they were too beautiful to miss. So instead of staying in Tafraoute for any length of time; it is a strangely beautiful town with a plenty of high quality roads, pink rose buildings and beautiful iron wrought street lights – an odd experience when you have arrived by a single track tarmac road playing chicken with the locals, we headed out for our first proper day of climbing.
Our village of Tandilt was the next along the valley from New and Old Omsnat, the dual villages on either side of Palm Tree Gorge. New Omsnat with its white Mosque and new builds terracing up the Western side, whilst the ancient decaying rubble of Old Omsnat, filled with Prickly Pears and empty doorways, runs up the Eastern side. Accessing the Gorge, using the directions from the oh so reliable climbing guide maps (scales seem to vary depending on preference and stride length of the author) whilst not quite a ‘bushwhacking’ tour was an interesting scramble. The comment ‘easily visible’ is only relevant if you happen to be standing in exactly the same place as the writer and not underneath a grove of thick palms. It is difficult however to complain much when you arrive at a beautiful flat grassy oasis amidst the steep orange pink crags and deep green palms. This is a relief due to the fact that the grass with its delicate meadow flowers is the first bit of landscape that hasn’t tried to spike you in some way or another, all the other vegetation seems to be either covered in spikes, spines, thorns or barbs. An overriding concern about snakes or scorpions using our sacks as cool hideouts from the midday heat, and ancient brick built well with its unprotected slightly disguised drop nearby the crag added a frisson of danger. Which frankly when you are out trad climbing is entirely unnecessary as you are already mostly terrified all the time anyway. If this sounds unpleasant you couldn’t be more wrong. The excitement and adventure, Palms and Scorpions, climbing on perfect compact quartzite, miles from home, relying on each others skill and patience (at belaying and being patient when your belay partner just needs to lie down because she’s got too hot and tired and hasn’t eaten enough..) could not make for a better first day. Also Kane completed a climb called Crocodile Dundee which involved a traverse over a crystal clear rock pool, so I spent much of my time trying to keep the ropes dry whilst conversing with a delightfully green frog.

After a beautiful first days climbing we walked back through Old Omsnat, experiencing delight, luck and bad luck in equal measure. We walked back through the golden dusk light, admist the strange half broken half built old Berber town, stumbling across the ‘house de musee’. One of the old buildings looked lived in but beautifully decorated, then a young man emerged announcing himself as a guide and inviting us to look around, he seemed suprised at the token amount we gave him in dirham as a tip as I believe he made any income from selling goods (that we weren’t going to buy) but his welcome and gentle nature meant we were happy to ‘donate’. The bad luck was not luck so much as my own stupidity for trying to eat a Prickley Pear. Having been warned about the soft but highly irritating spines I easily avoided getting prickled by the cactus, not realising the the ‘spines’ referred to were the tiny yellow hairs on the pear itself. They really did stick in everything, particularly my fingers and our lips (as I had persuaded poor Kane to eat some of the sadly rather disappointing fruit) and required tweezers and bright light for their removal! It was announced in the Kasbah that I was not alone in this error however my sister did sing the entire of ‘the bare necessities’ at us which, it turns out, is good advice as well as a catchy tune.
The temperature quickly drops and the nights were cold, so a hot meal in the Auberge supplied by our host, who had to stay and wait whilst we ate so he could take all the dishes home – a slightly odd but appreciated gesture, was very welcome.
On Tuesday we had arranged to eat in Tafraoute after what we hoped would be a long days climbing. We headed out of the Ameln Valley, West and North to Tanalt and the ‘Robin Hood Rocks’. The drive is beautiful and takes you up through apparently inconsequential hairpins (the important ones are labelled on the maps) to a knife edge ridge, slightly wider than the width of the road, that looks down onto the Ameln valley and the terraced mountains of Tagmout. The crag we were aiming for turned out to be not just roadside but actually involved belaying in the concrete drainage ditch of the road, and yet with the qualities of a high mountain pass – it doesn’t take much height to feel exposed and alone from the world.

Until that is, sitting at the top of the first pitch, setting up belay, when the sound of what I am assured included a AC Cobra – apparently identifiable 3 minutes before it arrived, some high quality / vintage / (and I swear there was a transit) rally cars come round the hairpins we had trepidatiously previously navigated.

Oh and the police who were checking out our car!

After composure had returned we were left alone again and the soundscapes returned to the vast busy silence of the maze of mountain valleys, punctuated only by the occasional braying of an over excited donkey. The Crags here continue one above the other, instead of descending you climb one cliff, to arrive at another continuing, if you like, the full 500m through the ‘bunny ears’ at the top of the mountain. We took just one more elevation to the ‘Outlaw Buttress’ and ‘Will Scarlet’ which was, whilst ridiculously named, one of the most beautiful climbs I have seconded (followed up – Kane led and I actually have some great filmed footage for once). After this I was particularly keen to lead and we descended rather painfully in hot rock shoes to the hot road, to drive around to our next crag – Alkatine edge. This is again close to the road, but with barely any traffic and at an elevation of 1000m with the valleys dropping away beneath you, you are on top of the world. The heat limited our climbs here but both of us felt confident and secure on the rock. We weren’t climbing at our limit by any means, Anti-Atlas climbing is not the area to ‘grade push’ there are enough challenges and adventures as it is. But we did feel happy, confident and very very content with our day.
We drove back over the mountain pass, reaching the Ameln at sunset and stopping to capture the view over the valley at what we thought was the middle of no where but turned out to be a stop for the local school bus…

Driving into Tafraoute we had a rather odd detour around the ‘painted rocks’ the odd and slightly remarkable feat of a Belgian artist who literally painted some rocks in the desert like, granite boulder sites outside the small town. To be fair some of the rocks are very big – what made us really laugh is the fact that, not only does no one really no why he did it, but the fact that most of them have been repainted in different colours! We parked up late and had a lovely evenings meal at La Kasbah, a small restaurant which served beautiful and large Tagines, before making our happy way home.
We were really starting to relax into our adventure and it must be said that the seriousness of the location (particularly with the roadside cragging) was not forefront in our minds. This was not a failing as it was never forgotten – if all the dangers of climbing were at the forefront of your mind 100% of the time you’d never climb. It’s just that the next day we were to be reminded of it rather more sharply than I would have liked.

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