A New Approach to Oukaimeden – Skiing in North Africa. 3500 word exclusive.
photo: Andrew Sayer / @board_rap
This is a story about skiing, the Berber people of Morocco and Colons. Primarily, it’s a story about Northern Africa and my ski/travel related encounters there. It was on hold for some time with an American travel/lifestyle client who has since went out of business so this is the only place you will see this version of the story. Thanks to Andrew Sayer of BoardRap.com for his photo above. I’ve included two of my own photos in this version as well but for a photo essay of mine to accompany this story, please see my copy-free account released when I came back from the trip (in the spring of 2015) at:
The human history of Morocco stretches back some 400,000 years. Heading to the northwest corner of Africa, my ultimate goal while navigating the region was to find the 3300m peak of Oukaimeden and the surrounding boot packs of Dar Toubkal, 80km due south from Marrakech in the Al haouz province. Here’s how it went.
Colons and Berbers
The common response to going skiing in Africa is: “you can?” And I’d be lying if I said that that nouveauté wasn’t one of the commanding factors to go in the first place. The entire continent of Africa has only two more resorts than the utterly flat, horizon filled province of Saskatchewan and Oukaimeden is a gem and so severely underrated: the only people who go are keeners from Marrakesh and they rent beat-up skis and boots from the local, artisanal, resourceful and mountain-dwelling Berber people who shuttle pairs and pairs of outdated set ups to the muddy base by mule. Those very people rip on those setups, by the way. To say that Moroccan skiers are confident is as understated as the limelight is on Oukaimeden. The only people who bring their own gear is the odd tourist or kooky novelty-ski-experience hunting foreigner with enough cash and gumption to pay for the extra freight and ski in the north of Africa; the same privileged glory-warrior who wants to ski a volcano in Hawaii, imagine.
The resort of Oukaimeden recently asked, via Facebook, how many people visited the resort this year and myself and three others responded. However, never let the crowd dictate where you ski. From my Google Earth line scoping, research and pure word of mouth, it appeared that there was mini golf lines into coastally dense, albeit still very much powder powder and pinner rock-flanked chutes cascading off the peak of Oukaimeden. It had to be seen. And somehow the weather showed forty centimeters of fresh flakes falling twenty-four hours before I hoped to arrive.
Weather it was my inner Colon that persuaded me to ‘conquer’ another far-away land, an act of skiing’s necessity (as where I was, was spelling d-r-y) or just general curiosity… the periphery of a ‘goal oriented’ ski trip was, as always, where the real life-money and education is.
In Morocco, the periphery sang loudly via a notably oblong division of equal parts disparity and richness while history seemed to be a cocked gun for an unfortunate some. The Berber people have both adapted to and dodged the cocked gun. The Berber people, who inhabited the remote regions of the Atlas Mountains that I was finally climbing higher and higher into, caught my eye in the more desolate elevations as I passed in a taxi cab, staring like the tourist I was. My skis were in a shotty nylon bag, jutting ruggedly from a dubiously opened trunk at the back of the car which careened around red-earth switchbacks.
“The Ourika Valley region is inhabited by Berber people who practice a traditional way of life,” the thrift store guide book said. “Despite its proximity to Marrakesh, it is still considered relatively ‘unspoiled.’” Further reading showed that Berber’s have pirate lineage amongst their patchwork of back stories, too. They staved off the Muslim conquests for longer than any other people in the Maghreb and their grassroots rebellions are fabled. The Barbary pirates between the 16th and the 19th centuries were some of the most ruthless in history and cleaned out entire coastal settlements of people to be sold as slaves from Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, England, Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland, and even as far north as Iceland. Between one and one and a quarter million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves in Tunis, Algiers, Istanbul and Tripoli during this time period. And not to mention, no fewer than two million Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles were seized from 1468 to 1694. In many places along the shores of the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coast of Europe, settlement was widely discouraged because ‘there was no one left to capture any longer’. The United States even paid the Berber’s tribute to leave their shores alone. They were a powerful mob that had humanity on it’s heels and it’d mark the first, but definitely not the last, time that America would see fear as something to budget for.
“They belong to a powerful, formidable, brave and numerous people; a true people like so many others the world has seen – like the Arabs, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. The men and women who belong to this family of peoples have inhabited the Maghreb since the beginning.” Ibn Khaldun, fourteenth-century Arab historian.
Marrakech, Sitti Fatima, Ourika Valley
Four Moroccans and I had been steadily climbing since we left Sitti Fatima a few hours ago. Just before then, I and fifteen others had deflated out of a clown car packed large white Grand Taxi with bus seating and a luggage rack on top that my skis were secured to with a rope. I caught it at six a.m and ate a hard-boiled egg in a pita with olive oil, served to me and cooked in a parking lot while drinking sweet tea and waiting until we had enough people to fill the car (fifteen altogether, seating ten) and finally allowed us to leave. Some time after the hooded djellaba wearing young money collector collected mine, I was told that I paid at least ten times more for the same trip as everyone else. I didn’t care. I was only disappointed that I didn’t blend in as well as I thought I did with my fancy sunglasses and ski bag in the desert.
After the explosion from the Grand Taxi, I found my leather-clad driver’s cab after two fellow patrons had deflated out with me (both approximately my age and with Oukaimeden as their final destination, too) and they did the negotiating for the final three hour cab ride to the base of the mountain and the foot of the bootpack access to the mighty Dar Toubkal.
While the negotiations took place in the sweltering heat of Sitti Fatima, they offered me coffee from their thermos and smoke from their cigarette while we watched the sun touch it’s highest point of ascension above us. I accepted all three gifts, as it was hot and dusty in the lowlands and a little pleasure helped something that didn’t necessarily hurt. However, we were soon off, squished, talking football with the stone faced cabbie staring straight ahead; French-Arabic auto-tune and Aerosmith’s ‘Amazing’ came from a crackling and dusty radio, choppy.
A few of the passing mountain side communities laid their laundry out on the sunny slopes and from a distance all of the colours in a row looked like a breathless Arabic prayer group from our position avantageuse. And smoke plumes exhaled from incremental valley-side dwelling’s kitchens, and gardens and yards and pottery studios, too. The smoke and the symmetry of their laundry in the mighty valley under a mighty mid-afternoon sky showed me a tune of sorts. A true sense of depth and grandeur in the vast valley while dinosaur cliffs rung around us like an authoritatively commanding bell or a folded multi-dimensional apron’s frozen wave. Roaring camels sneered and spat on the whipping road’s shoulder.
The inconsistency in the depths and the dips tricked one of the boys into being carsick and we had to stop around 2600m. Exiting the vehicle to give him some room, I got a better look at the view and took a little more time to contemplate the planet. The passenger with the glasses would get the front seat from here on out, but until then he just heaved. I took the chance to absorb the sight of the aforementioned smoke signals penetrating the stretching enormity of the valley as my legs stretched themselves while the young man held his glasses in one hand and wretched and I wrote notes about it all: suddenly there were signs of chilly precipitation and a crispness to the air – the scent of residual precipitation on earthy ground – that I had yet to feel while prodding about the souks and orange groves of Marrakesh. Suddenly, we re-convened and took off. The snow line inch-wormed ever closer.
Sheep herding teenagers move quickly across the dirt road as we rocked our way into the settlement like a train to it’s terminus station. The base of the mighty Oukaimeden and the best skiing Africa has to offer, as a community, felt like equal parts Berber tribal survivalism with chickens and caves and houses buried in snow and soil like stacked bunkers – that could make for amazing pillow lines if any sense of respecting the locals could be momentarily waved – albeit this ‘unspoiled’ sense of place and people was punctuated with two or three awning hung hotels reminiscent of the Colon’s old influences: dark wood, red carpets, three course meals, whiskey, wine and port selections and ski-town kitsch that you’d never find anywhere but high in the Atlas Mountains: a black and white photo of the gateway to Oukaimeden from 1956, the year the Chez Juju opened, with ‘4 metres de neige : Fevrier 1956’ hand-written underneath the old environmental, snow-drenched print. Chez Juju has modest orange awnings above a hedge-row guarded patio. There’s a low seating, multi-pillowed library with twenty four foot high deep blue curtains hugging serenely the windows to the immediate right of the front french door. It’s two stories high and a formidable place owned and at times remotely operated by a French – Canadian couple: none other than Madame est Monsieur Juju. A St. Bernard bathes in the sunlight of the open french door and the stairs are low and slope upward easily. My room has a window with no screen and brass clasps on well treated barn style wood that folds in like an accordion.
Outside the hedgerow is a mountain guarded by mules, crows and sun-bleached Coke-a-Cola signs that flank a street butcher wearing an apron covered in day old blood. If you’re coming, come with cash because there is no other way to trade. Although the local Berber men will trade you two cigarettes (“un pour le présent et un avant le coucher” aka “one for now and one before bed”) for all the tea you can drink, it’s hard to live under a roof or go skiing on Camel currency alone. The alpine air was accosted by other butt-brands, hints of hash, equine scheiße, and a local assortment of tagine addressing the senses. Tagine is a Moroccan spin on soup and heated with insanely hot hamam coals for hours on end and to eat it requires some level of patience. Before sprinting to the bottom of the lift for a few late afternoon hints of what the pack felt like, I inhaled a bowl of my own tagine with sharp bone shards still erupting from the charred and flavour-laden protein. Hidden under radish, carrot and zucchini – which were sopping in all kinds of thyme, natural salts and well-aged stock – were more splinters and bits: dangerous, as it exposed a new conflict, arising from the hurried aggravation to unchain my long-repressed traveling ski energy onto these aspects of the Atlas, while having to remain present enough not to burn or choke as the sun peaked and began it’s descent – somewhat faster than normal – while navigating a style of gastronomy that must be consumed gingerly at its quickest. I finally finished and followed the armada of pack mules from my orange awning and wooden bench to the first upload of two, destined for the resorts summit and the origin of an infinite amount of bootpacks and first descents.
Getting a 1000 dirham lift ticket (10$) and standing in the corral for forming the que (a rugged steel bar bent by hand) I became anxious to go as fast as I could both up and down the mountain. It could have been the heat. Everyone was in streetwear and rentals, waiting for a prehistoric trigger loaded drag-lift that a man with a cigarette fired manually with a BANG after the waiting skier nodded that they were in fact ready. Many were not ready, some didn’t have a ticket – bought from a rock shelter – and put coins in the liftee’s hand. I was wearing a fisher cap, sweater and sunglasses. The liftee’s cigarette hung lazily from his mouth, he wore a pair of neon pink, razor sharp sunglasses and layer upon layer of wool, windbreaker and heavy denim sitting in a chair and pulling the trigger and the smoke in with penny-coloured lips; similar shades showed on each remaining tooth. Rising in barely noticeable increments on rutted ice. The top of the old Poma was the end of the line for most Moroccans, content with the bunny hill’s distance and aspect, although a half kilometer traverse would take you to the final upload to the summit. A two man chairlift that swings manically around a bull-wheel, shocks everyone sweating and panting in the line-up, and even those selling sesame bars and pastries while you wait, shuffling forward in tiny steps and wiping sweat from oozing, acclimatizing pores. Once paired with an ambitious Moroccan who wanted me to be his “prodige”, it’s a steady climb into the alpine with desert like an arid reservoir lapping at the toes of the range in a mountainous bay to my right and out as far as the eye could see. The turbulence of the chairlift makes it questionable to attempt taking out a phone for photos but it’s worth a try. Underneath is unquestionably fresh powder and a hedgerow of individual, untouched chutes.
The initial turns that I got, en route to the showcase chutes I saw from before, were really, really good. After snapping photos of the Carpathian sized heli-country that presided over a panorama of desert, olive & saffron grove: a few glorious hot tubs I sculpted exposed slightly the same characteristics as my ambitiously consumed meal just before. There was flesh to be chewed on, for sure: imagine the velvet texture of thirty-centimeters of mid-May glacier pow all over this dish. However you had to be sure to watch for rocky bones and toothpick splinters hidden just beneath the most tantalizing slashes and flavourful looking bites. After my commute to the top of the chutes, I took a breather and a photo or two but heard a commotion and turned uphill to see a shirtless Berber man running down the side of the mountain, in off-piste, knee-deep powder with dirty work-boots on. He was not distressed, but commuting playfully, too. His flannel tied around his waist, the man in his early forties was incrementally employing a controlled somersaulting to: cool himself off, get face shots and cover ground faster than a the lot of the skiers poking around the un-ironed piste were. The surreal thing was how real it all was, and so, determined not to be out skied by a guy without skis on… in Africa… I did a quick slough test before turning my twigs downhill and accelerated with the quickening bounce of a kayaker: gunning it between the bones shards without resisting the pitch a bit.
Afterward, as I dismantled my boots and squat underneath the mountain map, a ski patroller who looked like an Arabic Michael Jordan (in the era when he had just acquired the Hornets) approached me in his old, faded, red one-piece with a cross on the back, wanting to see if his boots would fit into my bindings. His name was Muhammad and he couldn’t believe the contemporary nature of the riveted-delamination-cowboy-fix on my fat twins and he just had to give them a shot. I told him they were made of bamboo and his eyes were wide as he did effortless curls with my skis, like dumbbells, in his large basketball hands. They fit like he was Cinderella so he excitedly skipped off for a lap around the Poma. When he came back it was with a huge Air Jordan smile on his face and we shared a tea and played some intercontinental charades to confirm meeting the next day to share a bootpack into the accessible, yet utterly untapped horizon of Dar Toubkal.
The next morning, I left the Chez Juju and followed the procession of donkeys to meet Muhammad. There were twenty-plus pairs of skis and boots per donkey. All the pairs would be laid on the soil in a line, their ghastly combinations empty, awaiting hopeful rental like a horse-drawn carriage ride. I readjusted the skis on my shoulder and passed the donkeys and their smiling guides, anxious not to miss Muhammad. The air was crisp and it smelled like spring. A murder of crows roared around the sky before diving to pillage the soil for worms. The sky was the deep blue of morning and Muhammad was waiting, black moustache trimmed, golf-season sunglasses riding above his temples. He said ‘Assalamualaikum’ through both sets of teeth and we set off after tea.