Imperial College Caving Club
Morocco Expedition Report29 August - 22 September 2001
This report describes the 2001 expedition by Imperial College Caving Club to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Led by chemistry PhD student, Colm Carroll, the five member team spent 15 days on the side of Jbel Ghat, exploring and mapping the caves of the area.
Despite surveying a large number of shafts, the lack of major cave development was somewhat disappointing. However, the expedition was a great success in terms of making local contacts for the future (including a geology professor in Beni Mellal who was interested in our work) and gaining experience of the sort of terrain and conditions in the High Atlas.
We would like to thank the all those that helped us for their support with this expedition, and we hope to continue work in Morocco.
The aim of the expedition was to follow up on the 1999 reconnaissance of the High Atlas in Morocco. The specific area chosen was Jebel Ghat, in the central part of the High Atlas near the well-known mountain of Mgoun and about 6 hours drive east of Marrakech.
Jebel Ghat was chosen because a French expedition which went there in 1982 reported that further prospecting would be worthwhile; even though they had only reached about 100m depth, they found a lot of rifty entrances and the potential if a cave 'goes' is considerable. The summit of Jebel Ghat is over 3800m and the zones we looked at (following the French division of the mountain) were at about 2800-3200m.
Muhammad Achahri, a guide with whom the 1999 team stayed, helped with the logistics, providing transport from Marrakech as well as organising supplies, mules and a cook. Hassan the cook also performed the role of guarding the camp during the day and talking in Berber to the many shepherds on the mountain for us. Using local people in this way was a good solution to the otherwise considerable logistical problems of exploring this area.
Walking in to the area from the roadhead at Abachkou in Ait Boulli took 2 days with the mules. Camp was set up at about 2800m, in the same place as the French had done 19 years earlier, a dry valley between Jebel Awltoum and Jebel Ghat. The only water source that was still running trickled away into concrete troughs built for the goats. Water was collected from these pools and treated with iodine. The valley was hot, dry, dusty and sometimes extremely windy, but quickly became home to the expedition.
Prospecting started immediately and the different zones mentioned by the French were re-examined. In particular we wanted to look at 'Zone N', the furthest and highest area, which the French reckoned had the best potential. It took about 40 minutes to walk up to the edge of the Jebel Ghat 'basin' which was the focus of our prospecting. This is a large rectangular area (approx. 7km x 3km) of bare rock, lapiaz, dry valleys and cliffs and is bisected by a huge wadi or dry river gorge in the Ghat syncline. The bottom of the gorge discharges over a 150m cliff: it would be quite impressive when it flows. It took about 2 hours to reach Zone N from the camp, although the other areas were more accessible. There is virtually no water anywhere on the 'plateau' although a shepherd took us to his source of water which was a tiny pool in a cave entrance. This cave was explored to around 40m depth.
The caves we explored were mostly vertical, rifty and ended in earth floors. Although there are many entrances the deepest we explored was about -70m. Zone N was probably the most promising but we couldn't get beyond that depth.
Travel and Transport
With a limited amount of time in the field, the important factor was to get to the destination and set-up camp as quickly as possible, giving a reasonable period to explore the area of interest. In the end, of the 3 weeks we had in Morocco, 15 days were on the mountain exploring the area.
With the exception of food and cooking utensils all the necessary personal and caving equipment for the expedition was taken out to Morocco as personal luggage, on flights direct from London to Marrakech. Spread amongst five people it was possible to carry sufficient hardware for the possible exploration of large vertical and horizontal cave systems.
Transport into the mountains was straight forward, we had already arranged a Landrover through our local contacts to take our kit. The region we were visiting was quite well developed and the journey from Marrakech to the Bougoumez Valley was six hours on hardtop roads. Nevertheless the final section of the trip from our Gite in the Bougoumez valley to Jbel Rhat could only be achieved on four wheel drive vehicle or mules. There is a good network of trucks between villages, particularly on market days and if necessary transport of equipment could be achieved this way.
From Abachkou at the foot of the Jbel Rhat massif, our equipment was carried by just four mules. The walk up to our base camp was done over two days. For about 3 hours we headed up large rocky river-beds to point where we could camp near a source, the terrain made the going tough on the heavily laden mules. The following day we continued to a point at the head of a valley where the route then turned up a steep path, which became even more narrow and loose as it reached the high-level valley where we were intending to camp. This proved very difficult for the mules and equipment had to be unloaded and carried over the worst parts. Eventually reaching camp after 6 hours.
The base camp was set-up at the head of a high-level valley, at an altitude of 2800 metres. Within one or two hours walk from the main areas of caving interest.
This was the greatest cause for concern on our approach to the mountain. There had been a source at our planned base camp back in 1982 when a previous expedition had visited the area. The last major water source we passed on the route to Jbel Rhat was in the valley, 2 hours walk from Abachkou. There were no settlements after that point, until we reached the head of the river valley approximately 700 metres below camp, at the village of Azib Igouzane .
On our arrival we were shown a small spring by a shepherd and this is where we set-up camp, the presence of a number of shepherds and numerous livestock on the mountain showed there must be a sufficient supply. In the time we had we found just four "springs" over the whole area, two were in the valley where we camped and two in the main Jbel Rhat valley.
The eating arrangements were more than adequately organised by Mohammed Achari, we had a chef (Hassan) who supplied a mess tent, and all the utensils for cooking and eating. In addition all food and supplies were purchased beforehand, which meant we were completely self sufficient on the mountain for the full 15 days we were there.
Our main contact in Morocco was Mohamed Achahri, an experienced mountain guide living in the Bougoumez Valley, in the heart of the Central High Atlas. He had all the knowledge and contacts necessary to set us up with transporting our equipment and providing food. His go between, Francoise Pearson, was based in France (French and English speaking), we finalised timing and transport arrangements through her. During the expedition, a satellite telephone was used to communicate with Mohamed Achahri, to finalise the descent plans.
Hamish Brown is an expert on the Atlas Mountains and has been walking the region for many years. He was able to provide large scale maps of the area we were exploring when all other sources proved fruitless.
Sources of information
The Pengelly Library is based in London and is an archive of UK and foreign expedition reports, specifically for caving. This provided us with the report on the 1982 expedition by a French group to Jbel Rhat.
Apart from the usual stomach bugs, there were no real medical problems on the expedition. A number of people suffered from diarrhoea at the beginning of the trip, with the resulting dehydration necessitating an unplanned camp on the walk in, but these soon resolved themselves. All water used was treated with tincture of iodine for which we got much derision from our Berber neighbours, but, as we shared our water supply with their many hundred goats, it was definitely needed.
Blisters were a problem for some, with Spenco blister kits much used, but all in all, it was quite a healthy environment for an expedition.
Due to the generosity of the sponsorship bodies listed below, the cost of the trip worked out to be quite reasonable. Our two major expenses were transport and our chef and food. The transport was shared between the flights out and back (British Airways), and the hire of a landrover and mules to carry our kit to the base camp. The provision of a chef seemed a luxury before we left, but we quickly realised that Hassanís expertise was much needed. Expertly prepared tagine was the perfect antidote to a long, tiring day in the field. With strong winds and rain surprisingly frequent, the large Berber tent became a useful sheltered communal area, something the French expedition of 1982 lacked, with morale suffering as a result.
Insurance was provided by the British Cave Research Association. Most of the expedition equipment was provided by Imperial College Caving Club and Imperial College Exploration Board with a few extras bought by the expedition team.
We are grateful for the following for providing financial sponsorship for the expedition:
And the following companies and people: