Towards the end of our time in Canada we had one last adventure to tick off the lists. To head as high up into the big mountains as possible. I remember looking at a map, and then again on the trail of six glaciers walk at Lake Louise and seeing the hut, perch ominously high atop the Victoria glacier in another realm and thinking….I need to get there.
The weather forecast was foul, but we were going regardless. Lake Ohara involves a 10km bus ride in by the national parks to limit numbers and we eagerly jumped on amongst the midst of hikers. There was 7 our party, Laurel & Riggs, Laurels brother Alex, Rosie, Cat and myself. All venturing to the hut for the first time. The previous week had made conditions sceptical at best with a lot of snow on the ground in the lower valleys and more in spots around the higher valley where we got off the bus.
We took a round about route up beyond Opabins prospect and to Moors lakes to see the last of the larches in the winter haze. Glorious golden sentinels saturated in a frosty mist, with a view back down the long valley 15km out. A pause for a snack and to indulge the serenity before marching on across the hioghline trail of yukness ledges to the bitter cold and damp shore of Lake Oesa. Lunch time as we looked upon the daunting 600m scree slope straight up to the hut on and angle of about 45-60 degrees.
High avalanche and rock slide danger, and when I say high, it is essentially a avalanche shoot with the visibility disappearing around half way up. Well lucky we packed the helmets and poles eh?
We rug up and power up the lower levels, making our way further round beyond the left hand shore of the lake and up over the far point of the huber ledges. We march up the scree slope quick. snow is up to our thighs in some places and there are no clear paths or tracks. We loose ascend into a blizzard with around 100m of vertical to go. Visibility is down to 30m and the wind is ferocious. We have split into two groups and plow on fast. We can’t stay here! heads down and charge. Its steep and slippery, rocks giving way at every second hand hold and ice laced wind pelting out faces but shortly we crest the cliff after an almost vertical final 20m. We see others in the hut and bust the door in to a cheer!
All safe, fire wood is turned out along with a few drinks, and some delicious yet mysteriously flavoured cookies (thanks Laurel!) and we settle in for the night while the blizzard howls on.
It doesn’t let up all night and we go to the bathroom peeing down into the dark of the cliff of the glacier. No stars and no sunset which is a shame, but it adds and eriesness to our current location that I’m almost content with…like its better not to see or know whats beyond the cloud layer?
6 hours of hiking with about 850 of vertical. worth every moment.
Hiked into Elk Lakes cabin on the 5th with Cat and Adrian. Took longer than expected due to snows still in the pass. Two wrong turns and shoes fill with ice. Also lots of bear sign.
Lovely hut once in here and smoked and drank until hearts content on first night. Second day explored the lake shore. Stunning vistas too big for a camera lens to capture. No wild life spotted beyond a rabbit on the second night.
Took some drawings of the mountains to further refine my understanding of them for structure and form to render in paint. Hopefully one day produce something worthy of the scenery.
We leave Sihanouk and head for Phnom Penh for a quick one night stop over before heading for an elephant conservation project in the highlands of the Mondulkuri province.
It takes about 7 hours on a packed mini bus, with Catherine and I the only tourists. Its refreshing to be amongst the local populace after the tourist hub of Sihanouk and its an eye opening experience in the foods they eat on a day to day basis. We stop at a roadside… service station for lack of a better descriptive word. Though its more like a single fuel pump with an attached snack stand. The guy next to us on the bus is eating strange fruit that I’ve never seen before – something like a lychee but with a green skin with feelers. We buy some dried kubara chips to snack and impatiently wait for the bus to arrive at Sen Monorom – the closest town to our destination. We start to emerge into the highlands, and its a interesting landscape; high hills that have been cleared on top for farms and dwellings, but then roll down into jungle filled valleys and ravines where water has carved them out over the eons. Its hot and humid still despite being a milder 28c rather than the 34c of the low lands.
Sen Monorom is not worth a picture and certainly not much to write home about. Its about two main streets and is a kind of a largish country town. We arrange our lift to the project huts on the far side of town and settle in for a surprisingly delicious chicken schnitzel with mushroom sauce at an odd German themed restaurant while we wait. Its a refreshing change from the constant buffet of rice and noodles we have been gorging on.
The Mondulkuri Project is a conservation effort to save elephants from a life of hardship. Run by the jovial and thoughtful Mr Tree, it has 5 elephants at the time of our visit, who live naturally in the jungle and basically do what they please. Each has been rescued from either a life of brutal farm labour or even worse, being ridden by tourists with a wooden chassis strapped to their back.
Let me explain some math for a moment. Elephant math if you will. The average Cambodian elephant is worth around $40,000 USD, and can make around $10,000-$20,000 a year if in the tourist trade. These elephants work 12 hours a day, every day of the year with limited food and water carrying obnoxious tourists around for their cheap thrills and the profit of the owner. $10-20k is a lot of money for a Cambodian – after all this is one of the cheapest places on the planet. These elephants can live up to 80 odd years in the natural habitats in the wild. In the tourist trade – maybe 20 – 30 years. They are pretty much worked to an early grave.
Might make you think twice about the next time you want to ride one?
The other thing they are used for by many of the local villages are to carry timber and tree sap (a valuable resource) through the forest. The problem here is in the way this tree sap is harvested and it can burn like acid. Several of the saved elephants here have scars from this dripping down their backs in their previous lives. Its a hard elephant life it seems.
So Mr Tree, with some investment by an Australian benefactor has set about buying up those he can and bringing them here to his jungle sanctuary to live their life in peace. But wait – we are here as tourists so how peaceful can it be for them? Well read on my friend and let me tell you how we are made to feed the bananas and scrub the mud from their backs.
We stay in some authentic wooden huts at the projects base in Sen Monorom which is run by Mr Tree’s amiable wife. The food there is delicious once again and its a nice relief to be in huts with no power and a wonderful stone shower filled with plants. A very cleansing way to cleanse I must say.
We have signed up on a 2 day trek which involves a ride to the elephant hut, where we will sleep the night in hammocks over looking the jungle covered valley below where the elephants call home. Mr Tree briefs us about the project and about the elephants before loading us up with bananas to go and bring them some tasty fruit snacks.
The elephants are truly amazing creatures. Intimidating at first, they crash through the jungle and march forcefully up to our group. We hesitate and shy back a touch; at well over 2m tall and several tons you do not want to get in their way, but they pull up just short of us and then one throws its head back and opens its mouth, while the other snakes its trunk toward us searching…
They know we have bananas. They are wise creatures with good memory. Tree tells us a story about one of them who use to pass a shop every day and the owner would give it a bannana. One day, the owner has no banana, so the elephants fills up his trunk in a nearby water trough and sprays the owner. Funny and it illustrates the point.
The personalities are vastly different – Lucky wants you to walk up and stick them in her mouth. Lazy beast she is, and the other, uncomfortable with that level of intimacy, grabs them from your hand or behind your back with her trunk.
We stand around in awe of these creatures, slowly letting them rob us blind of our banana cargo. Playing little games with them of hide the banana. They aren’t fooled easy, and if you turn your back you quickly find a trunk probing your hands for a stray easy grab banana.
There’s almost a sadness to their deep dark eyes, age beyond what we are used to in most animals, and these two have both experienced suffering for a long time. Though they are happy here. Masters of their own free will, they come and go as they please and have healthy diets and luscious habitat to meander around in.
We leave these two promptly and visit the other three – these ones are a touch smaller and hang on the other side of the river amongst a thicket of bamboo. They are scared of Lucky apparently. She is the alpha and rather than fall into betaness, the leader of this pack made the bold decision to break away. Though they all have friends and are happy so what does it matter?
We break for a lunch of rice and stir-fry before the afternoon’s agenda; swim with and wash them in a waterfall.
This is A M A Z I N G in every sense.
To be so close and intimate with these beasts is a rare experience. Ive never seen Catherine so happy; grinning from ear to ear and covered in mud from Lucky, she scrubs her back vigorously with a brush as I swim near by savouring the moment as the sun trickles through the jungle canopy above.
We spend the night in old army hammocks clustered in a wooden shelter atop the hill. We have bamboo soup for dinner – a local delicacy of the Bunong tribes people who have dwelt in this area for a very long time. Its delicious and spicy, with a consistency of porridge and is cooked atop a fire in a tube of green bamboo.
We sleep long and well and the next morning we rise early, break our fast and then return down to the elephants.
We walk for most of the rest of the day. Through the hot dry open grass lands and through thick covered jungle. Dense bamboo patches and steep forest floor littered with leaves. Its hot, humid work and we are eager for lunch and another swim in another waterfall before another long afternoon of hiking around the hills.
We finish up in a local village with a dozen or so pigs a handful of patchwork timber huts and a half dozen houses. Mr Tree arrives later to pick us up and drop off his quarterly aid donation – a few 50kg bags of rice and other assorted goods. Everyone mills around and are all smiles as stray dogs and chickens meander around our feet.
We spend the night back at the wooden huts in Sen Monorom before taking the early bus back to Phenom Penh the next day.
We take a short flight from Lisbon down to Marrakech. Sleeping most of the way, I open my eyes as we start descending and look out the window. Off to my right there is a line of mountains – caps of snow barely visible on the highest parts and a strange break of atmosphere with the top 3rd clear and the lower sections marred in a dusty haze. The wheels squeak and I’m jolted back to reality.
Welcome to Morocco. Welcome to Marrakech. Welcome to Africa.
We negotiate a cab from the airport. I say negotiate as we ask several people the price and match it with prior info we had and then try and find a taxi driver who will honour the price. They tell us no. Much higher. 300 Dirham when we were quoted 150. We stand firm and say no. They run to get us another driver. He gets there and starts trying to take our stuff to the boot of the big old mercedes he pilots. We stand firm again and ask price. He says 250, we argue back no. We were just told 180 you would take us for. Eventually through being bastards and not caving to them being bastards we get the agreed fair at 180. The streets are normal if a bit crowded and with the type of traffic to be expected for countries of this wealth – donkey drawn carts mixing it with old busses and loads of the old mercedes like our taxi. Things change when we get close to the medina. More hectic and more chaos. Loads of taxis parked up by the entrance near our Riad. We get out and once again have to negotiate our fair back to what was agreed.
Grab our bags and leg it – a bit unfamiliar here and the medina is filled with such winding streets and an unfamiliar culture that we are both very on edge. Youths try to leads us astray telling us our riad is along way the other way. Lying bastards. They are all out for our money, but the funny thing is, if they actually told me and took me there with out the hastle Id pay them a dollar like they wanted. One particularly persistent fellow, follows us to our door, then knocks for us, despite us telling him to go away. Then he demands money from us despite having found the way ourselves. Traveler beware.
Sohba, the host of our riad, is very welcoming and we have our very first serve or Moroccan mint tea on the rooftop terrace just as the sun goes down. Relaxing and unwinding, almost nervous to venture back out into the wilderness and chaos that is the medina below. We do, as we need food and we head for the main square through along winding way and our first taste of the souks – everything and anything is on offer here, but mainly leather goods, cloths, wooden handicrafts, Jewellery and antiques are particularly in abundance, along with spice shops. We come back and explore these in more detail over the following days.
2 days into Marrakech, we plan our first adventure – its time to head for the hills. Welcome to the Atlas mountains.
The atlas mountains are 2500km long across Northern Africa and extend from morocco to Tunisia and Algeria. With a wide variety of landscapes and habitats, they separate the coastal regions from the sandy saharan expanse. They are split into 3 sections, lower, middle and high atlas who’s capstone is the 4167m high Toubkal and our destination.
We shopped for guides and interviewed one in Marrakech yesterday morning, who has sent a driver with no english to pick us up and take us to Imlil – The main mountain village in the high atlas. Cat has doubts that we are with the right driver, though Im not too worried. After all, I see mountains out the front windscreen so at least we are headed in the right directions. The winding road steepens and we pass apple orchards and organ oil cooperatives as well as the odd old Kasbah. Kasbah’s are old fort like houses, usually the centrepiece of the village and built by the Berbers to protect them selves against Touareg nomads and most likely invading christians and muslims.
We cruise the final stretches through the streets of Imlil. It takes me back to my time in Nepal – mountain villages are all somewhat the same. With the tourist income, trekking shops and assorted riads pop up along with and restaurants to accomodate them. Theres a whole sheep hanging in one of them ready to be carved into the days dishes. There’s the token gaggle of goats wandering the road and of course, a handful of stray chickens.
We step off at Ahmed’s guest house – Dar Tigoulah, perched in a nearby neighbouring village a km above the town centre the place is furnished with rustic, very rustic, yet modern western ammenities and has the most splendid rooftop terrace overlooking the valley. Its a moment of awe to stand there, mint tea in hand surveying the rugged mountain landscape and the call to prayer starts up. Shivers, spine tingling shivers creep upon me. Taking me over and leaving me electrified as I stand in stunned silence as my senses soak up the mystical experience.
The prayer calls are all different, and while we make out the Allu Ahkbar’s the rest is a mystery. What is not is the quality and tone of the voice. Some positively shriek it out like a mad banshee possessed of demons, and others, like the man on this day, in this mountain valley, crooned it out smoothly and with almost a hint of pained sadness. And as it echoed through the valley, I could feel the inspiration it would endow in the local populace as it had me.
We plan our trek – 6 days in total with the first 2 days to be the trek unto Jebel Toubkal – the Toubkal mountain refuge, then our assault on the summit at 3am so we are up there for sunrise and then all the way back down to Imlil. Followed by a few days exploring the neighbouring villages.