Snowboarding in Africa

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We suggest you. . .

Snowboard Africa?

I’ve always wanted to try something like this; it’s been on my to-do list for a while.

So one place where it’s possible is in the Atlas Mountains, which stretches 2500 km from Morocco to Tunisia, and acts as a barrier to the Sahara. The snow situation is quite variable, some years there’s hardly any, but there were reports of plenty of powder and snow back in 2006. This winter was also shaping up to be very good, with chilly temperatures down in Marrakech, and a steady amount of rain.

After checking out the weather reports for a few weeks, I took the plunge and bought a last-minute plane ticket, combining a weekend trip to Marrakech with a day trip up to the mountains. It rained heavily in Marrakech on Saturday night, with temperatures in town hovering near 3 C, and the snowline was approximately 1300 m. My hosts in the riad advised against going on Sunday due to bad weather (as I heard later the road was impassable on Sunday due to snow and ice), so I hired a car / driver for Monday.

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Not a golf bag

So my destination was the resort of Oukaimeden, 75 km south of Marrakech and 2000 m higher up. It’s a Berber village as well, which of course predates the resort, which was built by the French mid-century. To the best of my knowledge, Oukaimeden is the southernmost ski area (not artificial slope) in the Northern Hemisphere, at 31 N latitude, and a respectably high elevation. It tops out at 3260 m, with a vertical of around 600 meters, so it’s a pretty good drop by any standards, and the scenery was simply amazing, with most of the rugged High Atlas spread out in front of you. The peaks in this part of the range are between 3500 and 4150 m, and the highest peak of Morocco, Jebel Toubkal, is easily visible. I could have mistaken it for Alaska or the Coast Range, the vertical relief is pretty major.

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On my way.

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Well-hidden Berber villages

The road from Marrakech to Oukaimeden is a relatively short 75 km, about 50 km on a flat plain, and the remaining 25 km on a steep, spectacular road that parallels a river gorge, rises above treeline, before flattening onto a narrow plateau. It was paved, but narrow and full of sketchy, icy spots. There are numerous small Berber villages on the way, where the way of life probably hasn’t changed in centuries. Some are only accessible by foot, and from above, the switchbacks and ancient trails are clearly visible. The area is desperately poor and a hardscrabble life, and the living standards of the cities will take a long time to reach the area.

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First closeup of the Atlas

The temepratures were cold, probably -10 C or so at the top with some serious wind chill, and around -2 C at the base. Despite the very strong sun near the Tropic of Cancer (23 N), the recent snowfall and cold temps meant plenty of powder on the lower slopes. The upper elevations were downright hazardous, with high winds blowing most of the snow off, leaving the steep top part with a mix of ice and hidden rocks, definitely not what one expects in Africa a mere 75 km from a palm trees and orange groves. So I mostly stuck to the lower 500 m of the ski area. Another foot or two of snow cover would be wonderful, and well, more is predicted for this weekend. But on the day I went, it was a succession of ice, unexpected rocks, and powder. How’s that for an African experience?

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Yours truly. Which line shall I take?

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Proof of powder

Also, I had no idea of the off-piste stuff, it looked good, but needed more snow to make it reasonable; even the location of the pistes were not clear. Portable trail maps don’t really exist, and it’s all above treeline.

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Africa below  

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Trail map. Not pocket-sized.

The lift ticket costs 100 Dh, or about 12 USD for the day, for the use of all lifts, one chairlift that covered the entire vertical drop of the resort and the remaining surface lifts. Now this is a pretty good expense for many Moroccans, although plenty of people could afford the single round-trip to the top for viewing. And they brought along all sorts of stuff, one guy played the oud (like a guitar) on the way up, others brought up food and carpets for a (cold) picnic. The lift is actually brand new, a fixed-grip two-seater made by Doppelmayr, with the old disused lift towers laid out at the base. Pistes aren’t marked, so I pretty much had to follow other ski tracks to find my way down. Being a weekday, the slopes were nearly deserted, and I counted pretty much all the snowboarders that day on one hand.

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End of the adventure, back to Marrakech

More about Marrakech in a later post. . .

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