The Moroccan Tango: Todra Gorge

It has been a while since I stepped foot into a genuine developing country, given that its been seen wrong to describe these places as third world for a long time. Morocco to me at least, seems on the brink of growing into a fully developed nation. Although by whose definition it isn’t is a debatable point?

Should we judge another country by our own standards, can we not accept that not every bludgeoning nation needs to be measured for prosperity against our western ideals. Sure there are places where I would not want to be a woman, and to a certain extent maybe morocco is still one of those places, but the change is on its way. For me the idea of a developing nation comes down to the feel of the place and as I step out of the airport into the chilly night air I feel the cities syncopated beat.

Etoile Des Gorge, the hotel right at the mouth of the gorge for easy access.

Just like their music the disjointed nature of nearly everything keeps me on edge, from the seeming chaos of pedestrians, bikes, mopeds, motorcycles and cars as we make it through Marrakech and I am delivered to a curbside where another strange face ushers me through the backstreets to a Hotel. Since I was last here the place has taken off as a tourist destination. In the early naughties only larger airlines flew to the Marrakech from the main London airports. Since then easyJet and Ryan Air have really put the place on the budget traveller map.

Coupled with the rise of internet services for booking accommodation means that you can spend a very comfortable night in the city for less than £20 and actually feel like you are living like a king. Although be warned many of these ‘Riad’s’ seem very nice from the inside looking out, but the backstreets I was led down made me think that if I ever left I would never find my way back. They also have a habit of locking you in at night so be warned if you want an early escape pre-warn them.

My arabic is only slightly worse than my french, although many of the taxi drivers have a good, if somewhat limited English. So I have in light of my linguistic skills taken to writing things down or translating phrases I might use the next day like, “I need a bus to Tinghir”, as there are several bus stations in Marrakech. It cost a staggering £20 to travel for 8 hours or so to the nearest town to the Todra Gorge. The whole journey was eye opening both in terms of the beauty of the country itself, but also the contrast between the have’s and have nots.

The impressive main gorge of Todra.

Next to a new Land Cruiser is a local riding a donkey to fetch virtually anything. My heart sinks every time a small child holds there hand out and says “Dix Dihram” or touching there lips says “Bon Bon”. Yet amongst this dichotomy are some truly inspirational and friendly people. People who will make you realise that the muslim faith is not anyones enemy. Over the next three weeks I was to stay in the gorge I was invited to so many peoples houses for tea or dinner that my standard reply was to throw “inshallah” back at them, as most were trying to sell you a carpet.

In Tinghir though the hustle started no sooner than I stepped off the bus, the fixers had instantly isolated me and were thrusting cards from their hotels in my face. Fortunately my boss had pre-booked a place for me, so all I needed to do was find it. As ever in this situation the person to turn to is the one with the best English, he is disappointed I cannot stay in his hotel, but leads me through a park to some local buses and away from the grand taxis. I was expecting it to cost 120 DH to get me to the Hotel. Instead I sit in the bus and after ten minutes headed off for a bargain 5DH.

The last couple of days had been a long one with cars, train, planes, hotels, coaches, taxis and minibuses. I arrived in Hotel Camping Le Lac, a nice hotel about 4km from the gorge. This was to be home for the next two and a half weeks. A base to deliver two five day climbing coaching courses and in between trying to fit in a few routes in the the amazing Todra Gorge.

Climbing one of the impressive walls just outside the mouth of the gorge. This 6 pitch 6b is a great adventure.

Back in 2001, I had found the gorge to be amazing as it was not too developed and I feared that it would have been over run in the intervening years. Morocco after all is not the kind of place where they focus on preserving places for future generations and the drive up from Tinghir had certainly made me realise that they had not stopped building houses and hotels on the approach to the gorge. Yet from just outside the entrance there has been little development since I was last here. The Etoile Des Gorges guards the entrance and it was one of the workers here that got me on that minibus and as I pass he grabs my attention and I promise to call in on my way back ‘for dinner inshallah’.

I spend a day walking around the gorge and visiting the crags I had been to years before, desperately trying to remember the name of the guy whom we left some climbing gear with all those years ago. But I cant for the life of me remember. The gorge looked pretty similar, and some of the bolts look newish, which is good given that there was a UIAA warning on some of the bolts in Morocco.

As I walked back from the gorge I pass the climbing shop and meet Abdul, one of the new breed of local climbers, trying to make a living from the people who come here to scale these cliffs. The shop is more of a community group, trying to be the national association for moroccan climbers. They are introducing local kids to the sport and also putting the profits from the guidebooks back into re-equipping the routes.

This is rather hit and miss though and the guidebook is far from accurate, as sometimes there will be a two bolts linked at a belay with some cord and a million for rappelling or lowering off. Whilst at others there is nothing. As such this is not really a clip up kind of holiday, instead the Gorge makes for what I like to consider an adventure sport climbing destination. Where with maybe a small rack or at the very least some wits, you can have a really great holiday that is a little different from a euro-sport cragging trip to Spain, Italy or France.

Another great 6c opposite the Etoile Des Gorge hotel

The reason being is there are several sizeable cliffs with routes to the top. Some simply amazing multipitched sports adventure from F5 upwards. My first day back climbing in the gorge saw me climbing on the Masouri Wall just by the entrance of the gorge. I was climbing with Abdul, who took delight in trying to sandbag me on some technical 6c+, fortunately I managed to thug my way through it. When he left I caught up with some of the guys I was to be working with and climbed a 6 pitch 6c+ up really thin and technical grooves and walls.

I also managed 6c on the Paroi Du Levant which is a awesome crag that dominants the village of Tizgui just before the entrance. This 8 pitch route with a crux of 6c takes you to the top of the gorge to the plateaux. Whenever you are up there, having a reasonable mountain sense will help you get down safely, as the descents are particularly badly described, although they are not rocket science. You just need to be sensible when choosing your descent gully and try not to cut any corners.

Whilst working we visited most of the single pitch crags from the Jardin, a friendly crag right by the road through the gorge and even walked up to the Petit Gorge where there are easy and hard routes in abundance. The easier climbs get lots of sun whilst the harder routes generally remain in the shade. There are several amazing single pitch routes in the 7a range here. Generally steep and juggy with a fierce pull at the top to reach the lower off.

There are also other single pitch venues in the Gorge itself, the Dalle Des Hollandaise and the Jardin Des Roche. Masouri also has some great single pitch routes from 5 to the mid 6s, as well as some small multi pitch routes. Although there is The Elephant and The Scorpion crags where there are some great routes around 4 pitches long. Although I didn’t climb them on this trip the last time I was here we ticked off those below 7a, all of which were again potential valley classics. I think this is an important thing to remember here. Because the development has been minimal even in the ten years since I was last here, the routes that have been developed are the ‘lines’ and are therefore more than just a line of bolts up a bank wall.

Easy climbing on the Jardin crag, just inside the gorge.

That said the locals have developed a sport route up a ridge, that was previously a trad VS, although they cunningly made the route avoid the old trad line. Both are classics and I would go as far as saying the new sport route will make the ridge even more popular, as not many visiting climbers bring anything other than a rack of quickdraws. This now means that even moderate climbers can climb a 10 pitch route to reach the rim of the gorge.

There was a cliff I was desperate to revisit whilst I was here and that was Le Pilier Du Couchant in the heart of the gorge, I had previously climbed Classica and the groove line to its right when last here and both were *** routes. However I hadn’t climbed Albert another reportedly classic route up this steep and imposing face nestled right in the heart of the gorge. After an initial hard pitch for the grade, the climbing becomes easier but more run out. However some of the pitches are the best at there grade anywhere in the gorge. A 6a pitch before the crux is hands down one of the most enjoyable pitches of the grade I climbed whilst there, the crux 6b pitch didn’t seem any harder than this pitch as it was more technical bridging. Then higher up there is a F5 pitch that sees the leader make his way up to a bulging roof. As you reach it you fear the worse only to find jug after jug that leads you through a truly exposed crux.

It was great to revisit a place I had been to so many years ago and for once see that it had not been ruined by over development. It would however be great to see more people there, as the climbing is excellent and whilst it is still popular with Spainish and French climbers who can drive to Southern Spain and get a ferry across. However there are not too many British climbers heading across, but with a little adventurous spirit getting to the gorge is relatively easy and once there it is possible to walk to all the crag. So what are you waiting for?

Area Info

Whilst there is a guidebook in english that has the Todra Gorge in it, a quick google search should bring it up. I recommend also investing in the locally produced guidebook, which you can purchase from the climbing shop about 600m from the gorge in Tizgui. Purchasing this book will help fund the re-equipping of route. Also if you are out there and see a route you want to develop, chat to the owners as they may well loan you the drill and sell you the bolts to develop your own route.

The season is over our winter, as even in January it is still warm in the sun, which there is lots of. However don’t be fooled into a force sense of security, take lots of warm clothing, as the moment the sun drops out of sight the temperatures plummet and it can get below freezing at night, only to warm up rapidally as the sun returns. This cooling effect means that first thing in the morning the main gorge is a freezing wind tunnel as the cold air sinks down from the highlands, so either dress warm or wait until around 10 am.

Getting there

It is easy now to fly to Marrakech and then get a bus to Tingher. Care is needed to get to the right bus station in Marrakech though. You can hire vehicles quite cheaply now so you might want to consider a fly-drive holiday, although be warned the roads are reasonably exciting. You can cut the bus journey down as there is an airport at Ouarzazate, but you still need to get a bus.

From Tenghir you need to get either a taxi or a local bus to the gorge. There will probably be an agent from many of the more popular hotels near the gorge who swarm you as you get off the bus in Tenghir. Dependent on where you want to stay then it is up to you to be fairly forceful in your conviction to make them understand that you are not staying at their hotel.

Staying and Eating there

For climbers there really is only a couple of choices to stay. One is Etolie Des Gorges, which is almost the gate house to the gorge. As such you pay a premium, the area is also quite busy all day as such it might be hard to wind down there. Another alternative is Maison D’hotes Tiwira les gorges du todra that is run by the Abdul’s family and is about a 1 km or 15 minute walk from the gorge. It is a beautiful and friendly family run hotel with 6 rooms, wifi, lounge and a dining room; all decorated in the Beber style. They are trying to turn the place into something of a climbers hang out.

Like most of the hotels, you can arrange to have breakfast and dinner included on your bill. Like all things in Morocco though it is seen as almost rude not to barter the original price. Especially if you are staying for a week, or if there is a group of you. If you’d like some alternatives then any of the hotels would welcome you for a meal. Etoile Des Gorges has some great food and if you want a tagine, remember to order it for a specific time on your way to go climbing so you can enjoy it on your way back, as they take time to cook.

Cheaper deals might be found further down the valley, I stayed in the Hotel Camping Le Lac, which is about 4km from the gorge, although Rachid made us very welcome and the food they served up was both tasty and filling. I did really require a taxi to the gorge (120 DH or just under £8), but they can fit about 8 people at a push. We either walked or waited for the local bus back for 5 DH.

Getting Around

Generally all the crags are within walking distance, although if you can you might want to get a taxi up to the Petit Gorge. This can usually be arranged by the hotel you are staying at or try your luck at the entrance to the gorge where many of the taxis turn around.

Guided Adventure Holidays

If you are interested in a guided holiday to Todra Gorge then the Author can offer a guided adventure holiday through Snowdonia Mountain Guides.

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