On the 1st of September 2014, 5MI deployed to Morocco for a two week trekking expedition into the Atlas Mountains in conjunction with the Moroccan Army. Although originally this trip was intended for 5MI and the Int Corps Reserves only, it was opened up to the wider Corps. The 14 participants were Lt Col Bavin, Maj Joshi, Capt Hilton, Capt Kinghan, SSgt Edwards, Sgt Lane, Cpls Harrison, Mallett and Wells, and LCpls Adams, Barter, Clayton, Griffiths and Kirkham.
Arriving in Marrakesh (having negotiated ‘fastrack’ immigration clearance) for the first night, all were amazed at the vibrant culture and atmosphere Marrakech had to offer. It is difficult to enter the main square in Marrakesh without having a large snake thrust around your neck! However, at this point we had to refrain from indulging too much as trekking started the next afternoon.
After a leisurely rooftop breakfast in central Marrakesh, the group made the 2 hour road move to Aguersioual, within the High Atlas Mountains. At a tea shop adjacent to our start point, Capt Hilton and Maj Joshi were greeted by Capt Tariq Oustouh of the Moroccan Mountain Infantry, and entered negotiations about our planned route choice. UK Armed Forces expeditions to Morocco, of which there are 6 per year, are unique in that they are conducted with the Moroccan Army. The Moroccan Army contingent joins the British Army contingent and they travel together around the High Atlas Mountains. Therefore the expedition party get a unique insight into Moroccan culture compared to any other military Adventure Training expedition. Unfortunately the 1 Arabic speaking OPMI(L) on the expedition party was re-tasked just before departure, and so French was often the common language!
The first day of the route was meant to be a gentle introduction to the High Atlas Mountains, a short sharp climb over a pass before a descent to Amskarrou village. The introduction served to educate the group of several factors. Morocco is hot in the mid-afternoon (Marrakesh was 35°C); the mountains are steep and unforgiving; the Moroccan Army is a lot fitter than the British Army – or more generously, more acclimatised. Camping in Amskarrou village was like stepping straight into the stone age, a village bypassed by modern life (literally – there was a road further up the valley, but this village had access by foot only). We were the only foreigners in the village that night, and therefore had unrestricted access to the only toilet (a long drop) a 300m walk away from our camping spot.
The Adhan (call to prayer) was called every morning between 0530 and 0600hrs. In some villages this was done at the Mosque over the loudspeaker, and in some locations there were more than 5 mosques within clear line of sight, all giving a competing Adhan. Whilst we were in the more remote areas away from a village mosque, the Adhan was called by one of the group, with the sound ringing out down the valley.
When camping near Tacheddirt the group held an impromptu singing and dancing session, led very much by the Moroccans (who can deliver an excellent percussion on the back of a couple of washing up bowls); indeed when asked to sing a traditional English song, the best that Capt Kinghan could muster was a fine rendition of Home and Away! We had to promise to come back with a better effort.
Maj Joshi (MOD Kingstanding) is an international mountaineer of repute and also a GP, so it was fantastic to have him as part of our team. However in spite of his best efforts, virtually all members of the team came down with some kind of D&V during the trip. Hygiene is a major issue out in that environment, and your guts can take a while to adjust, especially when coming from the highly sanitised environment of the UK. It is true that you can tell your doctor anything!
The highlight of the trek was peak bagging phase, including ascents of Ras (4083m), Timesguida n-Ouanoukrim (4088m), Imouzzer (4010m) and the highest peak in North Africa, Jebel Toubkal (4167m). The conditions for the ascents were perfect – clear visibility, little wind, warm but not hot. The view from the top of Toubkal was staggering. You could easily see out to 60 miles, with the Anti Atlas and Sahara dominating the views to the south. The technical difficulty of the ascents was low, but the effects of the altitude when staying above 3000m for an extended period should not be underestimated. To everyone’s credit, all 13 members of the group that set off up Toubkal were successful.
On returning to our guesthouse in Imlil, the UK contingent of the group made good on its vow to put on a singing extravaganza for our Moroccan friends, and delivered an extended 10 minute ‘house’ version of ‘Hey Baby’ by DJ Otzi. We said our goodbyes to the Capt Tariq Oustouh and his troops, making our way to Marrakesh for 2 nights R&R, and another chance to get sold a photo with a python around our necks, or a dressed up monkey in a Top Hat standing on our heads.
After the first good nights sleep in a proper bed for 10 nights, a day of exploring Marrakech awaited us. Exploring Marrakech means exploring the souks (or bazaars), which were filled with unusual items such as dried out tortoises and scorpions, spices, olives and knock off Gucci hand bags. Later that evening a final meal was enjoyed in a roof top café overlooking the hustle and bustle of the central Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains in the distance. Entertainment included belly-dancing and drumming which proved a good end to the expedition.
Particular thanks go to Maj Joshi for being an outstanding instructor, to Capt Hilton for organising the whole endeavour and Capt Kinghan for his dulcet tones. Further thanks must go to all those bodies which contributed funds to the expedition, including the Intelligence Corps Association, Army in Scotland Trust, Ulysses Trust, Berlin Infantry Brigade Memorial Fund and Force Troops Command.