Pupils travel to Morocco with Junior Expedition

In early April; after numerous training events, countless emails and many a kit check, our team of 16 intrepid year 8 and 9 boys were ready for their Junior Expedition to Morocco. We planned to pack a lot in over the ten days, and the excitement on the aeroplane was almost tangible; although that could have been due to the sugar high from duty free. The youth and inexperience of the group was highlighted by only three boys managing to fill in their landing cards with the correct passport number, whereas seven attempted to put down their maiden names. I did point out to the group that they were neither married nor maidens.

Upon arrival in Morocco, we were greeted by a cold wind and rain, weather more akin to Glasgow than Marrakesh, however a smooth transfer, comfortable hotel and tasty tagine meal put a smile back on all our faces. The following day, we had an early transfer to the High Atlas Mountains for the hiking phase of the expedition, Spring had turned the countryside a vivid green and we enjoyed the drive through beautiful valleys and resplendent blooming orchards up into the mountains. Morocco is geographically close to Europe, but culturally couldn’t be more different. Arriving into the village of Ouargsioual, we set off on our four-day hike accompanied by our Moroccan guide and a team of muleteers, whose mules would be transporting our food and luggage throughout the trek. We hiked for several hours towards Imlil village, where we would spend the night. The views from the hotel terrace were stunning, as the previous weeks’ wet weather had ensured the Atlas Mountains were covered in deep snow. The boys had lots of free time to explore the guesthouse that afternoon and played an elaborate game of hide and seek.

By the second day, the weather had turned clear, still and sunny; ideal hiking conditions. After a half-day hike over a steep rocky saddle and down into the forested river valley beyond, one boy commented “I never thought I’d do  anything like this”. We had a Berber-style lunch on rugs overlooking the mountains, after which the boys gave each other impromptu massages to relieve sore muscles. Throughout the afternoon we followed the Tizi n’Tamatert road up to the village of Tacheddirt; on the way we crossed the snow line and of course had an obligatory snowball fight; although the teachers did seem to take a disproportionate number of hits. Having hiked over 16 km and ascended 700m, the boys had done really well; some also learnt that bringing 2kg of toiletries or their full size sleeping bag on a day hike was perhaps unnecessary.

Day three saw more perfect hiking conditions and amazing visibility, being so rural and remote we saw facets of the locals lives, such as women carrying vast bundles of firewood or boys heading out to graze their goats. We climbed steadily all morning, reaching the spectacular Tizi Nou Addi Pass at an altitude of 2960m before lunchtime. Surrounded by deep snow and bathed in sunshine, another snowball fight ensued, the novelty of snow in North Africa clearly had not worn off. Over the pass we followed a long winding road down into the Oukaïmeden Ski Resort (yes, Morocco has ski resorts) where we stayed at the French Club Alpin. Although it had seen better days, the village was wonderfully incongruous, especially as it was surrounded by uninhabited nomad villages.

The final day of the trek was summiting Mount Oukaïmeden, a challenging hike that, at first, traversed scree slopes before following steep paths through deep snow. The snow line had risen over the previous day’s sunshine, but there was still plenty about. The boys (and staff) persevered through the thin air and reached the 3200m summit by mid-morning, for many of the boys it was their first experience of altitude. From this high vantage point, it was like being on an island in a sea of cloud; during the descent, the cloud rolled over the plateau below so fast that by the time we got back to Oukaïmeden Village for lunch, the Visibility had reduced to just 20m! That afternoon we were all happy to collapse into a minibus for the 4½ hour transfer to our project site. However, upon arrival, our Moroccan guide surprised us with a 1.5hr night-time hike up the valley that included a river crossing, much to the expedition leader’s delight. Reaching our hotel at 9:30PM, we all gratefully sank into our beds.

The village in which we found ourselves the next morning was stunningly situated. On the edge of a wide river valley, our guesthouse looked out over terraced fields and orchards that contrasted starkly with the surrounding rocky red cliffs and blue skies. This community phase of the project gave the boys the opportunity to work with local children and see more of the Moroccan way of life. For the next two days, we worked with the residents of Ounilla, helping them to build a wall around their ancient cemetery (many a 13 year old enacted a Trumpian impression of “build a wall”). The boys (with some local help) transported both rocks and gravel, carried jerry cans of water and even helped to mix concrete for the project. In gratitude, the local headman asked our group to his house for tea and flatbread during the hottest part of the day.

With free evenings and no phones, the boys made their own entertainment; one night was a two-hour Queen and Ed Sheeran sing-along, another an indoor sports day with competitions including planks, press ups and arm wrestles. One highlight of the trip came on the second day with a football match organised against a local team of Moroccan children. With a dusty red pitch and goal posts held up by tree branches, it was a far cry from what our boys are used to. Nonetheless, the match was a great success, good-natured and friendly, the sportsmanship demonstrated by both sides was commendable; the tightly fought contest eventually saw our boys, or ‘England’, winning 3-1.

The final phase of the expedition was rest and relaxation. After walking down the valley from Ounilla, we travelled to the impressive Kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This extraordinary mud village, now preserved for posterity, clearly impressed with one boy stating, “This is the most incredible place I’ve ever been”. Transferring back to a hotel in Marrakesh, we were a stone’s throw from the Main Square, Jemaa el-Fnaa.  A quick turnaround at the hotel allowed us to head out to explore the famous souks. With spending money burning a hole in their pockets and such an extraordinary array of items on sale, the boys could not wait to go shopping.  The sounds, smells and sights of the Main Square meant that the boys’ eyes were on stalks for much of the evening.

Our last day took us out to the coastal fort town of Essaouira (meaning ‘well designed’), conceived in a European architectural style, the beautiful narrow streets were lined with artisans selling paintings, woodwork, carpets and clothes. The boys enjoyed exploring the town’s narrow streets, ramparts and squares and took a particular pleasure in bartering hard for every item purchased. A highlight of the day was on the trip out when we stopped to view several trees full of live goats.

Having seen and done so much in such a short, intense space of time, it was with both sadness and a little relief that our team parted at Heathrow the next day and we passed responsibility for the boys back to the waiting parents. A wonderful experience for all involved, my thanks go to Mr Starr, Mr Ilott and the boys for making the Junior Expedition 2019 such a memorable success.

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