Morocco II: Gouffre de Friouato

First, let me be blunt about this: Whoever wrote the Taza entry for Lonely Planet has either never been to Taza, or passed by it in a bus. I wanted to get that out of the way first, in case you don’t finish reading this entry. Go to hell, Lonely Planet.

So! I decided to go somewhere I’d never been before: a tiny mountain town called Taza. Which they should call Tizaaaa, because that’s how it’s pronounced. A number of my friends had told me that Taza is awesome, and I think I’m now pissed off at half my friends. Half of them, I think, liked the mountains and scenery of Taza (it’s near a giant National Park and reminds me of California, what with the mountains and forests and all) but I think the other half of my friends that recommend Taza are poverty tourists. “Oooh, these people haven’t got enough food, how quaint!” Anyway. One thing they were right about, though: people were friendly as all get out.

I stayed in a Pensione for $10 a night. There was no heat and it doubled as home to the noisiest family in North Africa (go to hell, Lonely Planet). It was a little strange, wondering about all the little old pensioners that waited to die in my room. I survived the entire time on “omlette sandwiches” which consisted of a hadboiled egg, hot sauce, and a boiled potatoe on a roll.

The second day, on a lark, I decided to visit the Gouffre de Friouato, North Africa’s largest cave system. The steps for getting to the Gouffre are simple: first, say goodbye to your loved ones. The next time anyone sees you will be the year 2387, when future archaeologists are trying to reconstruct your diet based on fossilized organs they found several miles below the surface of the earth. Second, make peace with your creator. Third, find a grand taxi. A grand taxi is usually an old mercedes sedan, and it seats two in the passenger seat and four in the back. Finally, step on the gas and don’t let up, roaring as fast as possible along unmarked, sometimes unpaved mountain roads that aren’t wide enough for a goat. The actual drive to the Gouffre consists of an hour of mocking the laughing face of death, which you will be able to clearly see through the car window. Under no circumstances should you let go of the door; if it were to pop open, you’d be launched horizontally out of the car like an ejection seat due to the fact that you and three other beefy, sweaty men are jammed into the back like one of those trick peanut cans with the spring snakes inside.

So, I tumble out of the grand taxi at what looks like a lonely mountaintop cafe. The man inside says something to me in rapid-fire Moroccan Arabic (if you say “hello” without an accent, everyone assumes you’re fluent and makes no effort to help you out and/or speak clearly, apparently) and I nodded stupidly. He proceeded to call a guide for me after I hand over roughly $35, hand me a flash light, and give me a red jumpsuit two sizes too small. In his defense, when I visit Morocco, I’m the tallest man in the country by a good 6 inches. The smile on his face indicated that this was to make the corpse-retrieval activities he had planned for the afternoon easier. Nervously, once I squeezed into the jumpsuit I blurted out the first full sentence in Arabic of my trip: “I AM AS A SAUSAGE MADE ENTIRELY OF FAT AND ORGAN MEAT.” This may be a Moroccan proverb of some sort, because the man nodded wisely at me, as though I had shared some deep wisdom on him.

The guide takes me to what I initially think is a bathroom built into the side of the mountain. It’s not a bathroom. It’s the entrance to the gouffre. Inside, there was a stairwell, and Indiana Jones was standing next to it, trying to drum up his courage to descend. The guide claimed there were 530 so stairs, but this doesn’t do it justice. There are 530 or so creaking, slippery cement slabs, sometimes with a handrail, sometimes not, that descend into an enormous, barrel cactus-shaped cave. (Should I have just said barrel-shaped?) I didn’t even know that cement COULD creak. A thick black tube was, and I am not exaggerating for the sake of comedy, nailed into the rock wall, and the guide sometimes used it as a handrail. I later found out that it was an electrical line for running the floodlights inside the cavern that they didn’t turn on for me.  The top of this initial cavern is open to the sky, and the stairway goes down the outside of the cavern. I passed a number of Morlocks on the way down, and standing at the bottom of the cave, the guide told me that I was now one kilometer below the surface of the earth. Above, I could see the sky and tiny birds, and I thought to myself that it really was a shame that I was never going to make it out of this place alive.

In five years, this is the first photo I've uploaded. The initial cavern. You can see the stairs, starting at bottom left and zig-zagging up the wall.

Holy shit, I figured out how to add a photo! I’ve had this blog since 2006, and this is my first photo. Anyway, the stairs (bottom left and zig zagging up the wall) give a sense of scale. Immediately behind where I took this picture, there’s a hole in the rock floor. The guide dropped down into it gracefully, like some sort of subterranean cat, and told me to follow. Here’s the thing: that guy was packing, maybe, 30 kilograms. To get all 100 kilograms of the handsome man that is me down that hole was… undignified. To my surprise, once I wriggled my way down and tried not to think of the fact that I’ve had nightmares that end this way, I was standing in a cavern about the size of a school gymnasium. That’s how the caverns work: it’s like there’s a house with a bunch of rooms, but each room is connected by a ten-foot long doggie door that you’ve got to squeeze through.

At one point, as I squeezed through a little rock tunnel, I asked the guide if he ever had any problems down here with tourists, especially big fat American ones. He said no, but he didn’t look  me in the eyes from that point onwards. I am pretty sure that the Gouffre is not just the largest hole in North Africa, but a tomb. Later, when we came to, and I’m not kidding, a subterranean pond, I asked him if there were any fish in the pond. In the same voice, he said yes, there were fish, but god willing, we would not encounter any of them. I resigned myself to the fact that somehow, in some way, I was going to be devoured by a fish in a lake miles below the earth’s surface.

We continued down, down, down into the steaming bowels of the earth. Oh yeah: Go to hell, Lonely Planet. They advise you to dress warm on this trip, because the mountains are cold. But the air inside the Gouffre comes from some sort of horrible underground lava carnival, and is easily 100 degrees. So I was all bundled up, and sweating like a hog. We descended, in total, something like 2 kilometers below the surface of the earth which, if I am doing my conversion correctly, is 36,000 miles. Everything is wet and slippery; sometimes there are peices of rebar cemented into the ground to act as steps, and we crossed a handful of wooden bridges that had been there so long that they were now made of stone. Science!

At one point the guide stops and points down what is more or less a stone hallway going down into the earth, and it’s full of water. He says, casually, as though this isn’t something that would terrify the poop straight out of my ass, that because it’s raining outside the caverns are slowly filling up with water and we should probably leave now.

Apparently, the caves were filling with water from below, and also the wooden beams that served as bridges were being washed away.

So, we went back up. It wasn’t easy. A 2 km walk would be one thing, but this was a 2 km vertical ascent, and everything is wet and slimy. When I got back to the main cavern, I was hurting bad in a number of very specific muscles. It’s a weird set that you use when trying to sneak into Mordor. There was also a Moroccan family there, and they made fun of my red jumpsuit and the hardhat I was wearing. But that’s okay, because they next time I saw them, they were spackled with cave shit. Jerks.

So! Those 530 stairs? Uncool on the way back up. I had to stop a couple of times. Some young Moroccan guys showed off by jogging up all the stairs, but they hadn’t entered the underground (which requires paying a fee, they were just hanging out at the bottom of the stairs.) I didn’t know how to point out to them that I was trying to get up these stairs AFTER a strenuous workout, and they were being pretty friendly about it, like they were just kidding, but when one wanted to take a photo with me to show his family the out of shape, Arabic speaking American, I didn’t feel too bad about calling them all dickheads over and over again in English.

It all went downhill from here. I came out and gave the suit back to the man, and declared “NOW I AM AS LOOSE GROUND BEEF”  in Arabic once I got out of it. I asked the man how to go about finding a taxi, and he looked at me like I had tits on my forehead. Taxis? Here? There are no taxis here, he said. I said, this is a huge attraction in a national park, there’s a cafe and restaurant up here, and you’ve never had to call a taxi for someone? and he gave me that half-smile that I realized meant I was going to get ripped off. Twenty minutes later, he said he’d called a friend, who could drive me back to town for 150 dirhams. I told him I’d only pay 100, and he said okay, he’d call his friend back. He didn’t, and then told me everything was okay.

At 3, the same guy that drove me up there came back and got me. I realized that he’d arranged it with the cafe man before hand – when  he dropped me off, I thought he’d said something about 5, but was too excited about the cavern to care. I realized he’d told the man he’d return at 1500, i.e. 3 PM. On the way back, we keep stopping to pick people up. When the guy asks if this is okay, I tell him I’m not a Saudi, and he laughs and ends up only charging me 80 dirhams. So, $10. That’s not bad, but it’s irritating to get ripped off, even if it’s just for a little. (And yes, I know that they need to do stuff like this to rich tourists because they’re broke, but it’s still mean.)

So! That was my time in the Gouffre. Aside from that and the view of the hills, I’d say there’s not much reason to go to Taza. But it was still nice.

Oh, also, go to hell, Lonely Planet.

I was holding the helmet like that, because I didn't think the flash would work

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