Vol bivouac : complete crossing of the Moroccan Haut Atlas in 13 days
Leaving from Agadir beach, the feet in the water … crossing the furthest possible the High-Atlas massif towards de East, hiking and flying, in total autonomy. Flying following the magical rhythm of the vol-bivouac, discovering the High-Atlas, its summits, its valleys, the inhabitants of the multiple Berber small villages, do some enjoyable hiking (but not too much …), beautiful flights (without moderation !) and nice encounters. This is what we came for.
The specificity of the vol-bivouac is the need to make do with the meteorological conditions, without the possibility of renouncing:”It isn’t very good today, we’ll come back another time” … The only liberty is the date of departure ! We’ve chosen to leave the 17th of April and we only have until the 7th of May : sooner in the season, the oceanic perturbations are still frequent, later, the breezes and the heat become too strong. With a good meteorology, it should be possible to reach Rich, at the other end of the ridge, at 550 km from Agadir in a bee line at the end of the main mountainous ridges, at the beginning of the desert.
Firstly, we think on indulging ourselves with two or three days of “wagas” at the coast before attacking the vol-bivouac, but the meteorological forecast convinces us to leave straight away to benefit from two beautiful days before the arrival of a moderate northern flux. We dream of being able to start our vol-bivouac flying, taking off from the hill above the Agadir harbor … but the oceanic mist reaches the land and we’ll thus gently start not only by foot … but also in the haze !
During the whole vol-bivouac, we’ve had a meteorology that allowed us to fly a lot, but in conditions requiring great concentration. An almost omnipresent sustained wind, and a few radical aerological variations have given us some good frights : thunderstorms, incomprehensible breezes, brutal wind reinforcement … Even if, at each time, the conditions were good at takeoff. We stayed vigilant of the aerology evolution, but we were surprised by how fast certain situations were able of degenerating. A damn good lesson of humility : we were in a ridge that we knew little about, and we are very tiny under our flying cloths within these great valleys subject to the atmospheric fluctuations. We’ve had the chance of flying during almost our entire journey. Our legs have just served us during the non-flyable days to position ourselves well for the longest-possible flights of the more clement days … Finally, we’ve flown all the time but 4 days, during which we did nothing but hiking : hiking less than that would have been indecent !
After the first hours hiking in Agadir’s plain under a lead sun, getting little by little further away from the abusive new blocks of apartments, here we are at our first takeoff. We empty our bags on the ground… “waouh!!!, we made everything fit inside our bag?” and we return the bags to harness mode and pack again everything that won’t be useful for flying. There are lots of things, even though we’ve taken out all the superfluous … except Guigui’s harmonica : first melody then, and the breeze, charming, doesn’t take too long to set in ! We put on the harnesses that weight on our backs : even with the wing out of the bag, about 20 kg remain (harness, safety parachute, bivouac, enough to get by in autonomy regarding food and water) … vividly the first thermals that the nature’s magic brings us ! We take off, a little shy in this unknown territory. We get our first thermal after long minutes o suspense, and here we are finally orbited above our departure point. We set out for our first transition … now it’s sure, the trip starts.
First long flight
It’s been two days that we hike, but this “test” turned out to be an enchainment of fantastic encounters. The energy and the good mood of the inhabitants of all the small mountain villages moves us. Certainly the butter, honey, bread, argan and olive oil and another mint tea, weren’t for nothing in the energy brought … We put aside our occidental politeness (according to which we refuse things that are offered for fear of bothering) and naturally accept all the invitations (… or almost, otherwise we’d still be in the Atlas). We’ve lost the count on the number of families that have received us with the ritual of making us savor all their homemade specialties in a little table in front of the house’s door …
Here we are over the first “real” mountains of the Atlas, above Tamsoult village. We arrive early at the takeoff (let’s say, instead, a zone with potential for taking off), Guigui plays a bit of harmonica but the breeze makes us wait two hours ! Finally puffs of wind in the face … agitation in the air and in the spirits, we load our stuff and we’re all ready to takeoff when Abdel-Hani appears, the friend that offered us a berbère tajine in the evening before. The division between the hungry paraglider that is only at one step from taking off to profit from the wind window that was awaited for 2 hours and the traveler feeding on new encounters is funny ! This takeoff window is perhaps the only one ? It is anyway necessary to inflate the wing that gets trapped in all the dry bushes, running with this sellette that nails us to the ground, slaloming between the argan threes with threatening spikes … Abdel-Hani rapidly feels that we are at a decisive moment of the flight (to be acknowledged, the takeoff in dodgy conditions … not evident to analyze for someone who has never seen a paraglider in his life and with whom we communicate with three words of Arabian). Seeing us terribly loaded with our delicate material, he comes closer to us and shovels some fresh bread in our sellettes, we really have no merit ! Afterwards, under his marveled eyes (good public, one must admit), we miss some takeoffs. We finish by taking off for our first real cross-country flight, being the aim of the day the pass of the Tizi’n’Test, 50 km further, as the crow flies. The conditions aren’t optimal, we fly under the wind of a moderate northern flux, but the imposing South-East faces are of great help. We realize the dimension of the valleys we cross, the landscape, ochre and green, it’s majestic, the transitions are overwhelming. The South of the Atlas is mostly arid, with the exception of the inhabited bottom of some valleys, where each village is a small greenery oasis.
Some hours later, the passage of Tizi’n’Test is reachable … at least is what we think ! The phantoms burst in the radio: “Seb to Guigui … this evening, we will eat tajine with plums at the pass hostel, what shall I order for you, mmmh ?!” … To never promise the tajine before having landed ! Especially in bivouac flight in mountains not so familiar … because in 5 minutes, here we are landed at the middle of the slope, 5 km away from the passage, as the crow flies. But with a scarped ridge to overcome ! The time to hike up the slope, it is the moment to set camping and enjoy the bread of our friend, leaving more than ten valleys behind us …
Vol bivouac spirit
Like every morning, we get up at 5 a.m. to have enough time to get well positioned for the flight of the day. Sticking the nose out of the tent, we feel a very regular flux ascending the south side of our campsite ridge, although North wind was expected. We don’t pay further attention to that, and calmly take our breakfast. 30 minutes later (and not ready yet …), still that laminar wind ascending the south slope … A buzzard soars even though the day as barely dawned … Jealous and impatient, we take a few minutes to pack up the camping and join our mentor-bird of the morning. And here we are soaring, barely awake, to reach the “French refuge” at the Tizi’n’Test pass in a few minutes flying, instead of 4 hours walking ! It is a little early to set out for a cross-country flight and we land to drink another tea in the balcony of the refuge. We fill up our stock of food and water while the thermals are establishing. At 11 a.m. we take off again, fresh and satisfied, for a magical flight that will take us 70 km further away, a little after the Oukaimeden Station. The landscapes pass by and change radically as we shift from the arid south side to the humid and greed north side. Airborne, the wind is against us and the breezes are powerful : we cherish the extra kilos of water and food that offer us a few precious extra km/h !
Weather it is the first in the neighborhood of Agadir with the ambulance sirens echoing all the night in town, or that one above an improvised stone terrace to allow the positioning of the tent without sliding over that altitude rough ridge, or even that in a great cozy prairie, each bivouac its charm. The ritual is invariable : setting up the bivouac, water mission, wood mission, light the camping stove (our clothes still smell of barbecue …), meal, toilet (ok, not every day …), and at last, map reading and choice of strategies for the flight of the next day. All this, contemplating the landscapes.
We cast off at as anything that no longer serves us … several unneeded maps are converted into fire starter : « Guigui ! First we did a nice flight today, and then tonight the fire will take all alone … we have three maps to turn on the wood stove ».
The days enchain and pin rather nicely, when the doubt arises … That morning, the strong North wind doesn’t leave us any chance and we’ve just came down by foot to Telouet, south side of the Atlas, to get supplies. Here we are thus all the way down, without really knowing from where we will be able to take off tomorrow. And the meteorological models announce greater thermal top in the North tomorrow… : “Come, Guigui, we’re going to comfort ourselves with a good tajine with plums … mmmh”, “Ok, but before, we visit the casba of Telouet, it purifies!”
The morning of the next day, after five hours hiking, we take off at 2500 m of altitude. We start directly by losing 200 m in a -2m/s well sustained. Finally, we pin down a thermal bubble that turns into real thermal and we are catapulted to over 4300 m, where we find out that the option South was indeed the best, all the North side covered by a superb sea of clouds 2000 m above our feet.
Arrival at goal : Rich
The morning of the last flight, we do the fill up of food and water, because the possibility of landing in the very middle of this immense arid plateau is omnipresent. It is when we overfly these austere zones that we appreciate the most our paragliders which save us many days of hiking ! The breezes are strong and during many hours we find our way groping, just between 300 and 500m above the ground, in front of the desert. The thermals that shift strongly don’t allow us to comfortably gain altitude. This flight drains us a significant amount of energy. Another small mishap that we pass yet … near 20m above the ground, still in the breeze, and here it comes a saving thermal … what can I say ? It’s “THE” thermal of the vol bivouac ! It makes us rise 2500 m higher in few minutes. If we had decided to arrive at Rich, we wouldn’t have done better. In this wonderful thermal, it’s all the horizon that sinks. “But look, it’s Rich that we see down below !” At the top of the thermal, at 4500 m, the adrenaline and emotion overwhelm us. And more, here it is a group of vultures that receive us ! Wing in wing, we let ourselves slide towards Rich. We still find some good “+5m/s” in the middle of nowhere. Arrived above the city at 4700 m, we have more than 3300 m to enjoy : lessening at last the pressure. We indulge ourselves with an enchainment of synchronized 360 and other acrobatics of all types … At no other moment, making acro runs had crossed our minds, so small we felt in these mountains with aerologies rather often tonic.
We land near the wadi and enjoy a bath. Our grins beneath our faces dried by the long flights saying long. We take some time to really return to the ground and realize what we have just achieved.
Nothing was easy but everything it’s perfectly pinned! We had planned 3 weeks, and the bivouac flight finally hasn’t lasted more than 13 days. Therefore, we still have a week … thus, shall we try the return flying ? Continuing towards the desert ? We decide to stay on this noble end and rest a bit. We return then to the terrestrial system : bus and taxis, with departure and arrival points already planned in advance … and place to the “tajine-tour”. A wagas session over the dunes of Merzouga (military authorization to be demanded on the spot) and an unending journey to follow the entire Atlas in the opposite sense, and by the road. Obviously, the journey on the other sense, in the sky, was more pleasant ! All along the road, we contemplate these wonderful mountains that have allowed us to accomplish this dream.
Bonus, the video made with love by Guigui :
- 650 km in 13 days (550 km in a straight line).
- 4 days hiking.
- 11 flights (min 1 km, max 101 km).
- Max altitude of 4700 m (above Rich town).
- 8 bivouacs under a tent.
- 5 nights at habitant’s.
- weight bags : varying between 25 and 28 kg.
- 550 tea cups and 18 kg of offered bread (more or less !)
Wings : Sky Paragliders Antéa.
Arness : Sup’air XP² with parachutes Sup’air Xtralite and Sky Lite.
Solar varios Le Bip-Bip.
Clothing and footwea Salomon.
Helmet Petzl Météor III.
Aknowledgement : Sky Paragliders, Sup’air, Salomon, Le BipBip, Philippe from Wingshop for his meteo advices, Olivier for his wood stove (about witch we didn’t believe before the departure…), Loic for his meteo briefing and all people how help us by any means.