N'Fiss Spring 1986
Three days to paddle 8 kilometres.
by Dave Manby
Morocco, an unlikely destination for a kayaking trip, and if it had not been for a chance meeting with a couple of French paddlers stopping in at the London River Rats I would never have gone. They were working in London and learning about the greatest cuisine in the world - curry. They had come down to the River Rats to see the lecture I was giving a lecture on Corsica - then still a new and also strange destination for paddlers. Afterwards one of the duo asked if I had been paddling in Morocco. After checking what month it was, (it was not long before that Slime fell victim to the Wye Bother Canoe Club expedition to the subterranean rivers of the Sahara April Fools joke), I asked for more information. We spoke at length and they promised to send me further information. They did; sending photocopies of magazine articles written by Pascal Jullian the local expert and pioneer of Moroccan paddling.
To cut a long story short about a year later nine of us arrived on the banks of the NFiss river south of Marrakech. We read the guide; Valle Fleure, belle gorge, belle Kasbah Grade II-III 30 kms. Grade III-IV 2 kms, voire Infranchissable Dbarquement OBLIGATOIRE. We drove up the valley and saw the Valle Fleure, belle gorge, belle Kasbah, Grade II-III 30kms., Grade III-IV 2 kms. and then drove back down dismissing the idea of lowering our level of paddling to these insignificant rapids. We parked and some of us hiked down the Partir dangereuse the gorge; it looked fine, there seemed to be no problems. Since we had travelled all this way we should at least paddle something. So we hiked back to the minibus joking about the French and the fact that the river was easy. We had such a superiority complex it was a miracle we could get all our heads into my Sherpa minibus. The guide did say something about Par hautes eaux but even so we could not see it being too difficult - in high water we reckoned it would be a royal flush. We were superior, centaurs of the river. So we put on. It was now gone 1.00 p.m. but it was only eight kilometres to the take out and Alan would drive the shuttle. Off we set, joking about the small drops, playing it stupid, making every possible eddy on the rapids, giving frantic hand signals to those who had not hiked the gorge. We were having a laugh. We got to the end of the gorge and relaxed and set off drifting the last three to four kms. out to the take-out. I seem to remember Ross Purdy even taking his legs out of his trusty Pyranha Freestyle and resting them on his deck. Much fun was made of voire Infranchissable, Dbarquement OBLIGATOIRE the French standard of paddling and my French translations. We drifted on down the river laughing and admiring the scenery. As we drifted around a bend the river banks steepened and a second gorge appeared. We had not seen this. Ross put his legs back into his kayak. The Joking stopped. Dbarquement might well be obligatoire but looked problmatique. This was getting serious. There was a narrowing of the river and it dropped away - suddenly. We got out to scout. It was hard. A narrow long chute about a metre and a half wide was guarded by a one metre opening drop followed by a two metre drop followed by a five metre drop and once you entered the chute you were committed to running the rest of the gorge. Below this five metre drop there was a short stretch we could not see because it was under the overhang we were standing on. We even tried lying on our stomachs with someone hanging onto your ankles and lowering you over the edge but still we could not see the river. When the river reappeared it fell over another drop and then gathered itself together in a stilling basin before it set off down a further set of drops. Here there was a chance to pick up the pieces and gather the group together again before finishing the gorge. There were a further three drops that we could see from our view point on the overhang, then the river turned right and disappeared round the corner between the vertical gorge walls. We could not climb any further downstream to scout the rest of the rapid, our overhang was as far as we could get down the gorge. OOPS. I was not looking good. Discretion was better than valour. Jokes about the French finally finished; our superiority suddenly ceased. We started looking for portages. None was available at river level. We had to carry out. So we paddled back upstream for some way till we got to the bottom of a gully. Then started 300m of almost vertical kayak hauling to the top of the gorge.
By the time we got to the top of the gully it was 6.00 p.m. and getting dark so we abandoned the kayaks there. We still had to make our way through the scrub to the road in the gathering gloom. It was 11.00 p.m. and pitch black when we finally got to the road, the minibus and food and water. The following morning we walked back to the kayaks. Dave Higson stayed back at the van; he has polio in his right leg. He had been phenomenal in the dark the evening before crawling and cursing on his crutches as we fought our way out through the scrub; it was sensible he stayed behind. Jon Gatfield set off with us but legged it out once we got to the steep parts and his vertigo took over.
We lowered the kayaks back down into the river below the blind corner - it was flat! We floated out the flat to the end of the gorge and loaded up the kayaks on to my minibus and started off for another river. We relaxed, we were heading elsewhere, I was busy translating the French and selecting a new destination. Here we go again, the hubbub in the minibus returned to its normal level; good friends bantering. Alan was driving. Alan is not a kayak paddler. Alan has no input into the decisions. Alan kept on driving. Alan also kept stirring the conversation, Alan shoving his oar in (I told you he was not a kayak paddler). I was the (partial) French speaker. I was looking at the guide. I was trying to find a river of interest in the region to head for to make up for the two days of non-paddling. I was half listening to the banter. I was sat next to Alan. Then someone in one of those quiet moments a quiet voice of someone said The French said it was impossible. OOPS, I turned to Al Turn the bus around. Were better run it. The bus went silent. Just for a moment. Then the banter / arguments / hype / anti-hype started up. It was obvious we were going to paddle it. It had just needed someone to put their head above the parapet . Someone had provided the prompt by mentioning that the French said it was impossible. It would be a first descent as if that mattered, I dont think anyone in the group cared about First descents. First descents to us were just like cream on ice cream - nice but not really necessary. We camped above the gorge and in the morning paddled the river. It was just as hard as it had looked. Watching Ross come out from under the overhang as he lead the opening drops was brilliant and then seeing him getting pinned on the last drop above the stilling basin out of our reach and then like a Norman knight jousting using his paddle as a lance to push himself clear was enough to give you a heart attack. The stilling basin was a welcome relief but the second half of the gorge, only partially scouted (really, we had only seen it form way upstream and way above) was still to be run. Once we had all gathered in the stilling basin Mike Hewlett lead this next stretch. I remember seeing him run the first two drops and then seeing the rest of the rapid unfold raise an arm with a thumbs up sign before hastily grabbing his paddle entering the last part of the rapid and disappearing around the corner.