The mule as teacher
The mules of the High Atlas in Morocco are essential, both to the success of every mountain trek and to the ongoing development of the mountain tourism industry. These hard-working pack animals even play a role, albeit unwittingly, in the training of the guides who will be working in this sector over the coming decades.
It is by showing that mules suffer and by drawing attention to how their various needs can best be met that young guides develop a greater awareness of their responsibilities towards the mule.
Learning is not, however, restricted to the students. Far from it! The intervention we have been responsible for developing and delivering in Morocco has yielded valuable lessons for the authorities at the Guide School, for local muleteers and for our colleagues and partners. This is evidenced most encouragingly in the small, albeit significant, changes that are made in the preparations for, and organisation of, the end-of-year trek.
Every year this learning is explored more fully under the testing conditions of this two-week mountain expedition. The Grande Traversée is one of the classic treks in the Moroccan High Atlas. It provides the trekker with some 300km of trekking over fifteen days. However, the route is undertaken by the student guides at the Centre de Formation Aux Métiers de Montagne (CFAMM) in ten days and provides these future guides with their final challenge. The expedition offers huge learning potential and provides students with a unique opportunity to practise their craft and gain a better understanding of their roles and responsibilities.
Among these responsibilities, future guides will have to select their team and ensure that all members of the expedition (clients, muleteers and mules) have a positive experience. The rigours and physical challenges of the Grande Traversée are demanding. They are rewarding on many levels, but they can also demand too much, leading to pain and suffering – especially for the mules.
Mule welfare on treks
In the case of the mules, all those involved in the tourism industry need to know where to draw the line. What constitutes good welfare for a working animal? What is acceptable and what is not? And what needs to change?
In the early days of this training programme, the student guides regularly saw mules suffering. Overloading, falls, serious injuries and pack-saddle sores were all too common. Back in 2010, when the guide school only used nine mules, one of their number was so severely overloaded that she suffered a stress fracture of the foot. This was hardly surprising given that she was carrying in excess of 200kg, sometimes as much as 250kg! The number of mules supplied by the authorities at the CFAMM now stand at fourteen – but we continue to argue that this is not enough for there are still days when mules carry in excess of 150kg. The first image shows a heavily loaded mule at the start of day two. Ahead of her lies the Tizi Rougoult, which at over 2,800m is one of the highest passes of the Traversée. Problems can easily emerge with such a steep ascent and descent and loads in excess of 150kg. Saddle sores are to be anticipated, as are aggravations of any existing tendinitis problems.
A rest day on the ancient grazing grounds of Yagour
This year a significant change was made to the expedition to benefit the welfare of the mules: the introduction of a rest day. This was programmed to coincide with our arrival on a high plateau. There, at 2,600m, the mules would be free to graze, run and play, untethered, for two whole nights and the intervening day! Mules are usually short-tethered and left to munch on an unappealing pile of straw. Small recompense for such hard, relentless work!
And so this year, after eight long days of trekking, the team arrived on the Plateau de Yagour. This ancient grazing ground has, for millennia, received nomadic pastoralists during the summer months. It is an idyllic place, open to the heavens, with clean air that resonates to the call of corn buntings, quail and grasshoppers. And the mules, on the morning of the ninth day, did not have to shoulder their loads – they enjoyed a lie in!
The students enjoyed a rest too – but not before they had inspected and groomed their four-legged companions. And, taking full advantage of the fact we were spending a second night in this wonderful place, they were then asked to prepare stories to be recounted under the stars that evening. The proviso – one of the main characters in each story had to be a mule!
In my next blog, I will provide you with an update on how the students got on as they completed the Grande Traversée and their training.