Karl’s Chronicles. Article 49 Morocco – High & Grounded
Need to see the layout of the world then grab an Atlas, but wish to be on top of the world then head for the Atlas range, one of three parallel mountain ranges resembling a giants claw mark when seen from above. The Middle, High, and Anti Atlas dominate much of Morocco’s central and southern regions. In the far north, close to the Mediterranean coastline, swings The Rif, another marbled line of rock peaks and deep-cut valleys. Ideal for multi-day explorations and a chance to enjoy the off-road culture when compared with the tourist bustle of Marrakesh, Fez, and Meknes.
The High Atlas is only a couple of hours drive from bustling tourist-heavy Marrakesh, delivering you into an entirely different world of Toubkal National Park. A landscape of opposites and paradoxes in comparison to the sweaty buzz of the Almoravid ‘Red City’ far below. Whose sprawling, narrow maze of alleyways and souk’s takes several days to figure out, with little to remedy the pang of disorientation.
As the road curls its way up, human presence thins out along with the air, tucked away into tiny Berber villages attached like molluscs to the steep valley walls. An endearing silence takes hold above fifteen-hundred metres, noise somewhere on the route slipped away. Colours emit a greater intensity, accentuated by cleaner air and less damaging sunlight. The changing seasons each present a strong personality across the range. Winter submerges the valleys and mountains under bucket-loads of snow, the temperature plummets, making travel arduous at best. Spring gradually pulls off the white cloak, rivers explode with a new lease of life, fed by the big thaw and new shoots defy the odds. By summer the traits of winter are almost wished for when a scorching sun hampers the steep panting ascent to a tizis (pass). Though abruptly forgiven when transfixed on long strips of fertile green rolling across the valley sides and arm-in-arm with a tumbling river. Autumn casts its magic, marbling the different rocks from peak to trough in rust-red, browns, and polished gold. With such expressive differences, a visit here will always encounter a noticeable change. Its apparent emptiness is affording a pleasing surprise of variations. The dramatic scenery topped with the trophy of climbing Mount Toubkal, North Africa’s highest mountain has made the High Atlas a premier trekking location.
The Atlas ranges separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara desert roughly 600km south. Across their 2,500km expanse, the Atlas rises from Tunisia’s western regions, through Algeria and much of Morocco. The Atlas we recognise today emerged from the third stage of a tectonic shift, a collision of the African and European landmasses occurring millions and millions of years ago, somewhere between the Paleogene and Neogene periods. However, some geologists dispute the theory of a collision from lack of evidence pertaining to a thickening of the Earth’s crust. A key trait where collision is concerned. Who maintain instead, a different theory that disturbances in the Earths mantle may have contributed to The High and Middle Atlases creation. The Anti-Atlas, the range closest to the Sahara predates the others by hundreds of millions of years to the Paleozoic era. Once part of a super range which stretched to North America when the American and African continents connected.
The distinct flat roof and mud-brick houses huddled together like cold souls around a wood fire display acute characteristics of the Berber’s. A feudal tribe from which three families once controlled the mountain passes. Despite negotiations with T’hami el Glaoui, the principal chief, it still took the colonial French more than twenty years to restrain them here, finally asserting influence in 1933. Though under government control, for all intense purposes it remains theoretical and the Berber’s never assimilated to mainstream living. Neither fully adopting the conventional doctrine of Islam or Arabic, either in culture or language.
The women don’t wear the veil, but like many African women do absorb the lions share of hard-work. Labouring in the fields, herding livestock, and collecting firewood alongside domestic duties and raising a family. The men command the crucial(!) responsibilities of trade, tilling and irrigating their land, construction, and artisan work.
Architectural design married with trapeze-high locations gives the Berber villages much of their uniqueness and rural allure. Their cleverness for building extends beyond their homes to their fortified granaries called agadirs. Best of all and symbolic of Moroccan culture is the high turreted kasbah, a smooth mud fortress which protected the community during times of attack.
Estimates place the Berber peoples somewhere between thirty and forty million in Africa. Mainly in Morocco with smaller clans spread across the Maghreb of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania. Communities also exist in Mali, Niger, and as far East as the Siwa oasis in Egypt.
The small town of Imlil lays at the heart of the High Atlas and serves as an ideal base for several treks. Equipped with numerous guest houses, simple restaurants, shops, and the facilities for organising guides and porters. It isn’t the most scenic; you will find plenty of other villages along the trails better capturing the Berber spirit. Armed is one, draped over a large moraine in the Mizane valley and only a couple of kilometres south of Imlil. Packed together like books on a shelf, it further projects Berber’s sense of natural harmony.
If scouring the heights of Mount Toubkal is your objective, both Imlil and Armed lay close to the trailhead. It is advisable to spend a day or two at lower elevation first, perhaps undertaking a less challenging day walk to ensure your body has proper time to acclimatise.
Despite the barren far-side-of the-world look the Atlas may generate, it is also alive to a varied ensemble of flora and fauna that are quite happy in these heights. It’s not all rock and scree as both the Atlas cedar and Evergreen oak have maintained deep roots here. The poetic Moroccan copper and desert Orange-tip butterflies brave the high altitude while Painted ladies break here en route from West Africa to England. Elephant shrew and ground squirrel are common, frequently seen dashing amongst the rocks when your foot-fall betrays you.
Gliding across the blue sky are Moussier’s redstart, Crimson-winged finch, colourful Bee-eaters, and Algerian nuthatch. Dippers head for the rivers, swimming underwater in search of food. Once upon-a-time the mountains used to be home to the Atlas bear, Bubal hartebeest, North African elephant, and aurochs. Barbary lions went the same way into extinction, but descendants do still exist in captivity.
Back in the summer of 1994, I remember making a day hike to the striking village of Tacheddirt in the Inemane valley eight kilometres northeast of Imlil. Omar, a guide barely out of his teenage years had approached me in town, enthusiastically pitching the trek which would scour the Tizi n’ Tamatert Pass before the sharp slightly perilous descent down to the valley floor. The wide-open spaces up here, cast under a deep blue sky the size of an ocean seemed to project the very essence of freedom. Like a resident from Lilliput, every peak, every tract of high mountainous forest, and each ravine we came upon, conferred on a monumental scale.
Omar, a native of the High Atlas, traversed the rocks and hairpin bends with the nimbleness of a mountain goat. At designer-gear odds when kitted in faded jeans, an oversized t-shirt and a disintegrating pair of sneakers. Stumbling over loose stones in a frantic bid to conquer the pass hovered somewhere between torture and euphoria for myself. I hadn’t felt such a jumble of physical wretchedness and contentment since crawling back to school after a cross-country run.
When I recently retraced the same route, my fitness had greatly improved the second time around. Little had changed in nearly twenty-five years, where memory and modern-day identically matched. The tiny village of Tacheddirt reminded me of a gang of sentry meerkats, all bunched together, fronting the same way with white square-rimmed windows eyeing Mount Aksoual opposite and just a few metres higher, Mount Bou Iguenouane to the southeast. I wondered if the village inhabitants had become blasé to the valleys dramatic scenery, driving the livestock to greener pastures with hardly a second look. Pushed on by more pressing matters than the grand amphitheatre that rose around them.
I strongly recommend an early morning pre-trek visit to one of the small grocery stores to put a picnic together. Buying baguettes straight from the oven, accompanied with cheese, olives, ripe tomatoes, perhaps some local honey and a few small cakes. Enjoying the rustic dining of eating from a boulder and a creased napkin, having just completed the last dozen muscle-aching metres to reach the pass. That lingering after-taste of garlic and lemon zest while your eyes scour the broad valley in front and the glistening silver thread of a river far far below is beyond magical.
At 4167m high, Mount Toubkal is too good a prize to ignore for the majority of trekkers hoping to scale North Africa’s highest peak. Encouraged by the lack of formalities, mountaineering equipment, and the general ease of reaching the summit. Even guides and porters could be viewed as unnecessary when traversing the clear, well-used trail. However, depending on your fitness level and overall confidence, a guide can offer peace of mind. Hikers aim to arrive at the Toubkal Refuge by early-afternoon from Imlil, a journey between 5-7 hours. Staying overnight before a first-light ascent to the summit where weather conditions are generally clear before incoming clouds sully the views. Reaching the top from the refuge on the popular South Cirque trail takes between 2.5-4 hours and a further 3 hours to descend. Hikers can incorporate Mount Toubkal into a much longer trek instead of a straight forward return back to Imlil. Allowing you to experience friendly Berber culture neatly tucked away in this remote corner of North Africa.
For entry into Morocco, the government currently require a ‘negative’ PCR test not older than 72 hours before granting permission to board the flight/ferry. The British government have categorised Morocco as ‘all but essential travel’ meaning you will have to self-isolate on return and consider the risks of travel without insurance.
Coming to Imlil from Marrakesh, the nearest city is straight forward enough. Frequent buses and shared taxis leave Sidi Mimoun for Asni, from where you change transport for the final 17km (1 hour) to Imlil.
Imlil has various guest-houses, gites, hotels, and lodges to stay. It’s quite normal to turn up without a reservation, viewing accommodation until you find one you like. Armed has a couple of suitable gites as well as simple rooms in Tacheddirt. Both www.airbnb.co.uk and www.booking.com list accommodation choices for the area as well as Marrakesh, two hours away by bus.
When hiking in the Atlas remember to find a pace that is comfortable for you. Adjust to the higher elevation by having a few non-strenuous days before branching out. If you experience AMS (acute mountain sickness) symptoms such as dizziness, bad headache, vomiting, and breathlessness then descend at once. A few hundred metres lower can make all the difference. Take plenty of water with you and for replenishing at waterfalls and streams, pack some purification tablets. It is essential to have suitable footwear, preferably with ankle support. Mountain climates are unpredictable and change with little warning, so pack with both sides in mind such as an anorak, sunscreen, hat, and shades.
Check out the Moroccan tourist board for further details on places of interest and a general introduction to the country. 205 Regent Street, London, W1B 4HB. Land-line: 020 7437 0073 www.visitmorocco.com