Trekking in the High Atlas of Morocco – A Mount Toubkal mini-Adventure
Wow! I don’t say wow very often, but ‘Wow’, what a weekend that was! A crazy weekend in Morocco visiting the markets of Marrakech and magnificent mountains of the High Atlas, with a sunrise summit of the highest peak, Mount Toubkal, at 4167m.
Things started fairly frantically on Thursday afternoon while Anna was heading back from a traumatic trip to the Isle of Man. Fortunately Anna’s journey back was smoother than her journey there and she made all of her connections so was due to arrive in Aberystwyth just after I would leave. I decided to delay my departure a little so that I could meet her from the train station, have a quick coffee, give her a lift to campus and then head off towards Liverpool myself.
The roads through Wales and the northwest were wet and windscreen wipers were well and truly tested. Darkness descended early as the nights are drawing in, rain continued to fall and the UK was looking quite a dreary place. I had a short night in a Travelodge before getting up at 3am for a coffee and a short drive to the airport. I was wearing my boots, fleece and jacket so as to minimise my luggage. Check-in, security and such like went smoothly and I had a wait in the departure lounge with another large coffee and an almond croissant. It didn’t feel like too long before I was onboard the plane with an adventure about to start.
Travelling to a Different World
I was sat next to a nice couple who fed me pringles and chocolate and were looking forward to a long weekend of their own. The clouds beneath us disappeared as we headed south and a little after three hours later we were descending to the parched lands of a different world.
We were soon on the tarmac, out through security and stood outside the airport in Marrakech. The dark skies, rain and low temperatures had miraculously been replaced with temperatures in the 30’s, blue skies and a blazing African sun. Hello Morocco, Hello Africa!!!
It was a short bus journey from the airport into the centre of Marrakech. Here the madness started. The place is crazy, noise, madness and mayhem everywhere. It was clear that not only was this a different climate, but it was a very different country, a very different continent and a very different culture. There were people everywhere, cars, buses and bikes zipping this way and that. Strange african architecture, unfamiliar vegetation, dust, fumes and what seemed like a complete lack of order. Disorderly doesn’t quite explain it though, you have to be there to experience it as all around the madness closed in. Mopeds, moped, mopeds. There were mopeds everywhere, each with a unique cargo and each seemingly intent on killing themselves or everyone around them as they sped from place to place weaving erratically to avoid obstacles and with no indication of what they would do next.
Fortunately the Riad in which I was to stay was something of a quiet retreat from the madness outside. A tranquil little oasis where I, along with Joe, Josh and George who were also staying here were greeted with a welcoming mint tea. Poured of course from a large teapot at height. A refreshing drink to sip whilst taking in our surroundings from the central courtyard of the riad.
We were soon shown to our rooms where I had a nice large double bed to myself. I would be sharing a room with Joe, and another person who had yet to arrive, but that we would later discover to be Ewan.
Medina, Souks and Shopping
After a quick viewing of the Riad we all headed back out into the mayhem to explore some of the city. We walked along narrow streets lined with shops selling all sorts of exotic wares. We soon realised that most of these sold the same things but there were hundreds of them. There were shops selling hand-crafted metal lanterns, shops selling slippers, shops selling rugs, shops selling spices or soaps, shops selling leather goods and all other manner of knick-knacks. Row upon row of them all squeezed in alongisde alleys full of shoppers and of course mopeds.
The Secret Garden
After exploring for a while we ducked into a secret garden for something of a rest from the hustle and bustle of the markets and souks. This secret garden was a retreat from the outside world. Fed with water via an ingenious system of underground irrigation channels the secret gardens are part of the great tradition of stately Arab-Andalusian and Moroccan palaces. The origins of the complex date back to the Saadian Dynasty, more than four hundred years ago.
Rebuilt in the mid-Nineteenth century by an influential kaid of the Atlas Mountains, The Secret Garden has been the home of some of Morocco and Marrakech’s most important political figures. It has recently been restored so that the public can enjoy it.
After exploring the garden we mustered ourselves once again for the onslaught of the outside world. We wandered amongst more shops, visited the Souks, wandered through a large square and did our best to avoid the hawkers tempting us to part with our Dirham. We stopped for lunch in a rooftop restaurant – chicken tagine for me. We even went on a somewhat unplanned, somewhat unwanted and completely unexpected tour of a tannery. We were of course forced to pay for the pleasure!
We returned to the Riad to recover and refresh before heading back out for the evening. Under the cover of darkness, the madness had intensified a notch or two. More cars, more noise, more mopeds, more people and a general increase in the amount of disorder. Lights seemed to be optional on vehicles, but horns, shouting and driving one handed whilst on the phone were obligatory. The hustle and bustle making sure that we kept our wits about us while exploring this exatoc world. Dinner was a kefte kebab affair for me. The main square was now alive with people as mopeds weaved between the throngs. Joe managed to pretty much get run over by one as we headed back to the Riad for the night.
We didn’t stay out too long as we had a long day planned tomorrow with a collection straight after breakfast.
To the Atlas Mountains.
Following breakfast of pancakes and breads at the Riad it was into a minibus for a 2 hour trip towards the Atlas Mountains. I don’t fare too well as a passenger in cars and buses at the best of times. Hot sun and twisty mountain roads don’t help so I was soon feeling hot, sweaty, clammy and sick. I did my best to ignore it but didn’t much enjoy the trip to Imlil. I certainly wasn’t able to meet or chat to any of the other people on the bus. There were fourteen of us in total, all of whom were looking forward to the same mini-adventure.
We eventually arrived in Imlil and after some bizarre confrontational manouvering between the minibus, a truck and several mules we got off the bus and took shelter in the shade of a little wooded glade beside the shop of Aztat Tours. Mint tea was given to us and bags were organised, passport numbers and details filled out and equipment hired. I needed a set of walking poles as I was unable to bring mine as hand-luggage on the plane.
An intrepid group of adventurers
Introductions were made and we started to bond as a group. I’m terrible with names and faces so didn’t really catch who was who, and if I’m completely honest never quite worked out who everyone was throughout the weekend. As well as Joe, Josh, George and Ewan who I had already met, there was myself and then the rest were girls. Most I decided were probably in their early 20’s, with a few slightly older. Thankfully I wasn’t the only one to have experienced a world without mobile phones as Janet, an Australian travelling on her own, was also older. Two of the girls, Jane and Clementine, who judging by their conversations on the bus were Scuba Divers were together. The rest of the girls, already knew each other.
After a while with duffle bags already aboard mules and daypacks on our backs we set off, through the streets of Imlil and out towards the mountains. Our guide Ibrahim with his multi-coloured headscarf leading the way through wooded hillsides and the welcome shade of the tress. We then headed out out onto the flat lands of a dry river bed under the hot African sun. Here the paths started to head upwards as the peaks of the High Atlas mountains closed in around us.
The pace was slow and relaxed as we chatted amongst ourselves, getting to know each other. Conversations were often repeated as we made our way through the group chatting to each person in turn. Our second guide with his blue headscarf brought up the rear.
The path soon became more rocky and we strung out into single file. Despite the slow pace and gradual ascent things were soon hot and sweaty thanks to the hot sun and exposed rocky mountain sides. We stopped frequently and occasionally came across little stalls selling Coca-Cola and freshly squeezed orange juice. We stopped briefly at some of these to refresh ourselves and shelter in the shade.
Our path weaved it’s way ever upwards, higher and higher into the mountains. We passed mountain streams tumbling between giant boulders and crossed small waterfalls.
Now and then there would be other groups descending the path and more often little trains of heavily laden mules along with their Moroccan muleteers. Here in this mountainous corner of Morocco, mules are the taxis and trucks of choice carrying all sorts of cargo from overweight Moroccan women and exhausted trekkers to food, water and supplies for further up the mountains. Locals were using them to carry their produce from place to place as they slowly made their way along the uneven rocky paths.
Partway up the hill we came across the makeshift settlement of Sidi Chamharouch which surrounds the prominent white painted stone under which is believed to be a sort of mausoleum with a so-called tomb of the King of Jinns. This Muslim shrine is visited by superstitious families to this day who bring offerings to the king to cure them of diseases and make wishes. It was clear from Ibrahim’s explanation that he was not the superstitious type.
We stopped just above Sidi Chamharouch at a little shack for lunch. Pasta, tuna, vegetable tagine and salad. Mmm, delicious. All of course washed down with mint tea.
To the Refuge
After lunch, the steepness of the path increased somewhat as we made our way ever higher towards our destination for the day. This was to be the mountain refuge at 3200m above sea level. It is said that mountain sickness usually starts to affect people from above 2500m. This elevation came and went with no obvious effects as we continued at our slow pace with mountains all around.
Small herds of goat grazed on the scrubby vegetation. The towering rocky cliffs were inhabited by flocks of the yellow beaked Alpine Choughs. We spotted a baby viper and several small lizards as we made our way towards the refuge.
Eventually we reached the mountain refuge which was bigger than we expected. Inside the dimly lit rooms took a while to adjust to after the bright sun of the day. As expected it was fairly basic but there were showers and even a proper toilet. Quite a luxury after the ‘squat and drop’ toilets we had encountered on the walk here.
There were quite a few groups already at the refuge. We were greeted with mint tea and plates full of delicious popcorn. It was then off to our shared dorms where we were packed in on closely spaced bunks. Somehow I lucked out as no one claimed the bunks next to me so I had room to spread out a little. Probably a good thing for all involved, as so far, the only effect of the high altitude on my body was an excess of farting!
As I unpacked a few things and organised my bag for the following morning I noticed that I wasn’t the only thing feeling a little bloated at this altitude. The lower pressures had caused air inside sealed packages to expand. Peoples crisp bags had exploded and my container of wet wipes was about to burst.
Dinner was soon served inside the Refuge. A lovely warming soup, followed by chicken tagine and spaghetti. There was plenty to go around and apples for pudding. After dinner we all marvelled at the night sky a little before settling in for an early night as tomorrow was going to be a long day. Already the craziness of Marrakech seemed like ages ago and despite the fact that it was still only Saturday night and I’d arrived in Morocco the day before it felt like I’d been here a while. I was a million miles from home, everything was unfamiliar and exciting and the adventure had only just begun.
To the Summit
Judging by the snoring and heavy breathing in the dorm some people managed to get some sleep. Most people had very little though and I definitely had none at all. Even those that slept well had to get up at 3am so no one was properly rested following the excursions of the previous day. Breakfast was porridge and a boiled egg. There was also coffee rather than mint tea which was a nice touch. Suitably nourished we set off for the summit of Mount Toubkal at around 4:15am.
We started our route to the summit in complete darkness with head-torches to illuminate our steps. One by one in single file we plodded ever upwards on the steep, rocky path. The loose rocks giving way beneath our feet as we gradually made progress. The air was cold so most people were wearing several layers, thick coats, hats and gloves. I prefer to be cold rather than too hot so just had a long-sleeved thermal base layer on and a little hat, and of course some thin trousers. The heavy pack would keep me warm. As usual I had various extra layers, waterproofs, plenty of water and snacks, first aid kit, phone, battery packs, gloves, buffs, gaiters and plenty of other things in it so that it was pretty heavy. It felt fine on my back though and later in the day I weighed it down a little more with a few large bits of the rock from the Atlas Mountains!
Some people were starting to suffer with the altitude not long after we started the ascent. Janet was being sick and struggled most of the way up. Many other people were feeling a little light-headed and were struggling to breath as oxygen levels in the air fell. I ended up staying back with Sarah who was also struggling with the altitude. She was feeling dizzy, very tired and her breathing was laboured and wheezy. I encouraged her onwards and stopped with her now and then. All she wanted to do was lie down but she kept going and stuck with it. Behind us, Jane and Clementine were dropping back and were with our second guide. The rest of us stuck together with just short breaks to regroup now and then.
There was nothing to look at in the darkness, just the lights ahead and the altimeter on my watch. I was feeling good. The altitude didn’t seem to be affecting me and the slow pace meant that the going was easy. After a while there was a faint glow of daylight and the outline of the mountains came into view. We were heading for a ridge and from there the summit.
As the light started to dance across the rugged mountains our goal came into sight.
At the Summit of Toubkal
We wanted to get there for sunrise so Ibrahim allowed those of who wanted to go on ahead. I felt like a puppy let off the leash. I could now go at my own pace which was considerably quicker than before. I was hopping from rock to rock and making a beeline for the summit, passing other groups as I went. As I came out onto the shallower slopes towards the summit a Moroccan guy travelling light ran past me. He somewhat jokingly asked if I wanted to run with him. I don’t think he expected someone such as myself with a heavy pack on to say yes, but you know me. I’m on top of a mountain, feeling great and someone has just ran past me. Do I want to run? Of course I do, so off I went to catch him up. He looked a little surprised when I caught him up, so I said, ‘of course I want to run, Jellah’. (That last word is probably spelt wrong but it’s what the word for ‘Lets Go’ in Moroccan Arabic sounds like.) We jogged along together for a bit chatting as we went and then reached the summit.
The large triangular structure marked the top, as did the crowds of people all looking out for the first sign of the sun. The sun rose above a line of clouds a little after I arrived. As the others made it to the top one by one there were high fives all around. Everyone was on top of Toubkal and on top of the world.
We spent a bit of time on the summit, taking photos and taking it all in. It was pretty chilly up here now that I’d stopped so I did finally put a fleece on, but as usual I had carried loads of stuff with me but not used any of it.
The shadow of Mount Toubkal itself could be seen dancing across the mountains to the west. At 4167m (13,671 ft) in height it is the highest peak in the High Atlas, the highest peak in Morocco and the highest peak in North Africa. We were on top of it and it felt great.
Jane and Clementine had yet to summit but those that had been feeling a little ill were fairly keen to start descending – they needed more oxygen. I was surprised by how good I felt. Having never been to such altitudes I thought I might struggle but I felt the same here as I did at sea level. A quick check of my oxygen saturation showed that that wasn’t necessarily the case though as it was down around 81%. At least I felt good at those levels.
Back down the Mountain
As we started our descent we could see that what had felt like a single track up the mountain in the darkness was actually a series of interconnecting tracks across a steep scree field. My walking poles were out for extra balance and to save my knees somewhat. The going was still quite tricky as little rocks on the surface acted like marbles to send you slipping and sliding. Everyone fell from time to time. I went down once as well, but it was nothing too bad (or so I thought). We made out way gingerly back down. We passed Jane and Clementine who were still doggedly making their way to the summit. We stopped now and then to regroup as usual. A couple of the girls showed an interest in the rocks at one point so I gave them an impromptu geology lesson – not that my knowledge of the Atlas Mountains geology was up to much but I was at least able to describe some of the rocks and point out some of their features and composition. I’m not sure if they really appreciated the geology lesson but they did at least feign a slight degree of interest.
The descent took almost as long as the climb but eventually the refuge came into sight way below us.
We continued down and finally made it. By now the sun was hot so we sat outside and revelled in our successful summiting. Lunch was served outside as well. Once again it was delicious and there was plenty to go round.
We then chilled in the sunshine waiting for Jane and Clementine to return from the mountain. They made it eventually and had successfully summited as well so returned to high 5’s from everyone.
The climb to the summit had taken around 2 hours for us, the descent just a little less but there was still the matter of the long walk back to Imlil. That would take about 4-5 hours.
Back to Imil and Marrakech
We packed up, tipped the muleteers and soon set off under the blazing sun. We were retracing the steps we had taken just the day before. It already seemed like ages ago. The path was a little quieter today and the descent steady. We stopped here and there but had to keep going so as to make decent time. On the descent my left hand started to swell up and felt quite sore. I didn’t think too much of it. We stopped at the bottom and waited for everyone to regroup and then took a slightly different route back to Imlil with nice views of the hilltop villages along the way.
Finally we arrived back at Imlil. It already seemed like days before that we had set off in the dark to climb to the summit of Mount Toubkal, but the fact was that it was only that morning. It was still the same day but we had packed so much in.
Tips, thank-you and goodbyes were given to our guides and we all boarded a mini-bus back to Marrakech. I sat in the front this time so felt much better. I was also able to see the impressive gorge that we drove along out of the Atlas mountains, and got to witness the madness of African driving. Suicidal moped manouvers, buses with people hanging off the sides, crazy overtaking and all the fun of driving in Morocco. As we approached the city of Marrakech the madness intensified once again with cars, trucks and mopeds going in all directions.
We were dropped back at our Riads, had a quick shower and then headed out once more into the madness of Marrakech by night. My hand was hurting a little more by now. Dinner and beers were consumed as we all relived the experiences of the past two days. And what a couple of days it had been. We’d packed them full of adventure and new experiences. Toubkal had been conquered, new sights seen, new heights achieved, new countries, new cultures, new cuisines and new friends. It’s amazing what can be packed into a weekend and I had loved every second of it. I still can’t quite believe that I spent the weekend climbing the highest mountain in Morocco – How mad is that. A perfect mini-adventure all packed into one weekend.
The next morning we had breakfast at the Riad and then headed home. I sat next to the same people as I did on the way out. By now my hand was killing me so I asked for ice from the cabin crew and the people next to me gave me some ibuprofen. The drive home was agonising but I made it. Next stop was A&E in the morning who decided it was sprained. Quite when and how I did it I’ll never know, but it is still incredibly sore and incapacitating. No racing for me this weekend I suspect.
The whole trip was all made possible through Much Better Adventures. Everything ran smoothly and the local companies that they used on the ground in Morocco were all reliable and well equipped. The trip itself included airport transfers to the Riad, the Riads in Marrakech, and breakfast in the Riad. The bus journey to Imlil was included as were the guides and the mules and muleteers. The night in the refuge and the hire of a sleeping bag was included in the price as was lunch on the way up, dinner at the refuge on Saturday night, breakfast in the morning and lunch again following the summit. Bottled water was supplied on the mountain as well. The bus back to Marrakech was obviously included too as was the final night in the Riad and the bus back to the airport.
The total price for all of this was a little under £300 which is pretty good if you ask me.
Booking through Much Better Adventures took the hassle out of such an adventure and allowed me to have a weekend feeling like an intrepid explorer whilst not really being one.
I flew from Liverpool to Marrakech with Ryanair so the flight was a little under £200 (by the time I added on extras such as luggage, reserved seats etc.) All in all a good deal for what turned out to be an epic weekend into which was packed a weeks worth of adventure. I’d highly recommend it, and if you fancy following in my footsteps then use the code ALANC6099 for a discount. I’m already planning my next trip or two.