Morocco pt 1 – Marrakech & Journey to the Atlas

We take a short flight from Lisbon down to Marrakech. Sleeping most of the way, I open my eyes as we start descending and look out the window. Off to my right there is a line of mountains – caps of snow barely visible on the highest parts and a strange break of atmosphere with the top 3rd clear and the lower sections marred in a dusty haze. The wheels squeak and I’m jolted back to reality.

Welcome to Morocco. Welcome to Marrakech. Welcome to Africa.

Marrakech Skyline, with the Atlas in the background
Marrakech Skyline, with the Atlas in the background

We negotiate a cab from the airport. I say negotiate as we ask several people the price and match it with prior info we had and then try and find a taxi driver who will honour the price. They tell us no. Much higher. 300 Dirham when we were quoted 150. We stand firm and say no. They run to get us another driver. He gets there and starts trying to take our stuff to the boot of the big old mercedes he pilots. We stand firm again and ask price. He says 250, we argue back no. We were just told 180 you would take us for. Eventually through being bastards and not caving to them being bastards we get the agreed fair at 180. The streets are normal if a bit crowded and with the type of traffic to be expected for countries of this wealth – donkey drawn carts mixing it with old busses and loads of the old mercedes like our taxi. Things change when we get close to the medina. More hectic and more chaos. Loads of taxis parked up by the entrance near our Riad. We get out and once again have to negotiate our fair back to what was agreed.

Grab our bags and leg it – a bit unfamiliar here and the medina is filled with such winding streets and an unfamiliar culture that we are both very on edge. Youths try to leads us astray telling us our riad is along way the other way. Lying bastards. They are all out for our money, but the funny thing is, if they actually told me and took me there with out the hastle Id pay them a dollar like they wanted. One particularly persistent fellow, follows us to our door, then knocks for us, despite us telling him to go away. Then he demands money from us despite having found the way ourselves. Traveler beware.

Sohba, the host of our riad, is very welcoming and we have our very first serve or Moroccan mint tea on the rooftop terrace just as the sun goes down. Relaxing and unwinding, almost nervous to venture back out into the wilderness and chaos that is the medina below. We do, as we need food and we head for the main square through along winding way and our first taste of the souks – everything and anything is on offer here, but mainly leather goods, cloths, wooden handicrafts, Jewellery and antiques are particularly in abundance, along with spice shops. We come back and explore these in more detail over the following days.

2 days into Marrakech, we plan our first adventure – its time to head for the hills. Welcome to the Atlas mountains.

The atlas mountains are 2500km long across Northern Africa and extend from morocco to Tunisia and Algeria. With a wide variety of landscapes and habitats, they separate the coastal regions from the sandy saharan expanse. They are split into 3 sections, lower, middle and high atlas who’s capstone is the 4167m high Toubkal and our destination.

We shopped for guides and interviewed one in Marrakech yesterday morning, who has sent a driver with no english to pick us up and take us to Imlil – The main mountain village in the high atlas. Cat has doubts that we are with the right driver, though Im not too worried. After all, I see mountains out the front windscreen so at least we are headed in the right directions. The winding road steepens and we pass apple orchards and organ oil cooperatives as well as the odd old Kasbah. Kasbah’s are old fort like houses, usually the centrepiece of the village and built by the Berbers to protect them selves against Touareg nomads and most likely invading christians and muslims.

We cruise the final stretches through the streets of Imlil. It takes me back to my time in Nepal – mountain villages are all somewhat the same. With the tourist income, trekking shops and assorted riads pop up along with and restaurants to accomodate them. Theres a whole sheep hanging in one of them ready to be carved into the days dishes. There’s the token gaggle of goats wandering the road and of course, a handful of stray chickens.

We step off at Ahmed’s guest house – Dar Tigoulah, perched in a nearby neighbouring village a km above the town centre the place is furnished with rustic, very rustic, yet modern western ammenities and has the most splendid rooftop terrace overlooking the valley. Its a moment of awe to stand there, mint tea in hand surveying the rugged mountain landscape and the call to prayer starts up. Shivers, spine tingling shivers creep upon me. Taking me over and leaving me electrified as I stand in stunned silence as my senses soak up the mystical experience.

Rooftop Terrace of Dar Tigoulah overlooking Imlil
Rooftop Terrace of Dar Tigoulah overlooking Imlil

The prayer calls are all different, and while we make out the Allu Ahkbar’s the rest is a mystery. What is not is the quality and tone of the voice. Some positively shriek it out like a mad banshee possessed of demons, and others, like the man on this day, in this mountain valley, crooned it out smoothly and with almost a hint of pained sadness. And as it echoed through the valley, I could feel the inspiration it would endow in the local populace as it had me.

We plan our trek – 6 days in total with the first 2 days to be the trek unto Jebel Toubkal – the Toubkal mountain refuge, then our assault on the summit at 3am so we are up there for sunrise and then all the way back down to Imlil. Followed by a few days exploring the neighbouring villages.

Assault on Toubkal & The Moroccan high Atlas

Toubkal Sunrise

We’re walking by 9am. Its a long way to go and we have a considerable amount of altitude to climb. Karim, our guide; a youthful kid of 18 leads the way as we wind up through the upper villages of Imlil. It flattens out as we pass the village of Armend on our right. the gorge we follow flattens out here where the waters have run it wide and full of gravel. Men casually mine the rock to make their houses. Digging at piles with old shovels and picks. Its a barren land here in the alpine of these hills. All dirt and brown yet somehow still so full of life and greenery. The chime of goat bells and bleats echo off the mountains around us. We march on. The path takes the left hand side of the gorge as it steepens into a chasm off the right of us. Its a well worn path with more than a few travellers on the way. We are making for Sidi Charmharouch. A small wayside temple buried halfway to Jebel toubkal that supports a very small village at the confluence of two water channels. There are some big rock pools and the water is nice, albeit you don’t know whats upstream. This is a lunch spot and as we arrive we start to cross paths with the people making their descent from the refuge that day. We’ve climbed a good 600m of altitude so far and have close to 900 to go. Mohammed, our muleteer prepares us lunch – bread with onions, peppers, cucumber, eggs, tuna and lettuce. Very fresh, very healthy – every day lunch. We snap some pictures while we wait and I draw a quick sketch of the hills around us before we march on.

We follow the gorge the entire way, Toubkal looms over us, dead ahead with the faint blue shadow of its snows visible right up high. We wind our way off to the right and steadily march onwards and upwards. Toubkal now sits to our left side and the refuge straight ahead several steep kilometres up. Its a high alpine valley surrounded by the biggest peaks of the atlas. All vicious jagged rock litters with the white of high altitude snows.

We close in on the refuge and its a monster of a mountain hut. With space for around 200 people its vastly different than the alpine huts of Canada we are accustomed too. Made entirely of stone and built by the French mountaineering association years back, it is a welcoming place amongst the rough barren peaks. A row of tents are camped out front and a strong of mules chew their cud amongst the rock fences as we watch the sun echo hues of blues and reds to indigoes and violets off the lower hills in the west down the path we came. Darkness slowly consumes the vista and the valley and we head inside for the warmth of the fire and some tea.

4am. Assault on Toubkal. Its dark and cold out, but the night is clear and the refuge is a hive of activity. Weary mountaineers kit up to begin the ascent and we find Karim and move off into the darkness. Theres torches up ahead – 2 groups winding their way through the darkness under a brilliant starry sky. The air is thin and there is almost no light pollution, so when we take a break 20min in to strip off the outer layers once the blood is moving, I steal a few moments to gaze in awe at the heavens sparkling above. We over take the first group a short while later and soon after the sky begins to lighten with the coming dawn. The climb is steep but not too difficult – it zigzags its way up a chute nestled in-between the southern peak and the main one. 1000m of altitude straight up. Its rocky at first, a large collection of old landslides and rock falls at the bottom before smoother incline where the snows lay nestled. I say snow but its hard packed and icy. We strap on the crampons in our packs and march a straight line under the ever lightening sky. The plan is to hit the peak for dawn, and we are under pressure. Sunrise is at 630. That gives us 2.5 hours to climb 1000m of rough terrain. Challenge accepted!

The other group that was ahead of us has disappeared. Lost somewhere in the early stages with out a guide. Fucking fools. We can see the final stretch to the ridge line – not the peak for sunrise, but its only 50m short in the altitude stakes and its view stretches out half a hundred miles to the plains of the Sahara beyond. Though we are running out of time. Fatigue has struck and our pace has slowed. Though with immense effort we rally and crest the ridgeline just as the first rays of the sun strike the summit.

Glory. Beauty. Relief. Wow. A stunning vista takes form below us. Shadows slowly giving up their secrets to reveal valleys, ravines, farms and villages in the cascading hills below. We take a few moments for a snack and some pictures and walk the final few hundred meters to the summit actual where from the one point we see right along the chain that is the Atlas. Marrakech and the ocean plain on one side, the Sahara on the other.

Staring down at Marrakech its hard to believe that its a good 40c down there yet it’s 0c up here amongst the snows. Its a job well done as we are the first to summit for the day and pass close to 50 more climbers slowly coming up as we fly back down.

Its 10am and we are back at the refuge. 1hr45min down. Thats fast! Though the early start and toll of 2000m of vertical is taking its toll and we crash to bed. We wake a few hours later and begin the trek back to Imlil – another 1600m and 18km down the valley. Its a loooong day and we are on the verge of collapse as we arrive back at Ahmed’s guest house.