HIGHEST PEAK IN NORTH AFRICA
High Atlas mountains. Barren, scree filled with patchy vegetation, hardy animals, sand coloured hill top villages, great views and friendly people.
Marrakech. Hot, noisy, busy, colourful, great souks, aggressive vendors, over bearing hawkers, men very disrespectful to foreign women. See it once.
Trek day 1
Standing at 4165m, Jebel Toubkal is the highest point in the Atlas Mountain range, Morocco and North Africa.
Not the highest or most demanding of summits but a good fix for a trekking junkie like me. Only a five day trip but a lifetime away from the ‘desk’. The flight from Heathrow though is a pig. Late evening and a stopover in Casablanca sees Becky and Rosie, two other trekkers, plus myself, arriving in Marrakech at 1am.
Dying in the sun
OK, I’ve had late nights before but breakfast is at 6am and we still have to find the hotel. Our guide though, Mohamed, saves the day and whisks us on our way.
I join Ceri and Helen, two more for the trip, at breakfast. Rolls with cheese, jam, juice and coffee. No plate just a serviette; a new one on me. Boarding a small bus, we’re off. The flat outskirts of Marrakech are being transformed into golf clubs and estates, newly laid turf dying in the sun.
From the town of Ansi, the road climbs passing hillside villages with the Oued Rhirhaia valley dropping away below us. Mohamed points out a large house owned by Richard Branson. He wasn’t in but I thought I would give him a mention.
At 1740m, we crunch to a halt at Imlil. In the already warm sun, our porters and beasts of burden wait patiently while we buy water and cream up. Leaving the village the usual pestering from shopkeepers makes me walk faster. Tip for tat sellers: let us browse, you’ll sell more stuff.
The path is clear and easy going as we reach the pretty village of Aremd at 1900m. Passing a small Berber’s house we are invited in for lunch. It’s simple but tasty; figs, dates and nuts are a favourite of mine.
Combined with pitta bread, butter, jam and olive oil, my MAS (middle-aged spread) is glad we’ve a good walk ahead of us. Heading up on local mule tracks, it’s hard to believe that Berbers grow potatoes, corn and walnuts here. Cattle too were a surprise alongside the more common goats.
Climbing steadily, geckos scurry underfoot while hardy, spiky, pink and yellow flowers eke out an existence under the rising valley walls. Snow clinging on to the tops and ridges feed waterfalls and irrigation channels. As we reach Sidi Chamarouch, the river is in spate.
Sidi Chamarouch, a pastoral shrine, is a small oasis in a barren terrain. The marabout shrine is only accessible to muslims and is flanked by small ‘houses’ where pilgrims come to cleanse their dijnns (demons). Leaving the cooling plunge pools the going gets hotter. I can only guess what’s it’s like in August. Mule trains and lighter packed trekkers kick up dust as they pass on their return.
Berber’s turbans seem to be the order of the day but I make a mental note not to buy one; they might not look so good on the high street back home.
Base camp is at 3206m. Snow forms pockets of resistance in a war it can’t win. Sweaty and pleasantly tired, we reach our boudoirs just below the Refuge Toubkal. After a hearty meal we retire early for a 5am start. I have a two-man tent to myself. Being a solo wild camper this is luxury, although the toilet tent is not a place to peruse a magazine or two.
Trek day 2
5am. It’s dark but surprisingly warm. Head torches twinkle in the gloom as the ridges are slowly crowned in gold. The going is steep and slippery on the die-hard snow. Oceans of scree slow our pace as the altitude starts to kick-in. But the views are fantastic.
Our route takes us up the south cirque over boulders, rocks and scree to the snow dotted ridge line. Here we rest for the final push across the plateau to the summit of the highest peak in North Africa, Jebel Toubkal at 4165m.
A few more minutes and we’re high-fiving under the iconic summit marker. Photos are taken but sadly Helen is missing, succumbing to the height. Along with the altitude the temperature has steadily risen hazing the incredible 360˚ vista. Simply wonderful.
Snacking on nuts and dried fruit, the inevitable cannot be put off any longer; the descent. I dread the return journeys. My knees just aren’t up to it any more and I pray for base camp.
Out of the woods
Finally, the waterfall above the Toubkal refuge indicates the worst is over. We had a few tumbles but no lasting damage. Tired but happy we crawl into the mess tent for another delicious Berber meal. But we’re not out of the woods yet. With lunch finished there is a whirlwind of activity as our team decamp for the trek to Armed, our stop for the night.
Retracing our steps the going is gently down, but after our earlier climb the distance starts to tell. The party is quiet as we pick our way through the narrow, dusty streets of Armed to our village house.
Shower! I pay extra for the privilege but it feels so good. Dinner is lamb stew and very tasty. A good shiraz would have made it perfect. Breakfast on the balcony with towering fruit trees all around, follows a comfortable night. Our return to Imlil is a verdant one with irrigation channels quenching the land’s thirst.
After a quick coke in the village we’re all too soon bouncing our way back to Marrakech. It’s been good and there’s the hot, bustling city yet to come.
I must admit I’m not a great lover of cities and Marrakech is no exception. Hot, dusty, noisy and full of people, but then I am a miserable old git.
To be honest though, it’s not the city but the kids asking for money and sultry youths commanding you to ‘come here‘ and talk to them.
Reading about Marrakech before travelling, the guidebook stated that the begging had lessened considerably; the locals obviously hadn’t read the same book.
But that aside, Marrakech does have cooling parks, stunning architecture and of course, the Souks. Arcade after arcade of shops and stalls, I quite enjoyed them until the pestering became too much. ‘No, I don’t need a guide!’
After haggling for a rather nice dish, a British registered Ford Escort rally car glided past. I found it again later parked with a plethora of rainbow coloured off-roaders waiting for inspection.
Venturing into Djemaa el Fna, the famous square and market place, local tribesmen with snakes and monkeys assaulted tourists at every turn. Myself, I tried to take photos of stalls but shouts of ‘No!’ and hands wanting money were thrust into my face. So, I left.
Our last meal of the trip was a nice affair at a local restaurant. Beef with prunes slow cooked in a tagine; delicious. To finish the evening, a walk around the food stalls in the Djemaa el Fna, was short lived with the ladies in the group being shown too much attention from the local ‘gentlemen’.
Don’t get me wrong, Marrakech is a beautiful, historic and interesting melting pot of cultures and races. Here is what I learnt in a few hours:
- Ask or point before taking photos; you might be invited to do so or asked to pay
- Don’t give money to anybody or you will have hoards of children following you
- Say no to any unofficial guides
- Ladies, don’t wander around on your own if you can help it, dress accordingly and be very firm with the local Casanovas; they are very rude, persistent and touchy
- There are plenty of bargains to be had if you haggle!