I wiped the sweat from my forehead, the sun beat down on us with warm early morning light. I looked over longingly at the light dusting of snow on Toubkal, but for the rest of the mountains, the autumn heat was strongly shining down. Hiking the High Atlas Mountains was no small feat, even a few days trekking in the surrounding hills proved to be a welcomed challenge. Hussein, my guide for the weekend, quickly bounced up the path in front of me. He grew up in the region and has been guiding treks for the last 8 years, his agility shown through in his experience.
“It’s a cold country with a hot sun.”
The saying becomes more real now that I’ve been exposed to the drastic elements. Earlier at breakfast I’d donned a thick wool sweater and gloves and just a few hours later I was wishing to be in a tank top and shorts, if not for the conservative customs. Long pants and a short-sleeved shirt would have to do. After a couple of hours we reached around 3,000 meters and had a rest at the top of the pass. It’s a well traveled route so we saw the most activity of the trip at this rest stop throughway. Donkeys getting a short respite, guides having a chat, hikers taking a water break and admiring the spectacular scenery.
We walked a little further down from the top of the valley, coming upon an overlook with a picnic lunch awaiting us. We had a feast, and after our morning trek we deserved the calorie overload. Kefta, (Moroccan meat balls), bread, salad, potatoes and fruit. After our delicious spread we packed up and headed into the valley. Downhill, a welcomed change from the morning’s strenuous uphill climb. The air is clean and fresh, the fragrant smell of juniper hits my nose as we pass dozens of trees, evergreen after evergreen.
While the memories of Christmas flood into my head from the scents above, I’m immediately taken to a summer night on the porch, as we tread through a field with out feet brushing over the wild mint at our feet below. We passed through a small village, Tizi Oussem, on our way to the lodge.
Most of these communities have only a few hundred people, so aside from some squawking chickens, the rustling of barn animals and the occasional footsteps of a local resident on the stone street, it is a quiet day. We reached the lodge in the late afternoon, and were greeted with a warm smile from the inn keeper. He gave me a tour of the lodge, showed me to my room and offered me a pair of Moroccan slippers, babouche and a djellaba, a Moroccan robe, to relax and feel at home.
With the lodge all to myself, I felt a bit like a Berber queen, imagining myself looking out over my kingdom while on the terrace looking down on Ait Aissa. The evening brought an onslaught of stars brilliantly bouncing in the sky. With almost zero light pollution the star gazing here is phenomenal.
The path the next morning was steep, up to the pass through Tizi Oudite straight away from the back of the lodge, and my legs felt more tired than the day before. As my muscles slowly warmed, I knew we had a long day ahead of us. I turned to evaluate my progress and could see the lodge in the distance with the rest of the city resting far below us. I was more slow going this morning but felt content with how far we had scaled.
We descended into another valley, through the small town of Matate. It’s apple season here in the Atlas Mountains so walking down the streets through the villages you’ll have the wonderful smell of fresh apples and the orchards are overflowing. Dozens of wooden slat crates are stacked by the roadside with the ruby and green fruits packed to the brim.
The afternoon brought a direct view of Jbel Toubkal and the promise of a hot shower and a nap was just below that view, back through Imlil. Another picnic lunch was set up for us under several shade trees. We had made great time in the morning which meant we had some time for a quick post lunch nap before our short trek to the Kasbah.
The High Atlas Mountains are home to North Africa’s highest peak, Mount Toubkal. The Atlas mountains themselves stretch through most of Morocco and into Tunisia. There are three regions, the anti, middle and high atlas, and I’d argue that the high atlas are the most stunning of the three.
Trekking in the Atlas is a treat, it offers a glimpse of Berber life in the small villages. Some towns only have a few hundred inhabitants and so walking from village to village you may only see the occasional Berber resident or even more rare were other backpackers.
The real stars of the show are the mules. I have been introduced to the work ethic of these mountain animals in the past when I went for a mule ride along the rim of the Grand Canyon. They are the ones who do the back-breaking work as porters, carrying supplies for trekkers, acting as transportation for locals and moving goods from village to village. Carrying at times over 100 pounds, they are strong, sure-footed, sturdy animals that can withstand the heavy loads, the weather and the terrain with ease. If you are going to arrange a trek on your own, I’d recommend making sure the mules are taken care of and safe animal practices are being used. As tourism in this region becomes more popular, the need for these animals also increases making it easier for owners to overwork their livestock. HERE is a great resource to make sure your muleteer is treating his mule properly and that some education can be done if they aren’t treating the mules compassionately. The more we demand ethical treatment as consumers, the quicker these things will change! My mule was very well cared for, not tethered or overloaded or fitted with a traditional bit.
The mule drivers are also the unsung heroes of the trail, not only to they forge ahead to make sure to meet you with supplies during meal times and when you break camp for the evening, but they are the multitaskers of the trek. Mohammed, our muleteer, was the best cook!
When to go?
The region is coldest in the winter, I was here in through late October and the nights and early mornings became increasingly colder as the days shortened. Morocco is a Muslim majority country so be aware of holidays, such as Ramadan that may interrupt your travel plans. Hiking Toubkal usually happens between April and September with springtime being a busy month. The weather is favorable and the wild flowers are all in bloom.
Where to stay?
There are several small villages in the region, some with homestay and meager but decent accommodations. My stay was with the Azzaden Trekking Lodge, through the Kasbah du Toubkal. The hospitality is second to none and there is nothing more rewarding than a good days hike and coming to stay for the evening at a comfortable lodge that feels like a second home.
How to get there?
Imlil is the best starting point for your trek. It’s one of the bigger towns in the area and is about 90 minutes from Marrakech. You can hire a private pick up from your accommodation if flying into Marrakech or if you’d like a more local mode of transport, you can take a Grand Taxi from just outside of Jemaa El-Fnaa direct to Imlil. The ride is much cheaper, around $5 USD, but you’ll be in a shared cab and ride doesn’t leave until the seats are all filled. It’s a fun way to get around if you aren’t used to collective public transport so I recommend trying it at least once while in Morocco!