Arrival to Morocco:
Flying over Morocco the walls of properties seem the most defining features, as the desert between the coast and Marrakesh gives way to patches of green, orange trees I imagine, the city and mountains beyond.
My first challenge was encountered at Marrakesh airport – note to future travellers – make sure you have noted down your hotel as they won’t let you through passport control without it. I found myself getting sent to a back office where they chose a random one for you, in my case, The Ibis! Relieved to be through I was met by a smiling and handsome Fuad, who was to be our guide for the treck. Other members arrived over the next hour all seeming friendly, and to know each other already. Money was changed at the airport and we were on our way.
Haggling in Marrakesh: In Search of a Backpack, Hat and Sunglasses
Hotel Imilchil, seemed perfectly located outside the Medina (old town) and had a pleasantly tiled reception and swimming pool and sun bathing area outback with appropriate palm trees. We had the afternoon to explore Marrakesh and it had always been my plan to buy a few things to experience the famous haggling culture and beat the Ryan air baggage limit.
Setting off towards Jamaa el-Fna (the big Square) the centre of the Medina I was advised to follow a simple route and watch out for hawkers. A fellow traveller joined me and we were quickly approached by incredibly friendly local men.
‘You are very lucky, the Berber people have come down from the mountain. My motorbike has broken, I will walk with you, take you to Berber house’.
It really seemed so genuine and we followed him for a bit enjoying his conversation, till he wanted to go down a slightly less populated narrow alley where we bid him farewell and took our chances alone.
Entering the Medina, we came across a carpet and silk shop, and I asked about bags.
‘You want bag I get you bag’, off he ran, coming back 5 mins later clutching the leather.
‘No, I want a backpack, sporty type’. ‘Ok, I take you to shop’.
We followed through winding covered alleys, shop after shop, selling spices, leather bags, plates and jewellery, or carpets and silk, the men at each loudly vying for our custom. At the shop very silly prices were floated and I offered a third and they said no and we walked away, and as if by magic the shopkeeper appeared from the opposite direction with the bag and offered it to me for my price, 100 Dirham. I didn’t know at the time but this area is called a Souk; the largest of all traditional Berber markets in Morocco.
Bought a hat in a square, similar haggling process, then went for a rather strange Tagine in what we thought was a wonderful location, three floors up, overlooking the square. When the food came it
smelt rather like the depths of the Souk, and we weren’t sure it really was beef, but we ate it and trekked the following day without any troubles. The waiter was very friendly and showed us on the map where we were, which was great as we had no idea by that point, there doesn’t seem to be any street signs in Marrakesh.
A night out in Marrakesh – First Evening
Back at Hotel Imichil I met my roommate and his two friends, and we got on pretty well so I joined them in search of an evening meal, back at the big Square, where the previously empty market stalls were all occupied by row after row of Moroccans with cockney accents selling almost identical food. The level of harassment here way exceeds Brick Lane or anything I have experienced when trying to choose where to eat, so we decided to go for the only stall which didn’t hassle us, was full of locals, and specialised in fish. It was good, all fried in breadcrumbs and served with tomato and aubergine mush.
We spent the next hour drinking mint tea in a quiet terrace overlooking the market. The atmosphere bubbled below us as storytellers and musicians created circles to the edge of the food stalls and a way of life long ago lost to Western Europe flowed.
Trek Day 1:
Up at seven am for breakfast, an introduction to Mohammed our assistant guide and into the mini bus for a two hour drive to the foot of mount Toubkal. A good chance to chat with others in the group, or get some extra sleep. We stopped to buy water and the valleys around us were surprisingly green, the sky incredibly blue and clear. We reached the little backpacker town Imlil, where the bags were unloaded and packed onto Mules, and we began our trek through the charming streets, lined with guesthouses, cafes, and the odd onion seller. Leading to a winding path through a tree covered glen, then up and down between walled terraces and archways. Fuad said he was keeping us out of the sun which I was very grateful for.
Second breakfast on a wonderful terrace with views over the valley consisted of fresh bread, jam, honey, dates and nuts.
The group all seemed pretty overwhelmed at this point by the beauty of the scenery and the luxurious feeling of the trek, Fuad was breaking us in gently. Seemingly endless pots of Moroccan tea which on this occasion were made of thyme, were served sweet or very sweet, all was incredibly serene.
The day was warming up as we trecked through delightful apple orchards, being picked and packed by jovial locals. I found out later we all wanted to pocket an apple but politely resisted, until one of the group spoke up and asked to buy one. The packer smiled graciously and gave her an apple but refused any money, then he gave us all one and they were delicious.
Heading up the valley a little bit of adventure crossed our path in the form of a waterfall, which we had to step across, with the help of Fuad. It cooled us off nicely. Rock formations became grander and more imposing the higher we ascended, I saw them as a warm rusty red, and the contrast with the deep blue sky and dotted toy like trees was an irresistible combination for a painter with a camera. Around you as you walk is a rocky landscape rugged and broken, yet at least in the autumn sun feeling solid and stable. Wondrous lumps of rock jut out at odd angles high above and you trust they are anchored deep in the mountain
Moments of precariousness are rarely felt on the trek but it is wise to get mountain side of the luggage laden Mules which regularly pass you. They and their Berber muleteers bring colour, charm and a little bit of risk as you get out of their way.
I wasn’t sure how long we’d been walking for but lunch stop was welcome as was the chance to take boots and socks off and paddle in the pools of the river then sit and relax. Lunch, consisted of chopped salad and vegetables, tuna and pasta, with stunning views of waterfalls and the valley. A flock of black birds circled and darted high amongst the rocks, oiseau we called them. An elderly man sat near the edge of the cliffs holding a mirror up to his face ready to reflect any bad spirits the tourists might bring, as he was a pilgrim here to see the shrine. Part of the shrine is a large boulder painted white. It won’t be the first time on Mount Toubkal I think of Star Trek.
The afternoon path steepened a little, the valley became more V shaped and the sun dropped partly behind it casting incredible shadows and rays of light through the gaps in the jagged ridges high on our right hand side. Boulder sized tussocks of a strange wiry plant now dotted the rocky terrain; we were above the tree line. We were impressed with a cold water sprinkler system designed to keep bottles of Coke and Fanta cold at 2500ft. They sat, sparking jewels of modern life, on a natural rock shelf, in a cave like nook. We later realized all the cafes diverted river water for this purpose. But it was the orange juice squeezer at the next cafe that got our business, each orange squeezed by pulling a lever like a large garlic crusher. Very sweet, very tasty.
An hour later and we saw the tents, our refuge for the night, on the other side of the river valley. On our side a concrete refuge where many trekkers stay, appearing in front of the peak of Mount Toubkal finally visible as we rounded the bend. It was a relief, the sun was setting and layers needed to be applied quickly, at around 2500 feet the temperature drops fast. It felt like we had come a long way, having walked for six hours. Though it had all been explained by Fuad, we did not really comprehend that the following day we would walk for twelve. For now we collapsed in the communal tent on mattresses piled up to act as seating for the forthcoming meal, with a feeling of elation. Inspired by the sound of waterfalls and the setting sun on the mountain at the end of the valley from which we had just walked.
Evening meal was a great laugh; the different characters in the group opened up and amused each other with circumstantial humour. Great to realize we are not completely dependent on alcohol for social interaction. The food was good, a ministrone soup, followed by the veg mix and lentils. We added chilli sauce to warm our bellies. Completely clear skies meant it was perfect for star gazing.
Trek Day 2
Up at five am we were prepped by Fuad at breakfast, the ascent on the summit would be split into four, hour long sections. Stage one a night hike, in darkness, commenced at 6am. We marvelled at Fuad’s route knowledge and set a good pace, finding that using torches to choose our footing led to a different attention to the act of walking. It was magical watching the other groups of torch bearing walkers twinkle, under the sea of stars above us. Certain sections involved a little climbing and that was largely relished as it gave the feet and legs a bit of a rest, and meant we were on much firmer rock.
Stage two began as the daylight slowly brightened behind the peaks, revealing the craggy features around us in pink. We had come quite high quickly and turned a corner so could no longer see the tents. This was to be the easy hour, but as the air thinned many of the group felt exhausted, and we strung out over a fair distance. The landscape became more barren, like a great scree slope flanked by steep jagged cliffs either side.
Stage three, we were promised would be technical, which just meant a little gentle climbing, and as the route was so clearly marked by others going up and coming back we split into little groups going at our own pace between Fuad at the front and Mohammed at the back.
The top of stage three was a real treat, we reached a ridge, and looked for the first time across to the Anti Atlas mountains and beyond to the Sahara, which appeared as a glowing mist. Until the ridge we had been sheltered from the sun but could now sunbath with a drop of about 500 meters just a few feet away. The solidity of Mount Toubkal and perhaps the time spent trekking up it, led to a certain comfort, sitting on the edge of that ridge, which was new to me. Previous experiences on ridges in Snowden or cliffs in Devon had been very nervy affairs. The view is incredibly beautiful, chains of peaks spreading out like fingers and disappearing into the mist, rising out again until the Sahara. More feelings of elation and we weren’t quite at the top yet.
Following the ridge for forty minutes to the top is a continuously spectacular journey and safe and secure so don’t be put off. Reaching the top, 4167 feet above sea level with three hundred and sixty degree views for the first time, is awe inspiring with The Sahara to the south, and Marrakesh to thenorth. You are looking at the infinite and the eternal at once. There are plenty of naturally comfortable seats in the rocks up there so you can find a place to relax and take in the views. The sun bounces off the rocks disseminating magic, and the sense of serenity, gratification, and honour to be in such a place flows through us all. We joined together as a group for the customary photos, expressing our joy with exultant poses.
So, to the descent, there is no desire to leave this place, except for the knowledge it will have to be done at some point so best get on with it. The return to the ridge is interesting, as some more exploration and clambering can be done with confidence that you know where you are. We settled back at the ridge for bread, sardines, cheese and mixed nuts which contained sweet peanut brittle. More sunbathing, then pretty much left to our own devices to descend back to the tents. This was good as finding your own path can be fun. The views are just as good on the way down, and you do see new things as the light has changed and the angles are different. Traversing the area that had been done at night was particularly thought provoking.
Lunch back at the tents was only distinguishable from the dinner the night before in the soup being different but that was fine with me.
The late afternoon trek back to the guesthouse is tough only because we are all fatigued and it ideally needs doing before night time. We are like a troop of zombies by the time we reach the guest house, and cursing every extra little street back in the rabbit warren of Aroumd. The guest house is charming, hot water is plentiful , and we can chill out on another great terrace, with the silhouettes of tall trees and mountains in front, and the sounds of a local wedding erupting behind. Dinner was superb with a huge plate of chicken cooked in onions and spices, to accompany tagine vegetables and cous cous. I didn’t hold back.
Trek Day 3:
After a very sound night’s sleep we have a gentle hours walk back to the mini bus and see far more of Imlil this time, great colour and character are everywhere. Back at the minibus we are visited by trinket sellers, and I feel I want a few memories of the mountain, and of course they let you take their photo if you buy something, and they have great faces.
I had a window seat on the way back and realized the rest of the valley would be a joy to walk up as well.
A few of us went for dinner in the new town that afternoon back in Marrakesh. As we entered the Japanese influenced bar we saw stalks flying overhead, and found we could see their nests on rooftops from the comfort of the terrace. Food was not much more than from the stalls in the Big Square, but alcoholic drinks are up there with London prices, and worth it to celebrate the end of the trek.
I experienced one shop in the new town and found it far more attuned to English sensibilities. The owner was quite gentle in manner, informative, like a tour guide, but not too pushy, so I bought some amber from him. My bag still smells of it 2 weeks later which is a lovely reminder of Morocco. We got back to the hotel with enough heat left in the day for a dip in the pool and one last sunbath.
The next day – the tour concluded and we parted ways. A memorable weekend and highly recommended!