Monday, July 10, 2017

Along the High Atlas - Part I

Greetings Everyone,
We're off on another grand adventure! Trekking in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains had been on my to-do list for many years and now we were on our way to Marrakech, Morocco to make this wish a reality. We left home on June 15 and flew to Marrakesh by way of New York City and Lisbon, Portugal. Upon arrival in Marrakech we were met by Hamid, our guide for the trip. We arrived a day ahead of our group and had a little time to explore this vibrant city. One of the main attractions is the Djemaa el-Fna Square and the towering Koutoubia Mosque. Being Ramadan, the square was quiet during the day but after sunset and the call to prayer it came alive with Moroccans eager for a meal after 17 hours of fasting.

Koutoubia Mosque and Djemaa el-Fna Square

The next day we met our group, a multinational mix of folks from England, Wales, Scotland, U.S., France and Chile. We set off from Marrakesh on June 18 for the starting point of our long trek along the High Atlas. We stopped in the Berber town of Azilal. While Hamid was buying supplies we explored the market where everything from vegetables, fruit, nuts, meat, clothing and housewares were for sale.

Market Day at Azilal

We were surprised to see White Storks nesting on the minaret of a local mosque. I thought they bred in Europe and spent the winter in Africa. Morocco must be at the southern end of their breeding range.

White Storks at Azilal

For our first night we stayed in a traditional Berber gite or guest house in the tiny village of Iskataffen situated in the Bou Gemmaz Valley. Here people lead a peaceful life growing crops of apples, walnuts, wheat and barley and raising herds of sheep and goats.

The Village of Iskataffen

Early the next morning we were eager to set off on our 18-day trek. We met our trek crew composed of Mohamad our cook, his assistant Mohamad 2, five muleteers: Amgon, Abdoul, Yamine, Ali and Salah and 7 mules. We headed down valley and took a short detour to a Kasbah perched strategically on a hill with a commanding view of the entire Bou Gemmaz valley. 

View of the Bou Gemmaz Valley

Inside the Sidi Mouza Kasbah a Berber man and boy were brewing tea for their foreign guests. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light I could see a bag made from goat skin, wool pants made for a very tall man, the wooden butt of a rifle, a grinding stone, lanterns and shoes made from old tires. 

Inside the Sidi Mouza Kasbah

A Kasbah is a small fortress used to protect food from raiding neighbors. This Kasbah is one of the only round ones in this area and is 300-400 years old.

Sidi Mouza Kasbah

We continued down the valley before veering off to the south and up the Arous Valley. We stopped at the last village of Ayt Sayd for lunch. We were entertained by the village kids who were playing in the river, singing songs and blowing whistles. After lunch we followed the Arous canyon stopping briefly at a tea house before making the climb to our first campsite at the seasonal grazing encampment of Azib Ikkis. Our crew had already erected a cook tent, a mess tent and our sleeping tents. We got set up just as a thunderstorm hit the valley.

Our First Campsite at Azib Ikkis

Our second day of trekking took us over 2 passes: Tizi n-Oumskiyk at about 9600 feet and Tizi n-Tarkeddit at 10,700 feet. Far below we could see the Tarkeddit Plateau, our destination for the night and the starting point for our first climbing objective, Jebel Mgoun.

View from the Tizi n-Tarkeddit Pass

We headed down onto the plateau where Berber shepherds were grazing large flocks of sheep and goats. Camp had been set up in the center of the plateau near a refuge that provided hot showers and toilets to trekkers and climbers.

Our Camp on the Tarkeddit Plateau

When we rose early the following morning for our climb, Venus had risen over a crescent moon creating a surreal scene. 

Venus with a Crescent Moon

We headed out in darkness using our headlamps to light the way. We contoured up on switchbacks as the sun rose reaching a plateau before the steep climb to the ridge.  When we reached the long summit ridge we were hit by a fierce wind. I was concerned about being blown off the narrow ridge but we managed to keep our footing. We could see the summit of Mgoun looming ahead, it was not far to go now.

Approaching Mgoun

We arrived at the summit around 9:40 and lingered long enough to enjoy the view and take a group photo. We wanted to be off the ridge long before any anticipated thunderstorms.

Mgoun Summit

We returned to camp 9 hours after we had set off. That night we fell asleep to a cacophony of sounds; barking dogs, tinkling frogs, braying donkeys and bleeting goats and sheep.

We left the plateau the following morning and climbed to a higher plateau called Tizt N'Asdrem where more Berber nomads were living in summer encampments grazing their sheep and goats. We continued to a viewpoint at the edge of the plateau where we could see the village of Tasgarnalte far below surrounded by irrigated fields of wheat, barley and potatoes. The hills were different hues of red, purple and yellow.

Viewpoint Over the Village of Tasgarnalte

After our break we continued steeply down through a broad canyon whose slopes were covered in purple and yellow-flowered scrubs. These were among the only plants to survive the ravenous goats and sheep because I thought they were unpalatable. However Hamid told us that the livestock will eat the flowers but have not grazed this area yet.

Flowering Shrubs 

We switchbacked down slippery scree to an area of massive, ancient juniper trees where we stopped for lunch. After lunch we continued down past village fields of barley that had been planted in March and would soon be ready to harvest. We passed through Tasgarnalte Village and on the other side camp had been set up in the front yard of a local family.

The next morning we continued our trek past Berber villages now connected to the outside world by a new road. The local women were carrying heavy loads of fodder on their backs. After many years of this hard labor many of the older women were permanently bent over.

Heavy Loads of Fodder

We left the road and climbed above the river to the village of Azib n'Ikkis where there was a Kasbah made of stone and wooden beams.

The Kasbah of Azib n'Ikkis

We climbed higher reaching another village called Ichbbakane where we stopped to admire the mosque with its square minaret. Hamid told us that Morocco is the only Islamic country whose minarets are square. In much of the rest of the Islamic world, minarets are round as an artifact of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans never conquered Morocco, hence the square minarets remained. On top of the minaret were three balls representing the three main religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam and their common origin. The crescent moon on the very top points to Mecca. 

The Minaret at Ichbbakane 

We continued our climb until we reached the last house where a barking dog was chained. It's owner stood nearby until we safely passed. From the top we contoured back down to the river which we had to cross to reach our lunch spot. After lunch we recrossed the river and followed the streambed passing a few more villages. Finally after 9 long, hot hours we reached the village of Ait Ali Nitto where we spent the night in Gite D'Etape Assounfou.

The Gite at Ait Ali Nitto

The next morning we followed the road out of town passing a day market where only men were setting up shop.  At the end of the road was the picturesque village of Megdaz.  We climbed above to get a view of the village with its five kasbahs and two mosques, one old and one new with their minarets.

The Village of Megdaz

We continued climbing to Tizi Awrghiz where we got our first view of our second climbing objective Jebel Anghomar. We contoured around the base of a cell tower before heading down to a dry riverbed and walked along it to the village of Tagoukht where we had lunch serenaded by the village boys.

View of Jebel Anghomar from Tizi Awrghiz

After our lunch break we passed back through the village then up once again through a sparse forest of juniper trees. We generally climbed but sometimes had to descend to cross a gully.  Finally we could see camp above but had to cross a deep ravine to reach it. This could be the last night of Ramadan, depending on if the new moon would be seen early the next morning. 

The crew was up at 3:00 AM so Ramadan had not ended. I couldn't imagine trekking all day in the hot sun with nothing to eat or drink but that is what our crew had been doing. We hiked down to a road on the border between the provinces of D'azilal and Ouarzazate. We could see a village and Jebel Anghomar looming above far across the valley. We began a long climb up toward a red plateau which we contoured past. The landscape was rocky and barren, yet sheep and goats are grazed here.  I struggled to keep up with the group as we made our final climb up to Tizi n-Tghaghayt.  We stopped for a break and we could see Lake Tamda far below.  It's one of the only permanent freshwater lakes in the High Atlas.

View of Lake Tamda

We descended to a dry riverbed and followed it toward the lake where four Ruddy Shelducks were bobbing on its surface. 

Ruddy Shelducks

After dinner Hamid told us the climb tomorrow of Jebel Anghomar would be difficult.  Few trek groups tackle the peak and there's no established trail. The route follows a steep gully with rocks.  The descent would be on loose scree. We decided not to go. The rewards didn't outweigh the risks.  

We heard the others get up for breakfast at 5:00 AM in preparation for their climb. Part of me wanted to go with them but I knew my knees and bruised toes could not handle a steep, fast descent. We along with the others not making the climb left camp at 7:00. On the way out we had to be careful not to step on the hundreds of tiny African Green Toads at the edge of the drying pool in front of our tents.  

African Green Toad

We passed the Ounila Stream, our water source, and headed straight down the valley. Once again we hiked through a rocky, barren landscape where the occasional Berber shepherd was tending his flock of sheep and goats. The muleteers and mules finally caught up to us.  One of the mules had cut his leg badly and some in our group helped the muleteers tend his wound. We reached the confluence of a fast flowing stream called Tichkiwiyn. Along its banks grew trees with colorful pink flowers called Common Oleander. 

Common Oleander along Tichkiwiyn

Further down the trail we spotted at least 3 squirrels with stripes scamper up the rocks. They turned out to be Barbary Ground Squirrels, the only squirrels that live in Africa north of the Sahara.

Barbary Ground Squirrel

We continued along the stream until we reached the village of Tighza and our welcoming gite. The rest of the group arrived after lunch tired but happy that they had climbed the peak. 

Tonight the gite staff prepared and served us dinner.  We had soup served with funny wooden ladle-like spoons and chicken and vegetables cooked in a tagine, an earthenware pot.


We started trekking around 7:40 the next morning. We hiked through town and left the road to join a trail marked for the Trans-Atlas Marathon (TAM), a race of 280 km. We climbed up to a barren, rocky plateau where even goats and sheep don't graze, then down to a road and veered off to go overland.  There were many small depressions that appeared to have once been filled with water but there were too many to be natural. They turned out to be formed by people mining salt. We continued down to a dry riverbed where lunch had been set up under some poplar trees. After lunch we quickly reached the village of Telouat to visit its famous kasbah. From the outside the structure looked like crumbling mud brick walls but inside were architectural wonders. 

The Kasbah at Telouat

The Kasbah was more than a fort, it was the palace of the El Glaoui family. The head of the family became fabulously wealthy by forcing all the salt caravans from Timbuktu to Marrakesh through his kasbah.  No doubt he charged them a pretty penny to spend the night.  Upstairs were the ornate rooms where the king-like Glaoui elder housed his harem. The walls were adorned with mosaics, painted wooden doors and windows and carved plaster above the tile. 

Inside the Kasbah at Telouat

Unfortunately the people of Telouat don't want UNESCO to restore the Kasbah. We climbed to the roof for a last view of the Kasbah. Thunder was rumbling in the distance so we didn't stay long.

Rooftop View of the Kasbah at Telouat

We left and headed toward irrigated fields above town and arrived at camp about an hour later. After 9 hard days on the trail, we're half way through the trek. We've covered 101 miles, climbed 23,000 vertical feet including Jebel Mgoun, the 3rd highest peak in the range, visited many Berber villages and old kasbahs. Stay tuned to see how we fare during the second half of our trek along the High Atlas!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great Im travelling for the second time trough your blog and I reallize even more how wonderfull it was and now I can tell where I was exactly 😀