Sunday, July 16, 2017

Along the High Atlas - Part II

Greetings Everyone,
We've been trekking along the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco with our group of 13 for the past 9 days. We're halfway through our journey just above the village of Telouat with its famous Kasbah. We left our camp on the morning of June 28 and climbed past another village and entered a narrow valley. 

Trekking From Camp

At first I thought it was uninhabited but we saw a woman tending a donkey loaded with thistle. Higher up were herds of yet more sheep and goats. We continued up to the Mahboub Pass at about 7900 feet where we stopped for a break. Across the valley we could see a high peak with zigzags on its slopes from old mining days. 

View From Mahboub Pass

We headed 2000 feet down to the main road between Marrakesh and the Sahara. It's one of two roads that cross the High Atlas. We stopped for lunch nearby. After lunch we had to continue our descent into a canyon below the highway.  We could see "open-air" cow trucks passing high above.

"Open-air" Cow Truck

We traversed narrow side slopes along the canyon until we eventually climbed back up to the Afra Plateau and crossed it to our campsite.

Hiking on the Afra Plateau

People from the nearby village began to arrive for a big soccer game in the field behind our campsite. The soccer match ended around sunset with the home team losing and all the villagers returned home, restoring peace to the plateau.

Our Camp Near the Soccer Field

We got an early start the next morning and headed down a road past the village who lost the soccer match last night. We left the road to enter a narrow canyon and followed a trail which ended on a tarmac road near another village.  We stopped for a cold Coke and a nut break while some of the guys played pool on an old table set up in the next room.

Pool Game on Trek

After descending 1800 feet to get to the low point of our trek at 4400 feet, it was time to climb back up.  We started on the road but veered off onto a trail. We could see our mules heading up on the road.  Our trail eventually led to the same road and we climbed to a small plateau for lunch.  We had to wait for Mohamad to prepare our typical lunch of mixed salad, fish, cheese and lentils.  


Our lunches had become leisurely affairs. After eating we hung out on cushions napping until the Mohamads had finished packing the kitchen and Hamid could help them load the mules.

Post-lunch Nap

When it was time to leave, I had a hard time getting going again.  We followed the road to a high plateau called the Yagour Plateau, the site of ancient petroglyphs. One of them was of a large sun deity worshipped by the Berbers before they were converted to Islam.  It was carved sometime before the birth of Christ.  

Ancient Petroglyph of the Sun

From the petroglyph site we could see that our camp had been set up below.

Our Camp on the Yagour Plateau

Around camp Berber nomads were grazing sheep and goats on the long dry grass of the plateau. 

Berber Shepherds

We left around 6:45 the next morning and headed across the valley past corn and barley fields. The plateau became a bowl and we had to climb over the lip to the high point of the day at 7500 feet. Then it was down past abandoned houses and into a narrow canyon. 

Heading Into the Canyon

We continued down the gorge on a good trail crossing the river past a series of villages. 

Berber Villages

We went all the way down to the Ourika Valley where a tarmac road passed through with the most traffic we've encountered so far. After lunch we watched as Mohamad, our ever resourceful cook, nailed a rear shoe back onto one of our pack mules. 

Fixing a Shoe

As we started our climb out of the valley, a stray dog  followed us. We followed switchedbacks up and up gaining back some of our lost elevation. Near the top we stopped to admire the view of the route we had taken before lunch.

Our Route Down the Green Canyon

We reached the top of the plateau and pressed on along a road until we reached our campsite. 

Our Campsite

We were up just before 5:00 and when I got out of the tent, the stray dog was still hanging around. We were off at 6:30 heading up a trail that rejoined the road.  We could see a village perched on a hillside above but veered away on another road at a junction with a soccer field. We could see the Ourika Valley below. We were supposed to have come up this valley yesterday but the itinerary had been changed to avoid Setti Fadma, a busy spot for both foreign and Moroccan tourists. 

Ourika Valley

We continued on the road all the way to the valley floor and walked through the villages of Tadrart, Anfi and Tiourdiou. 

Village of Tadrart

We hiked up to Timicha for lunch and set off at 1:30 for the final hour and a half climb to camp.  We were now on a trail that hugged the wall of the valley. The stray dog was still with us but finally gave up and stopped following us. We reached the village of Iaabassen and climbed above it to a camping area. We had a great view overlooking the village where women were busy threshing barley.

Threshing Barley at Iaabassen

We left around 6:30 the next morning and climbed steadily up toward the Tizi n'Tacheddirt 
at around 10,000 feet.  

Hiking Up to Tizi n'Tacheddirt

We had oranges on top of the pass and I felt guilty for throwing the peels on the ground. No worries, the goats came and scarfed them up. 

The Goats Looking for Orange Skins

Now for the fun part, hiking down! We descended 3000 feet to reach the largest village in the High Atlas. 

The Largest Village in the High Atlas

After lunch we "booted up and socks down" for the final push to Ait Souka. We had an easy climb up a road to our second "pass" of the day before heading down to our gite. 

The Gite at Ait Souka

The gite staff served us soup, bread, chicken and veggie tagine for dinner. 

Dinner at the Gite

We left the gite at 6:50 the next morning and started down into the village of Ait Souka. We eventually started to climb passing one more small village before stopping at the big sign at the entrance to Toubkal National Park. 

Entering Toubkal National Park

We hiked up on a good trail pausing frequently to let mules and other trekkers pass.  This region is more visited than any area we trekked in the previous 14 days. We reached the shrine of Sidi Chamarouch, a big rock painted white. Apparently a holy man was enshrined here. The waters coming down from the mountain are said to contain spiritual healing powers. A small mosque had been constructed next door. 

The Shrine of Sidi Chamarouch

We passed a small shop with drinks ingeniously cooled by spring water forced through a perforated plastic bottle.

Cooling the Drinks

The trail gradually contoured up the side of the valley. Finally we could see the Mount Toubkal Refuge and white mess tents in the distance. 

 Mount Toubkal Refuge

As we got closer we could see our red tents set up on the side of a hill. We had to cross a stream and climb up to them. 

Our Mount Toubkal Base Camp

We got up around 4:25 the next morning to get ready for our ascent of Mount Toubkal. The climb was straightforward with a bit of scrambling over rocky bits. 

The Slopes of Mount Toubkal

We reached the summit at 9:15. Surprisingly no one else was there. We enjoyed the view and took photos.

The Summit of Mount Toubkal

We took a different route down from our ascent. It was very steep and slippery with scree. 

Descending on Scree

We passed by the site of a plane crash. Apparently 8 members of the mafia were killed when their plane crashed here in the winter many years ago. 

Airplane Wreckage

Finally we could see camp below. Everyone was happy to be down and remarked how tough the descent was. I'm glad I wasn't the only one who felt that way.

Returning to Camp

Some of us opted not to do the climb of Ouanoukrim the next morning. We headed down valley around 7:20 taking our time and enjoying the views. The muleteers caught up to us and left Yamine to lead us down. We followed him down valley until the shrine of Sidi Chamarouch came into view where we stopped for a cold drink in one of the shops. Not far below, camp had been set up in a grove of Spanish Juniper trees.

Our Last Camp

Our last dinner in the mess tent was served at 7:00. We had soup, bread, French fries, chicken and veggie tagine.

Last Camp Dinner

After dinner we had our tipping ceremony to thank our wonderful crew for all their hard work these past 18 days! 

Farewell Ceremony

We left camp the last morning around 7:50 and headed down valley past the National Park sign thanking us for our visit.

Exiting Mount Toubkal National Park

We reached Armend and continued down on a dusty trail and entered a cool walnut grove which led to the tourist village of Ait Souka. 

Ait Souka

We reached the end of the trek and stopped for tea at Cafe-Restaurant Bab-imil to wait for our muleteers. Finally our mules arrived and stopped a short distance away to unload. 

Unloading the Mules at Trek End

We said our final goodbyes to the crew and set off for Marrakech arriving around noon. We met in the lobby at 6:00 and took taxis to Hotel Tazi, one of the few establishments in Marrakech to serve alcohol. We sat in a large room with a bar in comfortable cushy chairs and were served our first cold beer in 3 weeks!

First Beer at Hotel Tazi

A waiter convinced us stay for dinner. We moved to a large dining room next door and were served tiny dishes of vegetables: eggplant, potatoes, carrots and cauliflower along with bread. We then had chicken and vegetables cooked in a tagine.  There was plenty of bottled water and wine to drink. It was a fun meal. The waiter kept referring to us as his family. 

Dinner at Hotel Tazi

We were told that belly dancers would perform at 8:30 but none showed up. Curtains were hung over the windows to hide the decadency inside. A lone belly dancer dressed in a costume with large gold wings showed up around 9:00 and came dancing around our table. 

Entertainment at Hotel Tazi

Our time in Morocco had come to an end. We trekked along the High Atlas for a total of 18 days covering almost 200 miles and climbing over 40,000 vertical feet. We got a rare glimpse into the lives of Berber nomads who graze their sheep and goats in the high mountain valleys and plateaus. We visitied old Kasbahs, saw ancient petroglyphs and stayed in welcoming gites. A big thank you to Hamid our trip leader who kept us all safe and happy. We are sincerely grateful to our cook Mohamad for preparing such delicious Moroccan cuisine with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Finally, we wish to thank Mohamad 2 and our muleteers for carrying our gear and setting up each campsite. We couldn't have done this trek without you!

We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map for the second half of the trek:

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