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The trail less trekked

High Atlas Pass.
High Atlas Pass. / A. FORBES
  • Hiking off the beaten track in the High Atlas Mountains

As the hours passed whilst walking the mountain trails, the peace and tranquillity became almost tangible. Without aircraft jetting overhead, and with no roads filled with cars or motorbikes, one is truly embraced by nature. Here the sound of silence is the chirps and chatter of small finches amongst the ancient, gnarled juniper trees; the bleating of the long-haired mountain goats as they deftly negotiate the precipitous hillsides; and the gentle rattle of all the hiking paraphernalia being carried by ‘Jacqueline’, our mule.

Lunchtime means a welcome rest, and the chance to unlace one’s hiking boots and relax. I am travelling with Hussein my guide and Abtou our cook, experts in the area and part of ‘Toubkal Trekking’, a local trekking and walking company offering activity holidays staffed with local people. The firm provides valuable employment and income for villagers and also offers highly authentic experiences for guests.

They swiftly unpack Jacqueline’s saddle bags, and then lead the patient mule to the shade of an oak tree, where she grazed on new grass shoots, nourished by the warm spring sunshine and snowmelt from the surrounding peaks.

The sound of the simmering tagine on top of the hissing gas stove means that it won’t be long until lunch. Cushions and a mat have been laid out of the ground ready for when we can sit, eat and chat – a sociable break from the meditative peace of the morning hike. The climb up to the mountain pass was challenging in places, even when one’s only carrying a small backpack of personal items and bottled water. The steep incline and loose stones in places demand concentration, but the reward of the immense panoramic view out over the valleys to the snowy summits is more than adequate compensation. Below the villages are white with cherry and apple blossom; spring comes late to these altitudes and here at the pass, at well over 2,600 metres traces of snow is still on the ground in places. Yet the air is dry and warm.

Escape the tourist trail

We’re now within the Toubkal National Park, named after the highest peak in its mountain range and home to Africa’s only ski station. I’m eager to escape the tourist trail and head off-the-beaten-track, and be immersed in the local Berber culture.

After all, we’re pretty much self-sufficient, with almost everything we need carried within the saddle bags of our friendly mule. Jacqueline transports our kitchen equipment, food, water, bedding and of course wheat and hay for her own evening and morning meals. They’ve packed plates and cutlery for me too – but I’m adapting quickly and I’m already enjoying eating with my right hand in true Berber style, using the fresh, tasty kesra bread to scoop up the appetising homemade food.

The afternoon trek is more or less downhill, along a rocky path amongst old juniper and pine trees. Buzzards soar on the thermals overhead, and as we progress deeper into the valley we pass youngsters tending herds of goats, and a few women foraging for firewood – other than that we are on our own.

This is what it is like to hike in the High Atlas, the mountain range at Morocco’s heart that separates the Sahara from the Mediterranean. Some years before, on a previous trip to Morocco I’d taken a day trip out from Marrakech to photograph a few Berber villages; and also stayed a night in a fancy tourist hotel on the edge of a vertiginous gorge. Yet, to truly experience these mountain communities one has to hike. Many hamlets remain cut-off from the growing road network, and even the dirt tracks built for 4x4s and trucks.

Lifestyle from a bygone age

Many of these mountain areas are still only reached by mule, donkey and on foot. Although electricity has recently come to almost all of the central High Atlas and limited phone coverage is penetrating all but the most isolated valleys, the way of life in these high altitude hamlets still feels as if it’s from a bygone age.

Hiking away from the popular day-trip and short break trails means leaving behind the network of tourist bed and breakfasts, and instead camping, overnighting in mountain refuges, or staying in small ‘gite d’etape’ accommodations.

My first night had been in the Imlil valley. At 1740 metres above sea level, and some 90 minutes’ drive south of Marrakech, it’s the popular starting point for mountain pursuits in Morocco’s striking High Atlas. The bed and breakfast was comfortable and the host Berber family welcoming and relaxed. There was plenty of laughter coming from the kitchen as supper was being prepared, whilst in the cosy salon the wood burning stove was lit; even in April there is a chill in the evening air.

Yet the valley is undeniably busy, noisy, touristy and dirty. Day-trippers and local Moroccan tourism swell visitor numbers, yet little if any investment has been made to deal with the impact. Refuse lies uncollected and the nearby paths and trails are littered with household rubbish and plastic wrappers. I wanted to escape this crowded hiking hub and explore the trails less hiked. I had come here to be immersed in nature, and to meet local Berbers – and Toubkal Trekking were happy to oblige, creating an itinerary that visited stunning, scenic areas.

Berber villages

Towards the of the day, we had reached the bottom of a small, hidden valley, just as the warm spring light become a cool blue, with the sun dropping behind the snowy peaks. Our destination was a hamlet, close to a fast running river swollen with snowmelt. The village was little more than a cluster of mud and stone built homes, one above the other, on the hillside. Each had a flat roof of timber, earth and stones – architecture reminiscent of the historic Berber villages of Andalucía’s Alpujarra region.

The houses were robust, with just simple wooden or open doorways on the ground floor, providing access to stabling for animals; whilst above were the living spaces, with their small windows decorated with simple metalwork screens.

Above and below were agricultural terraces, somehow created from the precipitous mountainside. Here grow beans, onions, and flowering purple iris, (which I learned were a cash-crop; their bulbs sun-dried and sold for cosmetic and pharmaceutical use). Below the peaks were a few high altitude plains, already prepared for sowing with spring wheat.

The earth-tones of the hamlet were punctuated by colour, from rugs hung over terraces to freshen in the mountain air; and from recently washed clothes left out to dry.

The alleyways between the buildings were wide enough for mules to pass, but were little more than rough, stony paths, cut deep by the hooves of mules and donkeys. Hens and cockerels roamed freely and a few smiling kids called out some words in French, in the hope of winning a few dirhams or euro for their bravery in greeting strangers. Villagers were at first shy; most of the women where together chatting amongst themselves on open balconies in the upper part of the hamlet, whilst below on dusty terraces, were the men, sitting in a circle, drinking mint tea, smoking and chatting. On the trail less trekked the communities are less familiar with visitors and are more introverted and private. Visitors are not bothered, but welcomed with a discreet smile or a gentle ‘bonjour’.

Gite D’Etape

Here there was no Bed and Breakfast, no hotel I was told. But I was promised a relaxing evening at the local gite. However, cast aside romantic ideas of a quaint Berber house with rustic handicraft decorations. The reality here, in one of the poorest parts of Morocco is quite different. The hostel property, next to the stable where Jacqueline overnighted, was simple to say the least. Two guest rooms, each for up to 4 or 5 hikers, were completely bare save for the rugs on the floor and the thin mattress cushions leaning against the wall.

The kitchen was of unpainted stone and earth with a tap and sink; there was space on the floor for camping stoves. The living area was more comfortably furnished with elaborately decorated cushions resting on built-in benches around tables covered with plastic, wipe-clean table cloths. An old TV sat in the corner, which soon came to life as the guide and cook excitedly searched for the football.

The bathroom was amusingly described to me as a ‘Berber shower’, a small tiled space with a drain, and just a tap with a large bucket below! The loo, well that was one of those squat WCs common in North Africa and the South of France. Yes, simple was the adjective that kept coming to mind. Yet really it was a place of comfort and considerably more sophisticated than most of the houses in the village.

This type of hiking trip is perfectly suited to solo travellers, couples or groups. As a solo traveller one always meets other hikers at the overnight stops, and as a couple or group it’s a fun way to escape the typical activity holiday; this is something very different, mixing culture with nature. Food is excellent too!

A Danish couple joined us for the night in the little gite, and their guide and cook started playing cards with Hussain and Abtou and before long the small house was filled with laughter and chatter. In the kitchen the gas stoves were hissing and sputtering, filling the gite with warmth and the sweet smell of spices – a very homey, welcoming ambiance.

After all, I wanted an authentic, off-the-beaten track experience and I was undoubtedly enjoying just that. Now time to take a Berber shower and hit the sack, well the sleeping bag get some rest before tomorrow’s trek.

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