The Mountains Look on Marrakesh - Hamish Brown
Summarised from notes taken of Hamish Brown's illustrated talk, 11 May 2009.
[Hamish has kindly checked the draft and supplied these photos of scenes in the Atlas Mountains]
Morocco has been an abiding passion of mine for more years than I care to remember. This walk took place in 1995, when I walked across the Atlas Mountains from end to end. It was around 900 miles and took 96 days - and it was absolute heaven! Usually people go walking to break from the routine, but after a trip lasting 3 months it's the walking that becomes the routine!
We started up in the north-east at a place called Taza, and finished on the Atlantic coast down at Tamri. Charles and I were both celebrating our 60th birthdays, but the most important man in the quartet was this man Ali. He's good with animals, he cooks and he makes bread. He's a Berber rather than an Arab, as are the other people living around the Atlas mountains. He speaks both those languages and English as well. And we needed someone else, so Ali chose Hussein, who only spoke Berber. We had two mules, which we called Taza and Tamri.
Like any expedition, a lot of hard work goes on that you don't see. Here's a picture of me in my hotel room in Marrakesh on the evening before we started, with the provisions for the trip spread out on the bed, so I had to get them packed up before I could get some sleep.
Once we were above 2000m, we hardly went below that height during the expedition. You can see how cold it was from the frost on the tent. The daily routine was that the mules were loaded in the morning after we had set off, they walked twice as fast and passed us, and the tent would be pitched ready by the time we reached the next camp site.
We were walking through ever-changing landscapes, and climbing some of the mountains was a bonus. There are these incredible cedar forests, which is one of Morocco's best-kept secrets. And there are these Barbary apes.
The expedition started in March and finished in early July. In the first few weeks we had some appalling weather. The route was supposed to cross a high plateau cut into by some deep gorges, but at first the tracks were impassable with snow so we had to go down lower. This was good because it meant we visited new places. We were taken in by families, they were so hospitable, they made us meals and baked bread every day, but they wouldn't take any payment. We had to get round this in some way, for example by giving something for the children.
This is the only place with pitched roofs in the country, and there's plenty of timber.
They had a lot of snow while we were there - they dislike it as it lies on the roof and can leak through.
At one point we were desperately going through the tall oleander bushes, ankle deep in water, trying to find a dry spot for the tent.
You have to take the risk of spate seriously - a rush of water can come down a valley like an express train and could have swept us away, so we had to take care where to pitch a tent.
After another diversion we eventually came out of the Middle Atlas onto a wide plain, which took us two days to cross to reach the High Atlas. We came to Imilchil, known as the "Lhasa of Morocco", which is a town high up in the mountains with some of the old architecture. We were there for souk day, which is a weekly market, really it's their supermarket [colourful photos of goods on sale]. Once two people shake hands on a deal, that's it. There's a lot of recycling goes on, with things made from scrap - old oil cans, coffee tins, tyres, all turned into something useful.
The Central Atlas is a popular area with Jebel Azourki the highest mountain [9th highest in Morocco at 3677m]. It was still under snow and we were diverted, but saw other mountains. For example we saw the "Cathedral" - and decided to come back another time to climb it. There's a big valley, the Zaoui Ahancal valley, with the town of Ahancal with fine old buildings and a remarkable gorge. We had a spare day here so it was a chance for Charles to try riding a mule - he said never again!
This area is called the Chamonix of Morocco - it has the gorge and cliffs twice as high as Ben Nevis. The people count their wealth in sheep and goats.
We tried to climb Azourki, but didn't get up because of the snow, requiring ice axes, crampons etc. It was the only failure of the 30 summits we took in on the trip.
Then we reached this upland valley, called "la Vallee Heureuse" - it once had a lake here so the ground is very fertile and produces good crops. We spent three days there and from then on we were joined by small groups of friends who joined us for stints of a fortnight each. [See photo of Vallée d'Aït boughemez, la vallée heureuse, by M Chollet, on Panoramio website]
[More colourful photos from a souk]. No two door designs are the same.
The mules needed servicing [someone working on the hooves of one of them]. No mules had been asked before to walk 96 days, so they couldn't grow the horny bits fast enough. At the end, Ali and Hussein got the mules rather than payment.
There's a lot of bare strata in the mountains, unlike in Scotland, where everything is grown over. We went through a pass, the Tizi Tighfist, with wonderful prehistoric art from about 4000 BC, and you can clearly see that they show shields and hyenas.
We were there for an important Islamic sheep festival and had to buy one. We had mutton for a week!
There's a huge block of a mountain, Jebel Rhat, that you can just see from Marrakesh - it would take about a week to walk round it and we wanted to include it.
We got marvellous food prepared for us, but these men wouldn't go near the kitchen at home, that would be women's work.
This was a hill worth climbing, at about 3700m, it had marvellous views west. In the distance we could see Toubkal, one of several peaks over 4000m. This viewpoint meant that Ali and Hussein could get it all in perspective - no peasant before had been hauled off so far away.
There were lots of wild flowers to see - like these gentians, little convolvulus, and these white thrift. The plants grow like hedgehogs, all prickly on the outside, to protect them from grazing, and others grow up from inside. Occasionally you find an ancient juniper. Most have been hacked down for firewood. They have been tested and aged at 4000 years old.
On one section of a valley the mules took the more difficult route through it - they can scree run! The scree slope looks barren from a distance but it has lots of flowers growing among the stones.
Then we camped by lake Tamga, to climb Jbel Anghromer. By then, we were into weeks of fine weather. We reached the Dar Glaoui Kasbah at Telouit, where the local lord controlled the area for the French. This was a story told in Gavin Maxwell's Lords of the Atlas. Around here there's a lot of negro influence among the people, with the influence of slaves. There's a remarkable transition from the arid mountains to the green valley - where there's water there's life.
These plants with yellow flowers, surprisingly, are woad, which yields a blue dye. [Then a picture of a stork nesting on the minaret of a mosque.]
On getting close to the Toubkal massif we went through deep gorges through volcanic mountains and walked in the river for a couple of days. Then there was another steep climb up and down to the next green valley. 1000 people were washed away when they were at a festival here, camped in the valley. They should have known the danger - their grandparents wouldn't have done that.
90% of the hikers going to Morocco go up Toubkal, the highest point but not the most attractive mountain. We met another Mohammed at Imlil who was the organiser for our visiting groups, an old frriend and Toubkal guide.
Toubkal is 4167m, 13,500 ft high. We climbed up through the walnut groves, and reached a mountain hut at 3200m. There's still the height of a munro to climb! It's a nicer mountain to do in winter on skis, otherwise it's a pile of rubble. We chose to bivouac and suffered from the serious wind chill - we could lean on the wind which was so strong and steady, unlike in Scotland where it would be gusty. At night it was so cold we had to wear everything to go out for a pee. We could see the lights of Marrakesh in one direction, and of Ouarzazate in the other - hence the title of the book, The Mountains Look on Marrakech.
[Pictures of a village again]
Here is the unusual sight of people dressed in sheep skins for the festival of the sheep.
This fortified 12th century mosque was once the centre from which sprang an ancient empire which ruled from Timbuctoo northwards to halfway up Spain.
There are great traditional building skills used in constructing houses - this is 5 stories high, built in dry stone.
Women carry enormous loads of firewood.
The Tichka Plateau is one of the most magical places. I discovered it 25 years ago. The edges fall away 4-5000 feet. I did one of the BBC Wilderness Walks here.
We wanted to do the "ridge of a hundred peaks" as the climax of the traverse. We carried everything and had to make 3 or 4 bivouacs along the way, all over 3000 metres. The mules made a big circuit and weremet at the end.
There's surprisingly little rock climbing done in Morocco apart from one or two honeypot areas. This is something that could be developed to bring more jobs for locals.
It's extraordinary tilted strata here, falling away vertically. Here's one with a vertical marble band.
We finished with two fine peaks that overlook Taroudant, Aoulime (4071m) and Tinergwet (3551m).
Our last night was sleeping out under an argan tree, which you only get in SW Morocco. Then as we went lower down we got into hot weather and finally came down to the sea. This was the only way to end our walk, with our feet in the Atlantic Ocean.
To finish off we had a couple of nights in Essouira, a coastal resort well worth visiting.
Answers to some questions:
- The practice of transhumance is still practised here - in the Djebel Saharo, and Central High Atlas.
- The best time to visit for hiking is between February and June.
- Trekking is as important to me as the climbing, although I went first for the rock climbing. And the people and their culture are still rich and vital.
- The population has trebled since I first went there, but there are not enough jobs for the many educated young people.
- Roads are being built up into the mountains now and electricity is being taken to every village possible.
- There are honeypot areas particularly around Toubkal, which everyone wants to climb because it is the highest mountain in North Africa. When you get away from there, you see very few other hikers.
- The people are still very hospitable. In time they will realise that tourists=money and you won't find the free hospitality any more.
- Life is tough there, but the people are pretty healthy.
This summary is taken from notes at the lecture, which have been checked and corrected by Hamish Brown. Afterwards I spoke with another member of the audience who said he had been to the Atlas Mountains for a hiking holiday, and he agreed that Toubkal is like a pile of loose stones with better walking on other peaks. He also indicated that it was much better to hire a local guide than to try and rely on the maps - he had a guidebook which he said was of little use in finding the way.
Apart from his own book, Hamish recommends the Great Atlas Traverse guide by Michael Peyron, Vols 1 & 2, published by West Col. He is currently working on a new guidebook to the Atlas Mountains himself. He wrote the mountain section to the Rough Guide to Morocco, which provides an excellent introduction with detailed advice on many of the best places for hiking.
Hamish's guide for this and other treks was El Aouad Ali, who can be contacted at BP127, Taroudant 8300, Morocco, tel: 00212 (0)6666 37972, email@example.com.
For some striking photos and commentary from an ascent of Mt Toubkal and Ouanoukrim in the High Atlas, and the descent to Imlil, see this story by Langur on the SkyscraperCity site. Additional Morocco photos on this linked page on the same site. I also came across these images of hiking in the High Atlas on the Edgypix site. There are photos and a description of Dar Glaoui on this site. Just look around with Google to find others. There's also this useful introduction to walking in Morocco and the use of guides, etc, on the Frommer's website.
Andrew Llanwarne, 3 June 2009 (revised after meeting Hamish Brown, 18 June 2009)