High Atlas Trek, September 4-12

We spent nine days trekking in the High Atlas Mountains. The style of trekking in this region varies from independent backpacking to large groups -- mostly organized by British adventure travel companies -- complete with toilet tents and matching outfitter-issued duffel bags. As usual, we went for something in between.

This trek was one of the few components of our travels that we planned in detail before leaving home. We made arrangements through a fellow named Mohamed in the village of Imlil, gateway to the most popular High Atlas trekking area. We picked Mohamed based on a reasonable web site and prompt email replies in English. Mohamed also runs a guesthouse in Imlil, and for a while we were confused about identity -- it turns out there are multiple Imlil trekking guides named Mohamed who also run guesthouses. In any case, we were very happy with our Mohamed's services. (Only later did we discover that the Lonely Planet guidebook calls him a "star guide of the Atlas" and his guesthouse "a lovely place.")

Our pre-arranged trek included a guide, meals, tents and mats, mules to carry everything, and "muleteers" to tend the mules. One muleteer doubled as cook. Two mules & muleteers would have sufficed for a 4-person 9-day trek, but we hired a third pair due to Emily's knee problems. We were quite an entourage.

We've been on private expedition-style treks before -- in Peru with the kids last summer, and in Nepal long ago. Peru was luxurious (as is the norm there): warm washing water and fluffy towels, folding dining table and stools, tents put up and down for us, afternoon appetizers, and so on. This trek was more basic, but still a far cry from self-sufficient backpacking. Getting to know our guide (Ahmed) and muleteers (Ali, Lassen, and yet another Mohamed) was an enjoyable facet of the trek (photo 1). One memorable evening, Tim and Emily played a recorder duet concert. The "crew" reciprocated by singing traditional Berber songs, using the water jug as a drum, clearly enjoying themselves. They also frequently sang while we hiked.

Our route was a one-way semicircle from Imlil to the village of Setti Fatma, including an ascent (photo 2) of Jbel Toubkal, at 13,750' the highest peak in North Africa. Our guidebook describes the Toubkal region comprising the earlier part of our trek as "harsh and unforgiving" and "a surprise for those expecting it to be easy." We didn't have many expectations, but "harsh and unforgiving" is accurate. Trails were steep, rocky, and rugged; it was cold and very windy at high elevations, hot and shadeless at lower ones; water was scarce. The latter part of the trek saw more time in river valleys and canyons, and the weather turned milder. (We were lucky in that respect.) But we still saw plenty of rugged trails, and steep ascents and descents. The last day's hiking was entirely through a deep gorge, with some interesting roughly-built aqueducts. With 55 river crossings that day, we hiked in sandals and spent more time in the water (photo 3) than out of it. Throughout the trek, the mountains were spectacular.

Some days we walked entirely in remote areas, while other times we passed through Berber villages (photos 4 and 5). Even in the more remote areas we'd come across shepherds (often young boys) tending their goats, and the occasional family driving their cows to lower elevations as autumn set in. Like Peru and Nepal, trekking in Morocco mixes superb hiking with interesting rural culture.

Sadly, there was a considerable amount of garbage and poorly-managed human waste in the most heavily-trafficked trekking and (especially) camping areas. Morocco has yet to clean up its act (literally) in this regard, although there are some signs of an ecological ethic creeping in. Things should improve eventually, especially if Atlas trekking becomes even more popular and established internationally, which seems likely.

We spent eight nights on the trek: six in tents, one in a basic village guesthouse, and one in a stone shelter (photo 6) with a precarious mud and straw roof. Our crew usually set up a large "kitchen shelter" in which they cooked and slept, and in which we often ate meals on mats, together with them. Breakfast was simple bread, cheese, and jams. Lunch, sometimes on the trail, was a large, nicely-arranged salad (photo 7). Dinner was soup followed by a  main course, sometimes a cous-cous dish or tajine (stew). We'd asked in advance to have pasta for the kids, and they took us very seriously: pasta was included in every single lunch and dinner until we suggested it could be just a little less pervasive.

The trek had a few non-hiking difficulties. Alex and Tim were hit hard with stomach problems on Day 1, suggesting we weren't careful enough with food in Marrakech, or not liberal enough with our dwindling supply of hand sanitizer. Their problems didn't abate as quickly as expected, while Emily and (to a lesser extent) Jennifer developed some problems later on. We'll never know the exact cause. Around the middle of the trek, everyone except Alex collected a huge number of insect bites, again of unknown origin. While legions of bites are, unfortunately, fairly common on our trips, they were still quite a nuisance, and a real double-whammy for Tim, who had the most bites of the family to go along with his lingering stomach problems. He was a very good sport, considering.

Returning to the positive, Emily's knees are clearly improving, and they were not a problem on the trek. To be on the safe side, we encouraged her to ride the extra mule now and again, to give her knees a break. After a while, no encouragement was necessary -- she quite enjoyed riding "Stracietella" when the terrain permitted it. (Emily named our mules: "Chocolate Chip" and the Italian translation "Stracietella" for the two white and black ones; "Toblerone," or "Toby" for short, for the brown one.) We had a revelation that Emily is a real animal person, what with her multi-year dolphin passion, her recent dog obsession, and her equestrian tendencies throughout this trip so far. (Remember the donkey rides way back in Greece?)

One day we had a very long hike with a killer ascent, Tim's stomach was questionable, and we were starting in a village. Our guide convinced us to infuse the local economy and hire yet another mule for the day, for Tim to ride. Tim was reluctant at first -- unlike Emily, he definitely prefers hiking to riding, and he was loathe to miss any opportunities to find crystals. (The kid's crystal-hunting hobby that began in the Alps has continued unabated in the Pyrenees and Atlas.) In the end, the extra mule was a good idea (photo 8), helping us reach camp at a decent hour.

Overall, we enjoyed the many challenges and rewards of the trek very much. We also appreciated our return to Marrakech for real beds, long showers, and if all goes well, subsiding stomachs and insect bites.

Next: Across Southern Morocco by car and camel

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