Jebel Toubkal Circuit
High Atlas, Morocco
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
The great spine of the Atlas Mountains rises abruptly from the baking plains of North Morocco to heights of over 4,000m (13,000ft) before subsiding through lesser ranges to the empty expanses of the Sahara.
Jebel Toubkal is, at 4167m (13,750 ft), North Africa’s highest mountain, and the five plus day circuit around the great ridges of its massif crosses three passes of over 3550m (approaching 12,000ft). The circuit starts in the mountain village of Imlil, which nestles among walnut groves beneath its kasbah (castle), now a thoughtfully restored little hotel, at the junction of two rushing streams. Directly up the valley, 2,400m (8,000ft) above, looms the high Toubkal ridge, deceptively close-looking in the clear air.
The path winds through traditional mud bricked Berber villages and tiny terraced, irrigated fields of wheat and two-crop maize, a different world from the breeze-blocked tourist prosperity of the lower valley, then enters scented, stunted pine forests, eventually emerging rather suddenly at the pass.
The track follows the contours for several hours, so smoothly that we are free to concentrate on the unfolding view around us. The vegetation has now shifted to the tussocks of tough grasses and small shrubs clinging to bare earth which characterise the high mountains, some so perfectly sculpted that they would fit comfortably into a Japanese garden. A shower lashes down as we catch up our mules, and we dive with mild embarrassment into a hastily erected tent. We eat our first “Berber Salad”, accompanied by “Berber Whisky” (sweet mint tea), as we lounge on tribal rugs; all very Victorian.
We eat a hearty soup and tagine supper in a 4x4m white canvas tent bearing what look oddly like Buddhist symbols but are traditional Berber decoration. We are amazed at every meal by the inventions of our cook, a tall, strong man with a humorous, moustached face – he is clearly the established wit in our team - and hard hands which, on his ancestors could have cut throats as easily as tomatoes.
In the Tifni valley far below, the shepherds’ simple summer huts have just been abandoned for the winter; we can almost smell the dying embers from the fires. Our campsite is perfect, a cropped little terrace beside the clear stream. The mess tent is already pitched, and we attack our late lunch greedily. Later, after a siesta, we wander up the valley; contre jour against the setting sun, the silhouetted ridges and silver stream are eerily reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands.
We stand, transfixed, before the view from the pass. Ahead, ridges sink, seemingly forever, toward high table-lands and the jagged Jebel Siroua range. In the haze, under a heavy sky, we can sense the emanations of the distant Sahara. To our right, a sliver of dark green indicates where the fertile valley bottom lurks far, far below. Above it, the magnificent broken orange spines of the Toubkal massif vibrate against a sky of pure, unsullied caerulean. Above it all soars the great summit, with its supporting peaks like the pinnacles of a gothic cathedral.
Among the tall, small-windowed houses, mules and cattle stand in little yards, deep in their own droppings, patiently awaiting their next tribulations. Shy urchins scamper to their shyer mothers at our approach. The excrement of many animals litters the lanes and, alarmingly, the watercourses.
Back at the hostel, a group of Polish walkers arrives, and we leap for the loos and showers: if they are to be made gag-inducing, it will be done by us first. A delicious supper of soup and cous cous, with talk of JG Farrell and who is our generation’s Widmerpool.
Our curtainless room lights up at 6 am. The village is remarkably quiet, no barks, brays or voices. The peaks across the valley catch the sun, turning instantly to a hot pinky orange, incandescent above the muted umbers of the valleys as we wash, pack and eat another bread and jam breakfast in the cool, fresh air of the roof.
We walk for 3½ hours up the beautiful valley toward the famous Lac d’Ifni. Ancient Berber hamlets nestle timelessly among little terraces of vivid maize, the very archetype of “greenness”, and walnut trees which give way abruptly, where the irrigation stops, to stark, barren hillsides. There is evidence of money returning from the cities: some houses have painted concrete exteriors, others sheets of plastic or corrugated iron to protect their soluble mud walls from the rain. It is sad to think what these villages will look like in a decade’s time.
The top of the valley is blocked by a vast wall of black lava blocks, which bring the fertile orchards to an abrupt halt and are clearly the end of a not-so-ancient flow. Our track winds up to the top of this obstacle and across an area of vast cracked boulders to our first, unforgettable view of the dark turquoise waters of the Lac d’Ifni, trapped far below between the cliffs of the valley side and the vast pile of lava. Although the books don’t mention it, this must surely be a crater bottom. At the upper end is a mile of grey boulders where the two upper gorges spew their contents into the lake.
The serious business now begins, a two-hour haul up an increasingly steep, wild gorge, round vast boulders beneath spikes of rock which recede like the spires of a Hindu temple to the skyline far, far away. For some reason, juniper bushes can be seen on the ridgeline in this otherwise treeless landscape.
We are up at 6 the next morning, to a scene of utter desolation. Rain gusts bluster up the gorge; the crags disappear into cloud a few hundred feet above us. The mess tent has been partially blown down. Despite the wind, sleet and hail, our 3 hour scramble up to the 3,600m ([ ] ft) Tizi n’ Ouanoums pass is superb. We wind around huge boulders and above sheer drops, dizzy cliffs and pinnacles soaring far above us. Long views out to the Jebel Siroua range and the Sahara open up and then vanish again. This route was impassable to mules until recently, and there are still sections where our beasts have to be pushed up by their drivers. The chasm narrows until we are winding up the middle of a cliff toward the notch in the rampart which has loomed, seemingly impregnable, above us.
We are up at 5am, cross and tired, in no mood for today’s assault on the summit of Jebel Toubkal. After a sullen breakfast, Reggie and I (Ali’s pregnancy has very evident advantages just now) trudge off into the freezing darkness for the dreary three hour slog, clambering over icy rock, crossing the all too aptly named Field of Boulders and zig-zagging up ramps of broken lava and an endless, imperial sized, snow veiled scree slope. You get the idea. [The worst is, my body wasn’t ready for its key morning function when we left, and feels decidedly oppressed.] Within an hour, the snow has begun to hide the loose stones below our feet. Early into the third hour, we gain the main ridge and a majestic view north-east, across the chasm of the Tisgui valley to the col we crossed on our third day, so high then but now way, way below us. With a gale now gusting, alarmingly unpredictable as we teeter above the precipice, we plod up the long rough slope to the summit, past a group around a French woman who is in obvious trouble. The final pull to the top is very slow and breathless, but we get there. Hunched behind a boulder, we survey the magnificent all-round view. To our north-west, the Marrakech plain slumbers beneath its haze; on the opposite side, behind the crags of the great Onimeksane ridge and the distant Jebel Siroua, lies the endless Sahara. Ahead and behind runs the great spine of the High Atlas, surprisingly narrow (some 100km here) for its height.
We are back at the positively tropical-seeming refuge at 11am, exhausted but glad, for tea and a pasta lunch in the mess tent. A long afternoon of sleep, scrabble and some irascible pinochle and a quieter night as the weather turns.
The final day is one of the very best. We wake to a clear and peaceful dawn, and make a beautiful, gradual climb up the western side of the valley, watching the sun run caressing fingers down the flanks of the mountain.
We look across the Ouarzane valley to the sharp edge of the high Tazughart Plateau, with grand cliffs reaching up into the empty heavens. We start a long descent down a hugh scree slope, taking in 66 zig-zagged bends. The scree is often perfect for long, exhilarating runs down their unstable top. The white Tazaghart Refuge is revealed, tiny, beneath the tremendous cliffs all around.
A long, delightful walk takes us down into the boulder-jammed valley, past a grand waterfall, through a belt of huge rocks and gnarled juniper trees, and past hamlets of shepherds’ huts. We traverse a long hillside, as the river falls away into a deep gorge far below, until we trudge, footsore, into the roadhead village of Ivkoubeline and our final night. We sit on a narrow finger of rooftop and drink Berber Whisky as night falls on the valley. The mixed sounds of the river and the evening village float up to us on warm, still air. A perfect, peaceful end.