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.
Up until the mid 20th Century, these tribal areas were so wild and remote that the influence of the Moroccan Sultanate often depended on the goodwill of the local strongmen at the time. There is no sign of the French influence that survives in the north. Travellers approached the high passes between the Saharan hinterland and the great northern plains with trepidation and, in the case of foreigners at least, only with an armed escort. Each village or valley was its own little state, even when some warlord was extracting tribute from it.
The valleys are still remote; many villages are far from any road and have yet to get electricity. They often seem unchanged since mediaeval times, the need for their fortifications not long past. Their Berber inhabitants retain their rugged independence and the rough charm of mountain people. It is a conservatively Islamic area, and lightly clad visitors can be unwelcome - or, worse, too welcome.
Rather than an armed escort, however, the modern traveller will take a Berber guide, muleteers and perhaps a cook. The baggage train of patient, sure footed mules will patter up the rocky paths to the high cols while travellers labour painfully, far behind. The ancient, romantic songs of the muleteers echo around the rocky valley walls. You can still die here when bad weather closes in if you are ill prepared or unlucky.
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.
We stroll for a delightful first hour through the walnut shaded terraces and farmsteads of the village edge, past our guide, Larsen’s, spanking new estancia, to which he adds each year from his profits. The walk begins in earnest thereafter with a long, steady climb up a side valley to the Tizi n’Tamatert pass at 2,280m (7,500 ft). The walnut harvest is in its full October swing. Men perch precariously on high branches and thrash the foliage, while their sons swat tentatively at the lower boughs with long poles and the womenfolk gather the fallen green trophies on the ground below.
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.
Far behind us, the Kasbah de Toubkal nestles among its walnut groves, tiny now at the bottom of the valley. Our three mules patter past, laden with our tents, bags and a week’s food. The vast, wild bowl of the upper Imenane valley displays itself ahead. Far below, dirty ochre villages cling to harsh, barren hillsides of blue-grey rock streaked with pink and auriferous green, above the trees and terraces of the valley bottom. Sheer, ferocious crags soar high above. This magnificence is only slightly undermined by a stolid stone bothy selling Coca Cola.
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.
Beyond the remains of long-exhausted little goldmines, our campsite perches on a stony promontory across the valley from the noisy village of Tacheddirt: calls, laughter, shrieks and the muezzin’s slightly forlorn cry carry across to us, as does a hopeful drink seller. A stone hut, multiple cleared spaces and a host of excrement on the surrounding slopes testify to depressing summer population levels.
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.
An uncomfortable evening alternating crossed legs and kneeling, followed by rain drumming furiously on our tent, make for a grumpy start in the damp, gloomy dawn at 6 the next morning. Our goal, a jagged, craggy, 3550 m (nearly 12,000 ft) ridge, looms way above. The 3 ¾ hour trudge up what becomes a massive, steep scree slope, would be tough on a good day, and is not improved by piercing gusts of freezing wind which tear down on us and bring rain, then sleet, then snow. Ali and I don our waterproofs; The Reg sticks to his shorts the whole way up, although even he concedes a coat. We don’t loiter in the icy gale on the col, instead plunging into a deep chasm on which the sun is miraculously shining. Scree becomes tussocky, struggling grass interspersed with low, spiky shrubs, broom and miniature juniper.
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.
The third day is memorably beautiful, a steady climb up a lovely valley to the Ououraine pass and a long descent into the superb Tisgui valley. We crawl out to a perfectly clear dawning sky and our standard jam-with-a-token-morsel-of-bread breakfast. After wheezing up above the entrance of a gorge – always a struggle first thing – we wind for 2 ½ hours up the valley, between immense slopes of brown scree topped with crags far above. The stream rushes between boulders and tufts of grass so coarse that even goats won’t eat it; occasional patches of nibbled turf just about justify the odd shepherd’s bothy and the large mixed herds of sheep and goats through which we walk. We strike up a long stony slope to a dip in the ridge. The valley winds, wild and lonely, to a distant, heavily grazed little pasture where two glens meet. Again, despite its dryness, I am reminded 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.
We wind slowly down around the hillside on an easy path, so well laid that we can enabling us to gaze around us as we stride along. We join a long ridge which will lead us to the village of Amsouzert, hidden deep in the valley, where we will spend the night. We take a snack of bread, cheese and water on an outcrop and march on. It is tough on the legs, and we are happy when we realise that we are close above still invisible habitation: like Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde, you can smell a Berber village before you can see it.
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.
We are spending the night in new rooms on the roof of a cool, very dark, very ancient Berber house just above the stream. We slump onto cushions for a very late lunch on the verandah, followed by a brief but deep snooze in our joyless, bare, concrete walled but comfortably rugged rooms, then explore the village. It is washing day, and every boulder, wall and bough near the stream has bright clothing draped over it. Groups of women chatter as they scrub, stooped, up to their knees in its waters.
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.
We sit under an ancient, spreading walnut tree and drink tea and eat chunks of a huge disc of unleavened bread dipped in pungent local olive oil. A perfect old hamlet clings to the steep hillside across the valley, sleepy amid its trees and terraces; a nearby irrigation channel ends in a noisy waterfall. There is nothing to be seen that might not have been there 500 years ago. Shangri-la has moved decisively westward.
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 trail winds magnificently around the lake to some low stone shelters built into the hillside and another welcome rice – and – vegetable lunch. I totter down to the lake to wash my feet in the freezing water, then lie on my back on the warm, smooth rocks and survey the jagged skyline.
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.
Our campsite is a scrap of ground where a side gorge tumbles in and detritus has banked up against a mansion-sized boulder. The mess tent is on such a slope that we can sit comfortably for prolonged periods. We briefly survey this spectacular, lonely place before the sudden arrival of cold and drizzle drives us under canvas. We spend an evening so cold that even our hardy muleteers look pinched in the mess tent, then a freezing night, huddled away from the gales, rain and sleet outside.
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 cross the col in swirling snow, and are confronted by a scene composed entirely in monochrome: black, glistening rock, snow and cloud. A long, cautious descent gets us to the modern warmth of the Jebel Toubkal Refuge for a late lunch in the tents which we had, in a moment of foolish puritans, insisted on using in preference to expected rooms full of snoring or, worse still, hearty trekkers. We luxuriate under scalding showers in the refuge and spend a warm afternoon playing scrabble and pinochle, the ultimate bastard’s game, while the snow blusters outside. A self-inflicted cold supper and freezing night follow, the gale rattling and eventually partially demolishing our tent at 2 am.
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.
The windchill is fierce; despite my 7 layers, I feel myself losing heat. To Larsen’s poppy-eyed amazement, The Reg has come the whole way in shorts. We turn back after a quarter of an hour. We are able to take great sliding strides down the snowy scree slopes, but the icy exposed rock is tough. My neck muscles ache from the tensed concentration.
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.
At the Agazin pass, the team reach in perfect unison for their mobiles – reception is back! – while we drink in a final view back up the valley to Toubkal, now reclining placidly under a clear sky.
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 descent takes us to the best-yet lunch spot, a wonderful little perch on a narrow promontory between two ravines. A waterfall gushes off a high rock. Final chance to eat our cook’s salad.
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.